Bipolar support groups expose us to diverse people who will help us move forward, whether by offering safety in numbers, showing us what not to do, or—as in my case—sharing ideas that I did put to use.
I am almost 40 years old and have attended many bipolar support groups. Like everyone, my life experience forces me to see things in certain ways—even if just subconsciously. As an example, while I fancy myself to be an enlightened male, I’m embarrassed to admit that I still trip over certain gender stereotypes.
Most support groups—whether for bipolar disorder, addiction, or grief and loss—operate on two basic premises:
You must be in touch with your feelings and be willing to share them in a public space.
You must be willing to change your behavior and try new things.
Support groups have a lot of “bad” suggestions
The vast majority of what I heard in the various bipolar support groups I both attended and facilitated felt incredibly stupid. The most ridiculous suggestion I’ve ever been given is something called a mood journal.
Remember those gender stereotypes I told you tripped me up at the beginning of the article? Sitting in a room with a bunch of strangers and discovering that a “mood journal” is really just writing down my feelings was a mental disaster for me. I immediately recalled that my baby sister kept a diary of her feelings – in elementary school. It felt to me at the time like I was being infantilized and marginalized.
I didn’t mean to feel this way. That is just where my mind went at the time. I thought of my blue-collar upbringing and the culture that surrounds masculinity. Sitting in my bed writing down my feelings seemed wrong.
But I did it anyway and, while to a lesser extent over time, I still keep one to this day. Because, as it turns out, mood journals work for me. Keeping a daily record of my moods, successes, and failures allowed me to realistically evaluate progress, show my psychiatrist a day-to-day accounting of my symptoms, and allowed me to move forward in a positive way.
In other words, I was wrong. The very thing I thought was stupid when I first heard about it is one of the best tools I use to stay well.
Support groups have a lot of “good” suggestions
Bipolar support groups just have a lot of suggestions, period. Some are good and some are bad. or so I thought at the time. But the more I thought about it, I realized there really weren’t good ideas versus bad ideas at all.
When I first started attending groups, I had decided that if an idea wouldn’t work for me, or I didn’t want to try, it was a bad idea. This is the equivalent of saying that, since I prefer vanilla ice cream, chocolate is “bad” ice cream.
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, removing those “bad suggestions” would hurt my recovery. Even though I never used those ideas, other people with bipolar did. People who were living well with bipolar made themselves available to support me or simply give me hope that recovery was possible.
All those ideas floating around also attracted a diverse group of people who all, in some way, helped me move forward, whether by safety in numbers, showing me what not to do, or giving me ideas that I did use. The system isn’t set up to give me a single perfect answer.
Because everyone with bipolar disorder is a person with their own likes and dislikes and what is stupid to me could be perfect for someone else. I’m fond of saying that support groups are like the buffets my family would go to when I was a kid. Mom ate salad, Dad ate steak, my baby sister ate cucumbers dipped in ranch, and my brother and I ate nothing but desserts.
In other words, we all took what we wanted and left the rest. And we all went home happy.
Gabe Howard is a professional speaker, award-winning writer, and mental health coach who battles bipolar 1 and anxiety disorders every day. Diagnosed in 2003, he has made it his mission to put a human face on what it means to live with bipolar disorder.
Gabe was the recipient of the 2014 Mental Health America Norman Guitry Award, placed second in HealthCentral's LiveBold competition, a PsychCentral 2014 Mental Health hero, was a 2015 WEGO Health Awards Finalist in the Health Activist Category, and received a Best of the Web - Blog award.
Gabe is also the creator of the official bipolar shirt. He can be reached via gabehoward.com or by e-mail Gabe@GabeHoward.com.
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