The only vision I had ever had of group therapy was a bunch of quiet, awkward, timid people with bags under their eyes gathering in a circle in a church basement with fluorescent lights and bad coffee, one by one confessing their addictions and receiving feedback out of nicety, most of them there because they had promised their spouses they would give it a try. This is the precise reason that, when the team at the outpatient center created my treatment plan and decided to include three group therapy sessions per week, I was nothing short of defiant. I begged and begged Laurie to let me stick to one-on-one sessions with her and Jonathon, convinced that somehow I knew better than she did what I would need in order to heal.
My efforts unsurprisingly failed and I begrudgingly found myself perched atop one of the black leather chairs that lined all four walls of a small, white room, in group therapy with five other individuals, three damn times per week. And despite my reluctance to partake, what took place in that room was far from what I had ever imagined.
At first, it was all pretty close to what I thought group therapy would be. There were the awkward first introductions, the obligatory “Hi, I’m Ashley and I’m here because I just found out that I have Bipolar Disorder and have no idea how to live with that,” the ice-breakers, and the hokie conversation-starting games. It started out feeling extremely forced and most of us involved were hesitant to engage. I got the sense that I wasn’t the only one who wasn’t buying into the idea that talking with other, equally-if-not-more fucked up people was supposed to help any of us feel any better about ourselves and our situations.
… maybe it wasn’t that the world wasn’t made for people like us, but that maybe we were the only ones really paying attention.”
But over the course of a few weeks, something somewhat miraculous started to happen. Walls built over years of trauma and mistreatment and shame came crashing down as similarities in experiences were shared and related to. We all started to realize, in bits and pieces, that maybe it wasn’t that the world wasn’t made for people like us, but that maybe we were the only ones really paying attention. Tears were shed and heart-wrenching stories about how each person ended up in this place were revealed. Of course, sharing the details of what happened in group therapy for anyone but myself would be in violation of any HIPAA contract I’ve ever signed, so I’ll stick to what happened for me and myself only.
One day, I had a particularly difficult drive to therapy because it had been about a month since starting medication and I still felt absolutely awful and like I hadn’t made much progress toward stability, or even sanity for that matter. I had lugged myself out of the house to make it to this particular group therapy session, drove the long hour and a half drive from San Diego to Newport Beach, and I simply was not able to keep my emotions inside at this point.
Upon arrival, I noticed my silly little lunch waiting for me at the silly little waiting room table outside of the silly little room where I was to go to confess all of my silly little feelings after scarfing down this silly little burrito. I was so utterly sick of being a patient.
In the following group therapy session that I tried to disengage from in every way possible in order to prevent my bad mood from showing through, one simple, direct question from the group facilitator was enough to crack me:
“How have you been since Tuesday, Ashley?”
“How have I been since Tuesday? The exact fucking same. Miserable. Exhausted. So done with feeling like I’ll never get better.”
I scanned across the room, into eyes and faces that were quite shocked at my deferral from my usual “everything is fine” act, but also a bit pleased in a way I couldn’t figure out just yet.
“I’m sorry. I just… I’m just so tired.” I apologized to the group facilitator.
“No, this is good. Go on. Why are you so frustrated?” she responded.
With a tightness in my chest and a full-bodied desire to cry, I worked up the ability to respond and what followed was nothing less than an outpouring.
“Well, I’ve been accommodating and compliant since I got here. I’ve come to terms with my diagnosis even though I thought it couldn’t be right. Against all reservations, I’ve come to group therapy and have taken my medication and tried meditation and practiced yoga and written in my journal and have done everything else I’ve been asked to do, and yet still, I’m in an absolutely awful place. My head is still spinning and I feel like I’ve lost everything I’ve ever worked for. I don’t know what else or what more I can do and it all just feels so unfair and like my life is slipping away from me. All I’ve ever wanted and tried to be is a good person who works hard and does the right thing, and I’ve been rewarded with a mental illness that makes life feel absolutely impossible. I’m just sick of it and I’m grappling with my will to wake up tomorrow.”
I shocked myself with the words that had just come out of my mouth and how honest they were. For once, I didn’t give a crap if I sounded too negative, or too dark, or too desperate and sad. For once I just said exactly how I felt, and I was pleasantly surprised by the catharsis that followed. I felt like I was wearing my true self on my sleeve, and I didn’t care what anyone in that room thought about me because I had, at this point, heard each one of their stories and knew that mine wouldn’t be enough to scare them off.
When I finished bearing my soul with my relentless rant, I looked up to a room full of shocked yet extremely pleased expressions, and found one member of the group lightly snapping his fingers, wearing on his face a sideways grin that seemed to read “finally, someone who gets it.”
After this group therapy session, I was making my way to my car when I heard footsteps catching up to me from a few yards behind.
“Hey Ashley,” kindly spoke the boy who cracked the side smile in response to my brutally raw monologue moments before.
“Hi!” I responded, mostly surprised that anyone who heard what I had said would want to speak to a person like me, ever.
“What you said back there…that was the most relatable thing I’ve ever heard. I could tell you were embarrassed by it, but you really shouldn’t be. It was refreshing as hell to finally hear someone just tell it how it is for once without candy-coating it. How would you feel about being friends?”
He extended his phone with the new contact page open for me to add my phone number, and judging by the fact that I hadn’t showered that day and I wasn’t wearing any makeup, it definitely wasn’t because I was looking particularly cute.
I had shown myself, my dark and my ugly (and my greasy and pimply and human), and someone, somehow, still wanted to be my friend.