Unless you have walked a mile in my shoes, there is no way you will ever be able to understand my bipolar.
By Jess Melancholia
I don’t know a single person with bipolar disorder who doesn’t have that one friend or family member who just doesn’t get it. They either have no idea about mental illnesses in general or believe they are something you can “fix.”
For me, it’s more than frustrating; it’s downright cruel. You would think your family and friends would be there to support you. Unfortunately, you get the usual confusion and apathy. Or you get the anger.
Here are three basic premises that I wish they knew:
You can’t understand my bipolar and you never will.
I’m sorry this sounds harsh, but it’s 100 percent true. Unless you have walked a mile in my shoes, there is no way you will ever be able to understand. My depressions are so dark and morbid that they drain me of all my energy. The thought of taking a shower or even just getting out of bed is overwhelming. Depending on how low I get, I honestly contemplate suicide because I can’t bear to go on like this. My manias are so wild and unpredictable that irritability and insomnia cause major health issues. Sure, it’s nice to have more energy—but not when I can’t control my actions. Overspending and grandiosity can get me into major trouble in my financial and social life.
Bipolar depression and mania are far more extreme levels of emotions than you have ever experienced or can even conceive of. Trust me when I say you don’t—you can’t—understand. So don’t even try. Just be there.
When I’m manic or depressed, that’s not the real me.
Everything is amplified when I’m in the middle of an episode, so it’s much easier for me to say or do things that I wouldn’t if I were well. This doesn’t by any means excuse anything—bipolar is an explanation but not an excuse. A lot of outside stimuli are attacking my senses, and it’s hard for me to hold back the things I feel compelled to say and do. The fact is, my bipolar affects my ability to react “normally” to the world around me.
For someone to tell you that you just need to do this one thing … and you won’t be depressed or manic anymore is absurd and irresponsible.
The last thing I need is anger and criticism while I’m trying to deal with my symptoms the best way I know how. My personal catchphrase is, “Don’t be ashamed of your actions; learn from them and grow.”
Your coping skills won’t “fix” me.
While there are plenty of good tips out there for living a well-balanced life, like doing yoga or eating healthy, they do very little if anything to help when you are deep in the throes of depression or mania. Logic and reason go out the window. I fully believe in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) as useful tools to help manage bipolar disorder, but these will not cure it. They just won’t. So for someone to tell you that you just need to do this one thing (practice the Tree pose, boost your omega-3s) and you won’t be depressed or manic anymore is absurd and irresponsible. It perpetuates the stigma that this is “all in your head” and you should be able to “just get over it.”
Here’s the bottom line: My brain doesn’t function the same as everyone else’s, regardless of public opinion. But that doesn’t mean I am weak. In fact, it means I am much stronger than you think. It takes monumental courage and strength to live life battling bipolar. Every moment I continue breathing, I am winning this fight.
Don’t be ashamed of your actions; learn from them and grow.
And I will never stop fighting. Having my friends and family stick by my side gives me hope that I can manage whatever happens. Through their strength, I know I have a reason to keep on going.
If they only knew how much their support means to me.
“Jess Melancholia” is a pseudonym for a molecular biologist, writer, and mental health advocate who lives in San Diego, California, with her husband and cat. She writes for her personal blog at bipolarcompass.com.
Printed as “What I wish family and friends knew about bipolar”, Winter 2017
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