Tag Archives: empathy

Comforting the Inner Critic

It was hard for me as a kid growing up to celebrate the successes in my life. There has always been a voice in my head telling me that I could have done things a little better. A little faster. A little smarter.

For whatever reason this was translated into a situation where people believed it was easy for me to achieve the things I did. People mused to me about how effortless my life must be, and that I shouldn’t bother celebrating getting straight A’s because there was no effort involved.

I didn’t tell anyone that the biggest drive in my life was fear. That voice in my head told me that if I didn’t succeed I would have no future. That I would die at any moment. That somebody close to me would get hurt. That really, I was just a failure anyway so I ought to just give up now.

In that sense, yes, it was easy to succeed. To succeed or believe that terrible things would befall you… succeeding seemed like the only option.

When I got older the voice took on a more intense role, and as my interest in school waned and was replaced with relationships the voice began to mimic all of my most awkward and heart breaking moments back to me. According to the voice, failure in a relationship meant failure at life, and I did all manner of things (and withstood all manner of things) to try to keep things together.

I tried many things to deal with these intrusive thoughts, first I tried to please them. For many years I did whatever I could to try to prove them wrong in a desperate effort to make them stop. They didn’t.

I tried to have a relationship where my intrusive thoughts became part of the dialogue. A third person in the relationship. My attempt to be open about the intense negativity and explain my odd behavior backfired and only upset my partner, ending things in an emotional explosion.

After that I tried to ignore the thoughts. I figured they must be bad after how my ex had responded and I didn’t want anything to do with them anymore. Unfortunately, it didn’t make them go away, and every subsequent “failure” or fear was repeated back to me on a loop. Something my emotional stability didn’t take too kindly to.

After 25 years of intrusive thoughts I became hostile toward them. I had a therapist who suggested contradicting these thoughts aloud to prove they had no basis in reality, but my thoughts were too cunning. When they wouldn’t stop or they would agitate me to the point of being unable to see reason I’d start arguing with them (not a pretty sight I’m afraid).

Much like the parrot (Marvin) my family had when I was growing up the noise from these intrusive thoughts in my head can be relentless. Also much like when I was dealing with a squawking Marvin it has not been uncommon for someone to walk into the room just as I am screaming, “shut up! Shut up! Shut up!”

(Although Marvin began telling random people to “shut up,” I am lucky that my intrusive thoughts have not caught on to mimicking these moments.)

Needless to say, both myself and everyone involved in my life were kind of in a tight spot. I didn’t know what to do, and constantly fighting these thoughts one at a time was both draining and time consuming.

When I brought this up to my therapist (a new one I guess, as this has clearly been an ongoing issue) she asked me to imagine I am both a child and my own mother, and to treat these intrusive thoughts the way I would treat myself as a child.

Frankly, after a few weeks I was still trying to wrap my head around what she said. A mother? A child? What does that have to do with anything? I don’t intend to have children so how do I know how a mother would act? I find children a little creepy (nothing personal) so we don’t have the best relationship. Moms either.

Should I make english muffin pizzas?

Ultimately the message I was failing to discern was that she wanted me to approach these feelings with more of a comforting and understanding point of view. Despite her terrible metaphor, I could imagine, perhaps, a puppy (way cuter and less jam-hands) as my intrusive thoughts.

Sometimes puppies bark or bite or simultaneously projectile vomit and poo on the floor (an imagine I will never be able to erase from my memory, thanks Luna) because they need attention and some nice belly scratches… maybe a bath after that poo thing too. Arguing with the puppy wont make it content, and neither will ignoring it.

I’ve taken this concept to heart, and even though this is definitely the biggest jerk of a puppy living in my brain, it is also just me hoping for reassurance, or comfort, or anything to help dispel that fear. And when I get reactive and angry sometimes I just need to say, “guess what? Your anger is totally justified right now! This is frustrating!” instead of using it to try and fight myself.

I’ve spent many years seeking justification or comfort or approval from other people, and there are genuinely some very difficult times I’ve experienced when I had reached out to every person I knew and been turned away. I find it a little amazing that I was capable of doing it myself this whole time, I just didn’t know how!

Obviously I am not cured. It is a work in progress, as always… and I can’t claim I haven’t told that puppy to shut up at least a few times in the time since then. I am simply doing the best I can trying to learn how to take care of myself and my life, and that (if nothing else) is comforting to me. As it turns out, I am in the market for more comfort, so whaddaya know?

