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A Healing Oasis for Mental Sufferers in the Backcountry

Dr. John Tamerin’s DBSA Friday backcountry support group. “It’s easier to talk here than with your doctors—there’s more empathy and understanding.”
Photo by Anne W. Semmes

By Anne W. Semmes

In the embracing library-office space of psychiatrist Dr. John Tamerin’s grand backcountry home, there’s a lot of healing going on, healing that takes different forms. Healing as in acceptance, empathy, understanding, forgiveness. Mind you, there’s no ready cure for what brings them: bipolar disorder, depression, despair over the death of a loved one. They have their doctors, their medications—it’s that coping with day to day they’re after. And they have found it for free with Dr. T.

For 17 years they’ve been coming, mothers, sons, fathers, daughters, artists and lawyers, students and teachers, detectives and computer scientists—in groups of 20 to 30. It was Tamerin’s helplessness in trying to heal his bipolar son, even with his considerable experience treating hundreds of patients, that put him in search of support. He found it in a national organization, Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, DBSA. He created its Greenwich chapter, the first in the state, with help from a few others. Ever since, he has welcomed them from ages 17 to 75, as he sits, listens, and makes suggestions from his wing chair position in the great gathering that takes place every Friday year-round from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m.

“Driving here, I was feeling anxious,” says Martha, newly widowed with a history of family depression. “But whatever chaos is going on I know that at 2:30 it will be peaceful.”

Dr. T. has asked them how they benefit from the group.

“It’s easier to talk here than with your doctors—there’s more empathy and understanding,” says David, an artist. “Being able to talk with people is immensely helpful,” adds Cyrus, a young computer scientist. “They’re showing me different strategies.”

“A reality check comes to mind,” offers Sara. “This room provides that reality check. Even if we sit here silently, it’s being able to listen and take in what our own isolated thoughts don’t allow us to perceive. Most importantly, it allows us to feel less afraid and find hope for where we come from—a dark place.”

Sara’s dark place goes back to her 20’s, when she was suffering silently from depression and anxiety. That silence would end only after two breakdowns not while in search of help for herself but for her child also afflicted with depression and anxiety. Her recovery began some 10 years ago, after finding Dr. T. and his DBSA group. With that recovery came the inspiration to channel her anxiety through sketching, and then into a painting career. A year ago, she launched her Mental Health Greeting Cards. Sara is targeting what the National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates to be the one in five American adults who suffer from some form of depression and anxiety. She is using her creative art to decorate the cards, with sayings reflecting her own “lived experience with mental pain.”

The subject of the shame and stigma of mental illness is now discussed in the group, with Martha giving her lifelong perspective. “Remember when people were embarrassed to talk about having cancer—the big C?”

Dr. T. jumps in, “Mood disorders are the same as cancer. It’s not just a brain disease, but a total human experience. Depression is very complex, just as bipolar disorder is. The brain is part of the body. There’s no shame in having a brain illness, in an ideal world.”

“Coming here and having therapy with the doctor [Dr. T],” says Cyrus, “you have a self-awareness of moderating your own mood for yourself. I needed education about being bipolar, mood control. I needed to understand how people behave and how I should behave.”

“I struggled in college,” Cyrus adds, “but I’m doing well now. I’m committed and make nothing below an A.” He’s started a software company and works at a local college, tutoring and mentoring students in computer science.

Dr. T. reaches across to a newcomer, Derek, 17, who has bipolar disorder and is there with his mother, Trisha. “How do you feel hearing all this?” he asks Derek.

“I feel humbled,” he says.

This brings a quick compliment from Martha. “I think you are fantastic for sharing.”

Derek then hears of an experience he can relate to when Anna, a young woman suffering from deep depression tells of having paranoia, of “hearing a radio with voices.” “It feels so real,” she says.

Derek adds, “Yeah, it feels so real. I’m going through these same clinical phenomena.”

Derek’s mother, Trisha, responds, “When I see Derek in this state, I think, ‘What should I do?’”

Sara interjects with an experience with her child, “Try your best not to appear scared by what your son is saying, because for one thing, he relies upon you to be a strong adult. This is who/what you need to portray, even if it isn’t exactly what you’re feeling at that moment. If you were to appear scared he might very well feel guilty afterward for having frightened you.”

“You need to trust those who love you until your own voice returns in a helpful way,” offers Mike, a detective. “The core of who you are will guide or show you your way.”

There is an honesty that is palpable in this gathering, a leveling of the playing field between generations allowing them to speak to each other. “Today, everyone here is a teacher,” notes Dr. T.

In these two hours, Dr. T. has gotten the idea, listening to Derek, to possibly engage him in setting up a similar support group in his boarding school. “I’d like to see more DBSA chapters in private high schools,” he says. Cyrus agrees. “If I’d had something like this when I was losing it, it would certainly have helped.”

Dr. T. invites Derek and nearby David, now in his 30’s and a boarding school graduate, to help facilitate groups in their boarding schools that would be a first with the DBSA organization. “I want us to be leaders,” Dr. T. says. “This little town group is leading the way.”

In fact, the Greenwich group is being visited this very day, June 23, by DBSA National President Allen Doederlein, at a celebration being hosted by John Tamerin and his wife, Susan Penry William, for DBSA’s “Life Unlimited” honoree, Sara Mushegian, the Sara featured in this group meeting. It is Sara’s recovery, artistic realizations and creative contributions that are being celebrated.

For more information on Dr. John Tamerin’s DBSA Greenwich Friday group, visit www.dbsa.CT.com.

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