Family and Friends: Building a Support Network

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By Anita Manley

‘No man is an island‘ – John Donne

It is very important to surround ourselves with family and friends (including our chosen families) during times of joy and distress. Studies have shown that if we have these relationships, it is a strong protective factor against mental illnesses and helps to increase our mental well-being.

There is no need to go out and try to find as many friends as possible: instead, try to identify, then nuture a few key relationships. It is all about building and maintaining a network of people that you can trust and fall back on, in times of difficulty.

Mary Ellen Copeland, the creator of WRAP (Wellness Recovery Action Plan), says we should aim to have five key supporters in our network. It is really important to avoid relying on just one other person. You may overdo this, and thus exhaust that person. Also, what would happen if that person were not there for you, when needed? Different people bring out different aspects of our personalities, and fulfill different roles in our lives.

Mary Ellen’s Five Steps to Developing a Strong Support System:

  1. Become an active member of a support group.
  2. Participate in community activities, special interest groups and/or church groups.
  3. Volunteer!
  4. Keep in touch with friends and acquaintances.
  5. Make mutual support a high priority!

    Back in 2012, when I first took WRAP, I had one person in my support network (not counting professionals who were paid to care for me). It was my daughter, Julia. I was really struggling, but I took WRAP very seriously, as I wanted so much to improve my situation and live a life of recovery. So I focused on building a support network using the five steps above.

I am so grateful to have developed some key friendships over the past several years. I have my knitting friends, my choir friends, my ‘work’ (volunteer) friends, my neighbours and family, to name a few. I also put a lot of work into maintaining these friendships by sending emails, giving them a call, going on socially-distanced walks, etc. Isn’t it hard work during COVID, though? I wish that I could give my daughter a hug, and have family and friends over for dinner or drinks. It has been a real struggle to feel close to people, while apart. I have developed techniques, though. During shutdowns or lockdowns, I walk at the same time as friends– but not together: rather, we chat over the phone and walk in our own neighbourhoods. Together but apart!

I know that during this time of the plague, it is super difficult on everyone. Some are trying to juggle working, teaching the kids, maintaining a home and relationships: all after a full day of ZOOM calls. It is stressful… and leaves us with little energy to connect with others.

Try to make mutual support a priority, and reach out to family and friends. We are in this together!

I try to get out everyday for a walk with a friend, or my husband or by myself while connecting with a friend over the phone.

Saying “Yes” more often!

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By Anita Manley

Just as important as having the ability to say “no”, is the ability to say “yes” more often– to things that feel good and right. These two responses in life are like the ancient chinese philosophy of yin and yang. These seemingly opposite or contrary forces may actually be complementary, interconnected and interdependent.

Several years ago, I attended a weekly women’s group at The Royal. One of the group leaders, a social worker, encouraged us to say “yes” more often. This turned out to be a very transformative moment in my recovery process.

Like many people in early recovery, I stuck to a rigid routine. This routine, which included going to bed by 9 pm, gave me great comfort. However, it is often a good idea to step outside of your comfort zone, to try new things that might scare you.

In said group, this social worker recounted a story of how she had recently moved to Ottawa and didn’t have many friends. By surprise, one weekend, she had been invited to four different BBQs. Rather than just accepting one or two invitations, she decided to say “yes” to all four, so that she could meet more people and potentially develop more friendships. This was an ‘aha!’ moment for me. I’d felt really stuck in a comfortable rut at the time and did not have many friends in my support network. So, I decided to take her up on this suggestion.

Later that week, an acquaintance asked me, when catching a bus home at 8:15 pm, if I wanted to go to a local pub that featured live blues music on Thursday nights (pre-pandemic). Normally, I would have said: “no, I’m heading home to bed”. But, inspired by the story from my women’s group, I thought to myself: I can sleep in on Friday if I need to. I can have some fun and perhaps meet new people. I replied with a guarded “yes”!

I’m so glad I did! I got to know this woman better and met all of her friends, who were regular Thursday night blues fans. We enjoyed a couple of drinks and shared a few laughs, while dancing and listening to some great local musicians. When it was time for me to leave, everyone at our table said “see you next week” and I thought to myself, I guess I’m becoming a ‘regular’ now, too!

From then on, I went most Thursday nights to the local pub. Then, in the winter, the same pub held an All Blues Weekend. My new friend, Julie and I bought tickets for the Friday night. One of the groups (The Jesse Greene Band) were friends of Julie’s. Later on in the evening, Julie introduced me to Jesse’s dad, Ron. In July of 2018, I married that man! All thanks to saying “yes” more often and expanding my network of friends.

Try it! Step outside of your comfort zone and say “yes” to something that scares you, but feels right. Something wonderful and life changing may happen as a result.

Say ‘yes’ to something that scares you! Step outside of your comfort zone– you may create lasting memories.