In the past, I’ve discussed ideas and strategies for relieving loneliness. About 12 years ago, I began my studies of how people who experience troubling emotional symptoms like loneliness, anxiety, depression, mania and psychosis relieve these symptoms and go on to do the things they want to do with their lives. I wanted to learn the simple, safe, everyday things that people do to help themselves feel better—’both for myself, to help relieve my own depression and anxiety, and to share with others through my work.
Over the years, I have talked with thousands of people about this topic. One finding that is consistent is that the number one way that people relieve loneliness and develop systems of support is by joining a support group. In this column, I will describe some of my own experiences with support groups, and will give you information that may be helpful to you if you decide a support group would be useful to you.
My Experience with Support Groups
When I first learned this intriguing piece of information about support groups, I was a bit “put off.” “Me go to a support group?”
In fact, I had some misconceptions about support groups. I think they got some bad press for a while. I thought I would have to share everything I was thinking and that others might judge me. Perhaps they would talk about me behind my back or tell others what I had said. Maybe the other members of the group wouldn’t like me. They might demand too much of me. What if it was all “touchy, feely”—I’m not sure why I was afraid of that.
Being a brave soul, I talked to some people I knew who had symptoms similar to mine about starting a support group. They didn’t seem to have my reservations and began holding weekly meetings for anyone in the community who experienced mood disorders. The group was a great success. It’s been going for 12 years now! Some members are still the same, but new members keep joining, while old ones move on. Happily, many friendships, begun in this group, have lasted over the years and are still strong. I continue to attend occasionally and it is a warm, wonderful experience.
Not long after this first positive experience with a support group, a friend came to me and said, “I want more women in my life—more friends. I want to start a support group.” I was interested. We spread the word and had 12 people at our first meeting. This group is still strong and active 10 years later. It has gone through many changes—in membership, style, process, and focus—but one thing has remained: a strong commitment to friendship and mutual, respectful support. The group has weathered the storms of change and loss and strengthened its commitment as a result.
Each Monday night, the group gathers at the home of one of the members and, while sipping herbal tea, spends two hours discussing our feelings, the rich everyday happenings in our lives, and topics like aging, parenting, commitment, purpose, and spirituality. While these weekly meetings remain the central focus of the group, those friendships have provided a circle of support that is there whenever it is needed: the illness of an adult child, a parent’s dying, a career change, the death of a spouse, divorce, family discord, hurt feelings; when living seems like a journey that is too difficult to maneuver. Recently, members of the group climbed to a mountaintop to share their grief as a member of the group was dying. And together we celebrate the joys of life—the marriages of our children, new grandchildren, our own achievements and those of the people we love, the beauty of the natural world, and the richness of our everyday experiences.