By Sarah Merritt Ryan
I have been in remission from symptoms of serious mental illness (SMI) for 11 years; however, there was a period of my life that was extremely difficult when my symptoms were severe, involving multiple psychotic breaks. I was filled with heartache and despair, and recovery was uncertain. During the early days of my recovery, I would have benefitted in critical ways from NAMI’s programs, but I didn’t know about them. I wish I had.
Now that I have been in remission for over a decade, I am involved in NAMI’s programming. In some ways, I needed to “close the door” on my mental illness and that chapter of my life before I could open it again by contacting NAMI and seeing how I could get involved. I have always said that the one thing I cannot bear is going through all this and not turning it into something meaningful. So, one way I chose to channel my pain into purpose is by applying to become a NAMI group facilitator, training for my local county chapter and regularly co-facilitating a weekly support group.
I had attended a few sessions before training to become a facilitator, but I was still relatively new to the process. Even though I was new, I felt compelled to try and make a difference by taking a leadership position. I have learned from being a facilitator that I am still on a recovery journey, and through NAMI support groups, I’ve gained a community, collective wisdom and a two-way learning environment. These qualities have improved my life and made me feel whole. I didn’t know I needed all this until I received it.
I think the most profound impact that being part of a NAMI Connections support group (CSG) has had on me, whether as a facilitator or regular member, is finally meeting other people with the same diagnosis. In my mind, I knew that there are other people out there with schizophrenia, but until you meet real people you identify with, it’s easy to feel like you are an isolated case or an anomaly.
Because of this shared information, I can verbalize accounts of what happened to me that I have never verbalized before. Finding the words and sharing what happened to me helped me to heal and let go. Because of my CSG, I have a trusted group of people — a network — for which I am so thankful.
One of the most powerful features of the CSG group is how we pool our knowledge together in a session to help someone who may have had a difficult time in the past week. Some weeks are always better than others for anybody. If one or two people are struggling on a given week, we marshal our collective experiences and wisdom in hindsight to comfort and inform the person in need. Whether it is needing wisdom on vitamin usage, therapy type, Medicaid questions, dietary guidelines, exercise suggestions, talking to your psychiatrist, medication use, etc., people who come to our sessions are all informed by our collective experiences and are motivated to help anyone who is having difficulty.
As a co-facilitator, I direct conversations, identify common themes to discuss, ensure everyone is included, stay on topic and follow NAMI guidelines. My position in the group helps me engage and be present. Even though I direct conversations, I feel like conversations can take on a life on their own, where I am just another active participant. Part of leading is letting go and allowing room for inspiring conversations that lead to full group participation. When everyone is fully engaged, I feel most successful and can learn the most from others.
I am still in the healing process, so even though my symptoms aren’t what they once were, I still have so much to gain from being a part of a NAMI support group. I needed a sense of belonging with people with shared lived experiences. I needed my seemingly bizarre experiences to be normalized to feel authentically normal again. I needed to talk about things that you usually can’t talk about, that I have never verbalized before, not even with my family.
So, even though I missed out on NAMI programming early in my recovery, I am here now, healing in a new way while also trying to make a difference.
Sarah Merritt Ryan is a writer covering mental illness topics like stigma, recovery and hope. She is a survivor of schizophrenia and is now a wife, mother and small business owner. She is a frequent contributor to the NAMI Blog, and she serves as both a NAMI Connection Support Group (CSG) facilitator and In Our Own Voice (IOOV) speaker in North Carolina.
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