How Bipolar Support Groups Helped Change My Life
In October of 2003, I was working an outdoor sales job. My psychiatrist was changing my meds to try to find something that would work to control my depression and bipolar. Depending on which med I was on, I’d have uncontrollable hand tremors and crying spells throughout every day. In between client appointments, I’d be sitting there in the car, slapping myself in the face to stop the tears before heading in to “make the sale.” Good sales technique, yeah?
I felt hopeless and worthless, in a constant state of deep, emotional pain. Each day I awoke in fear that the side effects of the medications, on top of the symptoms of the depression and bipolar, would cost me my job. I needed relief from the pain. I needed more support than what I was getting from the psychiatrist, therapist and ever changing medications. I needed more.
I had been diagnosed with bipolar three years prior, but had definitely suffered with undiagnosed depression and anxiety throughout my childhood and teenage years. I was blindsided during my sophomore year of college by a severe manic episode, unable to sleep for weeks after a knee surgery. I had boundless energy, couldn’t stop talking and my thoughts were racing even faster than my pressured speech was flying out of my mouth. I started sending out mass emails to the entire student body about everything we needed to do to change the world. I was euphoric, energized, and excited for life. Every night was a party. Every day was a workout marathon in the gym, rehabbing my knee and strengthening my body. Sleep only came after binge drinking, and the sleep was restless and more like a nap than a full night’s sleep. Still, each day I somehow sprang out of bed with bipolar springs on my feet.
And then I was confronted by the school psychologist in my dorm room. My close friends really didn’t know what was going on or what to do. Classmates had expressed concern to the counseling center that I might be on speed. One acquaintance, with a psychology minor, mentioned to the psychologist that he was seeing in me classic signs of a manic episode. My family came to take me off campus and, as we left, I made countless pit stops to dorm rooms and fraternity houses to bid farewell to anyone and everyone. I thought I was off to save the world… but really we were headed to have me involuntarily committed to a psych ward for what would end up being weeks on end.
I was strapped down and injected with all sorts of antipsychotics and other meds to try to bring me down from my manic high. Even with the medication, it was still very difficult to sleep in the hospital and control the boundless energy. During that stay, (and future stays), I charged myself with helping other patients. I listened to their tales of suicide attempts, depression, anxiety and psychosis and offered all the optimism, hope and potential solutions that are effervescently flowing during a manic high. Some patients from that stay nearly twenty years ago still ask my mom, (a local social worker), how I’m doing and remind her how much I helped them during that stay. We had a ping-pong table and various therapy groups to keep us busy. At one point, another patient and I formed a grand scheme to escape. We made it out to the street before security guards stopped us and dragged us back in. I felt like a prisoner, or a child who was being punished. Some of my memories are hazy because the antipsychotic injections were very strong and can cause blackouts.
When I was released from the hospital, I crashed. HARD. Due to the lack of sleep or the side effects of the antipsychotics (or a combination of both), I went blind for a week. My eyes were so sensitive to light that I could not open them and, when I did, everything was horribly blurry. The optometrist wasn’t sure if or when my eyes would return to normal. Luckily it only lasted a week but that week was one of the scariest of my life.
A few friends reached out to me during that time, but I found out that many “friends” were busy sharing the gossip that I was crazy and had been committed to a mental hospital. Everyone in my life thought I was “nuts.” The meds and the depression made me sleep for up to eighteen to twenty hours a day. I was still alive, but my dreams were so much happier and more peaceful than the pain of my current reality.
I climbed out of that depression after months of hard work and decided to go back to school and face the mess and rumors that I had left there. I wanted to finish my degree. The medication I was on at the time numbed my thoughts and simply attending class and retaining information was incredibly challenging. I remember sitting in front of the computer to write a five page paper and I couldn’t think of anything beyond the first sentence. It was devastating. I finally weaned myself off the medication and was not honest about it with my parents or doctors because they were so adamant that I needed to take my medicine every day. I realized later that I survived the rest of college by self-medicating with alcohol, sleeping through classes on my depressed days and then making myself hypomanic to study for finals or to complete large assignments. I had no awareness at the time of how I was coping and how destructive it was. I was just surviving.
My engineering classmates were still friendly during class and group assignments but outside of classes I formed a new group of friends that didn’t already have the pre-supposition that I was crazy. There were twenty-eight fraternity houses on campuses so I spent time at ones I hadn’t really visited as much during my episode. A new sorority was forming and a friend convinced me that it would be a good way to get a fresh start and make new friends. I still spent way too much time out drinking and partying. The hypomanic energy did have its benefits though.I pushed through in survival mode and completed my Mechanical Engineering degree with high honors and even decided to add on an additional Spanish degree and study abroad program in Spain where I dealt with another cycle of extreme hypomania and a severe depression.
