We often talk about support networks when someone has a problem. If the person, for example, has a drinking problem, that would include perhaps medical professionals and charity support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous. If your partner is the one suffering, there are groups such as Al Anon. Mental health is also covered by a raft of charities which offer everything from sewing classes to cognitive behavioural therapy, along with the host of doctors, psychiatrists and psychiatric nurses in some way on board. But a key part of any such network is the normal people in your life. Family. Friends. Colleagues. Employers, if you’re lucky.
It is that home network which is perhaps most important when it is a loved one who is in the crushing grip of a mental illness. While I have seen my GP twice and she has offered suggestions and support to a varying degree, I cannot make an appointment to simply moan and groan. And if I did not have a history of depression myself I am not sure if that would be an option for me. Doctors are there for your health. They are not there just to be a sounding board or indeed to pick up some of the slack when you are struggling.
I am lucky. My family lives less than an hour away. I like them. They like me. I have many friends who live close by. I have a sympathetic employer. For the most part they cannot do all that much. They cannot breastfeed my baby to sleep or do the school run once in a while. They cannot pop in and do all my washing and make my dinner. And yet they can support me. For example, when I go to stay at my parents, my daughter sleeps terribly. I don’t get to finish any meals while everyone else is eating. I still rise when the girls do. But I don’t have to worry about cooking or clearing up. My father will happily entertain my elder girl. They will both talk and listen to my husband. There is a sense, an atmosphere, of loving support. They have my back. I am not alone.
Last week a friend invited me to stay for a couple of nights. Someone who, due to the weird virtual lives we lead, I know pretty well but had only physically met once. It was a daunting drive alone in an unfamiliar city with two potential troublemakers in the back. But once I arrived in what some would describe as a stranger’s house, that same atmosphere of safety was there. Despite her baby trying her hardest to eat mine. Despite my four year old being so in love with her new six-year-old friend that her behaviour went a few degrees south of what I would usually expect. Despite being surprised in the shower twice by my daughter’s curious new friend. And even though her best efforts to allow me a little extra sleep were met with the unexpected and sudden arrival of separation anxiety, it was so much easier than being at home. Because I felt supported. I wanted to have a couple of glasses of prosecco and a chinwag even though I was no less tired than any other day. I’ll probably never be able to return the favour but I won’t quickly forget either.
Then there’s the friend who turned up a day early for a meeting with others expressly to help in any way she could. I couldn’t quite offload the children, who had never met her, on her so I could retire to my bed but I knew the offer was a genuine one.
The little things do count. So do the big ones. A network of support may not be what you think it is and may come from unexpected sources. And it can be hard to draw on it – to cash in on offers. To ask in the first place. But it can be the difference between coping and not coping. I am coping.