Community and dreadlocks

I’ve been trying to write a post here for a couple of days, but life continues to be hectic, mostly in a good way. ūüôā I’ve snatched a moment now where Rose, my goddaughter Sophie, and her Dad are all napping. I don’t do naps. I blog!

News! This is what my shower currently looks like. It’s been blocked since Friday. Can’t use the bath either. So I’ve been cleaning myself under my sprinkler, having sponge baths, and borrowing friend’s showers.
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This is the bucket of tree roots a plumber has pulled out of the drain so far. Some of them are quite large! Apparently someone will come by sometime this week with a high pressure jet thingy and blast them free.

Until then, I’m glad I own a sprinkler and thank god for friends willing to share bathrooms.
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For those of you here who may not have caught up with things, I now sport a whole head of beautiful dreadlocks! I got them done on a whim while in Melbourne, after the parts who can give talks and be brave and whatnot made it abundantly clear they were not impressed about doing this with really boring hair. It seemed a fair trade. So after waking past this shop:
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I said to myself, this is my kind of place. The lovely Weird Sistas shaved the sides back and wove the most beautiful, natural, clean, product-free dreads I’ve ever seen.
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More than that, we had the most wonderful conversations about life, community, getting screwed over, love, voices, parts, taking risks, and serendipity. I was utterly blissed out and I love my dreads. They are beautiful, smell amazing thanks to the cinnamon spray I got to take home, and incredibly easy to care for. My usually hyper sensitive irritated scalp has settled down considerably since I’ve had them woven in. Happy!

Rose is inspired and excited, and hoping to take their classes and learn to weave dreads herself. This could be the most wonderful opportunity for us both to be in a creative, artistic, people oriented, alternative field, and we’ve been talking about little else all week!

On a personal level obviously it would suit me to have her able to maintain my own dreads, but bigger than that, doing dreads is no more all about hair than doing body painting is about paint. It’s about community, connection, listening. You’re doing something very personal with another person, something creative, but also an exchange. People who sit for the hours of dreads generally talk. They share what’s on their hearts. You need to love people, to be an exceptional listener, to have a genuine heart for then to do this work. Rose most certainly does.

I love that this isn’t mental health work the way my peer work is, and yet it’s not nothing. There’s something about an exchange of kindness – in my own work, about the privileged space in which people may be literally naked, where you work with them to bring a new artwork into the world. (through body painting) To be more embedded into our local alternative communities feels absolutely right. To be making choices about career that fit so well into our hopes for children soon. There’s so many exciting things afoot!

The other day I mentioned I was hiding from admin at a local belly dancing event. It was wonderful! Piles of beautiful fabrics, jewellery, lovely cheap good food served with gracious care. Henna art, chai tea, women of all ages and shapes adorning themselves, feeling good about themselves, feeling a sense of connection to a community.
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I love these groups so much. I feel so at home in them, the poverty that isn’t brutal, the sharing, the artistry.

I’m finding different cultures and connecting more and more with them. Getting out of the straight jacket of middle class ideals imposed onto a life of low income and disability. There are so many other ways to live. Alone, I’m so, so vulnerable. As a group, nearly anything is possible. People share spare rooms, lemons, recipes, child raising ideas. It’s such a different world from the fearful one that’s been engulfing me, all of us alone in our homes with our appliances for company, trying to stop anything in our world changing. I’m found people who believe in sharing what you have, who think that blood doesn’t make family, who understand that life doesn’t always go to plan, and that sometimes that’s a wonderful thing.

I’m not so afraid of winding up homeless again anymore. I love and tend to a whole community of people who love and tend me back. I think if I fall again I won’t be alone. I’m finding different ways to live and love and risk, and that gives me so much hope.

