When it feels like nobody understands you, it’s helpful to be in the company of people who have similar experiences. Finding a good fit can be tricky, but it’s worth the effort!
Since my diagnosis of bipolar disorder many years ago, I have felt that something has been missing. I have attended therapy and I have a great deal of family support, which has definitely paid off and helped me live a very stable life. I work hard at maintaining stability by taking my medicine, getting 8 to 10 hours of sleep, and exercising.
With all that being said, I long for more. I think as humans we want to be understood. I’d be rich if I had a dollar for every time I have yelled, “You just don’t understand what it’s like to have bipolar disorder” to my parents or husband. I want people to understand how I feel. Though I am surrounded by many friends, sometimes I wonder if they really “get” me.
Finding a support group
Here in Las Vegas we have two support groups––that meet at psychiatric hospitals. I have a fear of any kind of hospital as it is. It is only by the act and grace of God that I have managed to avoid hospitalization. Trust me, there were many times when I should have been hospitalized.
It took me a while to even set foot on the grounds of the hospital. I had sweaty palms driving there and anxiety the whole time. Then, I could not find the right door. Fortunately, a guard soon appeared, and he helped me enter the locked lobby. It was interesting to discover that there were two rooms: one for the families of those living with mental illness and one for the people who have mental illness. For some reason, he pegged me as a person who belonged in the family support group room. Looks can be deceiving, but that is a whole different blog.
I stayed that night and heard many heartbreaking stories from families. I shared my success with the group, in an attempt to bring someone in the room hope. The families begged me to come back and attend the meeting for the people who had mental illnesses just like me.
After this experience, I decided to start a spiritual mental health support group. This was no easy task. First, I started at a spirituality center we have in town. The director loved my idea. There was a missing element through: I needed a psychologist to co-lead the group, but neither of us knew anyone. Instead, the director asked me to start a book club. I had no time for that.
I tried to talk to my pastor at my old church. Unfortunately, there was no room at the inn, so to speak. The church did not even have meeting rooms. And once again, I couldn’t find a psychologist to co-lead.
So, I met with a priest at another church to pitch my idea. He shared my idea with the main pastor of the church, who liked the concept. I still needed a psychologist to help lead, but this time though, there was someone willing to help out. There was actually a psychologist from the parish who had coincidentally wanted to start a mental health support group.
I modeled the group I started off a support group that meets in Colorado, and we advertise in our church’s bulletin:
“For those who suffer from mental illness, as well as those who do not, it can be difficult to navigate through all that is going on in our world today. People can feel overwhelmed, isolated, and even traumatized by current and/or past events. Sometimes we feel no one understands how difficult it is to cope. To this end, our church is offering a chance for those who need this support to come together in a safe place to talk and to listen to one another.” The running of the group is very simple. We all go around and talk about the challenges and celebrations that our lives bring. Then if one of the group members wants to say something to help, we ask the speaker if they would like feedback. People can choose to pass as well, so not everyone has to share. We meet twice a month.
I LOVE my group, especially because it is open to so many people, not just people like me with bipolar. Because it is a drop-in group, we have both regulars and people who come and go. I appreciate getting input and advice from people other than my mother. The psychologist I lead with is the best. I always feel that after going to the group, my perspective changes. It’s like a load has been taken off my back.
I have learned that when it comes to mental health groups, it is all about the right fit. If you have an opportunity to go to a group in your community, I recommend that you check it out. And if you can’t find one that works for you, you can always do what I did, and start your own.
Susan Johnson graduated from Drake University with a BA in sociology. She is the author of Some Dreams Are Worth Keeping: A Memoir of My Bipolar Journey. Since her diagnosis of bipolar I in 1995, Susie's true passion in life is to help break the stigma of mental illness and to bring hope to those who live with one. An accomplished inspirational speaker and guest blogger at bpHope Blog, Susie was the subject of a “This Is Me” Q&A in bp Magazine in 2018. Her writing also appears in the Catholic Exchange, the Kingdom Revelator, and Las Vegas Pet Scene Magazine. Susie co-leads a mental health group at her church and currently works with special education students as an instructional assistant for a school district in Nevada. In 2021, she gave a TEDx Talk called "Having a Mental Illness Is Not a Death Sentence" at TEDxTenayaPaseo. Susie enjoys hiking, baking, traveling, practicing yoga, spending time with her goddaughter, and taking trips to Cancun. Originally from Thousand Oaks, CA, Susie now makes her home in fabulous Las Vegas with her husband, Gary, and Siberian cat, Angel-Ann. Visit her website, SJohnsonAuthor.com and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.
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