I’m hiding bipolar. Here’s why. By Anonymous

Photo of woman wearing smiling face mask

Editor’s note: I was confronted when we received this anonymous submission. It’s very common these days to see campaigns encouraging people to speak up about mental health issues. When you work in mental health or the media, you often have the privilege of being able to be open about your lived experience. We applaud celebrities and advocates who ‘share their journeys of recovery’. It’s too easy to forget that many, if not most, people live and work in environments where there is a risk attached to disclosing if you have mental health issues. Stigma is real, and this blog post is a reminder of how stigma makes living with mental illness harder than it should be. It’s also a reminder to be gentle with those around you – because you don’t always know their story.  Thank you, Anon, for sharing your story. — Sarah, Co-Editor, Our Mental Health Matters

When I was 12 I went on my first rollercoaster ride. I don’t remember it being a particularly pleasant experience, in fact I was terrified. Little did I know that was just the beginning, that my life was going to be one huge rollercoaster and it would take until I was over 40 to know what was causing it, and to find a way to get off.

As a child I was never encouraged to speak about feelings. My parents are not overly warm people and discussing emotions was never on the agenda. It is hard for people to understand how someone who had 4 younger sisters could have felt so lonely, but I did. I was an awkward girl, with low social skills and an incredible low opinion of myself. If there was ever a time that I did do well at something or felt any kind of jubilation, it was squashed very quickly. My family just had no time for encouragement or stroking of egos, and so I learnt very early in life to deal with things alone and not to seek out help. As a result the thoughts and voices in my head stayed there. I didn’t understand it at all and nobody ever spoke of mental illness. I knew that I was different but I just couldn’t talk to anyone about it, so it is of no surprise to me at all that now 35 years later, I still talk to only a very select few. I still feel lonely and I still hide my pain and pretend to be someone that does not have a mental illness.

I could write chapters and chapters about how the rollercoaster of my life has affected my youth, my young adult life and my marriages. How having a mental illness has been one of the most devastating and challenging things I have ever had to face, but the hardest most painful challenge of it all is the lie I live. The fact is to this day my parents still know nothing of my diagnosis, and will go to their graves never knowing. That I front up to work everyday and not one of my co-workers knows (or in my opinion would ever even think) that I am bipolar.

When I was first diagnosed I thought about being open and honest to everyone; that being bipolar was just another layer of who I was and that just having a name now to explain who I was wouldn’t change a thing. But only two days later when visiting friends, as one of my friends was talking about a person he knew, he spoke in such a belittling way about this person, describing erratic behavior and using words like crazy, off his head and mental, and then the kicker, ‘I think he must be bipolar’. My husband and I looked at each other and we knew at that moment that telling everyone was not going to be an option.

There are still so many people who are incapable of understanding mental health. A few weeks after my diagnosis I saw my parents. We are not close, and might see each other twice a year if that, yet I was still contemplating telling them. After all they are my mum and dad, above everyone else shouldn’t they understand? Apparently not. Over a cup of tea my mother bought up a conversation about someone we knew being depressed. My mother stated that she did not understand how this person could be depressed, she had a great life, lots of money and a wonderful husband. My mother stated that this lady was being self-indulgent and needed to get up and get on with life. Dad agreed, he claimed that every second person thinks they are depressed – wham, guess what?! I’m now not telling Mum or Dad either!

Perhaps I am selling my parents short; perhaps if I was to sit down with them they would understand, but I doubt it. I know enough of their beliefs and coping mechanisms to know that they would say I was being a drama queen, that I was always wanting attention and trying to make it all about me. I just cannot hear those words out loud again from them, I just cannot put myself through that, so I tell them nothing, I don’t lie, I just don’t talk about it.

I have a wonderful job. I am blessed with a boss who is kind and generous and gives me autonomy to run his very successful business for him. I handle millions of dollars each year for him, and he trusts me with all his finances, with major decisions and with his staff. There have been times that the stress has caused me to have small breakdowns or to spiral into deep, deep depression, however he doesn’t know that. When the episode occurred that finally saw me get a diagnosis, he never knew. I lied, I told him I had to have the week off because I was very ill with ear infections. He has never shown any sign of even remotely thinking I have any sort of depression or mental illness. I have never shown him a single sign of it. I have no idea how I can do that. How can I be so mentally strong when I am at work and walk out the door and fall to pieces? How when the black dog comes to visit I manage to get myself out of bed and go to work, and then come home and hide under the covers. I don’t understand it, but its what I do. Its almost like turning a switch and having my set of behaviors for work and my set of behaviors outside of work. I have heard my boss speak of people that have depression or anxiety. I know he doesn’t even pretend to understand it, that he jokes about mental illness rather than tries to be accepting of it. I know I can’t tell him, and I know that I wont.

