There are no bad DBSA support groups.
I’ve participated in over 500 DBSA group meetings and to paraphrase Will Rodgers “I never met a group I did not like.”
But there are certain elements that differentiate a great group from a useful group. Those elements are sometimes intangible and can be felt but not always observed. It is a bit like what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said of pornography. “I may not be able to define it. But I know it when I see it”. Profound truth can often be felt even though it cannot be quantified.
Having said that, what factors make a support group great? My answer is this - authenticity, transparency, vibrancy, deep emotional expression (i.e. “soul”), inspiration, humor (i.e. particularly the ability to laugh at oneself), a sense of perspective, and a deep feeling of community….
All of these elements are embodied in the music we call “The blues”, and when people come to a support group to “sing the blues” I believe those groups are the best. The blues are an attitude as well as a musical form which combines rawness and a lack of pretense with a spiritual element derived from gospel music (an aspect of the blues) that fosters a deeper connection to faith and a belief that things will get better.
The blues put us in touch with universally painful aspects of the human condition. Singing the blues is not complaining. It is sharing one’s humanity on the deepest level. Singing the blues is not whining. The feelings expressed in the blues run deep: As the singer Hazel Miller once said: “When I sing the blues I am healing a hurt that goes to my soul”.
A key element present in both the blues and a great support group is the bond that is created between the “singer” and the group. One observes a deep sense of connection and the building of sense of community. Singing the blues is sharing with your heart and not just your head. It may be hollering. It may be howling. It may be whispering. Most of all, it is getting in touch with a deep pain, a deep fear and a deep need and then spilling your guts in a safe place with others who fully understand what you are saying and how you are feeling. They’ve all been there! There is no fear of judgment. The experience has nothing to do with impressing people or being admired or the fear that you might be judged. You know you are accepted the minute you walk into that room whether you are “singing” or listening.
Furthermore, there is profound catharsis in bringing one’s deep pain to the surface and sharing it, and there is a great sense of release and relief once people do this. This process builds a powerful sense of community whether that community is a group of people singing the blues or spilling their guts in a DBSA support group.
An additional manifestation of the blues articulated by B.B. King is "The blues is an expression of anger [versus] shame and humiliation". This is particularly important for people who are depressed and often overwhelmed by feelings of shame and humiliation. The difference between sharing and hiding ones emotions is shame. In the great support group people find the courage to express their anger at their predicament.
Blues singers know that emotional pain is not pathology--it is inherent to the human condition. Painful emotional states become unbearable when they cannot find a context of human understanding where they can be shared and honored. Sharing is a key aspect of the experience.
Severe emotional pain experienced alone can become a lasting trauma and often succumbs to some form of emotional numbing. In contrast, painful feelings that are held in a context of human understanding gradually become bearable. That is the essence and the message of the Blues. This is how a great DBSA support group works!
A central characteristic of the blues and the message of a support group are not giving up hope though you might, at the time, be feeling hopeless. The lyrics of the blues also emphasize activity vs. passivity in facing problems. The lyrics sometimes turn a seeming handicap into an advantage through self-acceptance. The creators of the blues showed a remarkable resilience of spirit.
While blues lyrics often deal with personal adversity, the music itself goes far beyond self-pity. The blues is about overcoming hard luck, saying what you feel, ridding yourself of frustration, letting your hair down, and simply having fun. I have found that in a great DBSA support group there is not only a lot of crying but also a lot of laughter. It has been said the best blues is visceral, cathartic, and starkly emotional. From unbridled joy to deep sadness, no form of music communicates more genuine emotion.
Among the other elements that enhance the experience of being in a support group and that derive from the blues is having a sense of humor combined with a feeling of acceptance. The humility and honesty of this genre is evident in the words, “I’m down in the dumps, have my ass in a sling. Not much I can do except to sing...the blues.”
In summary, the most important reason for people to come to a DBSA support group is to sing the blues. This is why I believe we have much to learn from those people who created the blues which formed the basis of the great and unique American art form which we call Jazz. In particular, people who are depressed need to learn from those great blues singers how to affirm their dignity and humanity in the face of an illness that saps their strength, power, motivation and hope.
The world owes an incalculable debt of gratitude to the creators of the blues, who endured unimaginable suffering to create this extraordinary music which both embodies and conveys an attitude of hope and resilience. This music and the attitude it embodies remain a powerful tool to help people face, own up to, and cope with the inevitable pain of the human condition.
The Chicago Blues Festival is the largest free blues festival in the world and remains the largest of Chicago's Music Festivals. During three days on five stages, more than 500,000 blues fans prove that Chicago is the "Blues Capital of the World." So, to complete the circle, perhaps it is not only reasonable but fitting that DBSA which is both based and has its origins in Chicago honor and draw upon its deep connection to the blues by recognizing that “singing the blues” is the center piece of any great DBSA support group.
This is the second of a series of articles written by Dr. John Tamerin specifically for the DBSA Leadership Circle Newsletter entitled Perspectives. (Dr. Tamerin is a member of our Board of Directors and Medical Consultant to the Greenwich Ct. DBSA chapter.
Dr. Tamerin, a psychiatrist with over 40 years of clinical experience, has served for many years as Clinical Associate Professor at Weill/Cornell School of Medicine teaching residents and medical students. He has consistently been voted one of the Top Doctors In America by Castle Connelly.
Dr. Tamerin has published extensively in the areas of mood disorder and the addictions. He has served on the GAP committee on Alcoholism and the Addictions, the Committee on Human Sexuality and most recently has joined the committee on Psychiatry and the Arts…. His goal in this series of articles is to further integrate medicine with the Humanities and the arts presenting new and provocative perspectives of direct relevance to the treatment of people suffering with mood disorders.
Dr. Tamerin’s hope is that by further integrating more of the arts into the recovery process he will inspire more creative individuals to join us and help DBSA both in healing and in reducing stigma.