One of the biggest hurdles I faced as a young person with mental illness was finding my people; connecting with others who would make it possible for me to live openly and safely with bipolar disorder.
Growing up with depression and anxiety made it a bit difficult for me to make friends, and the psychotic break I had in high school probably didn’t help. Though I don’t know for sure what effect rumors of my psychiatric hospitalization had on my street cred in school, the simple fact of going through something emotionally profound and having to ask myself questions most high school student’s don’t typically ask (like “what is the difference between what I experience during hallucinations and reality?”) made it difficult for me to find a connection with others my own age. It didn’t take long for me to notice how uncomfortable people around me got when I talked about it and when people couldn’t relate to what I was going through it seemed fruitless to try to explain it, especially since I was having a hard time understanding it myself.
Even though I felt the need to hide what I was going through and there didn’t seem to be anyone else around that could relate to having bipolar disorder, that didn’t mean there weren’t people around that couldn’t relate to living with fear, or confusion, or feeling helpless. In high school I made friends with many people who had difficult home lives, had undergone personal tragedies, or who felt compelled to keep their sexuality a secret. Like me, many of them had experiences that they were having trouble describing or relating to others or were afraid of how people would react if they did. Even though the details were different, this idea was enough to spark friendships even in the most unlikely of places.
After graduation I moved to Boulder Colorado to attend the University of Colorado. While I was able to build friendships with people like the ones I had in high school (most notably with the LGBTQ community at the university) it became obvious within a few months that the school was not a good fit for me. The college had more students than the population of my entire home town, and living in a new place with the added stress of learning in enormous class sizes led to another psychotic break and hospitalization.
It feels like my story would be a little phony if I skimmed over the part where I just sort of gave up. I moved back home, spent a lot of time with my grandmother, and generally didn’t leave the house. It seemed like a hopeless situation honestly, but when I was given the opportunity to go to The Art Institute of Seattle I grabbed hold of it immediately. I hoped that surrounding myself with creatively-minded people would create an atmosphere where I felt more comfortable being myself.
As it turned out, the sort of small class-size, hands-on learning style did create an environment where I could thrive, and though I didn’t make friends right away (actually I made enemies within the first week instead, whoops!) within a year I found myself in a social circle that I felt comfortable with.
But… that isn’t the end of the story. In fact, we’re still really only in the beginning. While I could connect to these people at school because of our mutual love for Killswitch Engage and The Big Lebowski and Jean Paul Gaultier, it didn’t mean that I was sharing much about my past or my mood swings. In fact there were several times I had manic situations that otherwise frightened friends, and even though art school had a much higher incidence of people my age who were familiar with the concept of mental illness, most of us were still either trying to figure it out, or had set the topic on a backburner for some later contemplation. The typical point of view amongst us (not surprising given it is pretty typical for most Americans) was that if it wasn’t causing a problem right now, it wasn’t something we needed to deal with.
When graduation came, most disbursed back to where they came from and I found myself in a situation where the closest people to me, those who were left, were actually having a negative impact on my mental health. Either making me feel guilty for wanting to take care of myself, or manipulating me, or exacerbating their own mental health issues without being able or willing to recognize them.
Knowing that I had been able to make friends in the past really helped during this time, because I found myself in the difficult position of having to distance myself from people who were acting very cavalier about good mental health or respecting what I needed to remain relatively sane. I felt really motivated to seek out more positive people and do a better job of taking care of my mental health partially because of the desire I had to establish a good career in the fashion industry (which I began to struggle with when I became quite depressed), and because I also started a relationship within the first couple years after college that was really meaningful to me.
Again, I feel like this is a situation where I was probably ahead of the curve. My experience (now two hospitalizations) lent me to have a bit more of an idea about how to handle myself in regard to mental health than my average peer, and it became increasingly detrimental for me to ignore that information. The more I hid my symptoms from my friends and co-workers or tried to match their habits (not eating or sleeping, drinking a lot), the more intense the mood swings and emotional reactions were becoming, and the more overwhelmed I became trying to address them without any help.
By my mid twenties I was making friends through work, but it was difficult trying to balance taking care of myself and doing the things they wanted to do. I felt really anxious about letting anyone I worked with know about my mental health situation and every time I had to call out sick I was certain I’d be fired. I worked hard in an attempt to get ahead of the depressive nosedive I was in and got set up with a good psychiatrist, therapist, and GP, but ended up in the hospital again anyway.
At the time I was trying to squeeze all talk about my bipolar symptoms into a 15 minute, once a month session with my psychiatrist and two one-hour sessions a month with my therapist and it wasn’t working. Trying to withhold all conversation about what I was going though from my friends, family, and co-workers felt more and more like a burden. I began to feel like I was living a lie, which only made my depression worse.
One of the most helpful things I did for myself was to look up a local bipolar peer-run support group. Even though most of the people on my first visit were at least 20 years older than me it didn’t take long before people my own age started showing up just like me, looking for a refuge and answers. It was my first experience sitting in a group and talking about my bipolar symptoms and experiences as if they were commonplace (which they are for me!), as everyone around me knew what I was talking about and I didn’t have to try to explain anything.
I made a few friends at these groups, and soon the time I spent in the group being able to be open and talk casually about my situation became something I could do with a friend anytime. We could talk about it over a donut, or in the park, or driving down the street. As soon as I got a taste of what it felt like to be open about having a mental illness and not be judged, to be authentic all the time, I knew I couldn’t go back to hiding things as I had before.
With that in mind, I started telling people close to me about my experiences with bipolar disorder. I started with really close friends and worked my way up to talking with family members about it, and before long I felt comfortable even talking about it to groups at parties or my boss, something I really never expected!
Apart from telling people that I live with bipolar disorder it has also been helpful to explain situations that might make our friendships confusing. Things like:
If I am depressed, it would be good for me to get out of the house (even if I don’t talk much while we’re out).
If I am manic or in a mixed episode, you may not hear from me for a couple weeks but it isn’t personal, just me trying to get my episode under control before talking again.
If I cancel getting together it isn’t about anything you’ve done wrong. I still like you! I just don’t feel well and I hope we can see each other another time.
To my surprise, being open about what I need and my experiences has actually made having friendships much easier! Even better is that living openly has made the “search” for friends relatively useless because leaving that bit of my puzzle piece out for everyone to see makes it more likely that others will come and attach to it, not the other way around.
After years of searching for people who I could relate to and keep a relationship with it turns out that being myself was really all it took.
Why be a recruiter when you can be a lighthouse?