How to be a good friend to someone with bipolar disorder

(I’m publishing this again because I found a new resource that I think will be *immensely* helpful, both to you and your friend. Thanks to Healthline.com for bringing this to my attention!-PQ)

Hi, I’m [river in Ireland] (*cue twelve-step group greeting here*), and I have bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression. To people who have known me for a long time, this isn’t usually much of a shock. Actually, I take that back. People who have known me and been close enough to have seen some rough times aren’t usually that surprised.  As for everyone else, my friendly and talkative exterior can hide pretty much anything I want it to.  I’ve had to use this skill a lot in the past because I have had some people find out that I have bipolar and not be very nice about it. I think my favorite comment was that I was ‘demon-‘ or ‘spirit-possessed’. *roll eyes* Others think I’m not as much fun anymore since I have begun taking medication that doesn’t allow me to bounce off the walls like I did before. Still others think I’m just a freak. Of course, I was pretty freaky before, but that’s not the point. :)

The point is that people with bipolar disorder can be quite complicated; things can bother us that won’t bother ‘normies’, and our medications and treatment can take a lot out of us.  The disorder is very complex and there is more being learned about it all the time. There are various different symptoms or signs that can be mistaken as something else entirely, which makes it really difficult to figure out.  It can really screw with someone’s life.  For instance, it wasn’t uncommon when I was first diagnosed to get four hours a sleep a night for two weeks straight and clean the house up and down at 3 am**…only to crash the next week and not shower or leave my bedroom for two days.  That’s not even counting the episodes where I was crying and throwing things one minute and dancing a jig the next (only a slight exaggeration), with major swings like this happening in the same day.  It’s kind of hard to hold down a job when your boss can’t figure out what planet you are going to be from one minute to the next!  That’s not even talking about the medications and their side effects-I’ve been through several changes and can’t even keep track of them all. One of the medicines that worked the best for me also gave me shakes so bad I had to see a Parkinson’s doctor.  Another gave me gas you wouldn’t believe, and still another made me gain so much weight that I was nearly too fat to fit into my wedding dress! And you know what’s scary? I’m one of the luckier ones, because I can even take medicine;  I know some people who haven’t been able to find anything that doesn’t mix badly with their other medications, assuming they can find something that does anything at all.

Bipolar has a strong tendency toward comorbidity-meaning, it often occurs alongside other similar disorders.  I’ve lost friends and had others change how they relate to me, although I have had some actually come closer because they had similar problems and felt I wouldn’t judge them.  Generally, though, it’s one of those things you don’t really understand very well unless you have it yourself.  In this spirit, I thought it might be fun to give sort of a ‘guide’ on the care and feeding of your bipolar friend. :)  So, let’s get started:

Let the other person bring it up. I personally don’t mind talking about it with some people, but there are others I would just as soon not know. It’s not really anyone’s business, unless I choose to *make* it their business.  The same might hold true for your friend, especially if she is newly diagnosed or has had a rough time with it.  This is especially true in work situations;  there is so much misinformation and stigma out there that the last person many people want knowing about something this personal is someone who has control over their future! Asking respectful questions when you are alone might be okay if you know she doesn’t mind talking about it with you, but when dealing with a group, let her bring it up first. It’s not usually relevant to ‘normal’ conversation, and a lot of people can be downright nasty and judgmental.  I learned this the hard way. :(

Do your homework. You don’t have to become a medical scholar or anything. However, it will help you to better understand and therefore support your friend if you have an idea of what is going on with her.  Again, this disorder is very complicated, and there are several different varieties.  However, the impressions often given in the media and in fiction are just that-fiction. The movies have a way of misrepresenting things to make them more interesting.  If you do read up on it, look to more factual and neutral sources.  About.com has an extensive section about the disorder and the methods of treatment written in language a ‘regular person’ can understand. If you want to hear it “straight from the horse’s mouth”, so to speak, here’s a link to a video-based support community at healthline.com: http://www.healthline.com/health/bipolar-disorder/youve-got-this.

There very well might be changes in your friend that you might find irritating; knowing where they come from can help lessen the annoyance. For instance, my memory isn’t as good as it once was.  Since I have the ‘racing thoughts’ that often go along with bipolar, a lot of the time I won’t remember something as simple as instructions or the name of someone I met five minutes ago.  It’s not that I’m not thinking, it is that I am thinking too fast.  Well, to say ‘thinking too fast’ and ‘of too many things at once’ might be more accurate. I might repeat things, not realizing I had already asked the same question or told the same story before.  I know this can be frustrating, but understanding that this is part of the disorder often helps. Think about it, aren’t you more sympathetic to the person walking slowly in front of you if you see that the person has a cane?  It’s the same thing with us. This doesn’t mean that we should be able to get away with whatever we want to, but if you know where something is coming from it is often easier to help with it.