The Bi[polar] Curious Blog Celebrates Turning 4!

Today is the four year anniversary of my first post here on the bi[polar] curious blog, hooray!

I know I haven’t been great at maintaining a constant stream of posts, but given all the weird and wild things I’ve had to deal with in this timeframe I am going instead focus on the fact that this blog is still alive.

What did I hope to accomplish by starting this blog? Well, I wanted to have a place where I could be honest. I wanted to be able to share what it is like living with mood swings and anxiety and the constant work involved in searching for help, support, and knowledge.

For a long time I had this nagging feeling that nobody knew much about me (you know, based on people telling me, “man, I really just don’t get you!”) but anxiety made it very difficult to present anything other than what was already out there. A general veil of “everything’s fine!” even when things clearly weren’t. I guess I did hope to some degree that writing here would allow me to collect my thoughts and present them in a way my friends and family could understand, increasing the potential for better relationships. Emmmm, it still needs a little work but overall I would consider this goal to be a success in progress.

What I didn’t expect were all of the readers that have come back time and again, the kind comments of support, and a small sense of accomplishment in finding that something I did might have helped someone understand something better, whether that was about themselves or someone else or a group of people as a community.

To be completely honest, I have been experiencing an intense spike of anxiety the last week or two and this anniversary was not even on my radar. In that regard, I feel like I ought to give a quick shout-out to wordpress.com too for sending me a reminder. I will always be grateful for anything that gets me to smile first thing in the morning!

At any rate, thank you readers for passing some time with me, thank you bloggers for writing interesting and sometimes provocative things that inspire me to consider the world around me, and thank you supporters for your generosity of spirit. Trust me, it doesn’t go unnoticed!

As Always,
Sarah

 

When An Opt-Out Isn’t a Cop Out; Inclusivity and Event Planning

I’ve been kind of surprised lately at how many people I’ve talked to who were pissed off at a friend or relative for not attending an event they hosted.

I mean, how rude, right? Nobody likes to plan a party and have the people they believe they can count on not show up.

Frankly, I’ve been a little appalled at this attitude, because for someone like me… opting out of an event almost exclusively means avoiding a potentially ticking time-bomb (me) going off at said event. If I am not there, there is always a reason, and more often than not having bipolar disorder or severe anxiety means a reason that could potentially include avoiding hostile or aggressive social head-butting, irritable commentary, or panic attack scenes that can bring any good event to its knees.

It seems the like hosts of most events don’t understand the sort of behind-the-scenes time-bomb at work here, and try as I might to explain that having one or two ultra sensitive people take the time to discern their presence might be inappropriate as a positive thing, many people take these actions way too personally. At the same time, I think hosts could do a better job of making events more comfortable for a wider audience… but that requires a level of sensitivity and understanding that some people simply don’t seem to posses.

While I’ve gotten a little leeway the past couple years (simply for being so open about what I’m dealing with) there are many people I’ve seen with similar issues unwilling to be straightforward about them or still in denial about having any issues in the first place. It seems like these folks often get the brunt of the host-hostility anger train, which is unfortunate because they need as much support as anyone else.

For me, it has been really difficult to allow myself not to go to an event I am planning on going to. At the same time, I often have a pretty big struggle trying to get myself to go (thanks, anxiety!) so there can be a huge conflict in my mind in any given situations about whether my actions (or inaction) is justified.

Is the part of me telling me to stay home simply anxiety, or is it something more concerning? Would going out improve my depressive symptoms, or make me irritable and uncomfortable the whole night?

Beyond those internal sort of factors, there are a lot of external factors that go into making a decision to attend/not attend any given event.

->Are there going to be people there that I have had traumatic experiences with?
->Do I have an easy, straightforward way to get there and (more importantly) to get home?
->Are the other guests people I already know, or are they primarily strangers?
->Will everyone be drinking heavily except me?

and so on.

When I am facing an elevated mood, my screening process often goes out the window allowing for me to walk into some potentially dangerous situations. What I’ve found is that no matter how great I feel when I walk in the door, certain factors (like being unable to leave easily and without making a fuss) can flip a switch in me opening the door for aggressive mixed episodes or panic up the yin-yang.

