NAMI Family-To-Family: Happy 20th Anniversary

My son Ben is two weeks into a job. An actual job, with paychecks and everything. And by “everything”, I mean a reduction in benefits which almost wipes out the money he’s earning…but that’s another story. The main thing is that Ben is earning this money, and that feels completely different to him. The change in his self-esteem is astonishing. He has something to say when people ask him, “So what do you do?”
As the publication date of Ben Behind His Voices approaches,  I find myself thrilled that its launch will coincide with the 20th Anniversary of NAMI’s Family-to-Family Program, because that is the course that saved my family by teaching me what I needed to know to cope with my son’s mental illness. NAMI helped me, and then I had the tools and the support to help my family – including, eventually, my son.
In January of 2002, I walked into my first F2F meeting – and I walked out completely changed. Although NAMI support groups had thrown me my first lifeline out of the hellish confusion of my son’s symptoms, I needed more. F2F was different from the support meetings in that it was a structured, once-a-week, course that was more educational in nature. In twelve weeks, I could learn about mental illness and its effect on the entire family, including the person who suffered from the illness.  This was taught by other family members who were trained by NAMI to implement the course. And – it was free.  All that was required was the commitment to attend all twelve classes, one evening a week, for 2 ½ hours each class.
What did I get?
Clarity.

Clarity can bring many other things along with it: Understanding. Mourning. Hope. Anger. Grief. Bonding.
This, I think, was a clearing of my future path to acceptance and action.  It was a start, and a glimpse.  Without this knowledge, I might very well still be fumbling blindfolded through the woods. Sometimes I still am – but since F2F, I always have an idea how to find the path once again.

The brilliant curriculum of F2F was designed by Joyce Burland, Ph.D a clinical psychologist whose experiences of coping with schizophrenia in her own family over two generations have deeply influenced her understanding of family trauma in mental illness.
This was a program written by someone who had been there, who had stumbled through her own journey as the mother of someone with a mental illness. Dr. Burland’s idea to educate the families in similar situations had initially been met with disbelief. Countless professionals said: “What do families need all that information for?” But she knew better, and persevered.  And now, the program has grown and keeps growing. 
Without revealing too much about the materials, which really must be experienced in the group setting that helps make it so affecting and valuable, I will tell you that there were many flashes of insight and realization that began to reshape my perspective. This process was not always easy.  In fact, it was never easy.  Most of that clarity came at a cost. Understanding teamed up with guilt.  Information came along with fear.  Changing my vision of the future brought anger and grief.
A lot of it was hard – very hard. But at least it was real. And I discovered that I was not the only one dealing with these issues, having these feelings.

Family-to-Family’s greatest gift was this: I stopped hating my son.  I learned new ways to cope, new ways to communicate with Ben. The course took us from painful realization to empathy for our relative’s experience and the hope that our families could someday absorb these new truths and progress to acceptance and advocacy.  But the only way to the final stages of emotional response was through the pain.  No shortcuts to the stage of acceptance.
There was so much I had learned. And still so much I didn’t know.
But now, armed with all this new and overwhelming information, I felt I could at least talk to the professionals on a respectable level. It empowered me. The class members  empowered each other.
In the past, I had been trying not to react.  Now, at least, I had some tools as to how to react, and some empathy for what life might be like for Ben.
I was going to need it all.  Many crises lay ahead in the next few years. Without NAMI, I don’t know how we would have survived it. Even with NAMI, I don’t know how we did it.
Happy birthday, Family-to-Family.


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