A few years ago at our SUTS support group (formerly DBSA Albuquerque), a young man came with his not so young/very old man friend to our Thursday support group that once convened at Heights Community Center. The community center was named “Heights” not because it is in the far northeast part of town. This is the area commonly identified as “Heights” in Albuquerque nowadays. No, Heights Community Center gained its name because in 1937, when this WPA project broke ground, this was as far east as the city extended. It was well above Downtown and Oldtown, and thusly was in the heights. Now, Heights Community Center resides on the east side of the main CNM campus on Buena Vista.
You learned something. I also learned something. I learned it is insulting and dangerous to have an interloper at group. Let me explain. Actually, you haven’t a choice. If you’re going to read this, I’m not going to ask your permission to explain. I’m simply going to explain. So, I am going to explain. This is much more honest.
I am going to explain. This young man came with his old man friend, essentially as his ride to DBSA. His old man friend deals with severe depression. The young man . . . not so much. However, the young man attended the depression group. And the next week, he attended the bipolar group. And the third week, the young man came to the bipolar group and stated flatly, “I self-identify more as bipolar than depressive. I choose this group.”
From the start, this troubled me. “I self-identify more as bipolar than depressive.” And then, “I choose this group.” Pardon the conceit when I say I’ve earned my bipolar symptoms. They are a roadmap of physical, emotional, and psychological scars. Do I want to self-identify as having bipolar? Not so much. I was not given a choice. So, to hear someone say “I self-identify MORE as bipolar” and that he has a choice between bipolar and depression; do you smell that? It’s the aroma of “Dude, this isn’t a social club . . . it’s a group for people dealing with mental health issues directly related to depression and bipolar.”
Now, you needn’t have a membership card to come to SUTS peer support groups. Nor do you need a doctor’s note. Nor is there a secret handshake. What is preferred is having an implicit understanding of other group members through the shared trials, traumas, and triumphs of having a mood disorder. The support group works because people arrive and feel an immediate kinship through mutually-similar life experience. That’s what makes it a peer support groups. People who attend our peer support groups are peers. Said thus, and thus said.
I’m going to choose one commonality amongst peers with bipolar: Sensitivity to sunlight. This isn’t a vampire thing. Mood disorders are often tied to changes in the amount of sunlight. Less light often produces depressive symptoms. Excessive sunlight produces manic symptoms. In some peers. Not all. Still, when someone comes to group and says, “I hate the winter. The short days trigger my depression every year”, a solemn group nodding commences. Why? Because peers GET IT. We relate to what’s being said because we’ve been there, too.
This young man, he’s a bright young man. And exceptionally domineering. And exceptionally verbose. When he dominates the conversation, it’s often to speak of Monopoly woes. I don’t know if it’s the board game or if he’s referring to railroad tycoons of the 19th century. I think the latter. His old man friend spoke often of his retirement plan heavily relying on railroad bonds. It’s a mature market without a significant return from what I hear. We’ve moved on to more efficient and modern modes of transportation. The time to cash in railroad bonds was closer to the end of the Civil War than the end of the Cold War. I chose the Cold War to exaggerate . . . I’ve lost momentum trying to score a joke. Why did the cow roll down the hill? Because he didn’t have any legs. There. I win.
This young man, he’s a bright young man. And he discovered patterns in the banter. One that he was quite fond of coopting was the concept of being “triggered.” A trigger, for the Muggles tuning in, is some environmental factor that initiates or exacerbates bipolar symptoms. The example of solar photons is just such an environmental factor. Too much sunlight or too little sunlight and, bammo-whammo, bipolar symptoms. I’ll tell you something, in all the years being with peers with bipolar I’ve heard very often “The lack of sunlight triggers my depression. I hate the winter.” Never have I heard this misinformed and misleading gem:
The first time this young man uttered this nonsense it unsettled me. The conversation died. Peers looked at each other in confusion. So did I. Triggered to procrastinate? Unless I’d been missing something In all the years I attended group, procrastination wasn’t a commonly lamented symptom of bipolar disorder. This sentiment wasn’t mine exclusively. Other peers were discussing the same unsettled feeling about this young man as I was. Triggered to procrastinate? Other peers were triggered to confusion and mild irritation. At least one peer spoke of ulceratic colitis being triggered although I feel that was more to do with morning chicken masala smoothies than what was happening at group.