One of the more recent moments where this happened left me barreling into a situation where I went to the top of the Space Needle (big mistake, I have a terrible fear of heights) and had to be escorted back down to the ground after having an earth-shattering panic attack in the revolving restaurant at the top. I was frantically waddling (yes waddling, I felt like I would fall if I stood straight up) and bumping into people’s tables while they spent an inordinate amount of money on mediocre food. My bizarre behavior was, no doubt, a precursor to at least one proposal of marriage that night… I guess that’s a fun story to tell the kids!

***

I’m in the process now of coming to terms with an opt-out that has been nagging me for a couple weeks. Next month is my 10 year high school reunion, and after relinquishing perceived control (I say perceived because I was the class president our senior year which means people automatically believe I would plan the reunion) over the planning portion of the event, the person who stepped in decided to have it on a boat.

This breaks one of the big Sarah commandments, and I know (especially after the Space Needle incident) I cannot allow myself to walk into a confined space without a fast, easy escape route. For me, the distinction between “fun on a boat!” and “trapped on a boat!” is very, very minute. Throw in mingling with the bullies and assholes of high school and what you have is the perfect storm.

Frankly, the whole situation is more likely to turn into the movie “Carrie” than to go well for me, so I have to face the reality; I simply can’t go.

I felt very proud of myself for stepping forward and telling people an event on a boat wasn’t appropriate for me. There were even a few people who joined in and agreed. I don’t know where my surprise came from when the response was the same it had been 10 years ago in high school; you can set something else up, we will go on the boat. 

That is the part where I’ve always swooped in to try to save things, I did it from 6th – 12th grade. Only this time I already told them I can’t. I’m not willing to sacrifice my health by simultaneously moving and planning an event on an island I don’t even live on anymore. Heck, I’ve been barely hanging on just in the moving department… I know anything more would tip the bipolar scales very quickly out of my favor.

I genuinely wish this sort of thing didn’t bother me, but it always has. This whole situation has been a nightmare where I’m re-living being deemed a second-class citizen by my peers. I guess it was silly to imagine they’d all gotten a clue and grown up (at least a little) but I guess that is something I’ll have to revisit in another ten years.

***

What can event hosts do to help reach a wider audience of guests? Whether it is a backyard BBQ or a movie night or even something bigger, here are a few tips to promote an inclusive, pro-mentally healthy party or event.

  • Keep the cost of attendance low. It can be easy for someone in a high-paying job to forget friends or relatives may not have the same kind of cash. Having an event with a free or low entry fee is a good way to appeal to a wider audience.
  • Offer a variety of food and beverage options or let people know if options are limited. Having a non-alcoholic beverage available can be a great way to reach out to people who can’t drink due to pregnancy or other health concerns. Another great way to take care of this is with a potluck, so people can bring food or drinks that meet their dietary needs.
  • Consider your venue carefully. With those invited with physical disabilities be able to get around easily? Are there allergens like dogs or cats that people need to know about? Is there transportation or parking around the venue? Is this a place people can leave easily in the event of an emergency (kids, mental-health, etc)?
  • Choose your time period carefully. Have you invited guests far out enough in advance that they can make arrangements to come? At the same time, has the time you’ve chosen for the event make sense for the people you are inviting? It is important to remember that some people can’t stay out late because of their work schedule, children, pets, or medications.
  • Be flexible on timing. Usually allowing guests to arrive late or leave early will mean getting a greater number of guests to attend. Likewise, guests who have health problems may need to change their attendance needs based on their health, which might mean staying only for a short period or leaving abruptly.
  • Don’t take it personally. If guests cancel at the last minute or opt-out of the event, ask if there was something you could do to make things work better next time. While some people genuinely have things come up (health, babysitter canceling, etc.) others might have issues with something unforeseen you may not have planned for. Asking if making a change might help will also let your guests see you are genuinely interested in their attendance, and implementing that change (even if just for one or two guests) can do a lot to show that you want everyone to have a great time!

Language and Mental Illness; A Different Point of View

I’ve been reading a lot of pleas and rants about how important it is for people to conform to one standard of language when it comes to discussing mental illness… this is not one of them.

Personally, I believe expecting everyone to adhere to strict conformity when it comes to discussing mental health is a step in the wrong direction, and while that is a notion that may boggle some minds, I’m hoping to make a clear case today for my (potentially less-popular) point of view. I am not here to call anyone out, just to express my concern and why I feel that way.

I’d like to start by stating the obvious:

People have different beliefs.

