(This post first appeared on my blog, PS I’m Bipolar)
When you have bipolar disorder or you are bipolar, or you are living with bipolar disorder, (depending on how you prefer to refer to yourself, because I once saw this very clever posting on Facebook that said “Label jars, not people”) initiating and maintaining friendships is no easy feat.
The easiest way for me to express what I want to say is to put friendships into different categories – and break it down into “before” and “after” the diagnosis. As much as I, or most of us don’t want to admit it, there is a before and after. When you receive your diagnosis of bipolar disorder, your life challenges, whether you acknowledge,, accept or realize iit- the same way it would with a physical illness. Why? I think it is because we have to alter our lifestyle. Maybe it is a small alteration, maybe it is a larger one. For example, sleep hygiene, diet, how often you see your doctor, how much medication you take etc.
What are the categories of friendships?
1. Friends from before that you know will understand mental illness or you know won’t judge you, and are likely to accept your diagnosis. You can exhibit all of your symptoms without fear of judgement.
2. Friends from before that you are not sure will understand your diagnosis, but you trust for other matters, and trust enough to tell them something about mental illness i.e. I have anxiety and sometimes it’s hard for me to be in large crowds. You want to tell them, but never find that opportunity or “appropriate” moment.
3. Friends you meet after your diagnosis who your intuition tells you are “safe” to trust, as in #1.
4. Friends you meet after your diagnosis that you will trust as in #2.
5. Friends you meet after your diagnosis that you know will not understand anything and therefore you mask your symptoms. I suppose these people are not really friends, but maybe this applies to the significant others of your friends, co-workers you like, or acquaintances that are part of your social circle that you see often at social gatherings. You know enough about them to get a sense of personality, but not enough to want to disclose private information.
Now that that’s out of the way, I can explain the meaning of my post’s title. They say that during a crisis, you learn who your true friends are. I have had enough challenges over the past year to understand who I can trust and who I want in my life. I also learned that someone did not want me in her life- but I will get to that soon.
I am not going to delve into what the challenges/situations were because it doesn’t matter what or why, just that they happened, there were 4 major “events” that caused emotional turmoil, and I am still dealing with one of them as it is an ongoing situation.
I reached out to a friend, who was 100% in category #1 during the time of one of these situations and the response I received was not comforting. This friend did not give me the time of day, and knew I was in a bad way. He knows I have bipolar disorder. When he did contact me a month later, and asked “can you talk”, I thought it was something serious, but no, it was to tell me about something an ex-business partner did, and was being charged for. Totally unnecessary information for me and it seemed that he had forgotten about the situation. We lost touch for almost a year and I called him and left a message saying we should catch up. Instead of receiving a call back or text message, I receive a Facebook message back stating “Sorry I was working late. Early morning. Talk Soon”. That was in August. A few days ago I decided to send a text message and said essentially that our friendship was important and i was surprised that he had responded to my call with a Facebook message. It didn’t prompt him to call, just more cryptic messages about what was going on in his life and asking about mine. He apparently has been very busy, so I will give it some time and see what happens. It just made me sad because he was my “go to” person for so long whenever I was having a panic attack or feeling blue. One time he even came to my office on lunch because I was so distraught and having a bad day, and sat with me and calmed me down. I am not ready to let that friendship go- unless he wants to.
Another friend who was in the #1 category, had also been quiet and acting out of character. She is older than me and lives with her elderly parents, who are not well, and is their primary caregiver. She puts her family’s needs before her own. She is the good daughter. She is a very quiet person who does not like to talk much about her situation – I don’t know if it is because she does not like to burden others or because like me, she just doesn’t want to talk about situations that aren’t going to change or get better (when I encounter those situations). We had been very close for 6 years. Over the past year, we saw each other less and less. We last saw each other in February. She did not attend my engagement party because it was on Father’s Day and she said she wanted to be with her family that day (it was an afternoon party). She also used to suffer from anxiety and was a great person to contact if I was anxious or to talk about triggers to. She knew about my diagnosis and was very accepting- or so I thought.
I want to say that when something bothers me, the first person I talk about it to is most likely my doctor, whether at an appointment, or by telephone. I am very lucky that she responds to my urgent messages. There is not much that phases me anymore, so something really has to get me rattled- and when it does, I need my doctor’s advice. The next best person is my Dad, because he is so rational and can make me see things clearly. Of course my fiance is there too but I never wanted to drag him down or make him worry- so I tell him things when I am in a calmer state. I also would go to my Mom, but we have such an emotionally intertwined relationship that if one of us is in a bad way, the other will feel it too. We have to try to limit what we say to each other so we don’t upset each other that way. And if I really don’t want to talk, I journal. I keep a notebook in my purse or work bag- and now I have this blogsite.
