I’ve been attending a pair of NAMI support groups for five years now, ever since my marriage was walloped by my wife’s late-onset bipolar disorder. After four hospitalizations she’s doing well these days, and so am I, and our story gives hope to the other spouses and partners in my two groups.
Long ago, in the pre-Covid-19 days, we met in church classrooms, where ten or so of us attendees would spill our latest stories. Whose partner stayed in bed all month. Whose husband attempted suicide. Who found reason for hope. Who was falling apart amidst the madness and guilt and was desperate for support.
Now, instead of a church, we videocast via Zoom from our dens and basements and attics.
And I’m surprised how well it’s worked out.
Since our last face-to-face meeting, I see that a few guys have grown beards, and a couple of women have tried Miss Clairol.
Staring at my laptop screen, desperately seeking a haircut, I realize I’m starting to look like the pointy-haired boss in Dilbert. And, ha-ha. Yes, the least I can do is wear a clean T-shirt to these meetings.
My daughter has joked that Zoom meetings work well for narcissists, since you’re forced to look at yourself when you’ve got your camera turned on. But these folks in my groups are far from self-involved. We’ve bared our souls to each other over the months and years.
In fact, in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, our online meetings have brought us closer together than ever.
We’ve adhered to the regular NAMI format. We each spend a few minutes summarizing what’s gone on in our homes since we last met. We listen intently and ask questions. We remind each other that mental illnesses are medical illnesses. We laugh at ourselves and the absurdity. We lift each other up and give each other hope when we are drowning in despair.
It’s rare these days, especially for men, to show that kind of vulnerability. But when you’ve spilled your guts and cried at a support group meeting, you reach a new kind of trust and human connection. Now, on our iPads and laptops, we’ve been keeping aglow that profound flame of humanity.
I used to be middle management, and I can imagine how dreadful attending job-related video meetings must be these days. When I occasionally used to work from home, conference calls meant you’d mute yourself and wash the dishes or play fetch with the dog. Someone wised up and started video conferencing, which is just about the time I quit my job.
During our NAMI meetings, there are no dishes getting washed.
In fact, compared to meeting in a church, as I stare at the faces of the women and men I care deeply about and listen to the pain and hope in their voices, it sounds more immediate and caring than ever. More vulnerable and more trusting.
Maybe it’s the earbuds.
My wife and I have been married 35 years. Other than hers and my mother’s, I can’t remember anyone’s voice swirling through my ears like during those support group calls.
True story: The day President Kennedy was assassinated, I’d gotten my tonsils removed. Back from surgery in my hospital bed, still groggy, I asked my mother for the bowl of ice cream I’d been promised.
“President Kennedy died today,” she murmured into my ear.
That was more than a half century ago. I was too young to suffer a broken heart, but I remember my mother’s sadness and shock mixed with her relief I was alive, a blip of gratitude amidst the nation’s collective loss and grief.
As writer and therapist Pauline Boss has noted, these days we’re all experiencing grief and loss — a collective uncertainty stemming from the absence of normalcy and the ambiguity of what’s to come.
That’s standard fare for those of us who love someone with a mental illness. We can’t change it or cure it or know what’s to come. We can keep hoping, and we can control only our own well-being.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and given the state of the nation’s collective loss and grief, we can all use a little hope right now.
How odd that, on the Internet of all places, my hope is revitalized each week as my heart is touched by the intimate embrace of the members of my support group.