what i've learned from inclusion and my support teams
10 things i've learned from my support teams and inclusion
In my experience, you want to get surrounded by people you trust. Your "support team" is really just groups — plural — of trusted, reliable people you can depend on. This could include friends, family, a spouse, your psychiatrist or therapist, your peers in a 12-step program. It was scary at first, but I found it helped immensely to seek inclusion, and diversify my support teams. I let them be my safe harbor of acceptance, non-judgment, and good advice. They’re my home base that gives me courage when I venture into the broader world where there is stigma.
I've learned to think of my support teams as a "board of directors" -- and I've learned it makes sense to follow their suggestions. I ask for advice and I take it — even though nothing forces me to. I take it because I trust the people I consult with. I know they are good people, with life experience and good judgment, whom I can rely upon.
In my experience, life with bipolar, and in recovery from a co-occurring disorder, is easier — and definitely more fun — with "support" people in my life. These are the human connections that are real. That matter. And, I’ve found, these connections somehow bring a lift to life. Life will still have good and bad, but it’s easier to handle what life brings when you have support teams in your life.
My suggestion is, don't be reluctant to ask for help. I've found that you're not bothering folks when you show the strength — and the genuine human vulnerability — to ask for advice. You're smart to do it, and they'll respect your courage and honesty for being open — and, I’ll say it again, for showing human vulnerability. As time goes on, they'll ask you for advice, too. This is good on many levels -- you feel connected, you develop meaningful relationships, and you are not isolated. You feel included. And this builds even more concrete hope.
I’ve found that the more you build your support teams — and use them — the more you're also doing what you need to brush off stigma, self-hatred, shame. You're taking action steps, and you're getting yourself included. And that inclusion in turn brings you more good suggestions that you can take action on, to make your recovery and your inclusion. It builds and builds.
In my experience, inclusion starts with small steps — it first started within my core support team, the people I trusted most in the world — and then inclusion grew, as my teams expanded into different circles -- then it snowballed, and I was more included than ever before. And it felt wonderful. Why? Because I was being myself — and I was being accepted as myself — and because I was in a healthy loop of receiving positive suggestions that continued to help me grow.
It was hard to become fully open about having a co-occurring disorder, because mental illness and substance abuse each carry their own stigmas, and sometimes they combine to make the stigma especially virulent. But in deciding to become open about my bipolar and my alcohol self-medication, it increased my ability to be included. So, while I've experienced stigma along this journey to become included, I believe strongly that stigma should not get to control the analysis. Instead, I believe the analysis that matters is this — I went from isolation, fear, shame, and secret self-hatred to a place of genuine belonging, a member of different communities with good, decent people. A place of feeling useful to others. Along with taking daily action and listening to the suggestions of my trusted people, it was my decision to be transparent about my disorders that, I believe, really allowed this to occur. Why? Because, it turns out, almost everyone knows someone touched by mental illness, or substance abuse, or something remarkably similar. So many people, once you tell them who you are, can relate.
A little bit of daily action helps build the support teams and the inclusion, and keeps it alive, vital, and fun — a phone call here, meeting for coffee there. It doesn't happen all at once. It's not magic. But it’s not time-consuming drudgery work, either. Those little action steps every day can be filled with little joys, and this further builds your support groups and inclusion, just like they build your overall hope and recovery.
In my experience, once you have a robust board of directors, and once you are included in the communities that you want to be in, you can start helping others. I've learned we all have something to contribute. You don't need decades of experience or a fancy degree. And you'll feel even more included yourself, once you start sharing what you’ve learned about your recovery and your hope and the action steps you used for it.
This is why I advocate: Not everyone has access to people who can be on their support team. Not everyone has access to a doctor. Not everyone has a clear path towards the basic connections that make us feel included as humans. Many people who have a co-occurring disorder are isolated, lonely, and have no opportunity for a support group or for being included. I see these things in the mental illness context as a fundamental human right. I want us as a society to help everyone get access to the totality of treatment they need. This includes support teams — and it means true inclusion.