Monthly Archives: April 2014

The benefits of support groups

Like most, I found being diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder completely bewildering. On the one hand it was a relief to finally find out that my life was coming apart at the seams not because I was a weak person who couldn’t cope with everyday life, but because I had an illness that had become unmanageable. But even though I had the diagnoses, and read everything I could lay my hands on, I felt that there was a key piece of the puzzle missing that made it impossible for me to really understand how it all fitted together. At the time it felt like I had to somehow fit my ‘self’ into the illness, instead of the illness into my ‘self’. I tried to discuss it with my psychologist, but to me it didn’t feel like he thought that I really had Bipolar Disorder. I might have only imagined that, but regardless I couldn’t talk about it. I eventually stopped seeing him because I didn’t feel like we had anything left to discuss. I felt lost, alone and unable to communicate or figure out what it meant to have Bipolar Disorder.

I had heard about the support group in my area, but hadn’t had the courage to attend. I was anxious about going by myself, but had no one to go with me. My family lives very far away and at the time I didn’t have any other support, so I had to talk to someone. Walking into my first meeting was absolutely terrifying. I wasn’t at the point where I openly discussed my illness yet, and I felt embarrassed and way too vulnerable. I didn’t know what to expect and was sure that the people were going to judge me. Luckily I was wrong.

These days I actually look forward to going to group and even when I don’t really feel like it, I go anyway (that’s usually when you need it the most). I have met some amazing and inspirational people and have made great friends that I meet with outside the meetings. Being able to talk to people who can identify with what I go through, think the way I do and have experienced the same frustrations I have has really made life easier. Although I believe that Psychologists have their place, and I still see my Psychiatrist monthly, attending a support group has helped me a lot more than therapy (in terms of understanding and dealing with my illness). I know that I now have people I can call on who will understand and a place to go where I can share my load, get help and advice and even laugh at myself. I also find it very rewarding to be able to pass what I have learned on to others.

Research has proven over and over  again that support groups have many benefits for their participants, whether it is for mental health issues, weight loss, addiction, chronic illness etc. These groups don’t have to be led by professionals in psychology or psychiatry and are more often led by ‘regular’ people who share the condition and therefore know what other participants go through. I found this quotation that sums it up:

“Mutual support groups, involving little or no cost to participants, have a powerful effect on mental and physical health… The psychological and physical health importance of this diffuse community is striking. The self-help movement, both in face-to-face and virtual arenas, has tremendous therapeutic potential.” (from American Psychologist feature article “Who Talks?: The Social Psychology of Illness Support Groups” by K. P. Davison, J. W. Pennebaker, & S.S. Dickerson, (55) 2, pp. 205-217, 2000.)

According to the Mayo Clinic, support groups hold the following benefits for its members:

  • Feeling less lonely, isolated or judged
  • Gaining a sense of empowerment and control
  • Improving coping skills and sense of adjustment
  • Talking openly and honestly about your feelings
  • Reducing distress, depression or anxiety
  • Developing a clearer understanding of what to expect with your situation
  • Getting practical advice or information about treatment options
  • Comparing notes about resources, such as doctors and alternative options.

For more information read this article. It’s about stress management, but I think the principles are the same.

Thanks to the Internet we don’t have to only rely on face-to-face support groups. Some people don’t have groups in their areas, some prefer to stay anonymous and others would rather express themselves in writing or to strangers. You can even belong to a few different groups if you want. The point is that these days it is easier to find a support group or forum that will suit your particular needs.

I’m sure support groups don’t work for anyone and it might take a few tries before you find something that works for you, but I would definitely recommend that you give it a try.

I only have a few support groups listed under Useful Resources, but please share yours and I will add it to the list.

“Just” Bipolar Disorder: A bit of perspective

I’ve been having a rough couple of weeks. A situation arose at work that has created a tense and uncomfortable atmosphere. This situation also brought with it many exhausting and time consuming meetings. I have not felt like doing anything with my free time except sleep. Until a series of events today gave me a wake-up call.

