Finding your ‘allies’ and ‘tribes’ is not to find groups of homogeneous personalities but to find networks of diverse people who share a common interest and can offer mutual companionship and solidarity. For individuals with social anxiety disorder symptoms, such groups also likely offer opportunities to learn to manage and overcome aspects of social fear.
Common support groups are friends, family units and the medical profession. However, finding wider and multiple tribes offers a richer set of resources to call upon. A tribe which includes individuals who can closely relate to one’s experiences, including of similar mental health difficulties, offers unique potential for understanding, as one writer puts it: “Her journey wasn’t mine, but at least I knew that she was still on it, still surviving. I was surviving, too, and eager to keep becoming the only self I would ever have.”
As a child, the writer describes herself suffering severe social anxiety and depression at a time that “the online community around mental illness was not as accessible or developed as it is today, especially for young people.” Her family seemed to not understand her difficulties and, yet, she found an unlikely ally. At first, comparisons with her Aunt Layla were uncomfortable: “I couldn’t view her journey as a parallel to mine. I couldn’t look at her and see the stable person I might one day become.”
However, having been the subject of her parents’ oversharing of her mental health difficulties, she comes to recognise that Aunt Layla had suffered a similar fate: “We had both been exposed and held up to our old selves—and also, in some ways, obscured. My fear of being confronted with my aunt’s stability dwindled and I began to empathize with her more.”
A simple gesture by her aunt during a moment of “paranoia” that lead to the writer, as a young teen, secluding herself in her grandparents’ house, seems to seal the bond between aunt and niece.
Another writer, Lizzie, writes on her blog of her challenges with coming to terms with grief after the death of two friends. One of her friends committed suicide and Lizzie describes a sense of guilt: “I wasn’t able to save my friend, and that was translating into all sorts of other things that I didn’t feel able to do. I began having panic attacks, to the point where they were happening everyday at work.”
It took an intervention from a work colleague for her to seek medical support, including being prescribed medication and undertaking cognitive behavioural therapy which, though not working on her grief, helped her anxiety symptoms. Despite these treatments, she describes putting up an “emotional wall” at this time and putting unrealistic expectations upon herself to succeed at work.
Reflecting on her journey, Lizzie writes of her social anxiety symptoms and her “control freak” desires to control what people thought of her as being obstructive traits: “I often struggled to let others into my grief, as I didn’t want to be a burden.”
Her Christian faith was a source of strength and, particularly, her church, when it came to integrating and processing grief: “During the summer of 2019, I had the chance to meet regularly with some ladies in my church and we dug deep into the difficult places of our heart and our past that were preventing us from living a life of total freedom. This is where I learnt about and was set free from the feeling of inadequacy relating to not being able to save my friend.”
“Self-compassion,” the writer adds, “is one thing that I did learn throughout this tragic journey. I learnt that there were things that were so out of my control, that it wasn’t worth worrying so deeply. Instead, I needed to create space for myself and allow time for healing.”
Allies and tribes are not homogeneous groups but people whose commonalities allow unique understanding and empathy and whose differences enable them to provide support. Whether an aunt, friendship group or church group, these networks, comparable to therapy groups, can offer a wide range of knowledge, interaction, understanding, trust and sharing. Combined with necessary medical treatments, they can offer meaningful and practical support for someone suffering mental health illness or difficulty.
Ayetola Fagbemi’s account of the discovery of her connection with her Aunt Layla can be found on the Sinai Magazine site here.
Lizzie writes of “Journeying Through Grief” after the deaths of her two friends. Click here for the blog-post.
Image designed by Anna Vanes.