What I think now, in retrospect, that I was looking for was support. I didn't have any. I had no friends for a long time. I had very little familial support at all. I was a very lonely, isolated person. It was because I hated myself so much that I had a horrible time ever making friends, for most of my life. I had a horrible time believing I was capable of pretty much anything. It wasn't that I was really incapable; it was that I did not know I was capable. I was so used to being told all the horrible things about me by an abusive parent that I ended up believing them. None of them were true; it was all that person's issue. It was really not mine.
It occurred to me the other day that, out of all the self-help stuff I've read in my life, I've never actually seen anything entitled, "How to Build a Support System". I also thought about my last post on hope, and how the reason why some people totally lack hope relates to their lack of a support system. It is so hard to believe in yourself if you have nobody in your life who believes in you and lets you know they do. Conversely, it is so hard to have people in your life who treat you well if you don't like your own self in the first place. It's a real catch-22.
So I am hoping to offer some advice on what has worked for me in trying to build up a support system over the majority of my life.
1. Start with books. If you don't know how to make friends, I'm not going to tell you to go join some club and get out there and meet people, because that might not be possible for you. I found some of my first, best, and oldest friends in literature. I found support in poems by authors who were strong women like Adrienne Rich, Marge Piercy, Joy Harjo, June Jordan, Alice Walker, and Maya Angelou. Other strong, female poets like Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath wrote about issues I could relate to. I found some support and help through them. I happen to love poetry; not everyone does. I find for me that it is much easier to read a poem than a novel; I honestly cannot read novels. It requires too much concentration, and I don't really like novels. But lots of people find inspiration in novels, so maybe you would too. Nonfiction work is where I found the most hope. I'd read books like Girl, Interrupted, as a very young woman to understand that other young women had experienced mental illness and survived, even thrived, and got better.
2. If you are financially able to, find a therapist. Make sure you like your therapist. It's very important that you feel like you are being heard in therapy, and that your therapist possesses enough skills to really help you. It is very important that you develop trust in your therapist, which sometimes takes a while. It is vitally important that your therapist knows about your illness, has read about it, has a working knowledge of it, but at the same time, that she/he is interested in learning from you about what it is like. Not all therapists are helpful. I have had some that were not. I have had others who changed the entire course of my life. My current therapist is fantastic, and the one before her was quite great too. The one I had as a teenager helped me get through anorexia (sort of, most of that work had to be done by myself later), and helped me survive things I didn't think I could handle. That is what good therapists can do for you. Everybody needs somebody to talk to, and people with mental illnesses get much better with therapy than without it, most of the time.
3. Support groups are not all bad. I know in my post on hope, I said that I don't like support groups. One of the main reasons I don't like them is that, when I experience auditory hallucinations and paranoia, I think everyone in the group is talking about me, calling me things like "Jew" and discussing how I'm going to die in the upcoming second Holocaust. I think they are saying hateful, covert things using what I refer to as, "double speak", and it makes sitting through a group a living hell. The other reason I don't like support groups is that I find them depressing, and I cannot afford to let depression into my existence anymore. So for me, they really don't help much, unless for a short-term period. When a family member of mine was severely ruining his life with alcoholism, I would go to Al-Anon. I am related to many alcoholics - one reason I never touch alcohol and wouldn't do so if you paid me. But I only went to Al-Anon when it was needed. I didn't want to stay in it for a lifetime like a lot of the people involved in it do. I just am not that kind of person. But for other people, Al-Anon is a great support, NAMI Connections groups are a great support, other 12-step groups are a great support (particularly if you have an addiction yourself), Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance groups are a great support, and groups I don't know anything about, all over the U.S. and all over the planet, are a great support. If you want people to talk to who can relate to you, support groups are not a bad idea for something to try.
Another type of support group is online groups. When I wasn't doing as well as I am now, I relied heavily on those groups to get me through, for a while. I felt like I found kindred spirits there. I felt like it was a good place to vent. Now, I don't find them helpful and I rarely go to them, but that is largely a personal choice. It is all about what works for you, not me. You have to figure that out for yourself. I wouldn't recommend spending hours on end in internet support groups, however. I wouldn't recommend that because, as I mentioned in my post on hope, some people actually do just go there to elicit pity from others, and this negativity and constant reading about others' crises will only bring you down. It isn't uplifting to read that stuff all the time. I can't afford to spend large portions of my time doing things that bring me down, because I don't want to be down!
4. Join some sort of place where you can meet people who you share a common interest with. For many "consumers" (ie, people living with mental illnesses), this will be a mental health organization. In the United States, the biggest mental health organization is the National Alliance on Mental Illness. In the U.K., Mind is a well-known organization. There are other organizations I listed here, a long time ago.
