The Give and the Take – Mental Health Group Support

Recently, I went to my first mental health support group meeting. I must admit I was nervous. What would people talk about? What would people think of me? Would I have to talk? If so, what would I say? Though I’ve never been afraid to speak my mind, this was different. I was actually nervous to tell my story. That is, until I started hearing the other stories. I quickly realized that there are a lot of people right here in my community who live with bigger challenges than mine.

The meeting was held in a nearby church inside a small conference room. Chairs and love seats were turned inward surrounding a coffee table filled with mental health pamphlets and a strategically placed box of tissues. We were a circle of solemn faces, some young, some older, some in pairs, some alone. And we were united with one goal: support for the mental illness affecting our lives.

There were tragic stories of loss as well as inspiring stories of hope. Mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, friends. Each of us, in clockwise order, took our turn guided by the encouraging kindness of our group leader. Some had lots to say, while others uttered very little. It was obvious who had told their stories before. Theirs were told with stoic poise and sometimes slightly uncomfortable humor. Those who were new to this were obvious too, as tears streamed down their faces as they spoke of their suffering.

Since I sat nearest to the group leader, I didn’t share until last. Secretly, part of me hoped we would run out of time so I wouldn’t have to say anything. But another part of me was anxious to speak, to share the grief that clouded the room.

“I’m Annie, and I’m here because of my son. In the fall of 2010 he wanted to kill himself…” I began to tell my story aloud for the very first time. Sure, I had told it in pieces to my loved ones and friends over the last couple of years. I’d written many posts on my blog, too, but never had I laid it out so openly, so raw, to a group of total strangers.
I told them everything. My voice quivered as I told them about the gun my son acquired at the mental hospital. Tears swelled up when I confessed the fear I felt for my very own child. My stomach clenched as I spoke so freely. My story just told itself.

My listeners were more than kind. They hung on my every word. They nodded in recognition of my feelings, my experiences, my story. They chuckled at my attempts to lighten up such a heavy topic. And they shared the tissue box.

When I’d poured out everything, I was surprised at how I felt. It wasn’t a void of losing something I’d been secretly harboring so long, but instead, a renewed sense of strength that had grown inside of me. I’d emptied my heart into the laps of strangers and in return, I’d gained hope and understanding from them. I was even marked a “success”, a “survivor” a “model of strength”. The people there listened to my story with hope of learning something from me. That’s what was the most surprising. While I attended the meeting hoping to find support, after sharing, I discovered I actually provided support and hope to others. That was the best part of all. 

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