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Their pain in common, they share their hope


© St. Petersburg Times, published August 19, 2000

There are the high points, the moments of humor, that punctuate the talk of the 13 men and women who sit around the table at a meeting of the Tampa Bay Depressive and Manic Depressive Association. The group sounds very official, but, in fact, it is made up not of mental health professionals but of people who have the disorders and their family or friends. On nearly every night of the week in a room in a library or a church or a medical center, in Tampa and across the bay, they gather to talk about their illness and how to make it better.

They do not offer treatment advice: That is left to the individual's psychiatrist, psychologist and psychopharmacologist. They do offer information -- a table is filled with fliers, newsletters, a chart to register bipolar mood scale. And they offer emotional support as well, a kind word, a squeeze of the hand.

Tonight, the facilitator sets forth the rules: Don't mention doctor's names; no foul language (some people are offended), if you excuse yourself to go to the restroom or make a phone call and decide to leave, come back to the group and let them know you're going.

Then around the table, they introduce themselves. "I'm John, and I'm bipolar." Or, "I'm Sara, and I'm here to support John."

An agreement is made with me not to use anyone's name or the location of the meeting, not that the places are secret -- you can call (813) 878-2906 or pick up one of the group's newsletters. The people here tonight do not appear concerned for themselves, but a few fear that even the threat of a leak in confidentiality could scare away a potential member.

Much of the conversation on this night is geared toward treatment.

A young woman says her family doesn't want her to stay on her medication. They like it when she's manic. She giggles. "I don't listen to them," she says. She emphasizes how important it is to find the right drug, the right doctor. She'd gone to one psychiatrist for nine months and was so unwell she got into trouble with the police, then changed psychiatrists and was put on a new drug and, "Wow."

Again and again, it is pointed out: Stay on your medication. "One aspect of manic depression is to think you're better and don't need drugs," one man says. He knows; he stopped taking them and lost his job, his marriage and his relationship with his kids.

The facilitator goes around the table, asks how people are doing.

"How are you since the kids went back to school?" he asks a woman who'd lost her job through a manic episode.

She's bored, she says. For her, a housewife and mother, work "is a chance to go out and be yourself. That's what I miss."

"As a manic we're very good employees for a while," another woman says, but employers forget that once something goes wrong.

The facilitator asks a new member, "A bad week?"

"I've had a bad year-and-a-half," says the woman. "A year and a half ago I made one of the worst decisions of my life. I built my dream house."

" "The Money Pit?' " two members call out.

The woman laughs in agreement. "I, II, III and IV!"

"You can laugh at your illness," a man comments. "That's a good sign."

"I can't cry," she says. "I wish I could cry."

She is urged by several to see a psychiatrist. She is worried that her health insurance will drop her.

"My whole body's falling apart. I'm not eating. I'm not sleeping. Sometimes I can't remember my phone number," she says.

A man tells her, "Your head and body are screaming at you to get help."

- Sandra Thompson is a writer living in Tampa. Her column appears occasionally.

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