I’m pretty sure many of you can relate to my story of initial diagnosis of having a mental illness. The Psychiatrist says to me “Nicci, based on what you have told me about your symptoms and your family history, I am diagnosing you with Bipolar. I will write you a script for a mood stabiliser and a new antidepressant.” Although I was extremely relieved to have a name for this beast affecting every facet of my life, I had no insight into what was yet to come. I was sent merrily on my way. No explanation of what Bipolar entailed. No coping strategies or techniques. No informational materials on Bipolar. Just medication!
Call me curious, a control freak or anal retentive, but I had to know what this “Bipolar” entailed. So I researched on Dr Google and over the next 6 months read a copious amount of books and joined a few online Peer/Consumer support groups to garner the information, ins and outs of Bipolar.
For me personally, I found the books written by Doctors and Psychiatrists to be clinical and boring; however, I did learn about their views and perceptions of the different states of the illness. I gained so much more from books written by those with a mental illness, even if they were only sharing of personal lived experiences and did not contain coping strategies or techniques. The absolute best book I read was by Madeleine Kelly ‘Life on a Rollercoaster’. Madeleine Kelly was completing her medical degree when she had her first major episode of Bipolar and consequently diagnosed. Later with a combination of her medical skills, knowledge and lived experience, she wrote this book in layman’s terms and I promote it to all and sundry. It is no longer in print, but you can obtain the new version in e-book ‘Bipolar and the Art of Rollercoaster Riding’ at https://www.amazon.com/Bipolar-Art-Roller-coaster-Riding-disorder-ebook/dp/B0061GF0FC It is a great read for your Significant Others (Partner, Carer, Friends, etc.), providing an insight that we sometimes cannot put into words.
Even more educational, enlightening, eye-opening, freeing and welcoming, was joining Peer/Consumer closed online Support Groups. Closed means you have to go through a process to be accepted and must be diagnosed with the specific illness, in this case Bipolar. There weren’t many around when I was diagnosed 17 years ago, so I joined all three. In the end I remained with The Australian Bipolar Website support group ‘Fyreniyce’ http://members.iinet.net.au/~fractal1/
I conversed with peers/consumers from all over the world, sharing experiences, strategies, techniques, troubles and laughter. Why is talking to peers so important, so freeing, so rewarding? Because we get each other without having to go into long winded explanations, like we have to with those who do not have a mental illness and, there is no judgement, criticism or denigrating.
I felt comfortable to share and reach out when becoming unstable and received so much support, insight and ideas. I learnt about medications available, possible side effects, strategies and techniques for trial, symptoms not conveyed by Doctors/Psychiatrists because they feel they are inconsequential and I identified symptoms I was experiencing that I didn’t know were part of the illness. I didn’t just learn about others, I was provided the tools to learn about myself, how Bipolar manifested in me, that we all experience Bipolar in a unique way, because we are unique individuals and whatever we experience and perceive during an episode, at that point in time Is Our Reality. When I am paranoid, what I am thinking and feeling Is My Reality. And thus I learnt acceptance of the illness and self-acceptance of the many facets of my presentation and experiences with Bipolar.
For the 16 years I have been a Mental Health Advocate I have had the privilege of sharing great belly laughs with others who have a mental illness, about silly, outrageous, sometimes embarrassing things we have done during an episode. This is something we only do with peers, because ‘we get each other’, we can relate through our own experiences. Of the many participants who have attended the Peer Led Support Groups I have run, one of the most important aspects of attending the group is the ability to laugh at ourselves in a secure, safe and confidential environment. We are all very much aware that we rarely do this with those who do not have a mental illness, because we feel we are being judged or belittled.
Another great benefit of sharing with others who have a mental illness, is that it ‘Normalises’ the experiences of the various aspects of the illness. Now when I say ‘Normalise’, I do not mean dismiss. When you tell someone your body feels like led, has been hit by a train and is aching all over (because you are sliding into a depressive state and they only seem to be able to comprehend physical symptoms) and they turn around responding, not in a supportive or compassionate tone - ‘yeah I felt like that last week when I had the flu’, this is being dismissive. Whereas, when those of us with a mental illness turn around and say, ‘yeah I felt like that last week’ we know they are empathising. And out of that one sentence a dialogue starts around the different ways we identify we are declining into a depressive state and what strategies we might use to head it of at the path, to reduce the severity and impact of a full blown episode.
All of these benefits and more are why I continue to voluntarily give up my personal time to run and facilitate support groups and provide Mental Health Advocacy. Daily I get to see the importance and benefits of peer sharing and support. So if you have considered attending a Peer Led Support Group, whether it is online or in person, but have become anxious or are lacking in confidence to attend, dig deep down for some courage and do it; you will not regret it.