Finding Community in a World of Separation
I just got back from the most fabulous trip! Picture this: two whole MONTHS in sunny Florida, staying at a picturesque hotel, basking in the poolside shade of swaying palms and majestic banyan trees. Meditation. Yoga. Three delicious meals a day, all-inclusive. Everything you need in easy walking distance. Nothing but good stuff on the TV (in a single week, I caught pieces of - no joke – Titanic [twice], a Twilight marathon [twice], a Harry Potter marathon, AND a Star Wars mega marathon!) No work, no cell phones, no laptops, no distractions, no obligations... Nothing to do but chill out, read, color, play board games, and exchange hilarious and heartfelt stories with some of the most fascinating people I've ever met, many of whom are now my friends. The best part: I didn't pay a dime!
Sound like a dream vacation?
Well, not quite. I spent the last two months in treatment for mental health and substance abuse... and it was the best two months of my year. And if there weren't such a stigma around it, I would recommend it to anyone. Because at the end of the day, we've all got our addictions, we've all got our unhealthy beliefs and patterns and coping strategies, and we're all in some form of recovery from the ups and downs of modern life.
But for me, the true value of this experience goes far beyond a much-needed respite from the real world. Am I proud to say I've been inpatient more than once (or twice)? No... but I am so grateful for those experiences, because every one has provided a perfect opportunity to be plunged into what I value – and crave – most: community.
Over the past two years, we've all gotten a taste of isolation, and most of us are ready to turn the damned page already! But imagine if that journey lasted TEN YEARS. Yup - that's me! I won't give you the whole sob story here; suffice it to say that as an unmarried, childless woman in her forties who left the big city, works from home, doesn't belong to a church, and shuns the bar scene, I find that opportunities to build lasting connections are few and far between. Once a social butterfly, I could now count my real friends on one hand. Quite honestly, I'd started to assume there must be something fundamentally wrong with me.
But in September, something magical happened. After a single week in treatment, surrounded by people who understood my journey and weren't afraid to be real and deeply vulnerable with each other, all digital distractions removed, I exploded out of my ten-year shell. I was connecting with EVERYONE. I'd be up at dawn, psyched to get out and start my day - and sometimes I wouldn't come back to my room until after midnight! I swapped stories. I talked shit. I laughed until it hurt. More importantly, I made other people laugh until it hurt! In fact, I was talking so exuberantly and extensively that I actually started to lose my voice! I was on FIRE. It was seriously the best I'd felt in years.
And gradually, the real magic seeped in. I began to notice that the more energy I got from the community, the more energy I gave back to the community – and the community started to shift. I could sense somehow that I was weaving some essential aspect of myself into the collective through the power of my self-expression, and everyone was benefitting from my contribution.
At first, I dismissed this as grandiose nonsense… until this mirrored back to me in concrete ways. First, from the other clients. "Robin, you are so AWESOME!" "I could listen to you talk all day!" "I love your energy!" I even had a guy come up to me, after confessing his bisexuality to our process group (his first time ever admitting it), and tell me that it was specifically BECAUSE OF ME that he was finally able to share this. Then I started hearing it from the staff. One therapist even called me out in front of the entire mental health group for my “invaluable leadership” and positive contribution to the community!
I was flabbergasted - and moved to tears. I told the group that all this somehow felt related to my purpose here. "And I don't mean, 'here' in treatment. I mean like, on this planet," I sobbed. "I don't even know what that means!" It was clear I have a unique gift – one that I want to share with the world.
Then, in stark contrast, I was moved on to PHP (a “partial hospitalization program.”) The full roster was less than twenty people, split up into small houses; I shared mine with just seven other women. The focus was solely on substance abuse – and among recovering addicts with no mental health experience, my deep shares and vulnerability were now met with awkward puzzlement. Worst of all, we got our cell phones back, touted as a boon of this program. The net result: after our daily groups, the men and women would go back to our separate homes, and the other girls would retreat into their rooms to watch TV and play on their phones. With no one to talk to, and increasingly feeling like I had nothing of value to share, I spent my afternoons and evenings re-binging hours of Breaking Bad. And I downward spiraled – fast.
What had happened to that bright, brilliant, animated woman who had everyone in stitches, or sharing their deepest secrets? My community was gone – and in its absence, I found that I was a completely different person… the person I’ve feared myself to be for the last ten years.
So here we are; I have been home for one week. While I learned much in treatment, in the relative vacuum of my daily life, I am now struggling to apply it. We are social creatures by design, and belonging is an essential human need, fostering a sense of identity and security. Clearly, I NEED community to be myself, to thrive. But in a world of separation, where do I find it?
Along these lines, I was encouraged to brainstorm ten ways to create the experience of community in my life. Here’s what I came up with:
IDEAS FOR CULTIVATING THE COMMUNITY EXPERIENCE
Join a local choir or singing group
Start a weekly Meetup focusing on topical discussion
Join or start a game night
Attend as many (omitted) Meetups as possible (a spiritual group near my house)
Join a weekly mental health support group
Regularly attend Sunday service at Unity center for spiritual awakening
Identify and regularly attend a local AA/NA meeting
Join or start a creative Meetup (writing or art)
Take a class
Plenty of options, right? But as I’ve dug deeper into these ideas, I am becoming more and more discouraged. A local singing group, on hold during Covid. A local game night, on hold during Covid. Continuing education courses are now only offered online during Covid. Sunday service at Unity is now sparsely attended, thanks to Covid. As for hosting my own Meetup, the available meeting rooms at the local library and coffee shops are closed… due to Covid. (I’d host at home, but we only have three guest parking spots.) That basically leaves AA/NA. While the program works for many, quite frankly, I find the meetings to be tiresome and the message disempowering. (The first of the twelve steps is “admitting we were powerless over alcohol/drugs,” which I feel completely misses the point: if we can create a life we love, we would have no desire to drink/drug in the first place.) Not to mention the fact that recovery is a community based on a shared wound. I crave a community based not on demonizing and avoiding unhealthy behavior, but on cultivating joy, passion, and purpose!
Admittedly, I am feeling a sense of desperation around this. If community is essential to my well-being, but there is no immediate avenue to create or experience community, how long can I really hold on before I end up back in treatment?
For anyone who made it this far, I open it up to the collective. Where do you connect with community in your own life, and how can we foster greater connection in this period of isolation?