Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Power of Friendship

One thing I’ve come to learn is that for those living with mental health conditions, isolation can be just as debilitating as the disorder itself. The idea of being alone is hard enough for anyone to deal with but when you combine that with a mental health challenge then the problem is magnified.

I’ve experienced this. I recall coming home from the hospital after my first manic episode. My old high school friends were far and few between. It took time to re-establish those connections. Much of this was due to my own sense of low self-esteem and misunderstanding of what I was going through. The other part was a result of the lack of understanding my friends had. I think they just didn’t know what to say or how to react seeing me as debilitated as I was.

But with time things did improve. One friend, Doug, took the opportunity to connect with me whenever he came home from college. In retrospect, I believe he too didn’t know quite what to make of my circumstance but this didn’t deter him from reaching out. But I’m truly grateful for his companionship. We still remain friends today.

“Greater love has no one than this,
that someone lay down his life for his friends”
John 15:13
The Bible

During the course of my active addiction I did develop some friendships, however the vast majority were based around the mutual desire to find and use substances. The result was multiple bipolar relapses and subsequent hospitalizations.

“A good friend is a tower of strength;
to find one is a treasure”
Apocrypha: Ben Sira
The Torah

This all changed when I got into my addiction recovery program. It was here that I began to develop healthy relationships. It was so refreshing to be with people with whom I could truly be myself. All those years prior I was always trying to be someone else to just fit in. I had found people who accepted me just as I was. With this acceptance also came trust. I was able to open up and become vulnerable and know that I was still safe. My circle of friends has grown over the years. I would describe it metaphorically like rings. I have my inner circle and then from there different levels of friendships; intimate, social, work-related and yes, even Facebook. But it is the totality of these friendships that gives me the greatest sense of security and satisfaction. Despite all of the ups and downs of bipolar disorder and addiction I’ve endured, I have been fortunate to have friends to support me.

"The genuine friend, who is affected with the joys and sorrows of another,
is a medicinal cordial, the sanctuary of the heart,
the delight of the eyes, and worthy of confidence."
Hindu Proverb

I do know, however that many people living with mental health conditions are not as fortunate. For some individuals, this has come as a result not of their own choosing. They may have lost family and friends due to these individuals’ unwillingness to accept the person’s condition, whether it be the behaviors they produce or simply a lack of knowledge and understanding of what the person is going through. What it all comes down to is empathy; the unspoken language of care and compassion. If more people practiced empathy I think our world would be a much kinder place.

Imam Hassan (as) Says:
"Befriend people in the same manner
 you would like them to befriend you."
The Holy Quran

Currently I work for two organizations, the Mental Health Association of Erie County, which provides a number of services to assist members of the local community with obtaining services as well as providing specific programs to address the needs of those living with mental health concerns.

The other agency is Compeer. Compeer is a mentoring organization that has been in existence for over 40 years. There are Compeer programs in the U.S., Canada, and Australia. It’s an evidence-based program, meaning that it has the research to back up its efficacy. We serve youth, adults, older adults and the local veterans community. It is a very simple concept: volunteers spend one hour per week with their Compeer friend. This small, but profound gesture has helped literally thousands of people over the years to have a better quality of life. Research has shown that those who are served in our program are less likely to require higher levels of care, like emergency room visits and inpatient hospital stays.

I have a Compeer friend with whom I’ve been connected with since May of last year. We’ve done all kinds of things together such as going to Buffalo Bisons games, visiting the local waterfront in the summer, and even hanging out at my house watching comedy movies like Blazing Saddles. These activities are mutually beneficial in that they help my friend to be more socially connected and I get the reward of knowing that I too have a new friend with whom I can share these kinds of special experiences.

I also recently became a mentor for two students at Erie Community College. This opportunity is allowing me to share my experience, strength and hope with these young people to help shape their future. This is a profoundly humbling experience, especially taking into consideration where I was at at their age; mentally unstable and addicted.

“Have compassion for all beings, rich and poor alike;
each has their suffering. Some suffer too much, others too little.”

You see, friendship is universal. Whether you believe in a Higher Power or not, you can benefit by offering a hand in friendship to someone in need. There all kinds of mentoring programs in the U.S. as well as throughout the world. All it takes is just a little bit of your time. The benefits are immense.

If you’d like to learn more about the Compeer program click here.

Be well!

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