Why It’s an Excellent Idea to Find a Support Group

August 1, 2009 at 12:22 pm | Posted in Resources | Leave a comment

I always feel like starting these posts with a salutation and ending with a signoff, something like “love to all.” Here’s what I used to imagine writing at the beginning of my old newspaper column:

Brothers and Sisters, Friends of the Revolution,

So let’s just start that way today.

Today I am going to recommend that you attend a support group even though I rarely do anymore. I do recognize that I should, and I’m hoping that research for this and other articles will draw me back into regular attendance.

There are several excellent reasons to attend a support group regularly:

1. Most importantly, they offer support and solace when you’re down, and can help to give you a reality check when you’re heading for the clouds. (If you’re like most people, when you’re manic you don’t think you need help, and won’t seek it. In fact, it’s the rest of the world that could use a briskly-delivered attitude adjustment.)

2. Attending a support group is a tremendous relief socially. It can be hard to keep up the mask of normalcy at work and with all but your closest associates (and to a certain extent even with them). With a support group, you can all be abnormal together and laugh about it. You can express your true range of thoughts and emotions without risking others recoiling in horror. At the same time, if you are socially isolated, as so many bipolar people are, it’s a chance to see familiar faces and have some human interaction. Its structured nature makes it less anxiety-provoking than a date or coffee with a friend; you can speak up or be mute as your mood moves you.

3. It’s an excellent opportunity to teach the people who love you. If the group allows it, bring a close associate with you — family members, a lover, your spouse, a friend, whoever cares for you. When I was attending a group regularly, my mom came with me, and she gained tremendous insight into my disease simply by seeing a wide variety of people of all races, ages and both sexes, all functioning at different levels, and hearing them describe the same symptoms and side effects again and again. It helped her to make the leap from, as my old shrink put it, thinking I was engaging in “willful bad behavior” to understanding that I suffered from a potentially deadly chronic illness. My dad never attended, but he got the word by osmosis, and my relationship with my parents improved significantly as a result.

4. As an anguished attendee once put it, it’s better to go to a meeting than to sit at home self-mutilating, or even just staring at the walls.

5. You can cultivate gratitude and hope, since there will be people there both worse and better off than you are. Often support groups are run by highly functional volunteers who want to give back to the community, and you can get tips from them and emulate them. People who are less functional often have a surprising and humbling amount of wisdom to share as well.

6. You will benefit from sharing your expertise. I started this blog as a way to give back to the community, and to thank God that I function as well as I do. In a support group, you will have advice to give and knowledge to share, and that can help to lift you out of your perpetual patient role, allowing you to discover your own competence and expertise. I am always honored when people who are bipolar or depressive ask for my advice; it helps me to feel useful, and to know that I am an expert at least on mood disorders.

7. Members will often have the inside scoop on shrinks in the area. Also, it’s likely that someone there will have experience with whatever medications you’re on. It’s interesting to compare side effects, and people who have taken the time to educate themselves can often explain better than a doctor can the mechanisms of action (insofar as they’re known at all), what side effects to look for, and what benefit you’ll get if the drug works. Along these lines, you can learn about new treatments and any drug trials going on in the area that might benefit you (or poison you, unfortunately, Big Pharma being what it is).

So do it. The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) runs a variety of groups, which you can find here. Of course, there are plenty of reasons why you might not be able to attend a local support group. In that case, there are online communities that can help. I’ve been meaning for years to try the DBSA’s virtual support groups, which take place several times a week in chat rooms on their website.

There are also numerous websites and blogs that can offer a measure of community. I’m not as familiar with them as I should be; I’ll be looking into them over the next few weeks, and will report back once I’ve had a chance to check a few out thoroughly.

There is a website, medications.com, that I like, and to which I often refer; it consists of people reporting side effects from every medication on the market. There are many similar websites; I recommend Googling “Lamictal side effects,” for example, and just skipping the obviously corporate websites. This is an excellent way to discover what people really experience on a given drug — so often what the doctors tell you and the FDA knows are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to side effects.

But I digress.

It’s always possible that you have access neither to a a local group nor to a computer of your own (though the fact that you’re here suggest that you are signing on at the public library, say). In that case, if you’re reasonably functional and social, it is possible to start your own DBSA chapter with their help and support. And in fact in only takes one other bipolar person to get and give support.

Love to all.

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