Why Group Therapy Is the Best Christmas Gift I've Been Given


Everywhere I look, folks are blogging and chatting about holiday tips, recipes and gift guides. They write and talk about Christmas as though it’s a guaranteed event — as though everyone is unquestionably able to physically participate in this year’s holiday functions. Two Christmases ago, I spent the entire day lying in bed, alone, while my family gathered two hours away without me. I called my parents saying I had a migraine when, in reality, I was plummeting deeper into major depression. I now realize holiday celebrations are not always guaranteed in this unpredictable world of mental disorders. However, it can be more of a joyful reality once you find a comfortable point of entry into mental illness and/or addiction treatment. Group therapy was that jump-starting tool for me.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Although group therapy has been a major contributor in my fight for wellness, it was not my first go-to treatment, nor has it been my last. The gift it would ultimately become in my life was not at all evident during those first few weeks. In the beginning, I went through the motions in a barely-functioning haze. After all, I had just spent the better part of six months bedridden. My career as a pastor on the line, I traveled two hours away to stay with my parents in the St. Louis area after they executed what could only be described as a SWAT team rescue attempt.

The outpatient facility was in an unmarked location about 40 minutes away from my parents’ home. At first, the daily drive and five-hour sessions were utter torture. The insides of my insides were tired. I had been spending 18 hours or more a day in bed for months. Now, I was expected to put on pants five days a week. Every fiber of my being hurt. My muscles were weak and were easily pulled out of place. I couldn’t turn my neck. I walked with a limp. My intestines cramped from a severe lack of fluids and nutrition. My hands shook as I struggled to concentrate long enough to take session notes. Nausea was constant from my ongoing trial-and-error attempts with medication. My teeth were loose from embarrassingly poor oral hygiene. And body hair? Well, let’s just say I mostly wore pants.

And so here I was, surrounded by strangers of all demographics. Strangers who were like me, but not quite. Strangers who could compare and contrast medication strategies, along with sharing the perils of restless legs and other icky side-effects. These strangers would rotate in and out over the next few months. On the whole, I’d end up meeting and sharing with close to 60 adults with various addictions, diagnoses and brain diseases.

These comrades were parents, children, grandparents, students, engineers, farmers and lawyers. They were me. They were you. They were scared. They were often financially and emotionally broke. They were made to feel worthless by the negative voices in their heads and by the negative voices in their circle of influences.

In the midst of these circles of tortured souls, I was deeply moved by the intimacy and compassion everyone instinctively exuded. There was an unspoken understanding of humility, empathy and authenticity amongst the group. We knew we were on sacred ground without sitting in pews or meeting within the confines of a religious space. It was amongst these kindred spirits I began to feel more human than I had in a very long time. I was safe. I wasn’t “crazy.” I was doing the responsible thing any person would do by getting treatment.

I would like to thank these brave warriors, because that’s what those of us living with addiction and/or mental illness are. We may not receive casseroles for our fight, or have loved ones wear fancy ribbons. Greeting card companies do not quite know what to do with us yet, and we are still too-easily blamed for our disorders. However, we choose to get up each day and swim against an invisible current imprinted into our very physical being. We live and work and put on pants even when society and our subconscious tells us not to.

As the holidays are fast approaching, I encourage you to think about what you truly desire this season. Peace? Hope? Love? Joy? I’m here to tell you, group therapy can ultimately provide all of these things. Sometimes this commitment requires time off from work. I realize this isn’t always financially possible. Some groups have more convenient evening hours. Many offer scholarships and financial assistance.

I’m nowhere near perfect yet in my relationship with major depressive disorder (MDD). However, I’m improving. I’m able to live better now than I did a year ago when I was sitting in that therapy circle. On my worst days, when all I can do is take my dog outside for a quick bathroom break, I remember those beautiful, intelligent, fierce faces from my groups in St. Louis. I remember I’m not alone.

Beginning on the group therapy track was the best gift my family and I could ever give myself. It jump-started a new life for me. More importantly, it gave me hope… and in these matters, hope is everything.

So, go ahead. Treat yourself this holiday season. You deserve it.

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