On the Outside Looking In
The names in this article have been changed to respect the anonymity of those involved
I wrapped my small, icy fingers around a bitter cup of black coffee in the hope of thawing my hands and regaining some sensation. I looked down at my cupped hands, my sore, raw thumbs red flesh exposed due to excessive cuticle picking. I was perched on a tall wooden bar stool, my Dr Marten’s tapping uncontrollably against the chair leg. I could feel my heart beating so hard and fast, like it would burst through my puffer jacket at any second. The high-pitched screeching of the steaming coffee machine made me jump; I’m hypersensitive to my surroundings. I’m startled by the vibration my phone makes against the table, a text that reads “That’s me here. I’ve opened the front doors”. I inhale deeply and exhale slowly, as I gather my belongings and make my way to Flourish House, where I am about to meet with a bipolar support group for the first time.
I’m greeted by Maria, one of the facilitators for tonight’s group session, a young woman around the same age as myself, with a smile just as bright as her violet coloured lipstick. Maria leads me into a medium sized canteen room with powder blue walls and thirteen chairs placed in a large circle in the middle. One of the seats is occupied by a petite woman named Kate*, dressed mostly in black. Kate stands up to greet me, enthusiastically asking if I am a woman named Lisa, who joined them at a Christmas party last year. Maria corrects her and tells her I’m a student journalist, here to ask some questions and talk to group members. The enthusiasm I was initially met with quickly disappears and Kate retreats to her seat in silence, avoiding eye-contact with me for some time.
I stand around awkwardly for a while pretending to search for items in my damp (thanks to the torrential rain) and ridiculously oversized handbag, before Maria tells me with a reassuring smile, to join the circle and sit wherever I want. More group members are gradually trickling through the door and the spaces within the circle fill quickly. There are two more seats left, and I am again encouraged by Maria to join, but I declined. Not because I don’t want to, but because I feel I’m already infiltrating the session with my presence. I don’t want to enter a space -which many of these members feel is safe and sacred – with my soggy notepad, cheap Biro pen and list of personal questions. A non-sufferer. A journalist.
“You need to find your people” with his arms folded across his chest. “It makes you feel more normal”.-Peter*
Maria checks her watch, it’s 7:05 pm and time for the session to officially begin. She asks me to introduce myself and explain why I am here. Still, on the outside of the circle, I reiterate what Maria told Kate ten minutes earlier, that I am a Master’s student studying journalism, here to write an article about living with bipolar. I’m met with a deafening silence. What did I expect? To be greeted with open arms? A warm embrace of acceptance? Try as I might to be an ally, a journalist’s motives aren’t always clear, so I understand why the air is heavy with tension and reservation.
I look around the room for some reassurance that someone might say something. Nothing. My heart is beating in my ears as I look down at my child-sized hands, noticing now they are back to a normal colour, but shaking. I prepare myself to leave, accepting failure until Martin* a tall, slim, sallow-skinned 45-year-old man with a cropped beard says “I was lost and suicidal, I was in a really bad way, this place [the group] has helped. I was chasing a diagnosis. I didn’t know if I had ADD, bipolar or schizophrenia.”
Martin continues to tell me and the rest of the group about his past. I find out he was homeless for a year and had to search through bins to find food for himself. He’s open and candid about his personal life and struggles, he sugar-coats nothing but is humble, forgiving and gracious. Less reserved and much more willing to talk than the rest of the group, Martin speaks quickly with zeal and energy. I notice I’m struggling to keep up with where we are in the conversation. Nobody else is interjecting. “Do they not have anything to add? Nothing to say, at all? Should I ask to interview Martin alone and let the group continue?” I ask myself. That’s when Martin tells the group he’s on a high today, something they all recognise, which I mistakenly perceive as friendly enthusiasm. Martin continues; “I thought nothing was wrong with me for 40 years. People thought I was just over-passionate and hyper”. Attending a group such as the one tonight and talking with other people living with bipolar is where Martin can identify symptoms and understand his behaviour.
Peter* a middle-aged man with a deep voice says: “You need to find your people” with his arms folded across his chest. “It makes you feel more normal” says a gentle voice to my left, belonging to a woman named Lana* soft spoken, with thick brown hair pulled into a low ponytail, she seems to be more wary of my presence than the others. My nerves are subsiding slightly, but only thanks to Martin who has been leading the discussion for some time now.
The group members are in flow now, talking about everything from medications to friendships, to which George*, a small man in his seventies says: “the question I’ve always been asked is ‘can a person with bipolar have friends?’”. Heads nodded in agreement of how some friends, despite being so close can never truly understand bipolar. Pauline*, a small woman with short, strawberry blond hair says: “I’ll never forget the blank look on a friend’s face when I told them how I felt”. It was becoming apparent that losing friends can be a common occurrence amongst those living with bipolar, when charisma is absent, so is friendship.
I’m starting to feel less of a trespasser now, I continue taking notes and as I write the realisation hits me that it is in fact, a privilege to be told such personal stories from people who are strangers to me, and I to them. I ask the group about the media, how if they feel it has a responsibility to increase the visibility of bipolar disorder. Both Peter and Martin tell me they no longer watch television, celebrities crop up in discussion as Kate says “the media is glamourising bipolar, there’s nothing glamorous about it. The BBC has done a good job, but the media have to be more accurate in their representation of bipolar”.
Every group member agrees, particularly Peter, as he distinguishes between education and entertainment, saying: “the media doesn’t seek to inform, it seeks to entertain”. This is then echoed by a younger man to my right, Scott* who has been silent most of the session; “bipolar is entertaining. The highs. It would be a very boring film if it was just about the lows”. Names are now being thrown around the inside of the circle, Vincent Van Gogh, Carrie Fisher, Spike Milligan and I know why. Creative visionaries who lived with bipolar.
It’s 7.55pm, the session is almost over, and Pauline looks at me saying politely: “We have to live through this. If I had cancer it would run its course on my body”. The rest of the group are reaffirming this, discussing with one another the compassion they would receive if they suffered from cancer as opposed to bipolar.
I‘ve heard a circumference of stories tonight. Although the word “stories” makes it seem I have been told tales and untruths, which is not the case. All the things I have heard tonight are true, very personal accounts of a life with bipolar disorder. I haven’t written down all the stories I heard tonight, some stories just aren’t mine to write, or to tell. This circle is a safe haven, although I know some of these stories will cross my mind again soon, they will never leave my lips or my fingertips.
If you, or someone you know would like advice on Bipolar Disorder, please visit www.bipolarscotland.org.uk