In March 2015, I experienced my most severe episode of mental illness, which ultimately led me to relocate from New York to South Carolina to be closer to my primary support system, my parents.
My parents offer me an abundance of love and support, but because they are not mentally ill themselves, nor trained mental health professionals, the type of support they can provide had its limitations.
I had been aware of NAMI's existence for several years. It took a couple months after my move down South to finally build up the courage to attend one of their Connections meetings.
I'll be honest: I was nervous. The majority of my previous experiences with other mentally ill people were not positive, so I was unsure what to expect.
For weeks, when Wednesday night would come around, I found one lame excuse or another why I couldn't make it to the meeting that night - until the day I ran out of excuses.
At the time, the meetings were held in the library at a local college campus, in a room not too different from a fish bowl in that half the walls were windows. As I walked in to the room apprehensively, I immediately chose a seat near the door, anticipating a quick escape when necessary.
The facilitators, who are peers trained to lead the meeting, welcomed me with warm smiles and introductions. Each seat had a handout that explained the parameters of the meetings. I let out a deep breath because this really wasn't so scary after all.
The beginning of the Connections meeting has a set structure and after that there is an open group discussion. I was surrounded by people who had similar experiences to my own, yet were from all different walks of life and in varying stages of their own recovery.
This felt like a safe place for me, free of judgment and full of support. It quickly became apparent to me that no matter what else was going on in my chaotic and confusing life, these weekly meetings could be a home base for me.
It was through these meetings that I first discovered the concept and practice of peer support. This by no means replaced my need for professional intervention, but it was a nice compliment to it.
At these meetings, I gained mentors who later on became good friends. At the same time, I lost the shame I had been carrying around with me for so long. I saw others in the group living openly with their illnesses, sharing their stories publicly and taking the lessons they learned to help others.
I found that my own experiences had value to others in the meetings. In helping others in their recoveries, I was able to help myself in my own recovery. Relationships and jobs came and went over the next four years, but NAMI was a constant.
The turning point in my recovery was attending my first NAMI Connections meeting nearly four years ago. I would not be where I am today if I had never walked into that room.
For more information on the services NAMI Lowcountry provides, visit www.namilowcountry.org.
Laura Kaponer is a mental health advocate and social media blogger, as well as a volunteer with the local chapter of NAMI. #LauraKaponeris1in5 (as 1 in 5 Americans have a mental illness).