What do you get when you put hundreds of depressed and bi-polar people into one room?
Believe it or not, it can be a party!
That’s what the Boston chapter of the Depression Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) had in mind when they celebrated their 30th anniversary the other night at McLean Hospital. Two things you need to know about McLean: it’s one of America’s most respected psychiatric care facilities, and it’s famously hard to get to. Though it’s near Boston, it was deliberately built out in the hinterlands. Legend has it that this was largely because patients preferred a psychiatric hospital away from the “big city.” There was much less of a chance of being “found out” that way. But even if it did take me about two hours to get there, I couldn’t wait to go. And I’m sure glad I did go.
There we were, hundreds of us with a wide range of diagnoses: depression, bi-polar disorder, PTSD, you name it. Some dedicated family and friends were there, too. For the most part, we did what anyone does at a milestone celebration. We laughed, we ate, we enjoyed live music, and we caught up with friends we hadn’t seen in a while.
When I got there, I first made a beeline for the food. I happened to be very hungry at that time, but I would have done this even if I wasn’t. I’m very shy in social settings like this, and I often use food as a crutch. After I filled my plate full of Chinese food (I must say that the spare ribs were especially delicious), I stood alone near a railing, scoping the big room for people I knew. (The doctor who treats my anxiety wants me to start walking up to strangers and initiating conversations. I hope he’s not reading this, because I’m really not up to that yet.) Once I found some friends, I bolted to their table.
From there, I had a great vantage point of the whole room. As I looked around, I couldn’t help but think that, here we are, not only celebrating, but SURVIVING!
There we several speakers, and they shared their personal stories. They told of how difficult it was to find help; of how painful it was to have family and friends turn away from them; of overcoming society’s low expectations of the mentally ill and going on to schools like Harvard and MIT.
So often, I feel as though I’m in an overwhelming minority when it comes to my depression and anxiety. Here, I was very much part of the majority. Pride swelled throughout my body.
Still, our celebration was distinctive in some ways. Parties normally don’t include support groups for people who really want to talk about what’s bothering them. Ours did. (Come to think of it, though, wouldn’t be great if every party had a support group? Think about it. Wouldn’t it be great if you could just excuse yourself for a minute, go into a room, close the door, and vent about the drunk asshole you just met, or the boring jerk who went on and on, and wouldn’t let you get a word in?)
There was also some truly dark, decidedly un-PC humor among us, like the guy who said “I think a theme of this party could be: We tried to kill ourselves. We couldn’t. Let’s eat!” Or the woman who thought: “If we had a dollar for all the suicide attempts and anxiety attacks between us, we could end the national dept.”
There was also one big thing that was mostly missing from our party: cameras. Though I think DBSA had a staff photographer to take photos of the event speakers and organizers, the ubiquitous sea of cell phone cameras was nowhere to be found. I have a cell phone camera, but i didn’t dare take it out.
I would like to think that the reason for this is that we all wanted to be “in the moment” and truly take in what was going on. But I suspect this was more out of caution.
Even those among us who do speak openly about our illness feel the need to be very careful at times. Jobs could be lost. Housing could be lost. Entire lives could be lost.
Organizations like DBSA have done so much to end the stigma faced by the mentally ill, but there’s so much more that needs to be done. I guess that’s a good thing in the long run, but I will say this. I hope that, for DBSA’s 60th anniversary, there will be LOTS of cameras and photos. By then, all the fear and stigma will be gone.
And then people will see that, among other things, we can indeed throw a really great party!