Bipolar Support Groups: What are they Supporting?   Leave a comment

A few years ago I was a mess.  Diagnosed Bipolar II with hypomanic episodes and freshly divorced, I was living with my girlfriend, one dog, a cat and her two little girls all in my tiny studio apartment in San Francisco.  Plus, my girlfriend had an ex-husband that would practically scale the side of my apartment hi-rise like a little lobster to the seventh floor looking in on us for incriminating evidence he could use against her in divorce court.

I was already seeing a psychiatrist for my medications and a psychologist for talk therapy.  But the latter felt I was suicidal and needed more support.  It was either go to group therapy or resign me as a client.  I agreed because whenever I was a little late for an appointment she started calling hospitals to see if I was on a metal table a toe tag.  Personally I thought hearing about other people’s problems would depress the pants of me.  However she was adement, so I went out of respect for all the good she had done for me in the past.

I began my group odyssey on a Saturday afternoon in a session held in the basement of a local hospital.  Right away I was greeted by an older, portly, belly sticking out of sweater, thick plastic bespectacled gentleman who would later introduce himself to me at least five more times in the next hour and a half.  I got past him and sat on a chair arranged in a big circle.  I was one of the first people to arrive aside from the facilitator.

The facilitator was not a professional and had no therapy credentials.  He was just a guy in his mid 30’s with severe depression and an uncontrollable inclination to insult strangers he sees out on the street.  Bloated from medication, too much cake and a crew cut that should have come with a complimentary pair of Dennis the Menace pavement sliders, he would read the meeting ground rules as if every syllable bored him more than the last.  Then he’d make sure anyone who wanted to talk had their ten allocated minutes.  And if anyone ever got out of line, he’d ask them to leave. But you could tell cake was his main concern.  Coffee cake, pound cake, walnut cake, angel food cake… Ah, so many wonderful cakes!

Quickly the empty seats filled up with what I assumed were bipolar butts.  But to my surprise almost anyone could sit down and chime in.  And some of the regulars were schizophrenic or had other major psychological disorders.  And when they started talking delusionally, everyone would get mad at them for wasting time and tell them to shut up.   I thought it might be a good idea to get them information about the appropriate group therapy session for their mental disorder, but the moderator just sat there with his thumb up his ass dreaming about the way sponge cake feels when rubbed all over his body.

Here is a snapshot of the Bipolar Support Group’s composure:

We had a delightful gentleman in at the ripe age of 90 who came to talk about his older sister.  He was just lonely and frightened of what life held for him.  He could have been sitting in Knitters Anonymous and be just as content.  But he was too nice a person suggest attending a different meeting.

We had a young school teacher on medical leave, afraid to return to the classroom due to severe panic attacks. It was obvious she was bright and communicative.  I felt her anxiety could be overcome with some exposure and talk therapy.  However, practically everyone united to convince heron permanent disability was the way to go.  To about half the group of around twenty people, the question wasn’t if you could go back to work, it was whether you could qualify for permanent disability.  The consensus was she could make a good case for it.

One lady was never formally diagnosed with anything, but liked making the coffee shop arrangements for after the meeting.  She was a mental illness groupie.  She would latch on to a really sick person and become their sole support system.  And when no longer needed, or getting on that person’s nerves, she’d find a new lost soul in the group to mother.  I think she had a disease called munchausen-bipolar.  She found self worth making herself part of the drama centered around a bipolar person going through hardship.

Then there was a 350 pound woman who was sweet on the outside and a trouble maker on the inside thriving on confrontation.  Once she brought a very old little dog to the group that was literally on it’s last leg.  She was bald, blind, barely able to walk and fighting for breath from fluid filled lungs. This woman walked it around the circle basking in the “isn’t she adorables.”  But the dog was so close to death it was like bringing a dead bird to the meeting.  It was probably a blessing, but the little dog died that evening.

My favorite was a woman who complained of Personality Dissociative Disorder, so she sat with a mirror in front of her reminding herself she was still there.  She never talked.  All she did was stare into the mirror.  I wanted to say, “Put away the mirror.  I’ll let you know if you disappear.”

Finally was the lady with a greenish abscessed toe bursting out of her shoe who always wasted half the session talking about free theatre tickets she can get through an agency that donates them to non-profits.  But that infected toe was like a gargoyle that encouraged me to keep my distance from her.

My last example of the misplaced mentally ill was my greeter.  He would sleep through most of the session and suddenly awaken with a random suggestion, like how to get free pencils from the city.  Apparently he noticed someone writing with one in a notebook and felt it would be helpful knowledge.  Then his head would drop and he’d be back to slumberland in no time.

Basically out of an average of twenty people, two of them talked about real bipolar issues the first time I attended.  The rest would just give advice on how to get permanent disability, free psychiatric care and medications.  Others were there for the coffee shop get-together after each session.  It was more a place to socialize for the generally mentally ill and senile.

Not all bipolar support groups are the same.  I am sure there are some with a better illness vetting process and accredited facilitators who actually lead the group instead of waiting for it to implode.  My suggestion is to learn more about all the Bipolar Support Groups in your area and sit in on several.   Note others in the group looking for a feeling of commonality of mental disorder, age and education.  In other words, find a support group in which you feel comfortable sharing.  With support groups it’s the people attending the group who are most important. They are the ones offering advice and comfort.  It’s crucial you find people you can relate to.

That teacher with the anxiety disorder did eventually go back to work full time and the last I heard is doing quite well.  When asking someone what gave her the confidence to go back to teaching, she told me it was leaving  the support group.   If support groups were on Yelp, what a story she’d have to tell.

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