I was standing in front of our offices having a smoke with my morning coffee when a colleague of mine came out. We work on projects together but she is my superior and we don’t know each other very well personally. I do know that her son has cancer and underwent an operation. I was surprised when she walked out towards me. When she got to me she just broke down. I held her and stroked her hair while she was crying uncontrollably. She told me about the complications with his operation and how she didn’t know if he was going to make it. She told me about her granddaughter who is suppose to be writing exams and her daughter who also has health issues. I waited with her until her husband came to pick her up. She told me how she couldn’t understand why this was happening. I was caught off guard. As she shared some of her life with me, I shared some of mine. Not to make her feel that what she was going through was anything less than horrific, but to reveal myself as a fellow sufferer.

This evening, just as I was about to head out the door to my church small group meeting, I received a message from a friend telling me that another friend’s dad passed away today. It came as a shock, and I am waiting to hear about he circumstances and what I can do to support him. I was caught off guard.

We had just gotten our meeting started and were chatting about our weeks when one of the girls walked in, late because she written a test. She had barely walked two steps when she had a seizure. No one could catch her in time and she fell and hit her head. Luckily someone in the group knew how to keep her cool under pressure and could give instructions. I have some experience with Epilepsy so I knew how to comfort her. After the fit had passed, I held her hand and stroked her hair and kept telling her to breathe while the others were looking for emergency contacts and phoning doctors. We managed to get her to a bed and she came out of it after about half an hour, and she was okay. I didn’t want her to feel too embarrassed as we don’t know each other that well, I didn’t want her to feel like I’m judging because I didn’t understand. She felt bad about the gaps in her memory, so I told her mine has gaps too, from episodes I can’t fully remember. I revealed myself as a fellow sufferer. I still got home shaking. I was caught completely off guard.

I know if I wasn’t on medication I would have been a total nervous mess by now. But it wasn’t about me and I provided support to these people to the best of my abilities. It did make me realise that I often feel very sorry for myself or like my life sucks when really being able to have an existential crisis is a luxury. I’m not playing down the seriousness of my own illness, not at all. I’ve experienced first hand the damage it can do. And I always say that we can’t compare ‘burdens’, because no matter big or small, life is difficult.

I guess what I realised today is that life can always be worse. Things happen that people are completely unprepared for and in a second life can change. I took my evening meds with a little prayer of thanks, that I have meds that work and have stabilised me and that my illness is one that can be managed. I have reached a point where I know it well enough so it doesn’t often catch me off guard. Although I’m sure it will again.

Having Bipolar Disorder sucks, a lot, and I’m definitely not denying that. But there are people, GOOD people, experiencing the same or worse suffering than we are, and I feel quite privileged that I could somehow just be there for people how deserve so much respect for the way they keep going despite their circumstances. There is a certain beauty that is revealed in that state of vulnerability, from both sides. I don’t know if I’m getting my point across effectively, but I suppose what I’m trying to say that suffering is an integral part of the human condition. No one can get away from it, and every person deals with their own form. If those who suffer, regardless of what they suffer from, can support each other, the shared burden will be much easier for everyone to bear.

Bipolar disorder and substance abuse.

Whether you have used a bit of weed, discreetly changed the way you take you prescription drug or the way you use alcohol. We’ve all done some nonsensical crap and felt guilty after. Why? I sometimes regress into terrible self destructive behaviour that I have mostly overcome, but every now and then I revel in the short term solution of substance abuse. Self medicating is a short term solution that makes you feel good for a little while, but it never lasts.

How do you keep yourself from going down this road?

Bipolar Disorder: The ‘flu’ of mental health?

I recently read something about celebrities and Bipolar Disorder where Bipolar Disorder was being described as a ‘fashionable diagnosis’ and ‘the flu of mental health’. I practically blew my top. This after hearing people say things like ‘everyone is bipolar these days’, ‘the weather is so bipolar’, ‘I think being bipolar is awesome’.