In fact, they’re allowed to. That is a big part of the idea that America was founded on, and globally it is even more apparent that our cultures and environments have produced many different ways of looking at the world. These many viewpoints include those that effect how people look at mental health.

If you haven’t already, you may want to take a second to check out The Icarus Project. This is a national community of people (largely artists) who don’t believe in taking traditional psychiatric medications (for the  most part) and instead try to embrace themselves in their current state, largely funneling their emotions into art.

Do you agree with this? Maybe not, but whether you or I agree with their beliefs doesn’t change their right to believe them.

A big part of our ability to live our lives comes from tolerance and the ability to get along with people with different viewpoints. It seems like such a large part when it comes to “battling stigma” has become pushing others to believe the things (and act the way) we want them to instead of focusing on being open and being treated with respect.

Language is Imperfect. 

I have gotten a lot of flack from my therapists for jumping back and forth between psychiatric verbiage when describing my mental state and regular descriptive language. What they don’t seem to understand is that most words don’t seem to describe what I’m aiming to describe very well at all, and I wind up with the oddest mish-mash (I’m sure you’ve read some here if you’re familiar at all with my blog) of language.

Language is imperfect, not all of the words we might want or need have been invented yet. Describing something that isn’t tangible (like something in our minds) can often be frustrating enough, and on top of that different groups of people have different feelings associated with different words. One word in English very rarely means one thing straight across the board (I guess maybe “buttress” is an exclusion?), and a word spoken in the city might have an entirely different connotation in the country (let alone from region to region).

Language is not something we can expect to lasso and subdue until it is uniform. Unfortunately, that isn’t the way language has ever worked (from the time it was invented) so it seems ludicrous to me to expect that it will now.

Language is a form of self-expression.

If we consider other forms of self-expression (music, painting, etc.) it seems ridiculous to walk up to someone painting and tell them they can’t use the color blue. Or they can’t use the “c” note. Or they can use the “c” note but only when followed with an “e flat”.

A lot of the things I’ve seen lately about mental health verbiage has sounded like that sort of bizarre notion me. While I understand that people feel concerned about how others are expressing themselves (something I will get into momentarily), the act of telling someone what they can and can’t say or write quickly falls into the realm of censorship. While I understand that is not anyone’s intention, that doesn’t change the fact that that’s where this attitude is heading.

In addition, self expression is as individual as… well… the individual! There is no such thing as a “right way” or a “wrong way” to express oneself. Surely, there are ways that may be more pleasing to the senses (which, again varies widely from person to person), or ways that our society deems more acceptable than others (also varies depending on many factors like age, location, race), but that normally doesn’t bar forms of self-expression that falls outside of these categories.

Do the actions or words of one person discredit the rest of the group?

This is the big question that I think has been fueling so many of these negative comments and posts. Certainly when one blogger appears sloppy or ignorant about mental health, we all suffer, right?

I read an article once about how a large group of lesbians (around the time the gay rights movement was really heating up) were shunning any woman who had identified herself as a lesbian but had slept with a man because they believed it made them all look bad. Instead of helping their own cause, it created tension and animosity among a group that should have been fighting along side one another for the same rights.

I feel like this is a very similar situation, and people who should be scooped up and cared for to bolster a strong mental health community are instead being ostracized and attacked (for often doing little more than using a word incorrectly).

This particular idea is one that has been weighing heavily on my heart for quite some time, not because of the language situation (that is really a secondary symptom for this issue) but because of how quick much of the mental health community is to jump on board with ostracizing or shunning anyone who has a mental illness and also committed an act of violence.

Does a seemingly “poorly written” blog post make us all look bad? (Really?)

To take it one step further I have to ask; does an act of violence from one person with mental illness make us all look bad?

If it does, it is not for the reasons you are probably thinking of. From my perspective it all comes down to the reaction of the mental health community, and whether our reaction is one of solidarity:

“This is an example of a very extreme instance of mental illness and is an important indicator about the help that is sill needed in the mental health community.”

or, more often, one of dismissal:

“People with mental illness are almost never violent. I am never violent, this has nothing to do with me.”

The issue of including (or being supportive) of someone in the mental health community who might need extra help is an issue ten times larger to me than being nit-picky about the language in a blog or on twitter. How can we expect people to be supportive and accepting of us when we can’t support or accept the people within our own mental health communities? Can we take a look at the bigger picture please?

This conversation has only just begun.

