Sometimes I need to see another face, in person, and give and receive real hugs. Three-and-a-half years ago I put an ad in the hometown newspaper about starting a support group for family members of people struggling with mental illness. I had no idea if anyone would respond. Twenty-two people showed up at my house for the first meeting. At the second meeting, we worked together to establish meeting guidelines:
1. Start meetings on time.
2. Come to support and be supported.
3. Maintain group confidentiality.
4. Listen without judgment.
5. Time-limit personal comments in order to give everyone a chance to speak.
6. Foster a positive approach. Focus on successes.
7. Share resource information.
8. Realize diverse opinions will be expressed. This is good and means we're thinking.
9. Maintain flexibility to meet the needs of the group at each meeting.
10. Add humor whenever possible and appropriate.
As group moderator, I promised I'd always be present (unless sick or out of town) no matter what. Everyone needed to know our meetings would take place without fail even if only two or three were in attendance.
We found a meeting site at the local Raley's supermarket. The store makes its conference room available to groups to use free of charge. It offers anonymity and keeps things simple. We don't provide food and people bring their own drinks. Most bring water bottles. Meetings last about an hour and a half, or until everyone's had a chance to say what they came to say.
Lately, I've wondered if we should continue. People come and go. Some come only once, some come when they're in crisis, and a few come to every meeting. Just when I think maybe the group's run its course, a new person shows up and is so grateful to find us there for them.
So, we'll keep going until we get a sign that it's time to fold our tent and call it a day. It's only an hour and a half out of the month and if it makes a difference to even one person in a month, that's still one person. It reminds me of the starfish story:
A young man is walking along the ocean and sees a beach on which thousands and thousands of starfish have washed ashore. Further along he sees an old man, walking slowly and stooping often, picking up one starfish after another and tossing each one gently into the ocean.
"Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?" he asks.
"Because the sun is up and the tide is going out and if I don't throw them further in they will die."
"But, old man, don't you realize there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it! You can't possibly save them all, you can't even save one-tenth of them. In fact, even if you work all day, your efforts won't make any difference at all."
The old man listened calmly and then bent down to pick up another starfish and threw it into the sea. "It made a difference to that one."
Adapted from The Star Thrower by Loren Eiseley.