A BRIEF personal history ...
In early 1999, I had nowhere to go, no one to turn to. I had just survived a killer depression and been diagnosed with bipolar. It was official. They had a name for my sense of alienation and craziness. What now?
Fortunately this coincided with the moment that internet access became low-cost. I was leading an isolated existence at the time. I had no one to talk to. But thanks to a dial-up connection, I began sending electronic messages in bottles. In no time, I discovered I wasn't alone, that I was part of a worldwide community that found personal strength through connecting. By engaging in online discussions, I found it much easier to come to terms with my illness. People were most open in sharing their personal experiences, together with their insight and wisdom.
Seeking out online support also changed my life. This was the golden age of do-it-yourself websites. One of these was Bipolar World, founded by Colleen Sullivan. After three or four weeks of keeping up with the discussions on the site's message board, Colleen happened to post a notice that another website was looking for someone to write on depression. The pay was $20 per month for four articles. I applied and got the job.
That little gig opened the floodgates for me. Once I started writing, I couldn't stop. Colleen was with me during these crucial initial stages, mentoring me, validating me. She even showed me what I had to do to set up my own website, together with coming up with the web address name, mcmanweb. Thanks to her extraordinary generosity, I found my true calling. Such is the power of personal support.
Some ten or eleven months into my diagnosis, I finally summoned up the courage to attend a personal support group. Trust me, unless you are blessed with abundant social skills, it takes a brave person to venture out into the night and walk into a room full of strangers, knowing all eyes will be focussed in you. Keep in mind, we have been kicked in the butt by our illness. Our world has collapsed. Whatever our personal situation, we are vulnerable, in a state of emotional shell shock.
Is talking even possible?
Thank God, there are other people like me - that was my first reaction. This type of response, I would later find, is fairly universal, namely: It's not just me. I'm not the only one.
The relief is palpable. Suddenly, you find yourself opening up. Even an introvert with social anxiety issues such as me. It was safe for me to talk. No one was judging, everyone was supportive.
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But I'm nuts, I almost felt like protesting. I'm a loser who can't manage his life. Welcome to our club, was their reaction. I'm still in touch with one of the people from that first night.
This particular group, sponsored by Mental Health America (MHA), met in a hospital room in Farmington, CT. For three years, the group served as my social anchor. From there, I gained confidence in seeking out my own connections. In early 2004, I married and moved to just outside Princeton, New Jersey. A new Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) group had just started up and needed someone to facilitate. Guess who?
Thus, I entered a new stage in my recovery. Facilitating greatly advanced my social skills. I became a good listener - a healer, even - one who could respond with empathy. One unexpected result was I became far more comfortable in real-world social settings. To anyone who has attended a support group, please consider volunteering as a facilitator. In serving others, the person you serve most is yourself.
After three years, my marriage broke up and I found myself sharing a place in rural southern California with two other people with a bipolar diagnosis. I got hooked up with a couple of DBSA groups in the San Diego area, but I found my daily conversations with my new housemates much better served my needs. The two were highly knowledgeable mental health advocates. Our conversations, often over my home-cooking, were eye-opening and stimulating.
Moving to California also involved a major personal shift. Now I was socializing with people in recreational settings. For the first time since my diagnosis, I found myself identifying as just me, not someone with a bipolar label. My days of attending support groups were over. I had graduated.
But that didn't mean I shed the personal support. Over the years, I have maintained my own informal network of people I can talk to. Sometimes, we just have a coffee or yak on the phone. But if I need to put out a distress signal, I know they will be there. Likewise, I am there for them.
In my book, NOT JUST UP AND DOWN, I describe a connection I made with Maggie Reese, author of Runaway Mind and my partner in making our Bipolar Stuff in the Shack videos:
We greeted each other from across a gulf in the parking lot. Even from a distance, I could feel a life-affirming psychic charge coming from her, one that told me I was with one of my own, that I had nothing to fear, nothing to hide.
Trust me, this is golden. Since then, Maggie has been there for me and I have been there for her. We can't take these relationships for granted. They need cultivation and nourishment. Ask yourself this: Is there anyone in your life where if you call to say you are severely depressed, they will instantly get it? Are there three such people in your life?
But we also need to branch out wider. A good many of us have come to the realization that we will always be outsiders. As a result of both our illness and our personality traits, we fall into a caste of outliers, gifted and quirky and often socially awkward. I go into this in great length in my book, IN SEARCH OF OUR IDENTITY.
Just as bipolars need to find fellow bipolars, outliers need to find fellow outliers. In my case, my didgeridoo serves as my calling card. Not only did I gain membersip into a worldwide didge tribe, the instrument also became my entry into a much wider outlier community, peopled by highly creative and intuitive beings. People I could open up to, share my passions with.
The didge also became my litmus test. People who didn't "get" the didge, I quickly found, weren't the kind of people I wanted to hang around with. Trust me, this test is more accurate than a pregnancy screening. Soon a number of people were out of my life. Ironically, most of them were involved in mental health. Life is short. We can't waste it on people who think we're supposed to conform to their sense of normal. When I talk about personal support, I want real support, from people who embrace me for who I am, who know where I am coming from.
Now let's fold family into this. Your brother or sister may not get your illness or your outsider sensibilities, but they do get growing up in the same household with you, sharing the same parents. Soon after my brother moved out to southern California, we would find ourselves having beers in my living room while listening to Neil Young. He felt a deep need to talk. So did I. Together, we validated each other's memories. Speaking for myself, a profound healing occurred. The ghosts of my distant past now merely annoy me rather than haunt me.
Tying everything into a bow: We're social animals. We're not wired to go through life alone. Fortunately, though, we're not alone, though it may seem that way if the only people in your life have no clue where you're coming from. Trust me, there is a tribe or two or three that you truly belong to. Get connected, find support.
See also: Support Groups.
Jan 10, 2017
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