The conversation about mental health has only just began to heat up. I believe whole heartedly that putting our focus on the statements that don’t match up with our own beliefs and attacking them is incredibly foolish. At this point, I think it is less important what is being said as the fact that people are saying it.

Think about it, more people than ever before are beginning to talk about mental health, and that is truly remarkable! No matter what people are bringing to the table in this conversation, it is important to remember that people have different beliefs and the way we learn and understand is to have a conversation with many different points of view. We can’t expect people who are just starting to explore this topic to have the vocabulary or understanding that someone who has lived with these issues for many years to have, and attacking anyone for being ignorant or for having a different perspective will likely create an enemy instead of a friend.

Understanding wont happen overnight, and we can’t force people into seeing from our point of view. All we can do is share what we have, and be patient and tolerant with everyone else.

What can we do to help?

1. Express yourself! Express yourself with words, photography, paint, clothing, music, whatever it is that you do best. Use the language that suits you best to tell your story, the story of how you (an individual) live your life!

2. Practice patience. I know this can be a tough one (especially with a mood disorder), but if you see a comment or post that upsets/frustrates you, skip it. If you want to respond, maybe wait until the emotional reaction has gone and see how you feel then.

3. Practice positivity. The internet is one place in particular that I try to practice the phrase, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Try pledging yourself to leaving positive comments only and skipping writing negative ones. You’ll be amazed at how much this can help your own mood and feelings of positivity while blogging.

4. Focus on you. Try focusing on your own self expression and making it the best it can be instead of focusing on the perceived faults of others. When in conversation (online or in real life) and you feel you need to respond to a point of view you don’t agree with, start the dialogue by focusing on yourself. “I find this particular use of words offensive because ____. ” or “disagree because ____.” This leads to a more open conversation that feels more honest and less accusational.

5. Be open. In the mental health community, a lot of importance is placed on the portion of being open that involves sharing our stories, but it is equally as important to be open to what others have to say or questions they might have. Remember, this is a time for mental health conversation, and conversations are a two way street. It can be amazing how being open to a new idea or point of view can lead us to profound places; all it takes is a willingness to listen!

Anyone with works of self-expression coming from a mental health perspective who might be interested in seeing one pop up on this blog, shoot me an email at host@thebipolarcuriousblog.com

When Therapy Doesn’t Work

I’m a firm believer that therapy has helped me a lot. It has helped me understand things about myself I didn’t know before. It has helped me move on and get closure from trauma. It has also been a space for me to be able to express all of my frustrations (without bringing down everyone else in my life). I have learned the so-called “tools” in therapy to help me cope with anxiety and bipolar episodes as well. In fact, I often suggest to people dealing with any issue they find to be overwhelming (not just mental illness) that they see a counselor or therapist to talk about it. Something about talking about our problems out loud helps us understand them better, so overall I think it is a win-win situation.

While all that sounds great (and it is all true), finding a therapist who is a good fit can be challenging. On more than one occasion I’ve found myself in a position where the benefits I was receiving from therapy was being outweighed by negative parts of the experience.

In the past I’ve had issues with the attitudes of therapists, whether that was from being aggressive (which was a turn-off for me), or being too passive (not seeming to care about my issues). I’ve had issues with therapists who had conflicting viewpoints from me (though rarely). I’ve had issues with therapists who didn’t know enough about the issues I was dealing with to provide a well-educated viewpoint.

The one issue I have had with therapists that I consider a hands-down deal-breaker is disorganization.

As someone who lives with Bipolar Disorder, OCD, and Anxiety, there is a certain level of reliability that I require from my health care providers. That includes my primary doctor, my prescribing psychiatrist, and my counselor or therapist. There are times where my condition requires emergency treatment, and I need to be able to rely on my team to get the help I need.

I always feel that I am in a constant state of reminding people that they should expect quality treatment from their doctors, therapists being no exception to the rule. You wouldn’t believe how many people I know who continue to see and pay therapists who do not act respectful to them, who don’t call them back in a timely manner, or who make them feel worse after a session than when they came in. Essentially, this is a situation where you are paying someone to provide support to you… if they aren’t doing that, what is the point?

The difficulty comes in finding the right match, and that many therapists have continued to have paying patients despite providing poor care. If people seeking out therapists aren’t demanding great service, how can we expect to find that great service without creating that demand?

