The Care and Feeding of Your Bipolar Friendship (if your bipolar friend is me)
I realized recently that a lot of the people who love me don’t really know how to react to the fact that I have a serious mental illness. They worry and they want to help, but they don’t know how.
I have a few relationships that have weathered years of bipolar storms, and I’ve learned a few things that might be helpful to the people who care about me, and might serve as a starting point for those who love people like me, who are struggling with invisible illnesses (mental and otherwise).
It is very important to remember that what works for me may not work for someone else. In fact, what’s helpful to me might be the worst thing you can do for the person you love. Which brings us to…
1) Ask me. Don’t assume.
Ask me what I need. Ask me how you can help, if you want to help. Ask me if the thing you’re thinking of doing will be helpful or harmful. If you’re reading this list and thinking of someone you love, print it out and ask them “what do you think of this?” Sometimes I need someone to be there. Sometimes I really need to be left alone. Most of the time, I’m hesitant to reach out for someone to talk to because when I’m really unwell, I feel like a burden.
There’s a lot of shame tied up in being mentally ill. That can make it hard for me to talk about. It’s important that you…
2) Don’t let my illness be the elephant in the room.
People tend to handle me with kid gloves when I’m unwell. They react to me and my bipolar disorder the same way they would to someone in a wheelchair or someone whose parent just died; awkward head pats and then backing away, or pretending they don’t notice it while obviously twisting themselves into knots to avoid acknowledging it.
I get it. People don’t know what to say. When I’m well this behavior is mildly amusing, but when I’m unwell it feels very isolating and makes it a lot harder for me to reach out.
If I’m having a hard time, don’t just say you’re sorry and go silent. Instead, say “Man, that fucking sucks. I hope you feel better soon.” If you’re up to listening to me talk, offer. (If you aren’t, don’t.)
If you have questions, ask me. I want to talk about it. It’s a huge part of my life and people who discuss it openly with me, without pity, are the people I feel safest with.
Accept the fact that I’m ill the same way you do the fact that I’m tall or that I can be a huge asshole sometimes. Help me not be ashamed of it by treating it like something I don’t need to be ashamed of.
2.1) I can joke about my illness. You can’t.
Just saying. (You are allowed to laugh, though.)
3) Remember that this is a chemical disorder.
I recently had a very, very bad reaction to a med that pushed me into a mixed state. A mixed state is like my brain doing all of its mental illness things at once. How can you be manic and depressed at the same time? I don’t know, but it’s really, really awful and really, really dangerous. The last thing you want is to be both suicidal and motivated. It didn’t take long to get the med situation sorted out but for about five days I was in a great deal of pain and very afraid.
Because I took the wrong pill, I went from pretty okay to dangerously unstable. That’s the kind of thing my brain does to itself (although somewhat less spectacularly) when it’s not medicated. SUPER FUN.
When I’m manic (or in a mixed state, seriously fuck mixed states) I can be a real asshole. I’m incredibly irritable and can go into a Hulk-like rage for no reason at all. I pick fights about nothing. I say mean things. I lash out because I am in pain and I want to get it out of me. (Pro tip: this does not work.) It’s all brain chemistry, I can’t control the feelings and it can be a real struggle to control the behaviors. The thing is…
4) It doesn’t make it okay for me to be a dick.
I don’t get to treat people that way just because I’m ill. Being bipolar isn’t a free pass to be Queen Asshole with no repercussions. Just because people understand the nature of my disorder doesn’t mean that my actions don’t hurt them.
When I hurt someone I need to be called on it. I need to apologize for it and do what I can to remedy it. More importantly, I need to know I fucked up and remember it so I can work to do better the next time. I am still accountable for my actions, even when I’m unstable.
Just know that if you call me on shitty behavior when I’m in the middle of said shitty behavior, I might not react well, even though I probably know you’re right. For example, during the mixed episode I talked about above, my best friend said, “Bell, I know that you’re struggling and hurting but you are being really shitty to me and I don’t deserve it.”
I. Was. Furious. I also knew she was right. I was too angry to apologize, though, so the best I could do was tell her that yes, I knew I was being shitty, and no, she didn’t deserve it, but I was too angry to apologize and I’d try do it when I got better but I probably wouldn’t then, either.
It was the best I could do in that moment, but I did work harder to be less shitty, and she didn’t have to carry the resentment of being my punching bag. It’s as much of a win as anyone was going to get in that moment.
5) Don’t try to protect me. Let me decide what’s best for me.
I work really hard to be as well as I can be, and part of that means a lot of medication and some therapy. (Although there’s a lot more to it than that.) For the most part, it works. I’m pretty stable, I can go out and do stuff and live a productive life.
Sometimes people forget that managing my illness is my job and make choices for me in an attempt to protect me.
Not asking me to contribute to a project, bring something to a potluck, or simply help you when you need it doesn’t relieve me of a burden, it makes me feel like I am one.
Please don’t treat me like I’m broken. I’m ill, but I’m also smart, capable, and talented, and I know how to say no if I need to.
6) Put yourself first.
I’m generally a pretty awesome friend, but because my brain chemistry is so volatile I can be very unreliable. I won’t always be there for you the way you need me to be. I want to, but I won’t.
I won’t always notice that you’re having a hard time and I may, when you call me to tell me your boyfriend broke up with you the night before, tell you to stop feeling sorry for yourself. (To be fair, I’m pretty sure that was just me being a dick and had nothing to do with bipolar disorder.) It’s okay to tell me you need support and also to remind me that self-pity is a completely valid response to being dumped and that I should stop being a dick.
I might lean on you too hard and crumble when you need to lean on me. I might vanish for two months without talking to you at all.
I suspect that being my friend can sometimes feel very one sided and very lonely.
So learn to tell me “No”. Learn to tell me what you need, especially if what you need is time away from me. Learn to be angry at me. Don’t feel guilty for saying “no” and don’t sacrifice your well-being for mine. It won’t help me and it will kill our relationship.
Don’t let my illness eat your life.
(Amelia wrote a great article on loving someone with mental illness and you should definitely read it.)
7) Understand that I will always be bipolar, and that you’re allowed to opt out.
Just because I’m better today doesn’t mean that I will be next week. That’s the nature of bipolar disorder: I hold on when I’m ill because I’ll always get better again, and I’m wary when I’m well because I know I will get sick again. There is no escaping it. Meds stop working. Life events can serve as triggers. I work really hard to manage it, but sometimes I can’t.
I need you to remember that being bipolar is not an act of aggression. I’m not sick because I want to hurt you. I’m not doing it to punish you. I don’t have a choice: I’m on this ride for life.
As long as you choose to be in a relationship with me, you get to ride with me.
And it’s okay to get off, if that’s what’s best for you.
My grandfather used to say “If you chain yourself to a dead body, you can’t make it live, but it can make you dead.”
Don’t let my illness be the dead body you’re chained to.