After a few months, some peers shared they weren’t coming back to group because they didn’t feel they had bipolar disorder . . . based upon what this domineering young man was sharing. That is more than unsettling. Why? because I remembered back to my first group on October 14, 2010. I cried the whole first group, not out of bipolar depression or just plain situational sadness. I cried because when I heard what others were saying resonated so deeply, and this because of one thing and one thing only:
On October 14, 2010, I gave myself two choices. Kill myself or try a peer support group. For the next three weeks I gave myself two choices. Kill myself or continue going to a peer support. I’m still here. My choice to go to a peer support group and continue going to a peer support group is essential to my wellness and recovery. Choosing to join a peer support group kept me alive for a month until I no longer felt killing myself was a choice.
Other peers undoubtedly came for the same reason. And, if there was a person speaking about being triggered to procrastinate dominating the conversation, these peers might not come back because they did not relate to a symptom unshared. They might leave and not come back. I know if I felt like that on my first visit, I wouldn’t be here typing this tome that is getting longer with each keystroke. Just now, I discovered the truth of typing. it creates length of cumulative keystrokes. Magical.
The center of this unsettled concern I had is very personal and deserves punctuated clarity. If I went to my first group and didn’t feel like I belonged, I wouldn’t have gone back. Looking back on how desperate and impulsive I was that first month and how ready set I was to end my life, I can state this with absolute certainty.
Now that other peers were voicing their choice not to return because they didn’t feel they belonged – exclusively because of things shared in group like “being triggered to procrastinate” – I had to wonder how many of these peers who attended for a sort while or new peers who attended only one time were in the same desperate situation I was in. And I’ll confess, I probably would have been chased off by “being triggered to procrastinate.” I was worried for these peers, peers who truly were challenged with the symptoms of depression and bipolar.
The other consideration I had was why it was disruptive for someone who didn’t share similar and recognizable life experiences could be so off-putting, confusing, and dangerous. So, I stepped out of strictly mental health peer support groups and thought of another group I once attended with an ex-gf. She had an eating disorder and she asked me to go with her for moral support. As I listened during the eating disorder group, my mind wandered just a bit and I asked myself “What would happen if I shared with the group ‘I self-identify as having an eating disorder because Thanksgiving triggers me to eat too much and I spend the rest of the day sweating turkey gravy on the couch all afternoon'” It would be insulting to the group, it would be disrespectful, and it would be dangerous.
This is when I decided I would take my concerns to our elected board. The discussion and vote took fifteen minutes to decide how we could keep this young man as part of our support group without being an interloper threatening the safety of the group. We voted to invite this young man to find peer support elsewhere on the condition that me and our vice president approach him with a single question before finalizing the board decision.
His reply was less than satisfying. I was hoping to hear something like “I come here because I feel like people understand me” or “I come hear because I feel safe sharing my life experiences with others who share my challenges” or “My severe depression keeps me from enjoying life.” The reply we received was so unsatisfying. He said this:
That was the deciding instance. He wasn’t attending our peer support groups for peer support. He was attending to work on personal issues unrelated to depression and bipolar AND because other peers support groups chose to remove him from their membership. Based on our unanimous board decision, our vice president and I invited him to find peer support elsewhere.
Please don’t think in any way this was an easy decision. We observed him for three weeks to ascertain that the off-putting behaviors other members were reporting were indeed happening and disruptive. And in the nine years I’ve been helping to manage peer support groups, I’ve only been present on the board when two members were asked to leave. And for one of those votes, I recused myself because of a personal conflict. Two people in nine years for the very valid reason of preserving the safety of the group. And neither time was it easy or unconflicted for me.
I learned this young man and several other members who were unhappy with our board decision affiliated their own chapter and provided another peer support option for the community. When we learned their group was also on Thursday night, we moved our Thursday group to Friday night so peers would have several options for when and where it was most convenient for them.
Unfortunately, I’ve learned their support group is no longer meeting. Stand Up To Stigma has three weekly peer support groups in three different parts of Albuquerque on three different days, and to fill the void on Thursday night we are developing a peer support group for the Far Northeast Heights.
Helping to manage these peer support groups for nearly a decade now, there are two essential factors for a successful peer support group.
That’s a very long anecdote to illustrate this very central and absolutely essential consideration in offering peer support groups to our communities. This won’t be the only time I visit this topic at Thoughtcrimes. And this is one of those articles we’ll be crosslinking to on the SUTS peer support group site and SUTS education program site.
So I’m off to our Tuesday night group now. Carlisle and Comanche directly on the SW corner of the intersection. First Unitarian Church. Doors open at 6:30PM, group starts at 7:00PM. Parking is off Comanche directly across from the Action 7 News complex.