People involved in mental health organizations may or may not have a higher level of awareness about mental illness and stigma, and the damage stigma creates, than people you meet somewhere else, but hopefully they will have this higher level of awareness. And sometimes, you will find them to be more understanding to you than other people are, and more kind than some others may be in your life who do not possess this level of awareness. This will not always be the case, but if circumstances are right, you can find some strongly supportive people within these organizations. I met people there, and those people have visited me in the hospital, and encouraged me to do things I did not always believe I could do at all, like public speaking, for example. A real bonus to getting involved in a mental health organization is that you can make a difference in the world you live! You can create awareness in those who are unaware about what it's like to live life with your illness, and you can get involved in advocacy and education efforts. You can even become a support person for other people, which is when you will really feel rewarded. It totally changed my life when I started volunteering for NAMI. It gave meaning to days that were otherwise meaningless.
What about if you don't want to get involved with a mental health organization? Or if you know longer feel like that is where you want to dispense your time and energy, maybe because you have other interests? Look into organizations for a hobby you have, a fitness group, a reading club, a church, etc. When I joined what I refer to as my non-church church, I met all sorts of intelligent, intellectual, kind, supportive people. It was wonderful, and it was one of the things I did right in the past year that helped improve my life.
Social justice causes are my favorite type of activity. If that's up your alley too, then, by all means, become an activist! You don't have to hold protest signs in front of the White House for months like I did when I was younger to be an activist. You can help run organizations, organize petition drives, do tabling at events, and spread the word about your cause. There are a myriad, million causes to get involved in that thrive on energy and effort, not money. If you want to do that, think about women's rights! Think about animal rights! Think about world peace! Think about combating climate change and corporate greed and taking the money out of politics and increasing the minimum wage! Think about any cause that you care about. I guarantee you there is another person who cares about your cause, and probably a few organizations that revolve around it. All you have to do is introduce yourself and try it out.
The National Organization for Women also radically changed my life. I joined NOW after my abusive, drug-addicted, loser boyfriend left me in 2008. I hated myself, largely due to having wasted three years devoted to a guy who taught me to hate myself. He would tell me how fat I was (I gained 100 pounds in my first two years on antipsychotics; it does wonders for your self-esteem when the guy you love points out to you every single day how fat and disgusting he thinks you are, especially if you have the bonus of being an eating disorder survivor), and he and I really never had anything in common. The only thing we had in common was dysfunction. We met in a psych hospital, after all. Great meeting place! After he was gone, I wasted about a year grieving the "loss" of this jerk, and it was during that time that I returned to my feminist roots, and got involved with NOW. I made friends there of all ages, mostly women older than my mom though, and I volunteered right away. Pretty soon I was very active and remained that way for years. I'm not really active now, but that's simply because I do not have time. It isn't because I didn't love the involvement I had there or that I don't cherish the friends I have from there. I do.
5. Do you have a case manager? Or a home health nurse? You might need one. I suppose I should have put this at the top of the list. I had a wonderful case manager for seven years. She was the first person in my support system who understood what I was going through and kept tabs on me. We talked every week. I met her right after I got diagnosed with Schizophrenia in 2005, and she stayed in my life. When the agency would want to her to close my case, because due to lack of funding where I live case management is hard to get, she would fight for me, because she knew I needed her. It broke my heart when she left the agency, but I will always have the memories of that time. When my apartment was in bad shape, she's the only person I'd let inside. She'd make me let her in; she was quite persuasive, but more importantly, she didn't judge me. She'd see the mess and say, "Okay, let's start cleaning up!" She didn't get on the phone with somebody and try to get me evicted. She'd actually help me clean. She wasn't paid to help people clean. Later, I'd have a friend I paid to help me clean, but she did it because she was incredibly kind and always went above and beyond the call of duty. I am doing better now, and I don't need people to help me clean, but back then I was not doing well.
So you don't know how to get a case manager? Well, usually in the U.S. they come via community mental health centers. The best care is not always found via these centers, because particularly where I live, these centers are severely lacking in efficient funds to operate, but the benefit of going to a community mental health center for your psychiatrist and therapist appointments is that you might also get a case manager there. You can also sometimes find a program that offers case management, call them, and tell them you need their help (I've done this, and it worked).
6. If you go to school, and you like it, try talking to your professors about your interests. For me, one of the most supportive people I've ever known started out as my professor a long time ago. I am still friends with him; he's a good mentor. Other professors I've had have also been very helpful. They helped me by teaching me to believe in myself and my capabilities more than I ever did before I knew them. They made me believe my brain wasn't all bad, after all. They taught me to value my intellect. I am still in college; it has taken me many, many years to get to be close to graduation (December!), and so professors are still helping me. Right now I'm thinking about graduate school in the future, mostly because of professors who have believed in me. I might not be able to do it, but I used to be convinced I couldn't get through a bachelor's degree at the university I attend. I have gotten A's in every single class there. It was professors who convinced me not to drop out when I had psychotic breaks, and it will be professors who I thank when I graduate.
