It took me a long time of ‘doing’ psychiatry before I truly understood that I’m surrounded by a ‘support network’. As my best friend told me a long time ago, I’m a bit of an island of one. My default position when I’m troubled or ill is to take myself off and be alone with it. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve always fully engaged with psychiatry, taken the journey, showed up for the appointments. But at the crunch times down the years I’ve withdrawn rather than reached out. The first time I was in hospital, about 6 years ago now, I was very manic and very suicidal. I didn’t speak with the nursing staff at all. For 6 weeks I took myself down to the end of the corridor and danced to banging dance music in my headphones!
In recent years, though, that accumulated weight of dealing with mental illness meant that more and more I’ve had to look around me and start asking for help. Last year I developed TB, and by the time I got home from hospital, desperately skinny, exhausted, and slightly manic, I couldn’t even feed myself. For the first time in my life I just asked a friend if she could cook me my tea. I’ve been practising asking for help ever since.
So this post is to celebrate my incredible support network. This time round going up and over I’ve been aware more than ever before that support networks never leave you. They’re always there. But when the shit hits the fan they move in a little bit closer until you can feel them there at your elbow. My support worker raised concerns with my CPN, who raised concerns with my consultant. All three of these people perform different roles in my world. My support worker comes shopping with me (I’m not great at feeding myself). My consultant has the overview. Her view is that while meds have a role to play, they’re not the be all and end all, and I totally respect this position. My CPN coordinates all of it – she sees me regularly, knows me well, pushes for growth where possible, or understanding where that’s more appropriate. Then there’s my GP who I call zenGP for his wise ways – he knows me very well now too, and always has the best words for me. A massively intuitive person. Add to that the community nurses from the Intensive Home Treatment Team who appeared in my world for a few weeks to keep an eye on me. And then there’s my friends. Who respected my introverted ways but managed to call in with bags of food when I struggled to get out the house in a manner so matter-of-fact that it became easier to accept their help. My friends fed me back to health after the TB last year, too.
I told my CPN years ago that I reckon their job is to be like shepherds. They watch over us out on the hill but we have freedom to roam and live our life. We have freedom to get as far up the hill as we dare go. But sometimes when we run into danger they need to encourage us down to gentler slopes, or even take us inside for our own good. Support gathers round at times of difficulty, and then eases back when we’re ready to take our own steps forward again.
I’ve struggled over the years to come to terms with the fact that my friends are part of my support network. For a long time I wanted to leave them out – keep them free of the responsibility of being a carer. More recently I’m learning that that’s not what friendship is about. But I do believe this – while our friends are gathering round to become part of the support network, we should never lose sight of the fact that they’re also friends. We should never distort that relationship to the point where we are taking from them and giving nothing back. Last year, an IHTT nurse had this to say about the matter – she was asking if I was seeing friends in the middle of a depressed episode. I told her no – that I found it hard to talk to friends about being suicidal. ‘Well’, she said, ‘I think you should absolutely talk about this with your friends – just make sure it’s not the only thing you talk about. There’s room for other stuff too’.