By: Keith O'Neil

 

It was nearly a year and a half after my bipolar diagnosis when I began to look for different avenues to wellness. My lack of improvement had been taking a toll not only on me but on my family as well. I was still seeing my psychiatrist once every six weeks and my therapist about once every other week.  Though I was spending a decent amount of time with my doctors I was still experiencing anxiety, depressive states, irritability, obsessive thoughts and suicidal ideation.  In other words, I was experiencing bipolar mixed states. 

 

Around this time my wife, Jill began attending NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) meetings to better understand bipolar disorder and mental illness.  It was at a NAMI meeting when someone suggested to her that it might be beneficial for me to attend a bipolar support group. When she returned home from the meeting she approached me about the idea.  At first, I was very hesitant but after several months and limited progress in my health I decided to attend my first meeting; it would forever change my life.

 

The meeting was held in the basement of an old building in Buffalo, NY.  I didn’t know what to expect so I kept to myself and didn’t say much.  There was about fifteen or so people in attendance including, a lawyer, psychiatric nurse, teacher, landscaper, software engineer, clerk, several unemployed, some on disability, etc.  We sat in a circle just as you would imagine and intorduced ourselves.  After thirty minutes I began to develop a pit in my stomach while thoughts of leaving crossed my mind.  Things were getting all to real. As I looked at these complete strangers I oddly saw me.  Yes, some were in far worse condition than I was and others were light years ahead of me but there was one thing we all had in common, something only 2.6% of all humans have in common, a different ability, bipolar disorder.

 

The paths etched in our lives all told a different story. Stories outsiders will never comprehend. As my hoodie went up I carefully began to study each person.  “Was I really like these people? Was I as bad as that guy, he needs help.  That lady over there gives me anxiety when she speaks, why? That guy is a lawyer, why is he here?  Wait, why am I here, what am I going to say? Hi, I’m Keith I was diagnosed a year and a half ago. It’s been hard. This is my first session, I’m just going to listen tonight, thanks.” That's all I said that night. 

 

As the session continued and everyone shared I began to get quite emotional.  Even though there were stories of love, music, pets and wellness I unfortunately was drawn to the dark side of the conversation-the struggle.  Stories of medication complications, divorce, hopelessness, anxiety, homelessness, abuse, custody battles, loneliness, malpractice, hospital stays, etc.  It was an eerie feeling sitting there listening and watching because I truly understood.  For the first time in my life I was amongst others like me.  It was the first time I met someone else with bipolar disorder and the first time I’d heard someone speak about their own bipolar.

 

During the half hour ride home the radio was off and the phone remained in the console.  I was caught up in reflection.  I realized that my problems weren’t so bad after all when compared to some of the stories I had just heard.  I couldn’t help but appreciate my loving wife and healthy son and the fact that Jill had stood by my side through everything.  I realized I have an amazing supportive family and great friends.  I realized how fortunate I was to have good health insurance and the choice to work with the best doctors.  Most importantly though, I realized I wasn’t alone. 

 

As I drove, I couldn’t help but think about the silent epidemic we are facing in our country and around the world today, mental illness.  I just sat amongst fifteen people who gather once a week to talk with each other because most people in the outside world are either uneducated about, uncomfortable with or simply baffled by mental illness. In 2014 people with mental illness live alone.  We live in a society where mental illness is shamed and stigmatized and thus, in basements across the country people are sitting in circles talking about their struggles with mental illness quietly and in secret.

So when are things going to change? When can those with mental disorders leave the basements and talk freely about their illness? When is society going to realize it's time? I hope soon.