7, If you work, try to hang out some time with your coworkers, maybe just one coworker. I had mostly just one friend I made at my job where I've been for almost seven years, who I would do things with outside work. It's not the kind of job that is conducive to being able to socialize with people. But I like her a lot, and although we never talked about a lot of personal things, we did have fun when we got together a few times. I'm not good at making friends at work, or anywhere else (I know this sounds weird to say after I just got done talking to you about the ways I found support), so this is not an area where I am some kind of expert at all. But, for other people, simply finding someone at work to go to a movie or have coffee with can be a big change that helps.
The same is true for doing volunteer work. Sometimes in volunteer work, you don't make friends, but you do make coworkers, who you can at least chit chat with about things. If you're unable to work for money at all, then volunteer work may be something you want to consider. Some areas of the world have "clubhouses" for people with mental illness. There is an excellent one where I live called Vincent House. It has helped many people with mental illness by giving them volunteer jobs that sometimes lead to employment for money.
8. Get a pet. I don't know what on earth I would do without my cats! I am the perennial creepy cat lady, and always will be. If I had more space for them, I'd have more than two, probably I'd have ten!
Having a pet is an excellent idea when you lack support, and a good addition to your life even if you do have some support. Many, many animals die every day on this planet because no one rescues them (rescue a black cat, they are least likely to be adopted), and many find happy homes when someone like you learns to love them. Pets are kind, compassionate, insightful, and strong companions. Not only that, they give you a reason to get out of bed if you're depressed or apathetic. They have to be fed; dogs have to be walked; litter boxes have to be cleaned. Even better, you can talk to them. My cats love it when I talk to them. They come up to me and climb on top of me. One of them follows me around my apartment and tries to "talk" back to me. It is hysterical. We have these conversations: "Hi Ribbit, how are you today? What did you do today? Did you try to kill Spooky again or were you nice to her? Did you play? Did you sleep a lot? Mommy went to work.." "Meow, meow, meow, meow". "Yes, I'm sure it was a rough day for you, Ribbit, you work so hard, perhaps you should start paying rent now!" "Meow, meow, meow, meow". "Are you hungry?!! Let's have dinner!" "Meow! Meow! Meow!"
9. Visit your neighbors. I had an elderly woman who lived below me for years. I'd go to her apartment and just sit and chat with her. We both had mental illness, but she was more isolated than I was. You have to branch out to others when you're looking to build your support system, and sometimes, being supportive to someone else is the most important aspect of your support system in the first place. She would get so excited when I'd take her to lunch, because she had no money or transportation or support at all. She would say, "That lunch was so WONDERFUL, Jennifer! Today is like Christmas!" and I would just laugh because the tiniest things that didn't mean much to me really meant the world to her. She still tells me I'm her best friend and she loves me.
10. Call someone once in a while. I don't have a lot of friends I call. I have more friends I never call than the few I do. I don't have a lot of friends I go places with either. I do need to work on this at some point, I guess. But I have two friends I call, and they are close friends of mine. One of them, I find now I don't really need to spend as much time with as I used to because it drains me a lot, but I still value both of these friends. You need at least one or two people you can call on the phone.
11. Finally, make sure you keep non-supportive people out of your life. If someone is negative all the time, critical of you all the time, bullying to you, or mean to you, or abusive to you, then get them out of your life. You deserve to be treated with dignity, respect, and love. You don't need to waste your time putting up with a bunch of crap from someone who wants to bring you down. Cut that person out. It's not always easy, but I've had to learn that if you do not send boundaries with some people, what you'll end up doing is resenting them a lot and feeling incredibly miserable. Don't waste your time. The people in your support system aren't just people you need because they exist, you need to have people who are worthy of spending time and energy on. You don't need to take care of people or be kicked around by people to have a support system. Eliminate the negativity, and you will feel much better.
12. The most important person in your support system looks at you in the mirror. If you don't learn how to take care of yourself, be kind to yourself, and, yeah I know it sounds cheesy but even to love yourself, then you will not be a happy person. It is vital, crucial, and necessary to be your own best advocate, and to take care of you. Nobody is ever going to care as much about your existence as you do, after all. You have a lot more at stake in so far as what happens to you than anybody else does; after all this is YOUR life. You must learn to take care of yourself. And I put this last on purpose. It's very hard to love yourself when you feel like nobody cares about you. So first, in my opinion, you need to find some people who are going to care about you. But, then, eventually, you must care about yourself more than anybody else does, because self-love is vital to thriving.
I hope this article made sense and was helpful to at least one person. Leave a comment if it helped you; that lets me know things are worth writing! Thanks!