I talked a little yesterday about relationships and what they can mean to a person with a mental illness, and I felt like I left something very significant out. It seems to me that when we live somewhere or work somewhere, or are part of something larger than ourselves and our roommates or family, we are talking about a community. A community can really be any group of people, but for the purposes of what I want to discuss I think it is best to think of a community as a group of significant relationships. There is our neighborhood, my own favorite community. I live in a section of town where a lot of Italian people settled some time ago and continue to live among those who speak their language, worship at the same churches and share the same culture. There are many other sub-communities in this area, there are the homeless people which I often try to think of as the ones who are the most special because, as many people may know, Jesus once said that “Whatever you do for the least of my brothers you do for me.” This is kind of amazing in my mind because we actually have this incredible opportunity to do something for the King of the Universe and gain points in heaven just for helping people who appreciate such small things. More on that later.
The next level of community includes both the homeless people and the Italian people, it is simply the people who live in this area. I am a long way from getting to know all of them, but over the course of the past 15 years of me living in this area I have made many friends. One thing that I really like is that when I publish a new book there are people who will always get a copy from me. I have to admit to a bit of laziness as to the marketing side of publishing a book, and it means a lot that at least my first few sales are guaranteed when I put out a new book. Then of course, there is a much smaller segment of the area I live in of people who are my friends, and I like to lump this together with the people who also live in the housing project I live in. I currently live in a group home of around 20 adults that share common meals, common chores, some entertainment and who are mostly friends. This community is something that perhaps means the most to me because among these adult males who all have a psychiatric issue, there is very little judging, very little stigma and a strong desire to help each other through life’s difficult times. Even when I first moved here a long time back I was able to borrow money and trust the people here to borrow from me and there were people to play cards and sports and billiards with. It changed so much because first off I had made my relationship with my family very strained by years of being in and out of hospitals and isolating myself. Being around these other ‘psychiatric survivors’ was a life-changing, perhaps even life-changing experience. There is also the slightly larger community there that includes the people who work here at the group home, who are all trained to deal with psychiatric patients and are subject to rules and regulations by the government. Knowing I am not alone is huge. I would love to talk about my immediate family, how much it means that I have a cousin here and three in Toronto who are incredible people and inspire me greatly, my brother and sister who I love doing things with and of course my dad who is a tower of strength even now in his declining years, but that may take more space than I have here and I think just about everyone out there understands the importance of family to some degree.
What I wanted to talk about was a situation where I wanted to become a part of a different type of community and succeeded. I wanted to become a part of a community of people who stay fit, who have regular jobs, who don’t focus everything on a mental illness whether they have one or not. I found this community at the swimming pool I went to for many years. It was hard at first. Of course I knew how to use the facility, I could swim and sit in the hot tub, lift weights and so on, but there were a lot of people who came to the pool on a regular basis and I wanted to get new friends in my life. I forced myself to go to the same pool at the same time every morning for quite some time, and for the first while I would just sit around and take up space. After a while though, I was able to strike up conversations with people and I used something called ‘open ended questions’. I haven’t mastered this ability, but basically what asking open ended questions means is to ask a person a question phrased so that you don’t get a simple one-word answer. “Where do you like to go for vacation?” for example, rather than “Do you like to travel?” I am not very well versed in this method as it has been some time since I took the class that taught me about them, but I have been able to develop the ability to carry on conversations with people and when you can do this in the same place with the same people, over time you will make friends and with friends in your life just about anything is possible. I can recall making friends with a supervisor while I was working as a security guard and being offered a job that doubled my pay with better working conditions. Another time a friend I made at the swimming pool turned out to be the owner of a coin shop, coin collecting being one of my favorite hobbies, and I got some great deals from him and lots of usable advice.
Basically what it comes down to I think is of course, you must accept your illness, diagnosis and must be in a situation of proper treatment for this illness. At this point you are at a crossroads, and I can understand why so many people go off their medications and get sick again because life can really begin to suck if you are alone and taking pills that have a lot of side effects and don’t seem to help. But if you can establish yourself, settle down into a good place to live and build a life for yourself, there are ways to overcome the difficulties that come with a mental health diagnosis. Settling into one place has so many advantages. I don’t see now how I could ever move, I have so many good friends where I live and love the house I am in. As a small, simple example, when you get a fixed address you can get a library card. That means you have access to all kinds of books, magazines, courses, and so on. You also have a place to go where you can attend talks given by guest speakers (in a larger city I should say) and maybe you will also start to meet people. Maybe you just start to be friends with someone you ride the bus with to get to the library each Tuesday. They say that a person with one friend is a wealthy person, and I believe it. But of course, there is much more benefit to be realized from staying in one place. Most neighborhoods, even in small towns have community leagues, Scout meetings, Toastmasters groups, photography classes. Some of these may be difficult if you don’t have much money and can’t work or take on too much stress, but even a volunteer job for 2 hours a week can help plug you into something special.
Anyhow, I hope you have enjoyed this blog. I want to thank everyone that has been adding themselves to follow me and invite all of you to comment or email me. At the moment, I am hard at work on a short story collection but am hoping to fuel the creative fires again soon and start writing more poetry. Take care friends, and keep in touch! firstname.lastname@example.org