Going First

I went into my senior year of high school with a new found faith in God that gave me direction and purpose, and with determination that I was going to make something of myself. Speech and debate season would start soon and I had spent all summer drafting a perfect expository piece that would land me a divisional and state title at the end of the season. With my eyes on law school, I took academics very seriously, and I was diligent in applying for scholarships and grants. I also decided to take a stab at having a social life that meant more than just gossip on the bus to speech meets or to my friends around the world through the miracle of the Internet.

That’s sort of how I met Mitch. He was the new guy, and new guys get noticed in a school of barely 350 students.

One day I put down my homework long enough to see him sitting at my table in the library and took the time to actually say hello and introduce myself.

As the ‘new girl,’ having moved in nine weeks into my freshman year, we sort of bonded and became instant friends.
A couple weeks later, I came to school rather puffy eyed and clearly upset. I had won a big tournament over the weekend, and was rather hurt when no one asked how the meet went. My mother interpreted this through a bottle of vodka and translated it into calling her a bad parent. We spent the entire night arguing, fighting, and at one point I had to duck after she threw a glass at me before she threw in her ringer about going off to kill herself to make me and my siblings (who were probably hiding in their rooms) happy. I always spent nights after those kind of fights awake with my heart and brain racing and my ears and nose plugged from tears that wouldn’t stop falling. I looked awful in the morning, but there wasn’t a whole lot to be done.

Mitch had started waiting for me at my locker and was often the first person I’d see every morning.

“Are you okay?” he whispered as he gently pulled me close for a hug.

I couldn’t stop myself from getting choked up again and cried into his shoulder.

As students started to fill the hall, he pulled me into a supply closet that was slightly propped open and hugged me harder before sweetly taking my face in his hands and asking what had happened.

So I told him. I told him everything about our family’s big secret – that mom was an alcoholic and dad was an enabler, and I was just so sick of it, and so – just so angry because they just didn’t care that it hurt us, you know? And that I had grown up practically without parents because they were never around, and, and – and, it was like even now that they were, they didn’t seem to care about or love me and I was just so… so… mad! And sad! And I just… I just…

The door swung open and several of my classmates, a teacher and the vice principal were peering in on this rather intimate conversation.

In my head I picture a classic, synchronized “it’s not what you think,” coming from us, but I’m pretty sure that’s because I watch too much television.

I don’t remember a whole lot after that, but I do remember getting passed a note from Mitch during class asking if I had plans the following night. I scribbled a no and passed it back. And the next day his car rolled up to my house at 6 p.m. on the dot, and I yelled something about going out with friends, to which my brother snuck in a quick ‘what friends?’ as I headed out the door.

About twenty minutes later we arrived at a church in the next town. I assumed he was taking me to some sort of youth group or Bible study, but as we approached the building there were a good twenty or so adults smoking in the covered entry way. Taped to the door was a sign for Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in the multipurpose room.

Up the stairs we went into a classroom clearly used for Sunday School where some ten or twelve teenagers were milling about. The adult in the room greeted Mitch and introduced himself as the group leader and welcomed me to AlaTeen – a support group for teenage children of alcoholics.

I had never been to a support group, and if I’m honest I wasn’t terribly happy about being dragged to one without knowing what it was.

At that particular point in my life, I was perhaps as guarded as I’d ever be. Just three months prior I had attempted suicide, and the thought that my peers might find out terrified me. I was battling serious anger, anxiety and self-esteem issues (I now realize was undiagnosed bipolar and PTSD issues). And , hardest of all, I was caught between being a lonely teenager who was having trouble in math class with being the responsible adult in the family.

For reasons I can’t really explain or even identify, it was this last point that I think sank my heart the most. I wanted to be loved and accepted by my parents. I wanted my mother to stop drinking and my father to stop enabling her. I wanted them to see me as their daughter, and be treated the same … Perhaps it’s because this was the area of my life I had the least control… I don’t know.

