Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Grow Program and Me

In my last entry I looked at Grow, a peer support program for mental health and life skills that I’m part of. This week I’m giving a personal perspective of my involvement with Grow.

My history with Grow is instructive for anyone navigating self-help in the mental health area for the first time. I went to my first meeting way back in around 1990, and scurried away because it didn’t seem ‘suitable’ – in fact, the people seemed ‘sicker’ than me. I was sharing a house with someone whose partner was a psychologist; she told him I’d been to Grow, and he confirmed my impression, relaying through her that Grow was for the really ‘sick’ people, and definitely not right for me. (At the time I’d never been diagnosed, so who knew how ‘sick’ or otherwise I was?)

So I left it at that until 17 years later, in a particularly difficult period of my forties. I had moved out of the inner city and left my previous 12-step program, and my freelance work was drying up. I was unmoored and uncertain, and lacking in any real hope for the future.

In the middle of this Dante-esque period, in around 2007, I went to a Grow meeting in St Kilda, and came away with the same impression: I just wasn’t ‘sick’ enough for Grow. In fact, I thought, I didn’t fit in anywhere; no-one understood how hard it was for me to sit through a meeting, but I considered the problems of most of those at the St Kilda Grow group, some of whom seemed to be on very strong medication, to be remote from mine. (I was wrong in retrospect: it was my fear of medication that was the barrier, not whether I had anything in common with the other members.)

Finally, late last year, I hit rock bottom. This was when my OCD got so bad that I felt I had no choice but to go back on antidepressants. I thought I’d try Grow again, and that the meetings might be manageable, given I was on drugs. Grow was my last resort.

I remember being led into a cramped room with yellowish light, where a group of about 10 people sat in a close circle. There was one vacant chair in the circle, and everyone pointed me to it. In my desperate state, the chair seemed symbolic – there was a place for me here.

The cohort was completely different from the St Kilda one; the majority were reasonably prosperous retired people aged sixty and over. There were a few younger people, mainly dealing with life after addiction or learning difficulties. The problems people aired seemed work-a-day, those I was familiar with from other groups I’d attended. Predictably I constructed myself as the sickest puppy in the meeting, but I also felt I a sense of acceptance and lack of judgement that, while it couldn’t douse my fear, did subdue it a bit.

Grow was medicine for me when I first arrived, but for a while I was in danger of sliding away from it because I didn’t take my need for medication seriously enough. When things got bad again, Grow was a bridge to some version of normality. When I was ready to take my medication regularly, I got support from the meeting to get back on my bike. Not that I really believed that I could feel better; but I pretended that I believed, and kept going to meetings, and now I do feel better. I’m still up and down, but the acute suffering is gone.

Group dynamics at Grow meetings
One aspect of Grow meetings does pose a problem for me. For about two years a decade or so ago, I attended an intensive, twice-a-week therapy group led by a psychiatrist; as well as providing objective feedback to the problems aired by participants, the main point of the group was to voice and explore the emotional responses that other people evoked, both positive and negative.

The dynamics of the Grow meetings have brought out all my personality traits and then some, but there’s no real avenue in Grow for processing the feelings that come up towards others, and as a response to interacting with the group. Occasionally people whom I’m very fond of will nevertheless irritate the hell out of me – but there is no real forum to explore where those feelings come from and what they might reveal. On the other hand, this gives me the opportunity to simply practise patience. Seeing a therapist one-on-one would help with this.

What I do love about Grow is that it gets me out of my own head. During the sharing part of the meeting I can listen to other people’s problems and along with other members offer objective advice. It’s such a relief to get the attention away from myself for a change, and to realise that I can bring an objectivity that is often completely lacking when I try to deal with my own issues; and the other members do the same for me.

I would recommend Grow for anyone. It really does provide a strong level of support once the initial settling-in period is overcome. I feel more optimistic about the future now, but not in a fake way; I know I will always have difficulties, and I still get very resentful about the circumstances of my life.

And I still find meetings very difficult; I’m convinced that soon, perhaps next time, they’ll get too hard and I’ll never come back. Yet as long as I follow my gut, I’m mostly okay. It’s hard but it does seem as if there is a group bond that helps me, even if it can’t save me completely. One of the older members, who is a plain speaker and who knows how difficult I find it, once said to me something like ‘keep coming to Grow because we love you’. Oh well, if you put it like that ...

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