Generally, I have learned to keep my cool when I am faced with ignorant statements like these. Sometimes I would come out of my Bipolar closet and take time to educate the uneducated, but often I just don’t respond to a statement like that. However, hearing the chronic mental illness that my broken mind cannot get rid of being compared to the flu (I mean, FLU), really hit a nerve. But before I turn this post into a rant against those who I deem to be the ignorant and uneducated, it is worth looking at WHY a statement like that would even be made.

In this article about myths about Bipolar Disorder, the myth right at the top reads:’ Bipolar Disorder is a rare condition.’ A survey that  was done found that at least 2.4% of the world’s population  have been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, (245 million people) with less than half of those diagnosed actually receiving treatment. Although the percentage is actually higher than one would think, the reality is that about 4% of the world population suffers from Depression, which is also the second-leading cause of disability worldwide. We should also keep in mind that these statistics don’t include populations that still deny the very existence of Depression. What about Schizophrenia? 1.1% of the population. If you look at how many people are affected worldwide by these and other mental illnesses, it’s clear that it’s a much bigger problem than most people realise. I can’t help but wonder why there is still so much stigma attached to these illnesses.

Those who say that Bipolar Disorder is the flu of mental health are obviously not referring to statistics, and they might be snarky about it, but in a way they are not wrong. It is true that more people have Bipolar Disorder now than ever before. This is simply because the illness cannot be cured. So it makes sense that not as many people with Bipolar Disorder die as are being diagnosed daily, especially since the general public is now more aware than before and health professionals have become better at diagnosing it. Personally I’m a word person, but to me this sounds like simple mathematics.

Thanks to celebrities like Catherine Zeta-Jones and more recently Demi Lovato coming out of the bipolar closet, the illness has received more media coverage in recent years. You just have to search ‘Celebrities with Bipolar Disorder’ to find a whole list. What we ‘regular people’ have to keep in mind is the kind of lifestyle that celebrities lead. With this I don’t mean drugs and parties and alcohol (although that is part of the lifestyle in many cases). The typical lifestyle of an entertainer includes a lot of travelling across different time zones, lack of sleep, high stress, high pressure, ridiculous work hours, sporadic eating and other things that would cause problems to the most stable person’s mental health. Place someone with just the smallest predisposition to Bipolar Disorder in a life like that and chances are they’ll get it, and struggle immensely with recovery and becoming stable. An unstructured and unhealthy lifestyle like that is a recipe for disaster if you suffer from Bipolar Disorder.

One of the big and pressing questions is whether Bipolar Disorder was previously under-diagnosed or is now over-diagnosed. Since it took me, doctors and psychologists about ten years to figure out what was actually wrong with me, my personal opinion is that the illness is still under-diagnosed. Until there are blood tests or a brain scan that can conclusively diagnosed mental illnesses, correct diagnosis will always be a problem. After what I came to know as an ‘episode’ that landed me in the hospital, the psychiatrist assigned to me immediately thought that I had Bipolar Disorder, but since I couldn’t give him the information and history he needed, mostly because I didn’t really understand what he wanted to know, the official diagnoses took a month of hospitalisation, loads of talking an playing around with different medications. It was more a case of ‘since all this bipolar medication has made you better, you must be Bipolar’. I think that is often the case. It is still very much a diagnosis of exclusion.

But getting back to the issue of over- or under-diagnosis, there are mental health professionals that have done studies and reached the conclusion that psychiatrists might have become a bit overly enthusiastic with their diagnosis. On the flipside though, is it better to treat someone with mood stabilisers when you suspect that they have Bipolar Disorder, or to treat them with anti-depressants and risk them becoming manic (which is what happened to me, btw)?

The term ‘bipolar’ is also thrown around very easily to describe any state or being that is not seen as ‘unipolar’. Perhaps Manic Depression is then still a better name for it. I think people are much more likely to describe the weather as bipolar than as having Manic Depression.

I’m of the opinion that all the reasons mentioned above and the fact that more people are being correctly diagnosed now creates the illusion that it has become an illness that is no worse than the flu. A larger percentage of those living with mental illness have been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, yes, but I still find the statement offensive; like people think that I can just take a few pills, rest and get over it.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.