by Sue Brightman
In our twice-monthly Spiritual Support Group for Mental Health and Wellness, we read a set of guidelines that help create a supportive, safe, and uplifting group meeting where everyone feels free to share whatever is taking place in their lives related to their (or a family member’s) mental illness.
My favorite guideline is “The wisdom that emerges in the group belongs to the group.” Meeting after meeting, I as one of the facilitators witness how group members contribute and weave together their experiences and learnings about what has been helpful – and not helpful – on their various journeys from hopelessness and difficulty to recovery and healing.
Several ideas have stuck with me from the group’s wisdom. One of them is the concept of getting support when it’s hard to reach out and when something daunting is ahead (like a job interview or court hearing). It’s called Bookends.
The practice of “Bookends” is the wonderfully simple idea to identify a friend, family member, or perhaps church associate who is supportive and understanding and ask if they will support us before and right after the daunting event we’re facing. It’s a way of not being so alone with our thoughts and fears. It’s a way of reminding ourselves that others care about us. It’s a way of allowing ourselves to be part of the human family at a time when we may feel least prone to do so.
Most of us know a friend or family member who cares enough to help in this way … and might even feel honored that we trusted them enough to ask! They don’t have to give advice if we don’t want advice, nor do they have to be counselors or therapists to simply provide support. It can just be helpful – as we’re about to leave for the interview or the court hearing – to tell someone that we feel a bit nervous and to share a little about our goals or hopes for the event. In every experience I’ve had, as well as experiences I’ve heard from others, we then get hope, relief, and energy from hearing the other person’s support in whatever way they share it. Someone recently reported how “holy” the moment felt receiving the caring words of her friend.
When we have faith in something above and beyond our own human frailties and failings, we often feel a deep knowing that a Higher Power is supplying what we need and is directing what’s best for us. Reaching out to a friend and asking that they “bookend” our experience is a way of being humble and open to support and love. Though it may seem counterintuitive, it’s a big step for some of us to ask for help – and accept it! So the act of asking for someone’s support before and after a difficult event is also trusting that God will supply what we need in the human experience through the kindness and selfless giving of another. And if the first request doesn’t quite meet our need, we can always move on to another person. Persistence is an important quality during periods of recovery and progress.
Last January I was asked to conduct a workshop at a company situated deep in the Rocky Mountains. It would require a four hour drive through winding, steep mountain roads and over a notoriously dangerous mountain pass at 10,000 feet. Though I’m an experienced driver and generally confident behind the wheel, mountain roads in winter bring on fear and tension. I agreed to teach the workshop, but as the date got closer and the snow was falling more heavily, I began to feel distressed if not in an all-out sense of panic.
I remembered the concept of asking someone to provide “bookends of support.” Admittedly, I felt a little embarrassed to tell somewhat about my fear of driving in the mountains. For a moment, I thought it might show weakness. But I saw the strength in being humble and admitting that I needed support. I called a friend who I knew would not ridicule my dilemma but would respect my feelings about it, whether she shared those fears or not. We talked for 30 minutes the day before I was to make the trip. She helped me think through what I should have in the car, what the plan should be if my worst fears were realized (sliding off the snowy road), and what parameters should help me decide if I should cancel the trip altogether. She asked if I’d call her from the road, part-way through the trip. The point is, she really responded to my request, beyond what I expected. We agreed that I would call when I arrived at my destination if I was unable to get a cellphone connection during the drive.
Much of my dread and fear disappeared. I found that reaching out for support made me feel more – not less – able. I made the trip with more confidence. I called my friend when I reached the final destination and happily told her that I’d made it. I talked to her about the stretch of road I’d most feared that ended up being no big deal. Since then, I’ve made that trip nine more times – four during the winter season – each time with more confidence.
Driving on snowy mountain roads may not be another’s most daunting scenario. It may be something completely different. The important point is that when we’re facing something difficult, we don’t have to do it alone.
In fact, we shouldn’t do it alone.
People who live with a mental illness are especially tempted to pull back from contact at times when they’re feeling the most vulnerable or depressed. And those are the times when being part of the family of man can be most helpful – because we experience the God-given provision of support and friendship right when we need it.
The “bookends of support” idea came from people in a Spiritual Support Group for Mental Health and Wellness – people who are well-versed in what helps during times of fear and times of darkness. This wisdom belongs to all of us, and is for the good of all of us.
We are all worthy of another’s help before and after whatever difficult mountain road we are traveling, literally or figuratively. May each person reading this experience the blessing and assurance of asking for help and getting it, bookend to bookend.
INMI Board Member
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the submitter. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the board of directors or members of the Interfaith Network on Mental Illness.