By: Allan G. Cooper
“Psychiatrists can tell you about the ocean by reading about it and seeing it in their practice but we know what it's like to be in the water”.
This is how my co-worker Ray explains peer support. We work for an agency called OBAD, the Organization for Bipolar Affective Disorder, in Calgary, Canada. We facilitate drop in peer support groups for people with the illness.
When I went to my first meeting, I was experiencing another crippling depressive episode. My connection to life seemed to be fading away and I was on the verge of losing my job. I only had enough energy to barely feed myself and lie in bed obsessing about suicide.
I called the distress centre line in Calgary and they put me through to the Mental Health Mobile Response Team. They came to my home to meet me and they suggested I go to an OBAD meeting.
I could barely find the energy to walk and forming a sentence in a social setting seemed impossible. I hated support groups. I felt like they just confirmed the fact that I was different from everyone else. But, I had become hopeless and I was desperate to find anything to make the pain stop.
At my first meeting, I sat with my head down avoiding eye contact with everyone. Partially because I can be shy around new people but mostly because I was just exhausted.
When the meeting started I was surprised that the facilitators also had bipolar. As we went around the room, people talked about whatever they felt like including suicide, psychosis or sometimes they just talked about their day.
When it was my turn, I was nervous at first but one of the facilitators gently coaxed me into sharing with the group. Reluctantly, I began to talk about my life and that is when I first experienced the magic of peer support.
I told them about my suicidal thoughts and my shame for having them along with the perception that I was a coward because I couldn't do it. I told them that I was afraid of losing my job, my friends and financial stability. Everyone nodded in understanding as I spoke.
When people said words of encouragement to me they started with, “when I was going through …”. Everyone, including the facilitators, talked from the perspective of their own personal experiences. It was like opening a can of instant hope.
Sometimes, when people who don't have bipolar ask me about our meetings they find it confusing.
“So, do you guys have topics?”
“Do you have coffee and snacks?”
“Do you have a list of rules on the board and write down goals?”
“I don't get it. What's the point?”
The fact that they don't get it is precisely the point. When you attend an OBAD meeting you can relax and take off the costume of pretending to be perfectly fine. You can be in a severe depressive episode and not be able to say a word and the group will genuinely congratulate you for making it to the meeting.
If you are hypomanic and babble on and on, the group may help you by dropping hints or sharing stories of the damage that hypomania can do to your life. Or, we just listen and when you come down from the high there is no reason to be ashamed or embarrassed because we all understand.
After I started to attend meetings regularly my life started to turn in a positive direction. I did not lose my job and I was able to achieve a lengthy period of stability after that first meeting.
The shame I had of having the illness dissipated and the tips I learned from the facilitators and other members of the group proved to be invaluable.
Seven years ago, I became one of the facilitators of the group. I have had the privilege of seeing the progress of people's recovery first hand. The day someone is able to smile after an extended period of suffering is special to me. They are usually not aware of the change because the transition is so gradual but it is a distinct moment for me.
If you have bipolar disorder even though it may feel like it at times you are not alone. You share a special connection to some of the most extraordinary people in the world. We are in this together and with the help of our peers we can stay well and find joy in our lives despite the suffering.