This article was submitted by Jeb Gaudet on behalf of SupportWorks. SupportWorks is a registered Non-Profit Organization that offers a free peer support group to people in Calgary and surrounding areas living with depression, anxiety, bipolar, and post-traumatic stress disorders. For more information, please visit www.supportworks.ca.
A good peer support group can play an integral role in living with an invisible disability. Peer support groups are a complement to (not a replacement for) professional help. In fact, an effective group will help you stick with a treatment plan or lifestyle change, and encourage you in your goals.
How are peer support groups helpful? When we consider the possible answers, we also discover ways to get the most out of belonging to a peer support group.
Being together: “Individually, we are one drop. Together, we are an ocean.” - Ryunosuke Satoro
Invisible disabilities can leave one feeling terribly alone. The experience is not easily shared or understood, and the impairments aren’t observable. A common result is a feeling of isolation, which can lead to a downward spiral of increasing withdrawal and further isolation.
Participation in a peer support group can help overcome the feeling of isolation by providing a safe environment to talk with other people who “get it”. Members of the group can relate to one another – and this understanding breeds empathy, compassion, and respect. Sharing with others also has a ripple effect, in that you learn to communicate your needs to others in your life, leading to new conversations with family, friends or co-workers about your disability or illness. A good peer support group can also provide new perspectives, offer different coping strategies, or suggest different resources.
While the isolation of chronic illness can seem insurmountable, a peer support group can provide a welcome bridge to the bigger world. If meeting a group of strangers seems too much, consider reaching out to the group facilitator and arranging to meet one-on-one in a place where you feel comfortable. Once you start going to group, stick with it a few times to see if it’s for you. Try to attend regularly – that’s the best way to get to know others and for them to get to know you.
Being present: “The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.” - Henry Miller
In showing up to a group meeting, it’s important to not just show up physically, but mentally. Really listening – attending to what others share, without judgment or assumptions, and respecting where others are at – can broaden your world and get you out of your own head. You may hear familiar experiences and feel a bond, or discover a new idea and gain insight. Attention to others also lets them know that they are being heard. Truly attending in this way is a form of mindfulness, and can help you move away from the destructive ruminations that are a hallmark of depressed thinking.
Be present in group, as much as possible. Avoid being distracted or absent in other ways. If you do need to leave in the middle of a group meeting, do so as quietly as possible, indicating to a group facilitator or co-facilitator if you need company. The respect you show for the group will be returned to you, by other group members and by yourself, as you become able to listen to yourself with the same compassionate attention with which you listen to others.
Being yourself: "To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting." -e. e. cummings
There’s a stigma associated with many invisible illnesses, and one of the most powerful is self-stigma. Many sufferers learn to hide their suffering and learn to hide themselves. A good peer support group is a place where you can show up as you are, however you are, without holding back, pretending, or feeling that you have to protect others. For many, after years of putting on a brave face, just learning how to be yourself is a challenge, and a peer support group is a safe and understanding place to do that.
Fortunately, being yourself doesn’t just mean laying bare the painful parts. Being yourself also means sharing the successes, which are all the more inspiring for their honesty. The endurance, growth, and achievements of all members are victories to be shared.
Being a helper: “You know, solving other peoples’ problems is easy. The only person I can’t seem to figure out is myself.” – Thomas James Higgins
It’s often easier to have insight into someone else’s situation rather than your own. If chronic illness is like a beast that can swallow you, then it makes sense that you can’t see clearly from inside its belly. While it’s helpful to have members of a group who can see your beast from the outside, there’s also a real advantage to discovering that you can offer the same support to someone else.
The benefits to being a helper are many – for a great consideration of these benefits, check out this blog
, all about the power of volunteering. There’s research to back this up, too: according to the aptly named “helper theory”, group members who help and are helped gain a greater sense of value and self-efficacy than those who are simply helped. Discovering that you are able to help another person is a wonderful gift for everyone involved.
Being hopeful: “The gift we can offer others is so simple a thing as hope.” – Daniel Berrigan
Like most things, you’ll get out of a peer group what you put in. One common piece of advice is to be active in the group. Give yourself time, and move at your own speed, but be prepared to be actively engaged in the group. What this engagement looks like is up to you, whether it’s regular attendance at meetings or taking on a volunteer role in the group – regardless, involvement in a peer support group offers you a chance to regain some sense of control, when so many things in your life may feel beyond your control.
Finally, a good peer support group gives hope – by providing role models of people who have “been there”, by creating an environment in which you can share each other’s courage and witness one another’s growth, and where you can give and receive compassionate, respectful support for one another.