An extremely difficult aspect of living with Bipolar Disorder is keeping friendships and relationships in the long-term. The swings that we experience are not only destructive to ourselves but to those we are closest to. Preserving relationships with the people we care most about requires sacrifice, effort, and understanding from all of the involved parties. The following is a foundation for building an approach to keeping these relationships intact. Much of the advice I provide is distilled to a bare bones approach that I feel anyone can adapt to their lifestyle. Mental illness is a personal experience like no other, thus it requires a personalized management style.
*Educating Both Parties
The first step is to build a foundation of knowledge for both parties. The Bipolar person should wait until they are as level as they can be to prevent perceived slights from exploding.
– Bipolar: As a Bipolar, we need to understand how a loved one perceives us while unwell. Are they afraid, uncomfortable, pained? After you level off, you will need to initiate the steps to repair the breach.
– Normal: A Bipolar that is in an unwell period is perceiving life through a twisted lens. We react to things in ways that make no sense to anyone but us. The person that you know and love is in there. It may take days or months, but under normal circumstances they will return when in balance.
On a regular basis, we the Bipolar are left watching the ashes of our personal lives drifting through our fingers. The actions we take while unwell always have greater repercussions through every aspect of our lives. Thus, we should strive to minimize the damage of the flame once it ignites.
– Bipolar: Always remind yourself to hear what you are being told. Try to prevent their statements from running away in your mind. “I can’t give you ten bucks.” Doesn’t mean anything more than that though it can easily get to ‘That person won’t give me ten bucks because they don’t love, respect, or care about me. So fuck that mother fucker too!’ And now you’re in a hostile mentality ripe for torching that friendship.
– Normal: Be aware that any action or statement you make could get blown out of proportion in the Bipolar’s mind. However, that does not mean that you are to be a doormat or a victim. When dealing with someone who is unwell, keep your statements short and to the point. If their reaction seems out of sync with what is going on, it is quite likely the Disorder twisted it out of proportion. Stay calm and even. If you cannot, leave the conflict. Step away with something like, “I’m not sure if you are unwell or not, but I do not feel this conversation is constructive. We will talk about it tomorrow.” By doing so, you are not providing fuel to make the situation worse.
*Forgiveness Is All Important
There is no more powerful action than forgiveness. That does NOT mean you should allow yourself to ever be a victim or doormat. Mental illness is not an excuse to treat other people like shit. Yes, we periodically do treat other people terribly, but that does not make it right or acceptable.
– Bipolar: Be aware that everyone has certain boundaries that cannot be crossed. In the event that you do, you may very well lose that person or drive them away for good. Should that time come there is not a whole lot you will be able to do. Avoid letting feelings of resentment, anger, or abandonment build. Forgive them. Tell them you understand and let them go. Why? By doing so you are not reinforcing the unwell you in their mind. They are seeing you are a rational, reasonable, understanding person. Their thoughts in the coming days won’t be about whatever lunacy you were going through at the time, but be focused more on their last, rational interaction with you.
– Normal: Not everyone can handle being around the mentally unwell when they are. You need to identify your limits so you know what is entirely out of bounds. This will help the Bipolar person as well since they may be able to recognize it as a boundary. At some point in time, I took to looking behind a person’s actions for motivation before making a judgment. The same thing will help when deciding whether or not to forgive a Bipolar person their slights against you.
For example: I’ve been through approximately 25 jobs in the last 15 years or so. While I was with my second ex-Fiancee, I was still without diagnosis. I continued to lose jobs on a regular basis. Instead of coming clean about it, I lied about why I kept losing jobs to her. Now on the surface, one can just look at it and go “okay you lied several times, you’re a shithead.” and in large part I’d agree. However, I lied because I knew I had difficulties holding a job and was trying to turn it around. I knew it would affect her clinical depression and I did not want her to be so mad at me that I could not help her get through it. Was it right? No. Would I have handled it that way if I was well? No. Was it what my unwell brain told me was the best approach? Yep.
There are very few simple, clear cut reasons with a Bipolar thought process. If they do not cross your limits, its better to forgive them if you don‘t understand the thought process they are relating to you.
To the people that have experienced the pain of losing someone close to them because of their actions, you might find it hard to believe that there is a silver-lining. Going back, apologizing, and repairing the breaches between you and the people you care about can greatly strengthen your relationships. In addition, it will help separate the people that can handle your unwellness from those that can’t. You will have to take the step forward though. Embrace whatever humility you have to approach the people you wounded to ask forgiveness.
When I put this idea forward, the first response I usually get is “Why should I apologize! I’m the one with the mental illness!” I understand your frustration. This is not about mental illness, this is about showing remorse for hurting someone you care about. The approach I typically use is as follows:
‘I apologize for (insert action here) and the effect it had on you. I was in an unwell Bipolar cycle at the time so I was not myself. And I want you to understand, this is not an excuse but a reason. I acknowledge what I did, I know it was not the right thing to do, and to be honest, there’s a better than good chance I’ll probably end up doing something just as stupid in the future. That’s life with Bipolar Disorder. If you want to forgive me, that’s your choice. If not, I understand that too. If I can make it right, I will.’
And then I give the person space to think if they need it. Sometimes it takes a few minutes, sometimes it takes a few weeks, very rarely do they ever disappear for good.
*A Final Thought
The people in your life that can accept the bullshit we put them through and forgive you are your most valuable allies in your battle for wellness. If they are a person you can trust, their word becomes invaluable while you are unwell. They can be an anchor to what reality actually is. In my case, if I am acting severely out of my mind and someone points it out to me, rather than go out and about and cause the chaos that will come with being unwell; I hole up and ride it out until it passes. Once I rebalance, I get back on the path of whatever it is I was doing. By doing so, I help minimize damage and shorten my unwell periods. The more fuel shoveled in the furnace of mind the longer I’m going to burn, right?
Don’t hesitate to bring the people you love and care about in your world if you are Bipolar. They already know your different facets. They may not like, agree, or desire the unwell you. But there is a person in there that they value and love, otherwise they wouldn’t be putting up with our bullshit. In most cases, the person they love is the well person we are struggling so hard to get to with the therapy, doctors, medication, exercises, and more.