And please, for the love of God/Allah/Vishnu/kittens/or whatever it is that you believe in, do not assume or imply that a person could ‘be better’ if they only tried harder/had enough faith/thought positively/got themselves together/got rid of sin, etc.  I know from personal experience how much this can hurt.  It’s great that you care enough to give suggestions, and some of those things can help.  In fact,  therapy or thought-reprocessing are often an essential part of our recovery, especially for those who also have substance abuse problems (a good 30%-60% of us***).  Please understand that this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk to the person about God or their religion, either. However, this is very important-bipolar is a medical disorder.  It’s really no different from arthritis-a condition that can be managed but not cured, and isn’t brought on by anything the person did.

I understand that some people have religious views that anything can be cured or healed by the hand of God.  I also understand that some people find a lot of comfort in spirituality. I myself have a pretty strong faith, although it has faltered at times.  Faith, spirituality and a connection with something larger than/outside myself has been a big part of my life, even though there are times when I am depressed and feel completely cut off from God.  But think about it like this; If God made this planet and everything on it, then how did the doctors get their talent and what are the medications made of?  To use a rather ubiquitous and annoying cliche, think outside the box, people.  Perhaps a person can be healed supernaturally, and many times the illness will go into a sort of ‘remission’ where no symptoms show.  Believe me, sometimes I would love nothing more than to have it all magically taken away.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the way it happens for a lot of us.  Most of us have to take some sort of medication or have some sort of therapy at some point in our lives…getting these things is not a sign of failure.  This isn’t due to any lack of character or faith on our part, although some will think this at first; I certainly did before I knew what was really going on.  Being told these things by people who said they cared about me was one of the most painful things I have dealt with thus far because it knocked a huge hole in my faith in God, which was one of the main things that kept me going.  It has been rather difficult at times to regain any sense of this, and I still haven’t in some ways. This is pretty common.

If someone is not religious, it can still hurt to be told things like ‘oh, you just need to think positive’ or such things.  When depression hits, some people find it hard to get up the energy to think, period.  They would like nothing more than to be able to think positively, but they simply can’t see anything past the darkness around them. Reminding them of positive things is good, but please understand that it isn’t usually ‘enough’ for someone who has a mood disorder; other forms of professional treatment are also needed. I know I probably sound bitter, and I don’t mean to give a guilt trip; I just wanted to give an idea as to how hurtful such statements can be.

Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t understand everything your friend is going through. Half the time, we don’t understand it either. The fact that you care enough to try to understand and learn about it all means a lot.

Don’t assume facts not in evidence. This is somewhat related to the previous point.  A good rule of thumb is not to assume something is due to/related to the bipolar (or complications from it) unless you are told that it is. For example,  I have a friend who thinks she can ‘read’ me. She means well, but it seems that anytime I am sick or cranky or *gasp!* I get angry or irritated with her, she asks about my medications/doctors/etc.  I guess it could be compared to the way the guys we went to high school with assumed that we were having our periods when we got annoyed with them-sometimes it was PMS, but usually it was because they were being annoying! I guess it would be one thing if I were eating corn chips and watching Monty Python one minute and started screaming and swearing the next. However, that is not how it usually plays out.  I’ve often been asked about my medication when I’ve gotten bothered with my friend when she said something completely out of line or asked a question that really isn’t her business.

I know it can be really touchy and confusing when we seem to be in a bad mood for a long stretch of time or when we can’t talk about a particular subject without going off.  Believe me, I understand that this can be scary! I don’t blame anyone for asking or thinking our disorder is at play, because sometimes it is. My wedding, for instance, was a big trigger when my friend was trying to help me organize things for it.  The point is, however, not to use knowledge of our disorder as a catch-all to explain every mood or comment when our reaction to something might be the same a reasonable person could have.