But let’s get back to 2003. I was back in the US after almost a full year of studying in Spain and was looking for an engineering job but took the outdoor sales job in the meantime. I was dealing with the stressors of the logistics and financial challenges of a long distance relationship with someone who lived in Spain. I was seeing a psychiatrist regularly and was back on meds. He was experimenting with a variety of combos and cocktails to try and ease the depression and emotional pain I was experiencing but nothing seemed to be helping. The therapist I was seeing recommended a depression and bipolar support group. I hadn’t fully accepted my diagnosis and what it meant for my life. I felt hopeless and didn’t feel like a support group would help. Doctors and therapists and a huge variety of med attempts weren’t helping to manage my symptoms so how would a peer support group of non-professionals help?
I attended a student support group at the counseling center in college as part of my requirement for being allowed to return to school. That group was a blend of various issues and diagnoses and I didn’t feel like anyone there “got me” or understood the extreme manic break and subsequent depression I had faced. It took months of internal debate before I worked up the courage and the desire to at least give the depression and bipolar support group a shot. My mom, who is, ironically, an outpatient mental health social worker, agreed to bring me to the meeting that night I decided to attend.
I walked into a room of about seven or eight people of various ages from young thirties through late fifties. I was the youngest one there by far and I remember thinking, “They’ve all been dealing with this much longer than I have and are still suffering.” For a moment it made me feel even more hopeless… the reality check that the suffering and struggle that comes with a mental illness diagnosis is lifelong. There is no cure.
Everyone “checked in” sharing their name, diagnosis, and how their last week or two had been since they had been to the meeting last. Then it came to me. “I’m Laura and I’m bipolar…” and then I broke down bawling for a solid two or three minutes. I had never said it out loud in front of people and it released the floodgates of shame, stigma and loneliness that came with that “bipolar” label. It was cathartic and as I shared a bit of my story everyone in the group was supportive, caring and empathetic. They “got it.” I had been blessed with supportive family and sisters and a few good friends who tried to understand. But this group finally “got it.”
I continued to attend the weekly meetings. As we shared our stories and challenges I experienced “ah-ha” moments about many symptoms that I hadn’t even realized were tied to bipolar like procrastination, days where I just wanted to curl up and sleep, my anxiety with straightening and organizing, unknowingly making myself hypomanic by staying up too late to complete work or when out with friends. After a year or so of attending I started to take a turn as the facilitator, guiding the group check-ins and the follow up discussions. I attended trainings to learn how to facilitate better, how to deal with a crisis, and how to share my ideas and suggestions but also allow everyone to have a chance to talk and share.
Even with the support of the group, over the years I’ve experienced manias and depressions triggered by med changes, various life events, physical injuries, and even the change of the seasons. But now I had an army of people who got it. I was no longer going through the struggle alone and I was learning in every meeting. Learning how to be more aware of my systems and triggers and sleep patterns. Learning coping mechanisms and grounding and breathing techniques. Learning to reach out and be honest and real instead of suffering alone. And we help each other,simply by being there and understanding the struggle, and also by offering suggestions to try for what has worked for us personally in the past.
Our group generally has about twenty to twenty-five attendees each week and at times we’ve had as many as forty. We host speakers and Q & A sessions with psychiatrists. We’ve had countless holiday parties together and group events including shore trips, walks through the park, movie days and bowling parties. Many group members have become some of my best friends over the years.
My last hospitalization was in January, 2014 and I’ve been stable since then as I write this. I still have days where my depression rears its ugly head and I cry and beat myself up and I’m lost in the storm of anxiety and hopelessness. But it’s brief, and I battle it with all the tools I’ve built up over the years. And I have days that the excitement of life elevates my mood and I want to stay up later and revel in the positive energy and enjoy it. But I keep that in check too and make sure sleep is a top priority.
At this point I call it “taming the bipolar beast.” With a lot of time, training, repetition of good habits, and tools I can keep the beast tame and prevent it as much as possible from rearing its wild ruthlessness. But it takes work. And the taming of the beast is a lifelong process. You can’t turn a tiger into a mild-mannered house cat. The bipolar beast will always be there as part of my life.
I still see my psychiatrist and a therapist on a regular basis. Life is very busy with work and our big Brady Bunch modern blended family of six children, but I make time to facilitate the support group at least once a month. I keep in touch with group members via phone calls, texts and get-togethers. My arsenal to tame the bipolar beast also includes my understanding and very supportive boyfriend, the kids’ hugs and laughter, family and friends, yoga and exercise, eating more whole real nutritious foods (and fewer preservatives, chemicals, and crap), and daily meditation practices of self awareness and being present in the moment.
I don’t know where my life would be without the friends and knowledge I’ve gained through my local and online support groups. Going through bipolar alone? Extraordinarily challenging, if not altogether impossible. Finding a whole group of friends and supporters who get what you’re going through day in and day outcan make a huge difference. I’m here to tell you that living well with bipolar and depression is possible. With help, hope, and love, anything is possible.