Experiences of spiritual emptiness and hope

I caught up with my local Hearing Voices group in SA yesterday. It was so good to see everyone again. I love this group, they will always be close to my heart. One of the first places I felt at home and started to see another way of engaging my own pain and loss. One of my first experiences of community. I was so happy to be back, particularly as I’m not a co-facilitator anymore and can just be my own mad self. ūüôā

At one point, a member talked about experiences of spiritual emptiness. How I love this group, that these conversations happen. I constantly learn so much, feel so humbled. We talked about emptiness, shame, connection. I talked about my experiences coming home from the World Hearing Voices Congress and starting to struggle. At the congress I had the most amazing experience of connection with a whole room of like minded people. The first night alone in my flat was a transition. I’ve never been particularly good at object constancy. I can’t easily retain a sense of emotional connection to people when they’re not present. For the first 6 months of dating Rose, I would wake up every morning and go and find a photo of her to remember what she looked like, and to try and find that sense of connection to her inside me. I have issues with facial blindness, and often cannot picture the faces of my loved ones in my mind. I disconnect quickly. This can be really tough. I keep a lot of photos on my phone and around my unit to help me with this.

So, at the congress, all the connection, the hugs (we did a seriously AWESOME job of keeping out the parts who would get the most out of and be the least stressed by the congress! Very proud) the amazing conversations, they were all buoying me up. It felt like everyone I’d spoke with was a big red helium balloon, and I was holding the string. Feeling connected to them all, to a whole amazing community of people who treated me with care and respect, was half like flying. I was uplifted and full of hope. I felt like I could do almost anything.

Home alone in the night and the strings started to pull through my fingers. A profound sense of being empty and alone and very small in a very large, dark world crept over me. Hollow inside, doubts crept in, shame, every compliment in my memory twisted into a recrimination, every connection seemed imagined. I fell into the pit.

This time I took that image of the balloon strings slipping through my fingers and asked myself – what would help me hold onto the strings? I found that a question that resonated with me, there was a sense of fumbling in the dark towards answers. I took out my conference name tag and pinned it to my bookshelf where I could see it. I posted how I was feeling on this blog. I got up the next morning and watched Patch Adams over breakfast – marveling at the parallels, at the way so many of us are fighting the same fight, dreaming the same dreams. And how some of us simply cannot fit in, cannot help but be madmen. It’s not about what will work, or what’s practical, or even what will further our ideas best, it’s simply who we are.

I keep listening to small voices inside, keep looking for where my energy is. Keep trying to find ways to be more human, more honest, stronger in myself, more vulnerable in my interactions. I know that I cycle, it’s the nature of the carousel of parts. But I also know that strength deep in the system, that experiences of meaning, connection, community, and hope are deep and profound foundations even for the most wounded and disillusioned of us.

Being counter to mainstream culture can be hard. All of us need ways to keep our dreams alive, to maintain a connection to the things that are meaningful to us. I hope you are able to find ways to grasp the slipping strings in your own life, ways to tolerate the nights that are empty and find your way back to hope again.

A quote from Patch himself (not the movie):

you don’t kill yourself, stupid; you make revolution.

Vive la revolution!

Facilitating is a challenge

Today was good but tough. It was hot. I have a lot of admin and housework since the trip I’m still to catch up on. And a big conversation happened in the DI Open Group on facebook, where I’m the sole facilitator (not by choice!). I’m lying on the grass in the dark at the moment, down the local park with Zoe. It’s beautiful. There’s a cool breeze on my skin, stars overhead. So many things are running through my mind.

I think one of the hardest parts of being a facilitator is that people can very quickly lose faith in you. We’re so used to being lied to, being subject to marketing campaigns, advertising, slick company spin. It’s really difficult to be a genuine, human voice in the role. People quickly start to hear insincerity and feel you’re lying to them, bull shitting, setting them up. Once that trust has been compromised, real conversation is hard. People start looking for ulterior motives. Everyone is desperate to feel people are hearing then, agreeing with them, on their side. It’s a challenge to inspire everyone to also want to hear each other. People struggle not to become defensive or disengage. Conversations, real conversations not just fights, are hard for everyone, ask so much courage, empathy, vulnerability of everyone involved.

As a facilitator I struggle because being in the middle of difficult conversations and trying to hold a safe space can quickly feel like I’m alienating everyone despite my best efforts. I can find myself feeling raw, beaten up, and distrusted by people I care about, whose opinions I respect.