Know when you’ve done all you can. There are going to be times when we need more help than you can provide.  Keep in mind that our disorder has a strong medical element and thus we will sometimes need that type of help more than anything else, or more than we are presently getting.  For example, one person I know had to be involuntarily committed to a 72-hour emergency mental health hold because she was dissociative, screaming and threatening to kill herself.  In her home state, the police had to be called out to the house because she was causing a major disturbance.  I don’t remember if it was her husband or her father who had her committed, but I do remember that she pitched a huge fit and wanted nothing to do with it.  However, involuntary commitment was what was needed to protect her from herself and others from her.   Not all cases will be this extreme, but parts of our disorder can only be effectively dealt with by medical and mental health professionals.  It’s not your fault; please remember that.  It’s a medical problem. We might say or think you are abandoning us or that you just want to get rid of us by handing us off to professionals, and we might hate you for it for a while.  Hell, you might even learn some new expletives.:) I certainly have.

Please know that you are giving us what we need by referring us to someone who can give more help, regardless of what we might say. We’ll thank you for it later but, even if we don’t, still know that you have done the best you could do.  You need to care for yourself too.

Above all:

Have compassion. We didn’t ask for this.  It’s like I once told my husband, ‘Remember that however difficult it is to be *with* me, it’s probably at least that much more difficult to *be* me.”  That doesn’t mean that you have to put up with whatever we want to throw at you (literally or figuratively), but that does mean that you should try to understand that it isn’t *us*, but the disordered parts of us, that are causing problems.  If you need to get away-temporarily or for good-then by all means do so, but please know that we’re not happy with ourselves either.

If you’ve gotten this far, I want to thank you for taking the time to read this.  It really does mean a lot that you care enough to try to learn how to help.  Hopefully one day, we can return the favor.

**Yes, as a matter of fact, I did have the cleanest house in the Research Triangle area. No, I won’t clean yours.

***source-About.com, bipolar disorder-http://bipolar.about.com/od/alcoholsubstanceabuse/Alcohol_Substance_Abuse.htm

About theprozacqueen

30s, female, married, Georgia US, very opinionated, open-minded mostly, too nice for my own good, Christian, fairly liberal, friendly. I have a pretty big family and several friends and in-laws that might as well be family. I don't have kids, but I have five cats who think they're kids. I have a silly (and sometimes off-color) sense of humor. View all posts by theprozacqueen

20 responses to “How to be a good friend to someone with bipolar disorder

  • falloutmommy

    I found your post on the random blog reader thingy.

    I just wanted to say THANK YOU for writing this. You put it very clearly and I am planning on passing it on to my husband. I have suffered from depression for about 10 years, anxiety/panic disorder for the past 5 and after my first hospital visit this February I was diagnosed with bipolar and inattentive type ADHD.

    Like

    • theprozacqueen

      Thank you for your compliment! I thought an article of this nature was long overdue. I was diagnosed with bipolar in 2004, but I have been treated for depression since 1995…looking back, I think I had some of the symptoms when I was about 11. It’s so frustrating how some people have misinformation but don’t really care. I’m hoping more people will read this…thanks for passing it on!

      Like

  • TryingToHelp

    Thank you for writing this post! I just found out that my childhood best friend was recently diagnosed with Bipolar 2, and she’d been suffering from depression since she was in middle school. I never realized it when were young, and then she’s been so withdrawn over the past few years that I thought I had done something to hurt our friendship, but it turns out that was not the case at all! I immediately wanted to help her, but I had little understanding of the disease and no idea what I could do for her. I googled the exact title of your blog looking for advice, and found it! Your perspective and suggestions are very helpful!

    Like

  • Bryan Walter

    This was very helpful. I have a very, very close female friend, who has never told me that she is bipolar, but she has shown almost every possible sign that she is. I was completely uneducated on any of this. Her and I became close and really connected, which I now suspect was during a manic time for her. She was extremely present for me during a very scary and lonely time for me, while recovering from a serious medical event. Then when I was able to come home from the hospital, she became very distant, and isolated. I was completely confused, and was very hard on her at times. We had serious arguments, where I admittedly pushed her to a near breaking point. I feel so damn terrible, now that I am realizing what may be the root cause of a lot of our tension. I love her very much, and she has expressed that she loves me. She has asked me to please be patient and understanding with her. It took me awhile, but I had just started to finally trust her when she told me that just because we are not always as close as we once were, she still cares very much about me. I just want to be someone she can count on, and believe that I am always here for her. I have to now begin the healing of our friendship. I hope it’s not too late, but your article has shown me how to truly be understanding and supportive of her. Thank you so much for this.

    Like

    • theprozacqueen

      No, thank *you*. It warms my heart to know that I can help other people understand disorders like this…hell, sometimes even *I* don’t understand it! You are being a *wonderful* friend to her for seeking information on how to help her…I’ve had people-particularly boyfriends, but sometimes ‘regular’ friends-love the ‘upturns’ but cut and run when they see the ‘downturns’. She is very blessed to have a friend like you who *wants* to be there for her through the rough times.