At the same time, I understand that therapists are human. They’re human! Some of them have even gotten into their current field because of their experiences with depression or mental illness in their own lives, which I think is awesome. This is one of the reasons why I think there is a certain level of negotiation you can turn to when it comes to interacting with a therapist.

I’ve been having trouble with my most recent therapist since I began seeing her. I knew part of it was because I liked the one before her so much and we’d worked so well together, so when I reached the point where I was having trouble connecting with her (the new one), we talked about it. Since then I found she was much more attentive and empathetic to what I was saying, which really helped me feel more at ease.

Over the last year and a half, we’ve had ups and downs. For a while she was rarely on time, but began showing an active interest in fixing that, so I let it go.

What I can’t let go, however, was last week’s Lithium emergency. She told me on Tuesday she would contact my (potential) future psychiatrist about a prescription, and then never called me back. She also seemed wildly cavalier about the notion that I would suddenly be unmedicated… which is a big red flag for me. If one of the people on my healthcare team doesn’t care when I am experiencing an emergency, I know I need to shift that position to someone who will. Even giving her the benefit of the doubt (she could have been busy?) I would rather work with someone who has the time to help me.

Six months ago I was worried sick about the prospect of changing therapists, but now I think it is necessary. I am only hoping the clinic will allow me to switch to another person there, instead of having to reach out to other clinics in the area.

Insensitive Conversation Triggering Bipolar Episodes

When I think of the things that trigger bipolar episodes for me, the initial things that come to mind are physical pain (like headaches or having the flu), graphic violence on tv and in movies, and music (usually the slow, sad, self-reflective song can put me into a state of depression almost immediately).

What I consider less frequently is conversation, particularly insensitive conversation, because I have systematically rid myself of most of the people in my life who continuously made insensitive comments.

Now, as someone who has been living with bipolar disorder for over ten years, I know that at the heart of it, I am an incredibly sensitive person. Given that fact, it seems fitting that my kryptonite, the person who can send me into an episode in a matter of seconds, is just the opposite; the insensitive person.

What baffles me about the many people I have known who have been insensitive is that most of them don’t know they are acting that way. For this reason I’ve often given these folks the benefit of the doubt (despite wondering why they don’t seem to pick up on the fact that I am enraged or in tears after whatever comments they have made) and allowed them to continuously hurt me by triggering episodes over and over and over again. Thankfully as I’ve gotten older, I’ve cut most of these people out of my life entirely.

As someone who spends most of my time trying to avoid becoming upset or upsetting the people around me, it is incredibly frustrating to me that there are so many people out there who don’t pay any mind to what they say or how what they say affects others.

I want to clarify that I am not suggesting everyone dumb-down their conversation for people with bipolar disorder, but I think there are ways to bring up sensitive topics without doing so in a triggering way. Chiefly, I think supportive, positive talk is key… but I’ll get to that in a bit.

Most of the time I am triggered in conversation it is because the person I’m talking to seems to be pointing out very intense, true fears I have about my life (but not in a gentle or supportive way).

For example, I was meeting up with an old friend for lunch who I hadn’t seen in over a year. I was feeling pretty nervous about having put on some weight, and the second thing out of my friend’s mouth (well, ex-friend now) was, “wow, you’ve really put on some weight!”

I’ve also found myself in uncomfortable positions where people have gone on to me at length about buying big expensive toys for themselves when they knew I was homeless and couldn’t afford to feed myself.

Beyond the fact that any human being might be distressed (or even just flat out offended) by such remarks, people with bipolar disorder often have exaggerated emotional responses to things that shock or upset them. In conversation you might find that, having triggered this response, the result might be like flipping on a light switch and the “on” phase of the switch is accompanied with tears, a sudden silence in conversation, or intense hostility or agitation.

Having bipolar disorder often feels like actively playing a game of Jenga, with every new experience each day we’re having to re-balance ourselves to keep from toppling over. It takes a lot of time and patience, and when someone comes in and can make one comment that smashes everything we’ve built… well, the emotional tidal wave that follows makes it incredibly difficult (for me) to rationally be able to stop and say, “well old chap, it seems that wasn’t a nice thing to say. Care to change the subject?” While I realize a lot of people seem to act this way because they aren’t aware they’re doing it, I have had a very difficult time pointing my frustrations out to them without also, you know… eating them alive.

