I am someone who has never belonged to a cycling club, who hardly ever – years can go by without it happening – goes cycling with anyone else. Not a groups kinda guy when it comes to turning the pedals, clearly. A cycling club for people with have mental health problems? Well, there’s an idea whose time, it appears, has yet to come if my 5 minute internet search is anything to go by.
But when it comes to mental health recovery, it’s a different matter. Groups have played a pivotal role in my recovery. Peer support groups, that is. The first peer – led support group that I ever went to was in Westminster, central London. It was a 100 mile round trip (by train). Although so fragile was I back then – 2001 – that it pretty much felt like I did the trip on my bike.
What did I find there? A group of strangers from all walks of life, and all stages of recovery. We would go round the group and introduce ourselves. There were a disproportionate number of civil servants, I recall. But seeing that it was near the seat of government, that wasn’t such a surprise, I guess. The group facilitator – a peer, of course – was a guy called Richard. What remember best about him was that he would wear shorts that were a size (or two) small for him. What do I remember from those weekly meetings? Practically nothing – except that a few of us would decamp afterwards to a local pub and do convincing impersonations of a group of friends without a single mental health problem between them. And that is what I took away from those meetings. Acceptance, acceptance, acceptance. No one judged, no one was ever rejected by the group, and those who made the meeting unsafe by overstepping the group guidelines were asked to leave. Actually, I only remember this happening with one person. He was a regular and he used to bring a half finished bottle of spirits into the meeting in a brown paper bag. He always took it well, left, only to return the following week, paper bag in hand and leave when Richard asked him to.
I attended that group for at least a year, using my annual season ticket (I was running a mental health day centre in north London) when I was first diagnosed with depression.
But that wasn’t the only peer support group I was involved with. I became a member of the leading U.K. charity Depression Alliance (www.depressionalliance.org) and became a member of their online support group. It helped me to keep a foothold in the world when days would go by without me leaving the house, or feed the cat. Days when (my wife was a way on business) a friend would pick up the children and take them to school because I didn’t even have that in me.
Since then I have attended peer support groups for depression – facilitated a Depression Alliance one in my home town for a year. Since my proper diagnosis (Manic Depression) I attend the local monthly peer – led group.
Although I am open about my mental health, and my openness has been met with good responses, I still cringe at those who express their admiration at the way I am prepared to talk about it. When I do choose to talk about my mental health publicly, on civvy street, I talk like it’s cancer. Remember when that was a taboo subject?
Let a Place be Made
Let a place be made for the one who draws near,
the one who is deprived of any home,
tempted by the sound of a lamp, by the lit
threshold of a solitary house.
And if he is still exhausted, full of anguish,
say again for him the words that heal.
What does his heart which once was silence need
if not those words which are both sigh and prayer,
like a fire caught sight of in the sudden night,
like the table glimpsed in a poor house?
Yves Bonnefoy (1923 – )