national recovery month: my experience through the journey of loss and support
September became an important month for me this year. Having lost three family members to mental health and substance abuse, most recently being my brother, National Recovery Month has become a month that I hold in reverence. September now spreads the positive message that mental and behavioral health is essential to overall health, that prevention works, treatment is effective, and people can, AND DO, recover.
Since 1989, Recovery Month has been promoting the societal benefits of prevention, treatment, and recovery for mental and substance use disorders. It celebrates people in recovery, lauds the contributions of treatment and service providers, and promotes the message that recovery, in all its forms, is possible.
Such a message threads through all aspects of society and arguably touches every life who is reading this. The 2021 National Recovery Month theme, “Recovery is For Everyone: Every Person, Every Family, Every Community,” reminds people in recovery, and those who support them, that no one is alone in recovery journey We are all either witnesses, helpers or survivors of mental health or substance use disorders.
My personal experiences may not have always ended ideally, but I have seen first hand the beauty of support and hope given to those who have struggled. My brother’s journey started 15 years ago. Through those years, we could have lost him at any time. But the community rallied around him and supported him in different ways at different times. Because of this, our family was able to have one last Sunday dinner, the only in many years, with a 20-month sober Nate the weekend before he passed away.
Here are a few things I’ve learned over the years in dealing with substance abuse and mental illness recovery:
There are an incredible number of ways you can give support to someone who is suffering. The greatest, however, is letting them know that they matter and that you care. Because of the stigma attached to mental illness and substance abuse, those who are suffering with these conditions have further pain thrust upon them being viewed as outcasts making deliberate choices that they can control. The reality is, substance abuse is a coping mechanism for mental illness. Love and support from those around you is critical when it comes to finding success in battling, and overcoming, this disease. Mental disorders are often misunderstood which causes those who experience them to be thought of as 'abnormal' or 'strange' because a majority of society feels uncomfortable around those struggling and even having conversations about the topic. Make it a point to be curious and compassionate rather than judgmental. Our reaction to those struggling can be the difference between perpetuating the problem or making a difference.
Those who are trapped in the perpetual up and down cycle that is mental illness are often in complex mental and emotional pain. Try as hard as you want or love as much as you can, but you are no replacement for a professional therapist or healthcare team in helping those affected to learn to heal. A professional has the tools required to help an individual create new, more positive habits when it comes to dealing with their emotions and pain. Truth be told, for most, it’s almost necessary to find professional help yourself, in order to be able to show up within that supporting role and learn how to properly support, without enabling, your loved one. In seeing a therapist yourself, you’ll also get the opportunity to work with someone who can help you through your own emotional journey during this time.
This is the hardest part to explain. We all have our ways of processing and reacting to stressful life events. And when you’re supporting someone who is suffering, there is an entirely new level of stress added to all facets of your life. I know that for my mom, it was hard to do anything but ruminate on my brother. When she would try to set moments aside for her own self care, she felt guilt and feelings of not doing enough for my brother. It took years for her to realize the importance of maintaining the other relationships in her life and that taking time for herself was critical in order to continue to best support my brother.
For those who are in the “supporter” role, as hard as it can be, allow yourself to recognize that you are still your own person. Your life is multifaceted and all of your other relationships within it and components of it, need and deserve your attention. I used fitness as a way to cope with the pain that I absorbed from helping others. Let your healthy coping strategy be your release so that you can show up happier and healthier for yourself and able to hold more space for others.
I hope that we can all take a moment this National Recovery Month and reflect on those that we know are hurting and in need of support. Together, we can raise the bar and elevate entire communities with our willingness to break stigmas and work with each other. We all know someone who is in pain right now, and I challenge you to reach out and check in. You’ll be amazed at how people respond to being treated and cared for like a human being.
It might even be the pivot point in their story.