We have an idea on our culture that you can be impartial. I don’t think it’s possible. You can be less invested perhaps… which sometimes means too far away from the topic to have any idea about it, easy to confuse or manipulate. You can be highly invested, such as when someone makes a complaint about a resource I have built, or about my behaviour as a peer worker. Man, is that hard! I’ve worked so hard to try and engage complaints in a non defensive way, to use them as an opportunity to learn and connect and build more genuine relationships. I don’t always succeed, although sometimes this works spectacularly well, and I count among my friends and colleagues some wonderful people who’s first real conversations with me were complaints. It’s still such a challenge to try and genuinely listen, especially if the other person is enraged, or making horrible assumptions about my motives. Sometimes I feel profoundly trapped and silenced by my own role, by the weird double standard work in the sector can bring, where a client can tear you to shreds, but you must keep your mouth shut about your feeling, needs, fears, or concerns. (in front of them at least) On the other hand I’ve also been the client so often, completely ignored, silenced, dis empowered, humiliated, minimised, dismissed, interrogated, asked to account for experiences, needs,¬† and reactions I can’t even put into words, by people I am deeply intimidated by.

This process sucks. This framework sucks. How do we just sit down as people, and talk? How do we create safe and fair spaces to discuss deeply complex, painful, urgent issues? How do we not burn out the facilitator who needs hugs at the end?

My ideas about the facilitator role have been informed by my experiences in hearing voices groups. I’m not there to privilege one opinion or idea above others. I’m not there to decide the ‘truth’ of why voices happen or what people ‘should’ do. I’m there to make the space a safe one for people to have their own opinions, share their experiences, change their minds, disagree with each other, and still have a space where mutual respect and care can flourish. This is kind a diplomat role – I’m there to try and hear and help everyone feel heard, and to try and support and encourage even people with completely different frameworks to engage each other respectfully. I’m trying to model a way of both having a voice, and listening. Of course, the nature of this role is that it’s depressingly easy to fail. It’s easy as all hell for everyone involved to feel that I’m against them because I’m trying to give space to opinions they disagree with. That I may also disagree with them, but see my role as one of making space for all voices doesn’t necessarily come into things! We’re not used to this model, most of us have never had a genuinely respectful conversation with someone who completely disagreed with us, or whose experiences were totally different from ours. If the topic is really crucial, if people’s lives or sanity hang in the balance, the chances of anyone listening to anyone else decrease, because everyone involved is so stressed, has such a real need to be heard and believed that it drives us. It’s so bloody hard to be patient and hear opinions that we believe are so deeply wrong they sicken us.

Some days I’m so, so tired of being the diplomat, the facilitator in the middle. I’d love to have some one else facilitate these conversations so I can just have my own point of view and argue that.

Some days I wonder if the facilitator role is a bit stupid. Why is it primarily one person’s responsibility for making sure a space stays safe, respectful, and caring? What would it be like to have a difficult conversation in a room full of facilitators, were everyone was working hard to make sure all voices get heard? Wow, I’d like to sign up to that conversation.

I’m so proud of the folks in the Open Group, they did a fantastic job of engaging even though it was really hard. No one has slung any insults, space is being made for different opinions. I keep thinking about the idea that complaints are a chance to become closer, more real, more authentic with each other. I keep thinking about tribal cultures where the whole group sit down together and talk things through, tell stories, sing, dance, talk into the night, for as long as it takes to find some kind of peace with each other. I keep thinking that roles are useful but limiting, even a facilitator role that I value and believe in I also experience at times as very dehumanising. I’ve got some ideas, some experience, some bits of wisdom gleaned from life or other cultures. But wow, it’s a tough gig some days. Thank god it’s not my whole life. I keep thinking that spaces where someone like me holds the space, holds the expectation that we can disagree and still be respectful, holds hope that community and diversity and honesty can all enhance each other instead of being at war, are rare and precious. So, it’s important not to burn out the facilitator. I still have to step out of that role, shed the skin, run naked under stars, laugh from that deep place in my gut where joy lives.

And so do all of us. xx

Goals for SA

I’ve gone off to the World Hearing Voices Congress as a burned-out and overwhelmed peer worker. I’ve come home as an activist. It’s an amazing transformation.

