I went to a NAMI meeting . . .

Walking through the metal detector to enter the mental hospital last night brought up painful memories. I felt grateful to only be there attending a NAMI family support group meeting — when I’d been there before it was to admit or visit a family member — but that gratefulness existed only because of the tremendously pain and sorrow of those admissions and visits.

Last night was my first time at a NAMI support group meeting. I don’t know why I put off going to a meeting for so long. The feeling of isolation I’d felt during the years following an initial diagnoses became much larger than life on that first trip to the hospital. I’ve known about NAMI for years. I’d been to the website and looked for resources. I’d found listings of locations and times of support group meetings. I’ve talked about going for the past year or two, but never put one on my calendar with the real intention of attending.

Apparently, I’m not the only person who’s holding back. There’s only a half-dozen support groups meeting monthly in my town and only ten people were at the one last night. Considering how many people deal with serious debilitating mental illnesses, there could easily have been hundreds of family members showing up last night. Surprisingly, more than half of us were first-timers. I guess that either means a lot of people were just busy in January or maybe didn’t find value in repeat visits.

It was an eclectic group with a wide age range ourselves and for the family members we listed as having a mental illness. The relationships covered the gamut as well with parents, spouses, children and even one nephew identified. The challenges faced both by the ill relatives and the people attending varied, but we also felt some commonality of being marginalized and our challenges minimized or dismissed by others. One parent of a mentally ill child even related being blamed for being a bad parent as the reason for the child’s behavior.

No-one else spoke up about having mental health issues of their own, so I didn’t either. The purpose of the group is support for family members of the ill, and it didn’t seem appropriate to inject the added complication of the ill caring for the ill. There are peer to peer support groups, and maybe I’ll attend one, but part of me is reluctant — believing I’m not sufficiently ill to be accepted in a group, even though one of the tenets of the organization is to not judge anyone’s pain. I still feel like maybe mine’s not enough to qualify.

This wasn’t the only support group I’d visited. My wife and I are regulars for the past year with another group, but it is more homogeneous — all in a similar circumstance and relationships to their ill family members. I don’t talk about my own mental health issues there either. As I write about this, I’m beginning to see a pattern emerge.

Support and empathy are qualitatively different than therapy. It’s a kind of community with implicit shared understanding. I’ve had (and have) plenty of therapy — individual, couples, family — but I’m finding the support is at least as important. I guess in a way attending a family support group at NAMI is maybe a first step to finding the courage to attend a peer-to-peer group. It’s hard to form an opinion from a single meeting, but I think I’ll go back next month.

When I got home my wife asked what I got out of the NAMI meeting that I’m not getting out of the other support group we both attend. I was puzzled by the question. I had just attended one meeting and was trying to figure out what it was all about. I think I’ll have to attend two or three to develop any meaningful opinion about what value may be there for me. And it doesn’t have to be different than what I get somewhere else — just more of the same might be reason enough.

I’m glad I went. I’m willing to be patient in discovering what value there may be for me, but it was worth it to attend last night if only because I was able (I hope) to benefit someone else. One of the other first timers was desperate to find mental health care providers who would have an immediate opening for a new patient. While I couldn’t assure them anyone would have openings, I was able to refer them to a half-dozen psychiatrists and counselors that I knew of and most of whom I had personal experience with. I hope they’ll be able to get the help they need for their family member. If they do, then it will have been reason enough for me to have made that first visit last night.