My Journey From Isolation to Connection
It was a Tuesday afternoon in April 2007 and I was still in bed in my pajamas, balled up in a tight fetal position with a pain in my heart and a knot in my stomach that would not go away. It had been like this for months.
For 14 years, I had dealt with major depression, bipolar disorder type II and anxiety. But things had become particularly bad these past several years—a public and humiliating job loss, a sudden and traumatic divorce, my father’s death and another job loss.
I went to bed at night praying that I wouldn’t wake up and woke up every morning wishing I hadn’t. I was seeing a therapist several times a week and a psychiatrist every three weeks. We were doing all we could to get me out of the downward spiral I was in, but the pain had become more than I could bear.
That day in April, the doorbell and phone had rung several times, but I didn’t move. I didn’t want to see or talk to anyone. Finally, I got up to retrieve the day’s newspaper from the front stoop. I discovered a half-page listing of support groups. “Support groups for individuals living with mental illness and their families. Call NAMI Greenville, SC,” caught my eye.
My medical providers had not known of any peer support groups. So what was NAMI, I wondered. I called their office and found that there was a support group meeting in a few days, and that I was welcome to attend. I thought, “Why not go? What have I got to lose?” Actually, I knew exactly what I had to lose if this didn’t work.
So, I got up my courage, drove to the meeting location, and walked into my first NAMI Connection meeting. I found nine other people dealing with similar issues, working on coping skills and supporting one another to get through the week. It was safe and everyone knew to let me come out of my shell slowly. So, I attended meetings as often as they offered them. It turned out to be the start of a new life for me.
I willingly accepted their offer to take a NAMI Peer-to-Peer education course. The peer mentors led a small group through 10 weekly sessions to learn about our conditions, possible treatments and coping skills, trigger management and how to prepare for bad days.
Fellow peers and I built a support network that carried into volunteering for the NAMI Greenville affiliate office, attending NAMIWalks and drinking coffee together at a nearby café. My peers even taught me about patient-assistance programs and a free medical clinic that helped cut back the staggering costs of my mental health care.
One day, as I followed our affiliate executive director down the hall, I insisted for the third time that we needed weekly NAMI Connection meetings. She turned on her heel and, with a smile, said, “Then get the training to be a facilitator!” What had my mouth—famous for costing me jobs—gotten me into this time? It was time for me to start helping others. So, I became a NAMI Connection facilitator.
I was nervous to run my first group, but I found that everyone was rooting for me—partly for the fact that the success of a NAMI Connection meeting was just as important to their health as it was to mine. And “success” is simply knowing that you are not alone and leaving feeling better than when you came in. Once I got the hang of it, I learned a new program: NAMI In Our Own Voice (IOOV).
With IOOV, two people with lived experience tell their journeys from dark days to successes. Teams go to local psychiatric hospitals to offer hope to patients and families. Seeing looks of acknowledgment and sadness, and then hope, followed by handshakes and thanks, is an affirmation of the good we’re doing.
Slowly, step by step, a meaningful, purposeful rhythm developed: receive support, listen, learn, provide support and teach others. Through NAMI’s peer-led programs, I went from praying that I would not wake up in the morning to praying that I would help someone the next morning.
Fletcher Mann is a NAMI In Our Own Voice Presenter, State Trainer, and National Trainer; NAMI Connection Facilitator and State Trainer; and NAMI Peer-to-Peer Mentor. He received National’s 2014 NAMI In Our Own Voice Leadership Award and NAMI South Carolina’s 2010 Recovery Member of the Year. He lives in Greenville, SC, has remarried, seen his two children blossom and welcomed two grandchildren into the world.
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