The Dissociative Initiative

I (Sarah) am back from the World Hearing Voices Congress in Melbourne, with some new goals, ideas, and supportive people on board. One of the most important of these is a number of people keen to support the development of a Voice Hearing network here in South Australia. Obviously I‚Äôm passionate about our DI aims and resources also, which complement the VH network but are also distinct. We are going to have discussions about what we can do and the best format for a new, better supported local network ‚Äď and how it might be part of many other national and international communities who are also doing work around dissociation, the mad pride movement, alternative paradigms for supporting mental health, social justice, and community development.

Here are the plans for the next weeks and months:

  • Rest, recover, catch up on sleep, look after myself (ongoing!)
  • Write up an article about‚Ķ

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Amanda Palmer makes my life better

Last night was Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra in concert at Thebarton Theatre. Amanda is a wild artist, most recently famous for crowd funding her latest album Theatre is Evil. She’s bisexual, (like me)¬†married to author Neil Gaiman, has a brilliant sense of humour and is deeply unconventional in her approach to music, relationships, beauty, and life. I admire her.

Yesterday I slept from 5am into the early afternoon. I woke to paint my sister for the gig so she could line up early. Rose was pretty unwell and slept through until about 20 minutes before the doors opened. It was rushed and wonderful and decadent. This concert, with all the wonderful misfits that would be going, is a perfect place to wear paint. I started with the face and couldn’t restrain myself spilling down onto neck, back, arm, chest. The white has blinged under the flash a little, it wasn’t as stark in real life. I love doing this, I want to keep¬†doing many¬†more.

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The lineup was unique in my experience. Instead of a supporting band, a range of other artists entertained us, including members of the Grand Theft Orchestra playing their own work. It was amazing. There were mad songs about bananas, deeply moving music about loneliness, surprise nudity. We laughed hard, a girl next to me gasping for breath and holding her stomach. Band members climbed into the box seats to sit on the balcony and ring tiny bells through a song so affecting no one in the theatre even whispered. We just breathed, as it sang us. All the artists had things for sale in the foyer or had sold out of them. It felt respectful of all the artists involved in a way that’s still ticking in my brain. It was the last night of the tour, and everyone looked exhausted and triumphant.¬†image

Amanda and the band were amazing. They played, laughed, hugged, humped, danced, and sang their hearts out. I ran into a number of other friends there, old and new. The room was full of people like me, poets, artists, visionaries, people who wanted to connect and be inspired. image

Amanda was herself, raw, lusty, generous, connected. She sang two of my favourite songs from the new album, Do it with a Rockstar, and Not the killing type. Her work is intelligent, passionate, and layered with meaning. These are not safe for work or kids.

She’s not afraid of us. There was no barrier before the stage. We pressed ourselves against it and reached out to her. She dived into the crowd, wearing a coat with a massive sheer train. We held her while she sang, under the umbrella of her coat. She touched us, kissed us, trusted us. We gave her back to the stage.

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She sang a love song and asked to have all the lights turned out. We stood there in the dark, swaying, and singing ‘I love you so much’ together. She told us, if we felt brave, to hold a strangers hand ‘in a non -rapey way’. I held the hand of a beautiful woman next to me I’ve never met before. She told us, for tonight, we were all friends.

She came and crouched at the edge of the stage and held my sister to her and sang. This was not entertainment, something we watched. This was something that happened to us, with us, an experience. She never talked to us like we were fans, something less than her, she talked to us like we were fellow artists.

Christy and Amanda Palmer

She told us stories, funny ones, sad ones, ones about people she admires or loves. She told us that since her crowd funding success, people keep asking her what the future of the music industry is. She said she has no idea, but as long as people keep paying to hear music we’ll be alright. She said

I’m just trying to be an artist; to have a job I don’t hate, to entertain people, to pay my bills, without being accused of being a narcissist.

I love that. It makes sense to me.

The concert ended. We ran back to the foyer and bought T-Shirts. We were promised a surprise if we waited around. We admired the crowd, the hair, the clothes, the comradery. Amanda and the acoustic part of the band set up unobtrusively in a small room. We all crowded in, lining the walls and sitting on the floor. For someone with PTSD this was a nightmare. There was no possible way out, I was surrounded by strangers, pressed close enough to be touching several at once, the smell of people. And yet, I was ecstatic. It frightened me but in a way that made me feel alive. Amanda sang, with her utterly raw, ripped up, end of tour voice. She played her ukulele. She was accompanied by magnificent strings.