      Thank you again, and I’ll pray for your friend.

      Like

  • Maggie Danhakl

    Hi,

    Healthline just launched a video campaign for bipolar disorder called “You’ve Got This” where bipolar patients can record a short video to give hope and inspiration to those recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

    You can visit the homepage and check out videos from the campaign here: http://www.healthline.com/health/bipolar-disorder/youve-got-this

    We will be donating $10 for every submitted campaign to To Write Love On Her Arms, so the more exposure the campaign gets the more the videos we’ll receive and the more Healthline can donate to research, support, and treatment programs for mental health disorders.

    We would appreciate if you could help spread the word about this by sharing the You’ve Got This with friends and followers or include the campaign as a resource on your page: http://theprozacqueen.wordpress.com/2009/12/08/how-to-be-a-good-friend-to-someone-with-bipolar-disorder/

    Please let me know if this is possible and if you have any questions. And, if you know anyone that would be interested in submitting a video, please encourage them to do so.

    Best,
    Maggie Danhakl • Assistant Marketing Manager
    p: 415-281-3124 f: 415-281-3199

    Healthline • The Power of Intelligent Health
    660 Third Street, San Francisco, CA 94107 http://www.healthline.com | @Healthline | @HealthlineCorp

    About Us: corp.healthline.com

    Like

    • theprozacqueen

      I would *love* to share that sort of resource on my post! Do you want me to insert the link or make a video of my own (or both)? I am not even close to being photogenic, but I know people who are!

      I’ve actually got a similar post on another site (AllWomenStalk), so you might want to look there too.

      I am a member (host, actually) of a support group message board for people with mental illness. Would you like me to share it there too, to see if they would want to make a video? The members are mostly from Australia or the UK; would that be a problem?

      Like

  • Maura NíConnell

    As one who suffers from treatment resistant depression and has suffered since I was about fifteen years old, I do have a resource that might help a lot of people. There’s a drug trial going on all over the world for treatment-resistant depression AND bipolar disorder. It’s a ketamine infusion or a dose of inhaled ketamine. This site explains it better than I can, at least all the scientific stuff: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/05/120530100247.htm

    I can tell you, from my own personal experience that ketamine has turned my lifelong debilitating depression 180 degrees and I hardly ever have episodes of depression that last more than a week. I have shared this information with theprozacqueen, she and I actually know each other and live somewhat near each other. Anyway, returning to the ketamine infusion and inhaled trials, they were amazing! I did the ketamine i.v. infusion last Spring and within a day of receiving the first dose, I felt weirdly different. Weirdly different in a GREAT way! I don’t want this post to go on and on–I’m a writer/talker and have a propensity to just natter on endlessly, so I’ll just say that anyone who suffers from depression and/or bipolar really should look into these ketamine trials. Ketamine completely turned me around and I’m even hoping to get a job and wean myself off public assistance.

    Like

  • Just Plain Ol' Vic

    Reblogged this on Just Plain Ol' Vic and commented:
    Such a great post!

    Like

  • Lisa Womble

    Thank you for your transparency and insight. I will be browsing through your blog to try to gain more understanding of the struggles you (and many others) face in dealing with bipolar disorder.

    Like

  • boldkevin

    Reblogged this on Mental Health Writers' Guild and commented:
    The following post was written (and is reblogged here under their permission) by our newest member from over at The Prozac Queen blog. I hope you enjoy it and many thanks to her for allowing us to reblog it here. Kind regards and God bless you. Kevin

    Like

  • stockdalewolfe

    This is great!! Reblogging it on to Moonside. Bravo!! You covered all the bases!

    Like

  • stockdalewolfe

    Reblogged this on MOONSIDE and commented:
    Excellent advice for all!

    Like

  • survivor55

    Amen, sister!! AMEN!!!!
    :)

    Like

  • Gamayun

    Reblogged this on The Crazy Katze and commented:
    This. This is some of the things I’ve wanted to tell my family, but haven’t had the words for it.

    Like

    • theprozacqueen

      Thank you so much! I’m so glad I’ve been able to help people with this post. I’m also working on one about what it’s like to have ADHD as an adult.If you have any suggestions for posts, I’d love to hear them!

      Like

  • Marie Abanga

    Thank you so much. Only a queen takes the time to write such a post. With your permission, l will love to reblog this. I know the reblog button is there, but l still ask.

    Like

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