I am exhausted, being two people is very tiring, but its how my life is and I am sure I am not alone. My hope is that one day people will try to understand, that there will be no need for lies or hiding of our true selves. I think we are a little way off that yet, and that’s a pity.

 

By Anonymous

“I am a 47 year old mother and grandmother, working full time and leading a very busy, fulfilling life.”

Photo by Geda Žyvatkauskaitė used under CC license.

The power of peer self help support groups

Healing in the Everyday World: The benefits of peer self help support groups and their place in the therapeutic process towards recovery…

by Tabitha Dougall

Twenty years ago, as a new mum, I was struggling with (what felt like) atomic fallout left over from unresolved childhood abuse and complex family relationships that were collateral damage because, like most people, the perpetrator was known (from within my family) and there were mixed loyalties, ineffective coping mechanisms and no justice or resolve.

One Christmas time (when issues/feelings are often the worst), while driving I felt like crashing into a tree and ending it all, so instead I drove to my GP to get a referral to a psychiatrist. My  well-meaning GP asked why I was struggling, and told me “Christmas is a time for forgiving and forgetting” and I needed to move on.  I told her I’d spent 25 years trying to do that, and it didn’t work, and re-iterated my request for some professional support, now feeling further invalidated and unsupported by her dismissive response.

The psychiatrist was helpful with some other issues but didn’t seem to really know what to do about trauma so left that alone, and it festered.  (Many therapeutic professionals have actually had no trauma-informed training).  A few psychologists later (who were helpful to a point but traditional Cognitive Behaviour Therapy approaches don’t go deep enough or address the body, mind, emotional, soul, stigma and inner isolation issues) and I found myself borrowing everything I could find in the library about healing from trauma.  This ‘bibliotherapy’ was helpful and gave validation and a range of different approaches… and one book suggested that peer self help support groups could be helpful.

So began a journey that changed the course of my life.

Now, twenty years later, I work at a not for profit organisation part time overseeing recruiting, training and facilitation of volunteer support group facilitators and have my own private practice as a holistic counsellor. I’ve undergone a comprehensive cleansing and healing of my past with many resources suggested by support group peers.  Over the past few years I’ve been involved with training and supervising a few hundred potential self help facilitators and helping many different types of support groups start up. This all developed from a daring decision fifteen years ago to start up a support group for women survivors of child abuse, with no training or experience, just a passion and a need, and a little support from my counsellor at the time.

Why should people attend and/or run support groups? 

Self help peer support groups are opportunities for small groups of people with a similar issue to voluntarily come together on an ongoing, regular basis for mutual support, empathy and encouragement.  They are generally peer-led, democratic, with open membership (people can come and go as they need) of between 2 and 20 attendees.  There is a strengths-based, normalising, de-stigmatising philosophy rather than a pathological, problem-patient vs expert-professional approach, and they are free or low cost as opposed to fee-for-service which makes them accessible to all.  Guilt, shame, confusion, alienation, fear and disempowerment can all be discussed, unpacked and worked through in the non-hierarchical group process and over time, replaced with empowerment, connection, normalcy, agency, self-responsibility, inner peace, self esteem, self respect, inner  strength and increased social skills. Members of the group are seen as equals and experts in our own recovery journey while a broader perspective of our issues can be gained from various viewpoints and experiences of other group members and modelling from others who are further along their recovery path.  Perhaps one of the most profound benefits is when we can adjust our self-view from one of victimhood, to one of ‘helper’ where our feelings, experiences, opinions, skills and qualities matter and can make a difference to someone else. Helping others helps us feel useful and valuable, like we have something to offer to the world, altruistically increasing our sense of purpose.

It has been said that there are two important qualities that foster great mental health – purpose and connection; both of which can be enhanced in the process of contributing in support groups.  We can feel less dependent and become more active in our own healing and in assisting others.  There can be a sense of hope and a new supportive community.  Support group attendance can be a stepping-stone and adjunct to professional help.

Group guidelines/norms provide a sense of trust, emotional, psychological and physical safety, usually involving respect, non-judgment, confidentiality and no advice-giving.  These can often model new and assertive ways of relating in the outside world as well.  Group members are encouraged to share experiences and feelings and talk through their thought processes, often challenging previous secrets and shame-based stuckness while being deeply heard, understood and validated.  Often this in itself is enormously healing.  Humour from within the peer setting can also bring a certain lightness that may not be available or accessed in a professional therapeutic relationship.  Other perspectives from within the peer setting can also be easier to hear than if coming from a condescending stance which can sometimes happen in therapy, or in families.

Yalom said: “we are separate, lonely, apart from but also a part of.  One of my members (of a group) put it elegantly when she described herself as a lonely ship in the dark.  Even though no physical mooring could be made, it was nonetheless enormously comforting to see lights of other ships sailing the same water.”