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We listened, with our whole hearts. My feet were swollen and extremely painful, standing for the whole concert had been agony. I was sitting on them now, knees and hips screaming. Amanda started to sing Radiohead’s Creep. Her voice cracked. We all picked it up and sang it with her.

This packed room of mad people sang “I’m a weirdo/what the hell am I doing here/I don’t belong here” together.

I cried, silently.

Once, when I was a young child, in a fundamentalist Christian church, with their expectations of friendship and closeness, instead of the distant secular professional boundaries world I now live in, have I felt that sense of belonging. Not often since.

The woman next to me I’ve never met hugged me.

Amanda told us not to give up and be overwhelmed by things like Abbot running our country. She said, we were there, with Bush, for 8 years. She said gather together, love each other, fight for what you believe in. Grow stronger. Stop hating, stop complaining. Make great art. She looked right at me and told us that artists matter, that art changes the world.

We were a community, connected by things by passion. Not by mental illness, loneliness, poverty, loss, although I bet plenty of us there experience those things. It didn’t matter that I have multiple personalities or a history of trauma, homelessness and poverty. I wasn’t a victim, or even a survivor. I was a fan, I was a fellow artist. A few years ago when I went into college to get a Disability Access Plan to help me with my visual¬†art degree, the woman I spoke with was fascinated by the DID. At the end of the appointment, which was all about my physical illnesses and psychiatric problems, she told me I was so interesting. I said to her, rubbish, that’s just my problems. You haven’t seen my art yet.

We lined up for Amanda to sign things. I could barely hobble. She looked exhausted. I knelt by her table while she signed my T Shirt that says “We are the Media” and said to her

A friend of mine killed themselves last week. I wish they could have been here. I just sat with you and a room full of strangers singing ‘I don’t belong here’ and felt a stronger sense of belonging than I have in a very long time. Thankyou

She listened. She looked grieved. She held my face, and told me I was welcome. I got to tell her. I didn’t get to tell so many of my other heroes who have died, like Bradbury, how much they mean to me.

Home then, exhausted and into bed. I reached out to some local arts communities I saw there. I followed Amanda on twitter to say thankyou again, not wanting the night to end, not wanting to lose the sense of hope and life that burned brightly within me.

But sleep did not come. Rose and I were awake until 5am talking about life and art and love and babies and freedom. We finally fell asleep in each other’s arm, at peace.¬†

I want out of the conventional life I keep somehow sliding into. I want more artist friends. I want to make great art. I want to feel alive.

Since last night, I believe that artists can help mental health as much or more than psychologists, can build communities as much or more than social workers. The world is a better place.

Boat over black waters

I sail my little boat over black waters at the moment. Old wounds in me suppurate, old rage is fresh again. I find myself grappling with new questions – how to be wounded in community? Where do I take this pain? If I hide it all I build a wall between my heart and the people I love. I live alone with it, in a cold place where love does not reach me. If I share it all, I spread it, like a disease. There’s so much loss in the lives of those I love, so many bad stories waiting in the shadows. I want to bring love, not fall like dominoes. I find myself tangled in dilemmas of ethics and honesty and respect. I know how to grieve, and I know how to suffer alone. I don’t know how to place my friendships. There’s a terror and a brutal loneliness in psychosis for me that hasn’t entirely gone. There’s gaps between my friends who grieve Amanda and those who didn’t know her I’m struggling to connect. I find myself struggling to move between sarah-in-community and sarah-alone, between the peer worker and the friend, one who offers and one who likewise needs.

Last night Rose visited. We were both fragile, we arranged; no heavy conversations, no reaching into that pain. Just companionship. Like boats rocking over black water, we knew but did not need to speak of it. I found poems to read her to sleep. She stroked my back, touch grounding me, writing me back into being. We were careful with each other’s brokenness, held our limitations gently in our hands.

