Lean on me, when you’re not strong, I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on.
I read a recent article in the Chicago Tribune about the increase of peer support groups as mental health treatment, rather than wholly centering on a physician or therapist to guide treatment. The article talks about how people with mental illness use these peer support groups to get
“a chance to discuss and maybe get help for problems that, all too often, their friends, families and even therapists didn’t seem to understand. How do you feel comfortable at social gatherings when everyone there knows you tried to kill yourself? Should you abandon your religious faith if you’re prone to thinking that you’re God? How do you handle your illness when your child has it, too?”
I obviously believe in the benefits of this kind of peer support and discussion, or I wouldn’t be writing about my mental health issues on a blog for people with disabilities. I have gotten invaluable support, information and insight from friends with mental health disorders. Not only the big issues, like reassurance that depression will eventually lift and the sky will not fall on my head. Some of the most useful stuff I’ve gotten is a discussion of which facial scrub best deals with the flaky dry skin caused by taking lithium. (I use Pond’s Fresh Start Exfoliating Scrub with microbeads! They do not send it to me – I buy it.) I also strongly support the centering of people with mental illness and their own experiences.
But I’ve also had a couple of times when being so close to friends with mental illness may have been a bad idea. My roommate and best friend in college also was struggling with newly diagnosed mental health issues of her own, and a crisis for one of us tended to precipitate a crisis in the other. I vividly remember sitting in the waiting room of the emergency room as she was being admitted, folded up in the plastic chairs in the waiting room, reading The Bell Jar while I waited for her to be processed. And going into an immediate spiral that ended with me checking myself into the hospital a few weeks later. Where, despite being strip searched and in a carefully controlled environment, I learned from my fellow patients how to find things to use to self-injure.
For me, the scariest thing about depression is how seductive it is. Just giving up, since nothing matters or will accomplish anything anyway, and letting myself turn out to be the failure and disappointment I know myself to be. (Says the depression voice.) And getting well, and staying well, and maintaining the wellness, can be so exhausting that it can be tempting to just chuck it all. So I can find myself fetishizing the experiences, the memories. The accessories – the things I used to self-injure, the dark rooms and shapeless clothes. The feeling of being insulated from the world, wrapped in cotton wool, removed.
That’s why these support groups scare me. I saw that article and I felt it in my stomach. I can close tabs and scroll past these things on the internet, but in a room, talking to someone, I can’t just put my hand over their mouth. Maybe this is something totally unreasonable, an unfounded superstition I have, but I feel like it might pull me back in.