Here’s the thing about bipolar relationships: it takes two. No matter how hard the person with bipolar disorder is working cognitively (plus therapy and taking medication) we still need the people in our lives to act like civilized human beings who take an interest in how their words and actions affect those around them! If the people you talk to seem to get extremely upset when you do, consider that you might be half of the problem. Sensitive people are sensitive, but I can easily have active conversations with myriads of people who do not elicit the same response as someone who is acting insensitively.

The insensitive person’s response when I am triggered by a comment makes a big difference in how the next few minutes (or weeks, if it is a bad episode) unfold as well. I’ve known some people who can immediately detect my change in mood when this happens and while one or two have said something about it (even a simple, “maybe that didn’t come out right,” is enough to help me feel like the person didn’t mean to upset me) it seems more often the person just ends the conversationTo me, this is the worst case scenario, because it seems like these people recognize they’ve hurt my feelings but don’t have any intention of apologizing or acknowledging it to my face. If I am thrust into an episode of depression because of one of these situations, the scenario where I feel abandoned and like the person talking to me doesn’t care about what just happened will be much worse, and I will often be stuck… fixating on what happened for days, if not weeks.

What does that tell you? Just say something. If you’ve stumbled into a place in conversation where you’ve upset the other person, apologize. You don’t need to apologize for your point of view, or even for what you said, but if you care about that person and feel bad about upsetting them… say so! All it takes is one, “I’m sorry I upset you,” to help diffuse the situation.

For the record, here are a few topics that are generally considered triggering for me (if you find you are easily triggered, skip past the bullet points):

  • Violence, that includes being on the receiving end of violence or an instigator
  • Rape (unless we are talking about Game of Thrones and even then, this can only be mentioned as a passing remark), definitely no rape jokes.
  • Animal cruelty
  • Suicide
  • Self harm
  • Sexual harassment
  • Bullying
  • Abuse
  • People’s weight, my weight, or people telling me how to lose weight
  • People telling me what and how to eat
  • Money, or all of the expensive things you are excited about buying. I can usually give people a pass on this once or twice, but it is difficult for me to hear this (particularly from my family) when I am struggling financially. This is a tricky subject, because though I am generally interested in what people are spending money on to enjoy their lives, it also is a continuous reminder to me that I do not have those things.

I would say (as a general rule for conversing with me) if I’ve told you that I am stressed or worried about something, don’t go on to describe the worst case scenario to me! The thing is, I’ve already thought about it a dozen times or more, and I am having a conversation about it to be reassured by someone, and to stop feeling so stressed out about it.

The key to having a conversation with someone who is sensitive is to couple up feelings with words. Consider your own feelings as a model. If you’re about to say to someone, “wow it looks like you’ve gained some weight,” consider how it would feel if someone said that to you. Would you be happy that they noticed and brought it up, or would you feel self conscious? Chances are, if you say that to someone else, they will ALSO feel self conscious!

If someone tells you, “I am really stressed out about starting my new job,” don’t exacerbate the situation. If you know (based on what this person has told you before) that they left their old job because their old boss was really horrible, perhaps skip the part where you mention, “yeah, I hope your new boss doesn’t suck too.”

Sometimes (ok, most times for me) people who get stressed out easily need help focusing on the positive. Most insensitive remarks focus on things that we have negative connotations with, so focusing on a positive remark (instead of the initial negative one) can make a big difference in conversation.

For the scenario above with our friend who is stressed out about starting a new job, a positive spin might be to say, “the new company you’re going to be working for seems really cool,” or “I bet it will be nice to be able to start fresh,” or “once things become routine at work I bet it will be a great fit!”

The most common questions I get from parents and friends of people with bipolar disorder is wanting to know how can I be supportive?

Be positive. Let us know you understand we’re stressed (don’t tell us not to worry), but try to help us look on the bright side.

The Bipolar Friendship

Whether you’re two friends and one happens to have bipolar disorder and the other doesn’t, or if you’re in the ever-intense double bipolar friendship (which tend to be some of my favorites), maintaining a friendship that includes bipolar disorder can be a confusing but rewarding adventure.

I must admit, the most common thing the bipolar-less person asks me is what their bipolar friend’s actions ultimately mean. Apparently there are things the (cycling, I’m not entirely sure about the stable ones) bipolar friend does that the average human friend doesn’t do, and I’ve seen some trends (and, well, lived them). What it boils down to is that problems with bipolar friendships seem to come most often from something like misinterpretation of our actions.

