This is an unfinished article that definitely needs some additional work, but I wanted to get the guts of it posted. Stay tuned for a revised version.
Bipolar disorder (manic-depression illness) is still not understood very well in the mainstream, and when it is cited in the media, I often cringe, because the reference is usually negative. I get tired of hearing bipolar used as an excuse for criminal behavior. This just further reinforces the stigma and discrimination that many individuals with mental illnesses face. I cannot help it that the chemicals in my brain do not function as they should. I cannot help it that I have a genetically transmitted brain illness that interferes with the way I process and react to certain experiences, either propelling me into a manic rage, or sentencing me to a dark, debilitating bout with depression…and please understand: I cannot just “snap out of it.” A bipolar diagnosis is most often accompanied by a range of other problems including anger, anxiety, paranoia, and agoraphobia. I heard it said recently, that bipolar disorder had become a “fashionable illness.” This enraged me. My illness cost me my career, most of my friendships, my respectability, and more than once, my life was at stake. Doesn’t sound very fashionable to me.
The people in my life who know about and accept my illness are still often left at a loss for words and struggle to know how they might help me when I disappear into a manic or depressive episode. Over the years I have learned how to do a pretty good job of concealing the extremes of my illness. I hate knowing, that at times, I am a burden to those who love me, and consequently, I do my best to put on the smiling face and keep my voice light. Unfortunately, most often I withdraw from the world, trying desperately to hide my disfigurement. Many times, all the courage in the world will not help me reach out when I need it most.
So my family and friends ask: What can I do? How can I help? What should I know? I don’t have all the answers, but a few suggestions come to mind:
First and foremost, learn as much as you can about the illness. A wealth of information is as close as your keyboard.
Learning about the illness will help you begin to recognize signs and symptoms of an impending episode and help you know what you may be able to do to help your friend or loved one. Are they taking their medications? Are they getting adequate sleep? Several of my doctors have advised that they should be contacted immediately when the individual with bipolar stops sleeping. There are a number of medication adjustments that can be made to head off a manic episode.
If you have signed on to support a friend or loved one as they learn to live with bipolar illness, I commend you…It’s not an easy endeavor. Right up front you need to have an honest conversation with the individual to establish boundaries and gain understanding about triggers and signs related to their manic-depressive episodes. It is also important to have a solid support system in place that includes the family, friends, and doctors of the individual you are trying to support. When a crisis is looming, staying in touch with members of the support group is important. All involved should clarify and agree on what steps may need to be taken when the beast rears its ugly head. Has your friend unexpectedly disappeared for several days and can’t be reached by phone or email? It’s not an overreaction to get in your car and go to their house. Find them and try to assess what state they are in. Are they suicidal? Are they incoherent? Are they buried in their bed in a dark room? Are they agitated? Have they been drinking heavily, using drugs, or engaging in other addictions such as shopping or gambling? Sit down beside them and talk to them…Ask them questions about how they are doing and what they are feeling. Reassure them that you are there to help them get through this and that it is not their fault. Remind them that this illness does not define them. Sometimes if the individual is severely agitated or disconnected from reality, it may be necessary to take them to the hospital. Self-harm can be a very real threat when one is in the extremes of this illness.
As I said before, it can be an immensely difficult responsibility to provide support to the bipolar individual when they are in the grips of this illness. There is no shame in admitting you are not up to the task. Still, sometimes it is the simplest things that can make a difference for your suffering friend…holding their hand, giving them a hug, comforting them with calm words, giving them the encouragement to face another day…just being there at a time when they feel most alone.
I am immensely grateful to those who have helped me through the past eight years since my illness exacerbated. I owe my life and my well-being to their support:
My mother, Betty Van Covern, my husband Darryl, my remarkable friend, Sally Ann Frank Phillips, Doug W., Tom K., Mike T., my dear and loving friend, Kolina who shared with me a secret of life and reintroduced me to the world, my funny and compassionate friend, Keri, my doctor Lance Reger, and my therapist, Linda Smith. I also must mention the many Facebook friends who have showed me support during some dark days. Thank you all.
I'd love to hear other suggestions on how to help your friend or loved one living with bipolar. I learn more about living with this illness every day...AND, oh yes, this illness will not beat me.