My friend and I stand in the doorway and survey the room.

A dozen or so chairs are laid out in a wide circle and I can’t tell if the setup is inviting or scary or both. My nerves are like jumping beans in my stomach. My friend nudges my left arm.

“You okay?”

I scan the room skeptically.

“Unclear.”

I watch the arriving participants as they straggle in, some in pairs, more often alone. They all look like regular, decent people. Some seem shifty and uncertain – I suppose just as I must appear to them – but no one screams “crazy” to me. There is no neon sign above anyone’s head that reads:

ABOUT TO CRACK!

or

WILL COME UNDONE!

or

GOING OFF THE DEEP END!

No, everyone looks fairly ordinary.

My friend nudges me toward the chairs and we sit. Apparently, the support group rents out a few rooms in this small office building on Wednesday nights to hold meetings. There are multiple groups, actually, broken into categories: Unipolar Depression, Bipolar Disorder, Friends and Family, Under 30. Here in these hidden offices, a few doors down from Carnegie Hall, I plunge right into a group of my peers.

I can’t tell what ages everyone is – they certainly all can’t be under 30 – but amongst these strangers I start to see familiar faces. Across to my left sits a tall, well-groomed man, probably bordering on 30, who looks as though he came straight out of a Dapper Dan ad. I watch as he loosens his tie and the collar of his white button-down shirt and straightens his back against the chair. As I study his excellent posture, I wonder what’s his story. I try to read the blank expression on his face. He doesn’t seem particularly sad or troubled – just blank.

My attention shifts to a young woman sitting a few spots down. She’s alert, jumpy as a squirrel sensing danger. Then she sifts through the red leather bag on her lap. Her hair is dyed almost red, with natural brown showing at the roots. She looks up, and catching me staring, abruptly averts her eyes; she then looks back and offers a brief, shy smile. I return the gesture.

I feel somewhat in a blur. Nevertheless, I try to focus my attention on the surrounding environment. The facilitator, an unassuming man somewhere in his late 50s, wears a kind smile and starts to speak gently, with empathic softness. His tone is comforting, a natural trait. I yearn to be like this.

“I’d like to welcome you all to the Mood Disorders Support Group of New York. My name is Peter.”

He pauses, studies the participants, and then continues. As he speaks to us, I feel as though he’s directing his words toward me alone. I wonder if others feel the same way, as though Peter is addressing them specifically.

He says:

“I’m here as a volunteer and a person with a mood disorder – another facilitator might be a person who has a close friend or family member with one – and I’ve trained to facilitate our groups. My role is to allow you to have your group while I keep our discussion on track and make sure that this remains a constructive, safe, and encouraging environment. I may occasionally ask a question or make a comment to move the discussion along. I’ll also be keeping track of the time and making sure there is no major misinformation passed here.

“Before we go around the room and briefly introduce ourselves, what brings us here tonight, and how we’re each doing, I’d like to go over a few ground rules.”

Yes, this did happen. Something very close to this, anyway. And now, here, as a trained facilitator myself, waiting as Refa’enu stands on the brink of its big kickoff to implement these support groups in our own community, I think about the guidelines at MDSG to which we still will hold:

1. Complete confidentiality. What’s said in the group stays in the group.

2. Feedback is given by sharing experiences, not by telling each other what they should or should not do.

3. Don’t be judgmental of others.

4. Treat one another with kindness, compassion, and respect.

5. It’s okay not to share.

6. It’s everybody’s responsibility to make the group a safe place to share.

I’ve painted this picture of what happens at support groups because I don’t want there to be any surprises. What I, as a new participant, gained from that June evening in 2004 still holds true today, when I am a facilitator. We’re not alone. We don’t have to feel isolated. The simple act of being in that room with people who just “get it,” no matter whether they’re your best friend or a complete stranger, is so comforting and empowering – and all this even possibly happen before the support group actually begins.

In support groups, hearing others’ points of view and experiences about their own struggles and triumphs is extremely valuable. For example, learning about new coping mechanisms or different types of therapies. A discussion focusing on what people aim to get out of therapy, or about how to tell someone else about his or her disorder. The objective is to create an environment of hope and comfort, wherein the shame and stigma that accompany depression and related disorders are reduced in the lives of those who encounter them, in the lives of their loved ones, and by extension, hopefully, eventually, into the realm of our extended Jewish community.

Change takes time, for sure. But how amazing would it be to live in a world where mental illness and well-being are treated the same way as physical health? A place where people who feel isolated are reminded that there is no such thing as being alone? Where people don’t have to live with the shame brought on by stigma, and where they don’t have to, on top of that, bear the burden of living two lives – one, the face to the outside world, the other, the hidden torment inside? Where people need not live these double lives, because the stigma and taboo surrounding mood disorders and mental health in general would vanish? How amazing would that be?

Refa’enu aims to provide such hope and support through peer-led support groups. And in the meantime, maybe just the mere idea of having such groups will help in the process of reducing the stigma.

It’s a long road ahead, but starting next week, we can take that first step together.

Support groups begin Tuesday, November 18, at 7:30 p.m. at the Ben Porat Yosef building on E. 243 Frisch Court in Paramus. If you have any questions about Refa’enu’s support groups or our organization in general, please feel free to mail me at dena@refaenu.org.