Bipolar disorder -- what is it, really? It is not a bad day, PMS, or a series of bad moods. It is a disease. Just like cancer, diabetes, or heart disease, bipolar disorder is a long-term health issue that needs to be treated by a team of professionals.
But the person diagnosed also needs to be supported and loved by people who care. Would you abandon a friend diagnosed with cancer?
It's scary to face the diagnosis of bipolar disorder alone. I know this all too well because I am bipolar.
When I was diagnosed, I was lucky enough to have people in my life who wanted to help me through it. Family and friends who rallied around me and told me it was going to be all right. Their love and support gave me the courage to face my diagnosis head-on, to get help and educate myself on my disorder. Friendship and support are as crucial to treating bipolar as mood stabilizer drugs.
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I am not only diagnosed myself, I am also the niece of someone who did not have the support system she needed and spent most of her life broken and alone. She needed the support of her friends and family, but she was ashamed and embarrassed and kept her illness hidden from everyone. Without that support, she stopped taking meds and never truly understood how the disease affected her. We never knew until she was hospitalized that she was even sick -- and it took us even longer to learn her diagnosis. We lived states apart, so it was easy not to notice.
You may be wondering why didn’t I recognize the symptoms in her since I suffered from the same thing myself. I did recognize the symptoms after I was diagnosed. I recognized her erratic behavior almost immediately, once I understood what my own diagnosis was -- but by then she had already been psychotic many times.
When a person with bipolar is manic, she is the life of the party. She is the girl in the office who can knock any project out of the park. She has the best clothes and shoes because she loves to shop. She is sexy and loves love. She is up for every challenge. She is creative and fun. She glows with the exuberance of life. Everyone wants to be around her.
When a person with bipolar is depressed, she is low almost to the point of immobility and irritable to the point that even breathing in her direction could invoke her rage. She is nearly impossible to be around. The same girl who was up for everything and the life of the party is now not into you at all. She wants to be left alone with her misery. If you try to coax her out of her misery, you will be met with a fierce reaction that could push even the closest friend away.
Bipolar disorder is not easy to recognize because it presents as 100 separate issues. The erratic behaviors that accompany mania and the irritability of the depression can make relationships very hard for those with bipolar disorder. It’s difficult to be considerate toward others when you have so much going on in your own head.
But it's also almost impossible to be a loyal friend to someone who is so hot and cold. That's where friends who aren't bipolar need to be strong. The bipolar person in your life needs your support, especially when she is being a raging asshole. That’s when she needs you the most.
You don't have to be her emotional punching bag, though. Just keep in mind that this is a brain disorder. She doesn't have control over it. It's not her, it's the disease. She does, however, have the choice to seek treatment. She needs to. And you can help encourage her.
You have every right to walk away, of course. But know that she needs your support to have the strength to seek help, to admit that she has a problem, to own her disease. The only way to get control of her demons is for her to face them and get the psychiatric, psychological, and medical help she so desperately needs to be stabilized. Stabilization and normalcy are an opportunity to become unbroken, no small thing since when you are bipolar you feel fundamentally broken at your core.
If you know someone who is bipolar, please support them, love them, and take any threats of self-harm seriously. Your friendship may mean the difference between life and death.
Image via Sodanie Chea/ Flickr