I have a phrase that I repeat often and with relish. Take it to the group. I say it because I mean it. Whenever there is a moment of doubt, a mounting stress, unexplained tears or simple unrelenting sadness.
When your kids, job, partner, dog or own reflection are driving you to distraction or when you haven’t slept in what feels like millennia. When it’s one or all of these things or some that have yet to be mentioned, then bring it to the group.
Bring all of your baggage and pain, all of your insecurities and irrationality, and especially bring your sadness. The group wants it all. They want to see you at your worst, don’t stay at home and dwell, they will always welcome your sorrow. It is safe and warm and there are biscuits and tissues. The group will never turn you away. The group will always answer you. The group will never fail you.
There is an exceptionally stigmatised asset that the mental health community holds and, you’ve guessed it, I’m talking about peer support. I am a peer support group co-ordinator and I love it but more on that later. Let’s rewind a little for now because I wasn’t always a peer support co-ordinator.
For a long time I was lonely, depressed, anxious, confused and oh, did I mention lonely?
Oh my days, the loneliness. It still makes me shiver now to think back to a time when I was so utterly miserable. I had not opened up to anyone about my mental health and subconsciously I think I probably believed if I said it out loud I would be admitting to being weak. It would somehow make it real and then it would be impossible to go back to pretending that everything was fine. I’m sure that must sound familiar to a lot of people.
The first time I attended a peer support group I didn’t tell anyone I was going, because there was no one I could tell that I thought would understand. I arrived early under the power of my anxiety, being late fills me with an intense flush of dread, I mean really early. At least twenty minutes. I sat on a chair in the reception area waiting for someone, anyone to tell me what to do. My heart was thumping in my ears and the sweat was pouring off me. I was shaking in my seat and my eyes darted around trying to take in every detail. To limit the amount of potential unexpected events, thanks anxiety, you think of everything. I tried to keep my laboured breathing as quiet as I could; I couldn’t bear the thought of someone noticing what a mess I was. I realise now that what I was experiencing was a riotous panic attack.
There is not much I remember clearly about the meeting that followed. There was a form to fill in, I don’t recall what I wrote, other members shared their stories, and I don’t know what they talked about. When it was my turn to speak I looked around the room at all those strangers faces, opened my mouth, and then I cried.
I cried for all the days, months and years that I had felt so utterly alone. I cried for all the times I had almost buckled under the weight of my own misery. I cried and felt the tension and strain of the past twenty four years seep out of my body and be laid bare for everyone in the room to see. The co-ordinator of that group handed me a tissue and cool as a cucumber she said to me, you’re not alone anymore.
Fast forward through eighteen months of personal development, training courses and self-esteem building. I now run my own group on behalf of the charity that has given me so much. I will never forget the co-ordinator who spoke those life altering words to me.
My job is to ensure that the meetings remain recovery focused; we talk about thoughts, feelings, physiology and behaviours. We share stories of our own experiences and in doing so we reassure each other that we are, indeed, not alone. We provide a sense of community and unwavering support for people experiencing mental distress in all of its forms. It’s a safe space in which we can share advice, encouragement and fight over the last chocolate biscuit. We can tell each other things that we cannot explain to our families or friends. We can cry and we can laugh together about the difficulties of living with mental distress. It’s a powerful tool that has the potential to change someone’s life. It certainly changed mine.
Before that moment in my first peer support meeting, I never let myself cry. It would be shameful to admit I had feelings, that I had sadness inside me. Now I cry at everything! I cry when I’m sad and when I’m happy. I cry at heart warming children’s films, at charity adverts and when someone says something nice. I weep listening to my favourite Bowie song, purely because the beauty in the moment has overwhelmed me. I am teary in this moment because it touches me emotionally to talk about my journey. I don’t feel afraid to let people see my emotions any more. The group has given that to me.
Reach out to someone today. Join a group; contact a mental health charity or just pop round to see a friend. Take it to the group, trust me, we are stronger together.
Sophia Fedorowicz is a Psychology & Counselling undergraduate from Stoke-on-Trent. She is a passionate volunteer with a local mental health charity that provides peer support, workshops and one-to-one talking therapies. In Sophia's words, "it is through this work that I have developed an understanding of the power of a good support network and I seek to promote connections to improve mental health both locally and nationally. Believing that we are stronger together".
You can contact Sophia on twitter at @FedorowiczS