As each kid went around the room opened up about their anger, the pain and frustration and rejection they felt, the way it affected their ability to be a normal kid, I found encouragement in the new realization that I wasn’t as alone as I often felt.

Mitch shared, too, about how he along with his sister and mother (who was attending a different meeting in the building that night) had moved to our area to escape his alcoholic and abusive father, how he had sometimes drank with his dad to try to earn some sort of affection, how he was scared of turning into a drunk himself.

And then it was my turn. I apologized profusely for going over the allotted five minutes, but was assured that it was okay and that everyone usually went long on their first night.

The group leader closed us out with a reminder that by attending the group we were making a choice to find healing in our hearts, and that we were brave for opening up when the world would have us believe that strength is in toughing things out, not sharing with others so that they could help us with our burdens.

It was a weird thing to say, I thought, because support groups were for people who were weak… that was the whole point, right? You’re not strong enough to do it on your own, ergo, you are weak.

At the end of the night, though, I was glad I went and even more glad that Mitch had thought to invite me. AlaTeen met every other week, and if Mitch didn’t have to work we would go together – until we started dating and found other uses for that time. In all I probably attended only five or six meetings, but each time I found myself more and more encouraged…

In fact, after my mother ended up in rehab several years later, I started participating in a forum for Adult Children of Alcoholics online because I needed a regular reminder that I wasn’t the only person in the world whose parent’s drinking usually escalated to emotional abuse. I needed to hear it from someone who had been there themselves, gone through what I was going through and emerged on the other side. I needed other people, normal people, people like me, not just a therapist or counselor or any ordinary friend, to discuss how they established boundaries or learned to balance taking charge and letting go.

While I generally have never shied away from sharing my opinion or thoughts about anything, it took well into my twenties to ever start talking about my feelings with anyone besides my closest friends, and even then I chose my words carefully. It took longer to start opening up about secret things that I probably shouldn’t have been carrying by myself. I wasn’t open about mental illness until at least a few years after diagnosis, rarely discussed my childhood honestly, and certainly never told anyone about my battle with addiction and self-harm tendencies until fairly recently.

It’s like crossing a rickety bridge – I needed someone to go first to show me it was safe. Once I saw others being open about their journey, I felt less afraid to start talking about mine.

After I was diagnosed with Bipolar in 2006, I switched gears and mostly focused on learning how to do mental illness well. I found online community to be extremely helpful as it gave me an idea of what to expect (or, in some cases, what not to aspire to) and freedom to share my own thoughts and feelings openly and without judgment. I learned about medication, sleep hygiene, brain healthy nutrition, and heard stories about the importance of seeing a therapist regularly (I was sort of only seeing one every six months for med check ins and blood tests). It was refreshing to hear from others who had spent a lifetime learning how to live with their illness, and if I took the posture of a learner, rather than just complain or argue as a good many people did, the wisdom from others’ experiences was far more valuable than any book on the subject.

As I got braver in sharing my story, opening up about things that were hard or guarded secrets, the more freedom I felt and the more therapeutic open conversations about hard things with others who had their own hard things became.

Not only that though, the more I shared the more I learned that my courage to be so transparent was having an unexpected effect: other people were looking to me as an example, the way I was looking up to those who had first shared their stories with me.

For me, this became a motivation to pursue wellness even more – I wanted to set a good example, especially if it meant helping another person through the muck they were working through. In fact, I started to realize that perhaps one of the best ways to heal is to encourage others in their healing.

In this way, community with others who shared my challenges became an integral part of my overall mental health care, supplementing my medication and therapy. It helped me own my story, not feel ashamed of it.

Well… Online anyway.

There’s far more safety in sharing from behind a screen name than talking to someone about your problems face to face. Online I can just delete anyone who tries to give me advice I don’t like or ignore anyone whose story I don’t really care about. I have more freedom to pick and choose my words carefully, rather than just speak from the heart. In terms of accountability, it’s easier to lie or avoid answering questions by simply refusing to hit ‘reply.’