There is positive research on support groups’ efficacy and they are found worldwide. So why, then, if support groups can be so helpful, are they not on every corner? Why are they not included as an important part of professional therapeutic case-management? Why are support groups not recognised, acknowledged and referred to by GPs and mental/health practitioners at least?  Not known about? Not widely funded?

Some health professionals may be of the opinion that support groups are just ‘whinge-fests’ and there is no positive movement.  My experience has shown that sometimes progress is slow, and we need to check our own impatience with others who aren’t changing to our assumed goals and timelines, however many group members have experienced compounding rejection from families, friends, workplaces and therapists and the safety they find in support group settings is the first/only time where they can feel unconditionally accepted, and it is in this kind of environment where deep healing can occur.

People with lived experience as well as health professionals can all be trained to successfully run self help groups.  In the current climate of limited funding for mental/health, self help support groups can be a valuable budget-friendly addition to ANY service provision, offering ongoing support to a wide range and number of people, both in the bustling cities and in the resource-poor regional areas, and offering the opportunity to grow, develop and re-invent oneself.  Visit the Collective of Self Help Groups (COSGH) and/or visit the Centre of Excellence for Peer Support for more information.

About the author:

Tabitha Dougall is a Holistic Counsellor, Psychotherapist and Group Facilitator with lived experience. Based in Melbourne, Tabitha promotes healing & authenticity through creative expressive modalities alongside talking therapy. She draws from broad life experience & her own healing journey, over 20 years of personal and professional development, volunteering & coaching others, and 15 years group facilitation.

Festive Season Affective Disorder

by Daniel Reeders

I’d hold out against it as long as I could, but each year in early December, I froze, giving way to that familiar feeling of dread. Then a couple of years ago I began seeing a therapist, and that year I raised with her the plans I was making to get through the festive season: dinner with Mum and boyfrang at a Chinese restaurant on Christmas eve, talking pretty much exclusively about television to avoid the emotional history Mum loves to discuss; lunch on Christmas day with Dad and my sister and step-mother, hoping he wouldn’t drink too much, before going home to start drinking myself.

My therapist doesn’t shake her head, but she gently pointed out that going into ‘survival mode’ – priming your fight or flight response – pretty much guarantees misunderstanding and conflict. No matter how much you try and anticipate what your parent might do, she said, you can’t; they’re too good at it.

Christmas that year was a doozie.

I wound up in emotional deep-freeze afterwards. I finally cracked through the ice in March, with an email asking Mum “did you really mean to say that?” Afterwards, I felt so relieved, I thought I was having a manic episode, and I went and got myself assessed for bipolar. Turns out I don’t have it: just recurring episodes of major depression with relatively predictable triggers.

Christmas is the perfect storm: family, end-of-year exhaustion, and repetition.

Every school holiday after their divorce, my parents had the same fight: over the meaning of a single word in the access (custody) agreement. Mum argued Dad must take his children for an extra three days every school holiday; Dad pointed out it said that he may – and he chose not to. Apart from the message that your parents are fighting over not having you around, the difficult thing about this fight was the repetitiveness of it, its viciousness and the impossibility of averting or resolving it; if I intervened I became a target for Mum’s invective, so all I could ever do was freeze, go numb, play dead.

As anyone living with multi-episodic depression will know, there’s a certain ‘not again’ panic about the onset of an episode. One of the ways the past traps us in the present is through our re-enactment of strategies that worked for us as children in the face of challenges in adult life. Like putting on a mask and getting through Christmas. But as Brené Brown points out, you can’t selectively numb: it’s all or nothing. And when I go numb, I lose emotional perspective – feedback on whether my behaviour is consistent with my values – as well as motivation. In a word, depression. The coping strategy now sets up the problem.

My counsellor, Carol-Ann Allen, argues for an approach that recognises how the situation has changed since our childhood experiences (and the strategies we devised to cope with them). As children we were powerless: as adults we are not. She reminds me that I now have much wider scope for agency and my own skills for dealing with people being difficult.

One possible strategy, recommended by Carol-Ann, involves keeping your sense of humour in play – via the slight detachment of a conscious appreciation of how perfectly in-character the difficult people in our lives are being when they throw us a curve ball. When you see it coming, instead of freezing, you might think, ‘Damn, that remark is so perfectly you. Five stars!’

Helpful tip: don’t verbalise this thought.

Carol-Ann Allen will be giving a talk on ‘Making peace with your parents’ at Midsumma Festival in Melbourne (February 3) with a particular focus on queer and trans experiences of coming out. This article reflects what I’ve taken away from our sessions and any errors or omissions are mine alone.

About the author

danielreeders_1406865247_38

Daniel Reeders is a PhD candidate looking at stigma and public health. He blogs about these topics and many more at Bad Blood.