I thought I would put together a list of ways to help the friendships of anyone who is friends with someone with bipolar disorder. This could be for non-bipolar folk, or bipolar diagnoses alike, as long as the second person in the friendship has bipolar disorder.

1. Making Plans 

The most common situation I know of is that two people have just met and they have really hit it off. Maybe they’ve hung out a few times and really enjoyed themselves. The trouble comes when bipolar disorder switches gears from a good or stable mood to a depressive mood.

So maybe one friend calls the BP friend, but they don’t want to hang out. Maybe they text them some other time, and they can’t, for whatever reason, hang out. This is about the time where a lot of people would shrug them off and maybe not call again, or continue making plans with other friends and stop inviting the BP friend.

Instead, I would recommend sticking with calling the BP friend to hang out and inviting them to social situations, and here’s why: there may be many times we don’t feel physically or mentally able to be around others, and these times can last from a matter of hours to a matter of months. It is something we have no control over, and you better believe we want to be able to be out with our friends.

The refusal to hang out is nothing personal, and it is important to a friend to see it that way.

2. The Disappearing Act

It is also common for a symptomatic bipolar person to fall off the face of the earth sometimes. One minute they’ll be in your life, and the next you wont be able to reach them by phone or email or whatever. This is another area where friends take it personally, but it is almost always because of bipolar symptoms flaring up. Your BP friend may be feeling very overwhelmed, or depression might make them feel like isolating themselves. BP friend might even be having a situation as serious as delusions or mania (and locked themselves indoors to clean the apartment for a week straight).

For a person with bipolar disorder who is still having symptoms, we can be extremely inconsistent. Many people love this wild and spontaneous aspect, but others take it personally when we are very open and friendly one minute and have disappeared the next. Many of us will come back around when we’re feeling better, and sometimes others need a little reminder that you’re still there wanting to be friends.

3. In Times of Trouble

I think many people make friends with bipolar folk because of their strong empathy and vivid personalities. It isn’t as widely realized that our upbeat attitudes can often come at the price of very low, depressed moments that follow.

It is 2 am. Your phone rings. It is your BP friend. They’ve clearly been crying and want to talk.

The risk of suicide for someone with bipolar disorder is unfortunately a very real danger. If we’ve gone out of our way to call someone, it is (in my experience) usually an emergency situation.

Staying calm and simply talking to your friend can do a lot to make them feel better.

One step further, if you’re pretty close with this person, having an emergency plan set up ahead of time with them in case this situation arises is a great idea (and is something I’ve done for a couple of my friends).

Really, being available to talk when your friend needs to talk is a huge part of the bipolar friendship.

4. Not Your Job

I would really hope that our good ol’ BP friend would be taking care of themselves. A lot of tension in relationships come from when they are not, and the friend feels the need to try to take care of them.

I realize that helping out a friend who is in trouble is one thing, but having a friend rely on you solely for their needs is no longer a healthy friendship. It is important to notice when your own needs aren’t being met because, like everyone else, your priority should be to take care of yourself first (after all, there isn’t anyone else who is going to).

5. Try to Be Forgiving

Though there are those in the bipolar community that will remove themselves from society when they feel volatile, there are others that find themselves in a situation where they can’t hold back. That’s right, our favorite word vomit. 

Wow, yes, it is truly terrifying to think of how many horrible, insulting things I’ve said to people over the years. Sometimes it just comes out, and even though I only mean it for the slightest of moments, it is already out there.

Let me just say, our minds play tricks on us. One minute we could feel things like love and adoration and respect, the next we feel like Tina Turner in Beyond Thunder Dome. I’ve even had situations (more often than you’d think) where I become delusional and accuse people of the wildest, weirdest things they’ve never done. (Now you know why I opt to just stay home from the party…)

Being able to see, say, the humor in these situations helps me a lot. Being understanding, knowing what my friends truly think about me helps me remember that the things they say (or I say) don’t always count. If you’re going to hold a grudge, maybe a bipolar friendship isn’t for you.

 

To finish things off, I thought I’d conclude with a list of reasons why people with bipolar disorder make kick-ass friends:

10. We are a resilient bunch, you can’t keep us down
9. We are often forgiving of others
8. On occasion we’re the life of the party
7. We know how to be risk-takers
6. Many of us are creative
5. We love to make up for periods of depression when we’re feeling better
4. We’ve all led very interesting lives
3. We are a very humorous folk
2. We can empathize with whatever you’re going through
1. You wont find a more passionate group of people out there!