About a year ago I realized that online community wasn’t enough to help me stay on track. I needed more structure and more accountability.

Since last April I’ve been attending a support group on Friday nights. It’s part of a larger Celebrate Recovery program designed to help individuals break free from any “hurts, habits and hang-ups” they may be battling, from substance abuse to compulsive behaviors like gambling or eating disorders, to co-dependency and anger. My group is sort of a catch-all, but I’ve noticed over time that many of the women are increasingly open about dealing with anxiety and depression.

For me it’s a place where I can find accountability in my struggle with self-harm (one year and three months without a relapse!) and support in continuing recovery and freedom from pornography addiction. (Even eight and a half years later, I still occasionally feel the pull toward it and wrestle with the residual other effects that come with it). I also find it to be a great outlet for me to openly share what’s going through my mind when I find myself in the throes of a manic high or a deep low, something that is hard to communicate in a website textbox with limited characters.

While it may not be as anonymous as an online forum and there is the risk I run into a former student or someone I’ve interacted with through work, the group is confidential and I generally feel safe in sharing and without feeling the slightest bit of judgment. I’m among a group of women who all acknowledge they’re working through things too; no one is throwing any stones.

Most importantly, these women want to get well.

They understand that they can’t do it by themselves. They choose the fellowship of others to walk with them and most, like me, believe that Jesus is the ultimate bondage breaker.

They choose humility and honesty – but the heart of the group is the pursuit of healing and restoration.

I think back to the first time I attended AlaTeen and the group leader’s exhortation that just by being there we were making a choice to not only face our trials, but working to overcome them. I went in thinking attending a support group was sign of weakness, but I’ve come to believe that the opposite is true:

It takes a good deal of courage to put yourself in such a vulnerable position, to admit that you have weaknesses and that you  need help in working through them.

It takes a great amount of strength and perseverance to push yourself toward wellness when there are a thousand different distractions pulling and screaming at you to give in, to give up, to take the easy way, the fun way – lying to you that you’re just fine the way you are and that your struggles are only human.

It takes a great amount of hope and faith that you can beat the odds stacked against you.

And it takes a good deal of initiative. No one is going to heal my heart for me. No one is going to manage the symptoms or effects of my illness for me. No one is going to force me to get better.

I can’t just be a bystander in my own mental health care. I have to work for it.

I owe it to myself.

I owe it to God. I owe it to others – friends, family, future husband, even my co-workers, to be the best person that I can be – and the best me is continually looking to better myself, continuing to pursue healing and restoration.

For me, this means accepting the fact that I desperately need other people to walk with me.

I have an awesome support network of friends and family, a therapist who cares about me, several older believers speaking into my life I can look up to, and a room full of women cheering me on each week… I couldn’t do it without them.

It doesn’t stop there, though.

A couple of months ago I had lunch with a friend where we kicked around the idea of reaching out to our community with some sort of program or event that would make a difference in the lives of others. By the end of the day, I had hammered out a proposal to launch a confidential and anonymous support and recovery group out of my church. I’ve enjoyed the process of preparing a handbook and creating promotional posters and handouts, and inviting women of any background to come and realize that they aren’t alone in whatever happens to be holding them back from life and life abundant.

This time, I’m going first.

Again, I’ve found that serving other as they heal has been more than healing for me… It requires me to be more intentional in my own recovery as I’m to set an example. It’s being a part of something bigger than myself, and growing in empathy and humility and trust. It’s weekly resetting my mind to ask God for serenity to accept the things I can’t change, courage to change those I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

We had our first meeting this week.

I’ve gone from awkward teenager sitting in a tottering folding chair sharing her story for the first time to an awkward thirty something sitting in a slightly more stable chair introducing herself as the group leader.

I wouldn’t trade that journey for anything.

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