There was no screaming spiral of pain that sings to pain, destruction unknitting all that we are, souls seared by scars. There was tenderness, acceptance, closeness. We didn’t ask of each other more than we could give. Somehow, instead of loneliness, there was love. There was love.

See more like this:

Building social support

Some of us find ourselves in a place where we are deeply isolated in our lives. This is sadly a common problem for many people with ongoing mental health problems. Social support is one of the factors that help to build our resilience – our ability to handle difficulties. Isolation has been a major problem for me most of my life, and in my opinion certainly contributed in a big way to the mental health problems I was suffering as a young child. There are many different things that can contribute to becoming isolated, which can change the kind of approach you may find most effective in overcoming it. In my case, some of the things behind my isolation were very simple ones – such as being a creative arty person in a small school with a strong sports focus. Others were compounding issues such as developing PTSD¬†in my teens and finding my peer group weren’t able to support me – their withdrawal distinctly increased my symptoms and distress which only made me more different and awkward and therefore more isolated. This kind of spiral – the experience of mental illness and/or trauma makes you behave differently and need different things, which can lead to your social support withdrawing, which can make the illness and distress worse – is a common one for many people. In addition, withdrawal from social contact is a pretty common symptom in many mental illnesses, so your social network can fall apart or move on while you’re hunkered down in a burrow somewhere. When you start to feel better and look around, it’s a bit like Rip Van Winkle coming home to find the whole world changed and his children grown. But too, for a lot of us isolation is part of the landscape in which vulnerability to trauma and mental illness is then grown.

I’ve rebuilt my life on more than occasion only to have it all burn again, and I’ve learned a few things from mistakes I’ve made over the years. Maybe some of these will be helpful to you.

  1. Sometimes you have to leave. I could bend myself into pretzel shapes trying to make friends at school, but really what I needed is to look elsewhere. There’s a few reasons for this – one of which is that having been targeted by bullies, even students who liked me were afraid of also being bullied if they spent time with me. But that’s another story! It would have been better for me to have been home-schooled and looked for mates in after school drama classes and activities like that.
  2. Borrowing the social network of a friend or romantic interest. It’s nice to be invited out and have people to hang around with. But if things go pear shaped you’ll be left picking yourself up on your own. Some of the energy you’ve invested into those relationships could have been spent making mates of your own.
  3. Putting up with very unequal relationships. It can get tempting to take what you can get and accept some miserable relationships when it seems that nothing else is on offer. I don’t mean never care about anyone else, or don’t be kind to your elderly stroppy neighbour. I mean taking on someone and treating them like your best friend when that’s really not what they are. Confiding personal information that is later used for gossip, nursing them through heartbreak when they never show on your bad days, always paying for the night out when they could afford to shout it now and then.
  4. Expecting more of your mates than they’ve got. When I was a teenager dealing with PTSD my mates at the time freaked out and distanced themselves. That was really painful and unhelpful, but I do get that a bunch of 15 year olds really weren’t equipped or supported to know how to relate to me. They had no idea why I was so reactive and overloaded, and frankly if I’d been given good support from other adults they might have had a model to emulate. Most of us don’t have friends who are deeply educated and experienced in mental health and trauma sensitivity. They are going to get it wrong. (frankly, even if they have loads of information and experience they will still get it wrong! That’s just the nature of being human I’m afraid) I use a lovely quote by Barbara Kingsolver as my own guide:

The friend who holds your hand and says the wrong thing is made of dearer stuff than the one who stays away

We all need contact with other people to maintain mental health. There may be different quantities for different people – some of us need more social contact than others. We also need a range of different kinds of relationships in our lives, from the barest¬†acquaintances¬†to the closest of kindred spirits. Sometimes we may be better at maintaining one kind of relationship than others. Some of us have a couple of really close mates but almost no one else in our lives. It doesn’t matter how awesome the friend is, you still need other layers in your life. Others of us maintain a healthy bunch of friends we see now and then, but never seem to find anyone really close. Some of us find ourselves in a pretty bleak space where we don’t really have anyone.

