By Sherry Amatenstein, LCSW
Sometimes the best medicine isn’t something that can be found on a prescription pad or on a shrink’s couch. Not that you should forego traditional treatment for what ails you, but often a vital source of comfort can be found via the support of others who feel your exact pain.
For instance Ann Ammann, 63, mother of three and grandmother of seven, has suffered since childhood from alopecia areta, an autoimmune skin disorder that affects 2 % of the US population. This disorder stops the growth of hair, brows and eyelashes. Says Ann, “No matter what age you are when you lose your hair, even though you haven’t done anything wrong, it feels shameful.”
For decades Ann tried to find others who shared her condition. Three years ago she stumbled upon www.baldgirlsdolunch.org, an on- and off-line support network for women with alopecia areta. Finding community has changed Ann’s life. “I don’t feel as stigmatized,” she confesses, adding, “At a baldgirls’ lunch I took off my wig!”
Support groups work because they allow members to find connection and acceptance, as well as exchange practical information. But it’s not one-size fits all. So how do you find the right support group to suit your needs?
Online Peer Support Groups No matter where you live, there’s always someone to talk to and PJs are appropriate garb for ‘meetings.’ These groups feature message boards, member blogs and opportunities for real time chat. If you’re the type who feels uncomfortable opening up around strangers, this can be a terrific option. Ditto if you are homebound, geographically isolated, and/or have little free time.
Potential disadvantages include how easy it can be to misinterpret someone’s meaning given the lack of visual or aural cues, and the chance (hopefully slim) of being harassed by a troubled member who can hide behind anonymous posts. There is also the real possibility of false information being disseminated. (What, me fact check?) So take what you read on the boards with the proverbial grain of salt.
Offline aka In Person Support Groups These can be peer groups (as in the AA model) or run by a professional facilitator such as a social worker. The latter group is typically more educational and structured. Sometimes meetings run for a limited timeframe (i.e.: a group for the newly divorced); others are open-ended.
A support group shares similarities with group therapy but there are differences. The purpose of the former is to find commonality and to be well, supportive and enthusiastic toward fellow members. Group therapy involves a trained leader helping members come to understand the underlying reasons behind the problem bringing them into the group and to help each person evolve on a psychological level.
There is no “right” way to go when seeking a support network. Rather you should check out different groups until you find what feels comfortable to you.
Resources to Help You Start Being Helped
It took Ann Ammann years to find www.baldgirlsdolunch.org. Here are some suggestions so that your search for the perfect support group doesn’t become an ordeal for which you need support.
* Do an online search for organizations and support groups specific to your illness.
*Use social media to ask cyber-friends for suggestions.
*Those seeking a support group for cancer survivors can call The American Cancer society at 1-800-ACS-2345, which has a vast list of resources.
*Here is a link with great resources to finding local support groups: http://www.supportworks.org/shgfind.htm
In this age of vast options for connection, no one should have to go it alone!
Sherry Amatenstein, LCSW is a NYC-based therapist, speaker and author of 3 books, including "The Complete Marriage Counselor: Relationship-Saving Advice from America’s Top 50-Plus Couples Therapists” (Adams, 2010). Her website is www.marriedfaq.com.