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The Gift of Companionship

by Craig Rennebohm, The Mental Health Chaplaincy, Seattle, WA

Many of us who experience mental illness reach out to our community of faith for help and support.  At my worst, in the depths of a paralyzing depression, my pastor came to me. He visited me daily at first, and continued to share the journey in the weeks, months, and indeed, years of healing and recovery. I remember vividly his gentle presence, his sitting quietly beside me and listening. I am grateful for all he did to support me and my family, and invite me into life again, with others.

Dick companioned me. Companionship is a relationship responsive to suffering, supportive of healing. On the streets of Seattle, in shelters, meal programs, and drop-in centers, I companion sisters and brothers who are homeless and struggling with mental illness. Companionship is a way of acting on our concern for a neighbor, for a loved one who is ill. We see the symptoms of disorder, the signs of loneliness, isolation, fear, and estrangement. Our usual approaches may not work. In companionship we begin simply as human beings, offering our presence.

The practices of companionship are four: hospitality, a side-by-side stance, listening, and accompaniment. Hospitality says Henry Nouwen, is "creating safe space" with one another. It is approaching another person with respect and dignity. It is sharing in simple acts of refreshment and nourishment. In companionship we sit or stand, or walk side by side, looking out at the world together. Each of us has our view point, our particular experience. The aim is to understand and to share, not to confront, judge, or condemn. In companionship, we listen not just for the illness, but also for the health and the potential, the worth, the good that is in each person. We listen for where healing can begin, where recovery is possible. We listen not simply to the illness narrative, but for the words of hope and promise. We listen for the story of wholeness. Mental illness is a part of who we are. It does not in any way totally define us.

In companionship, I accompany individuals on the journey from the street to stability. As needs come up, we go together seeking help, negotiating the various systems of care and service, filling out applications, proceeding through screenings and intakes, securing housing, helping to build a circle of care. Companionship encourages and supports partnerships of healing and continuing recovery.

Companionship is completed in a growing mutuality, in a relationship where we become ever more real and authentic with one another, take personal responsibility for our lives and actions, and enjoy being neighbors, fellow citizens, and participants in the wider community.

I companion because in the moments of greatest isolation and loneliness in my illness, someone companioned me. Another human being came along side and shared the awful and terrifying journey, and represented in a patient, graceful way a profound spirit of hope and help.

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