I started rebuilding my own networks from the outside in. That is, I started looking for¬†acquaintances¬†and people I might hang out with occasionally before I went looking for closer friends. There’s less being asked of someone at this level, so a lot more people will make great¬†acquaintances. A few years back I started going to Mifsa (Mental Illness Fellowship of SA) looking for company. When I first walked in to the activity centre and looked around, I was really disappointed. No one else there seemed to be like me at all. Many of the other people openly asked what I was diagnosed with when they first met me, which I found really confronting. I was at the time very closeted about my mental illnesses and I refused to disclose. On one occasion another participant took this as a challenge and told me they’d be watching me to work out what I had! This wasn’t a great start and I stopped going.

Then it occurred to me that there could have been a whole stream of people like me, with my interests or similar experiences coming through the activity centre over the years – but until one of us stayed put we were never going to meet each other. So I decided to keep going anyway. It helped to have somewhere, however imperfect. Access to resources such as the internet, landline phone, cheap meals and food bank helped get me through some really tough times. And although I wasn’t close to most of the other people there, they were company, someone to play pool with or watch a movie with. Just that basic friendliness meet a need for me.

Sound Minds (Voice Hearers Group) was  a real turning point for me. Again, initially it was less than ideal. I was the only person there with a dissociative diagnosis, and at that time Mifsa had no books, fact sheets, experience or resources of any kind geared to dissociation. I had to explain myself a lot and I was very stressed and sensitive about my diagnosis. But I was accepted, and they let me come and be upset about my life without telling me I should look on the bright side. Out of this the Dissociative Initiative was born and now things are changing. Sound Minds was also originally geared towards education. The first time I went along and shared that I was lonely, the room went quiet. Several other people then shared that they were lonely too, and it was just something to get used to. I went home and decided that a room full of lonely people was daft. Gradually the group became more social, and now I have the whole bunch round to my place for a camp fire catch up regularly.

I’ve started to build networks through the mental health community by turning up to lots of events and being friendly and talking with other people. I’m starting to get to know people. I also want to make connections through different networks – which is part of the motivation for the mad amount of study I do in different areas. But I started much smaller – by looking in places where I had interests (such as art) or felt accepted despite challenges (walking into a building marked “Mental Illness Fellowship”).

I have also found online communities at times to be very supportive. Facebook helps keep me in touch with people I don’t get to see often or those I don’t know well enough to give my details to. Skype keeps me linked in to people a long way away. Some nights just being able to find someone else awake and have a quick chat even if about nothing personal has helped take the edge off. I’ve been part of online groups through Yahoo which helped me to understand a lot more about my mental health and have other people to talk to.

For relationships that have been intense and distant, as in the instance of some family members, I’ve read about relationships under stress and learned about boundaries, polarising, and other common issues. I’ve worked on lowering the intensity and reactivity in these relationships, resetting back to friendly¬†acquaintance if I can and re-growing things gently. I’ve also done a lot of work on myself, accepting myself, learning assertiveness, better communication, and how to better contain the kinds of symptoms that cause me problems in my relationships – such as raw emotional intensity, impatience,¬†ambivalence, emotional disconnection and preoccupation, irritability, and… you get the picture. I’ve had to do a lot of building a better relationship with myself instead of trying to resolve emotional pain through company. Having said that, I’ve been quite stunned at the incredible difference having some emotional and social support has made for me. A lot of that emotional¬†reactivity¬†and instability have settled by themselves. It is too damn hard to do this all by yourself.

I’ve had to let go of some relationships that were really important to me because they weren’t working and sometimes I am just too fragile to handle it. I’ve also had to learn how to accept a relationship that isn’t quite what I wanted or that changes over time. Sometimes you end up in a relationship where you are treating the other person as a best friend and they are treating you as an¬†acquaintance¬†– so you do a lot more nurturing and being involved then they do. It’s been a hard lesson to learn that sometimes if that’s the level of relationship they want or are comfortable with, that’s what it needs to be. Very close friends take time and energy to maintain, and there’s only room for so many in our lives sadly. Sometimes you think someone is awesome but so do a few other folks and they’ve already got their complement of close mates. It’s okay, keep looking, if you’re a good friend and you let things develop at a good gentle pace, you’ll make them.