So getting back to this friend, knowing what I did about her situation, I was very consistent at calling or checking in by text message to let her know that I was thinking of her, was there for her, would listen etc. Her response would be that she would call when she wanted to talk, and then she would call when she knew I was unavailable and would leave a message saying she would call the next time she felt like talking. Okay. Fine. I thought maybe she was feeling low and didn’t want to explain herself to anyone. With respect to getting together, we didn’t and the one time she offered to was the night before the engagement party, when I had an out-of-towners’ dinner, knowing I would not be available. She also told me she could not be a bridesmaid anymore because of her situation.
I didn’t see her all summer. I left well enough alone, figuring she wanted space and to be alone. I would see pictures of her at social gatherings on Facebook but I know that just because you post a picture, it does not mean you are happy or in a good place. I tried not to be insulted.
I decided to send a text message a few days ago which said I was concerned as I had not heard from her and did not see her all summer and wanted to make sure everything was okay. She responded that everything was okay and that she would respond to me later that night. The next night I received an email which was so unexpected and uncalled for.
In the email, she essentially said that it was interesting that I refer to her as someone who “gets” me and listens because she finds that I do not “get” her and basically our interactions consisted of me talking and her listening for the past little while (whenever that started) and she therefore took a step back from our friendship. She said she didn’t want to bring it up because she knew I had been going through a very difficult time with my diagnosis and she didn’t know how much if any of the issues were attributed to it (her words). I read that and my chest became tight. I had to read it a couple of times. I have been nothing but generous and kind to this friend, going out of my way, always trying to be there etc. And this is what she has to say? And she wants to attribute “issues” to my diagnosis???? First of all, I was diagnosed more than 4 years ago and I am very high functioning and I have had relapses but I am resilient. I fight every day to get up and to be (you know, to “be”). Secondly, WTF!!!!! What exactly are you trying to pin on me being bipolar or me having bipolar disorder? My not listening? My being selfish and talking too much? I am guilty of neither. I am a patient and quiet person and I put everyone else before me. I refuse to talk sometimes and my Mom and fiance worry because I bottle things up. Thirdly, NO ONE, and I mean NO ONE ever ever ever ever ever has the right to blame anything on my bipolar disorder, attribute (what they perceive to be) a character flaw or accuse me of being a certain way because I am bipolar. If I acted a certain way because “my bipolar is acting up” – I would tell you/the person. And I am not one of those people who goes around and throws phrases like that into conversations. This is MY diagnosis and I will deal with it how I please and I am me because that is how G-D made me and my illness does not define me and instead, it gives me a unique perception of the world, an amazing ability to be creative and it forces me to be strong and as mentioned before, resilient.
To me, this is the worst offence you can commit as a friend. I won’t get past it, not out of stubbornness, but because she clearly stated she was pushing me out and now she has given me reason to stop caring. I feel stupid and guilty and frustrated because I have wasted so much time being concerned about someone who really did not care about me/wanted me out. How do I know she wanted me out? Later in that email, she discussed how I didn’t understand her in more detail, accused me of making a comment which was a comment that was so out of character for me to say and I know I would never have said- even if I was on a high, and said that comment was offensive and it confirmed I don’t fully understand what she goes through. She noted that she had to pull back from a few friendships and she can’t spend time with people who don’t fully support her, therefore she can’t spend time with me and she does not know how things will be going forward. I did not respond to the email. I spent a few hours thinking of “comebacks” and things I would like to say in a response but I knew I was angry and did not want to start a hostile email exchange.
What I needed was to know, not that I was innocent of these charges, but I needed to have someone tell me I was not selfish or did not spend too much time telling people my problems. My mom spent time on the phone with me while I was in tears telling me I was a good person and giving etc. I think I was in tears because I felt blind-sighted by what happened, that a good friendship was over and that she tried to blame something on my diagnosis. It was proof-positive that she was clearly the one who did not get me and that to me was upsetting. Both my parents, who of course made me feel better, were disgusted by it, as they had been very giving to her to, as was my fiance. No one expected this to happen.
I can honestly say that even those you think understand mental illness don’t. People who have not witnessed mental illness first hand have no idea as to the toll it takes on a person. When your spouse, parent, sibling suffers from mental illness, you are affected too – and I love my support network of my parents and fiance. No one will ever understand “what it’s like” unless it is experienced first hand. I do not have any friends who have bipolar disorder. I have had friends with anxiety disorders and we can relate to each other with respect to coping with anxiety.
If someone asked me what it’s like to be bipolar/live with bipolar/have bipolar – I would say it’s hard to understand. How do you explain the profound swinging emotions that fluctuate and can torment you, alter your thought patterns, change your perceptions, make you feel lost, alone, lose your sense of self, lose your confidence, feel like you want to crawl into a ditch and hide and then other times you feel on top of the world, energetic, fantastic, hyper, giddy, extra-confident, bold or irritable, frustrated, edgy, restless? What is is like to rapid cycle and have multiple cycles in a week? In a day? Trust me, only someone who goes through it understands.
All I know is that the latest lesson I have learned is stigma is everywhere, and some people will never understand.