The Importance Of a Support Network
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Dealing with a mental illness, such as depression, bipolar disorder or anxiety can be difficult enough on its own. Throw in the demands of life – job, parenting, shopping, bills, and the task starts to become monumental. When you’re dealing with an illness that takes everything you’ve got to get you through the day, everyday stressors can be enough to push you over the edge. And, if you’re like I was, you don’t want to burden anyone else with your problems, so you try to go it alone.
I kept so much inside, like I was a soda bottle that kept being shaken. It was only a matter of time until I popped. But I tried my damnedest to keep it all in. My wife knew me well, she knew things weren’t right, but she couldn’t get me to talk to her enough to release any of the pressure. I held on to it, thinking if I squeezed it hard enough, it would just go away.
And it didn’t go away, it just started coming out all weird and sideways. At first I was just overly emotional, sentimental and crying at the littlest things. Then it started turning into anger, and it stayed this way for a long time. There were times it was crooked anger – I remember getting so angry because our newborn twins were cranky and wouldn’t stop crying. I’d get overly angry at traffic. I started getting angry at people I didn’t know, just based on the way they looked or acted. I’d make up stories about them in my mind to deflect my attention away from myself. I carried this kind of anger for years – I’m thankful I never really acted on it.
The anger eventually started turning into depression and the two would pull back and forth on me, inward anger, then outward anger, inward, outward and so on. And still I tried to deal with it by myself. Occasionally, I would have a therapist for a while and that would temper me temporarily. But most of the time I relied on myself. And this went on for the better part of twenty-two years.
But the last time I had a major depressive episode, just a few months ago, I made a conscious decision that I was going to build myself a support network. I was done with feeling turned inside-out and alone. I was done with my anger. I was done. I didn’t want to go through that again. And that meant it was time for me to do things differently. I had to start talking to people, and I had to mean it.
So I started while I was still in the hospital. We did an exercise in a group session where we were given a piece of plain paper that was divided by lines drawn like puzzle pieces. We had to label the puzzle with people or things that we wanted to surround ourselves with. I put myself in the center. My wife was the biggest piece, directly beside me. My kids were the other pieces adjacent to me. I had my brother, my therapist, my parents and one friend who filled in the corner pieces that touched my piece. Except for my psychiatrist, I didn’t have any other people who fit onto my puzzle.
I started being completely open about how I was feeling and what I was thinking with my wife. She and I started educating our children about what depression was and what that looked like with daddy. I started explaining my illness to my parents when they’d visit me in the hospital.
When I got out, I told my friend what I had been through. But that didn’t feel like I was doing enough. So I started reaching out – in the only way I knew how.
I can express my feelings the best when I write them out. So I wrote about what I experienced going to the hospital and I sent it to the Daily Zen website. I shared that article, comprised of journal entries from my hospital stay, on Facebook as well. The article got a tremendous response – both for the website and on my personal page. I was getting words of support and encouragement from people who I hadn’t spoken to in years, people who didn’t know what I had been facing, people who lived thousands of miles away from me.
I had never felt such support in my life. It felt like my wedding day, in the amount of joy and regard that were given to me, but because I had opened myself up, it was also more personal and meaningful to me. I found people who were moved by my story, people who were inspired by my story, and most importantly, people who could relate to my story.
I began keeping in better touch with some of the people who responded to my story. My brother tells me he’s learned more about my disease from my writing about it than he ever understood from my talking to him. I had total strangers respond to my story, and I have stayed in touch with some of them – because they get it.
People understand mental illness when you talk to them about it. You’ll find that there are many people won’t talk about their experiences with it until you open yourself up to them about yours. And maybe writing isn’t your thing. Maybe talking to people is easier for you. The important thing is to keep opening yourself up – it can be scary, and not everyone’s going to respond to you the way you would like, but you will find the people out there who can relate and who are willing to support you.
Having a support network is a huge win for those of us suffering from mental illness. It takes some scary work to build, but it’s worth it in the long run. We don’t need to twist ourselves into the ground trying to take on the world alone. Find what’s comfortable for you and reach out – we’re not alone out there!
Jason has suffered from depression and anxiety for over twenty years. He can be contacted at:https://www.facebook.com/jason.large.12?fref=nf