It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? You have a life-altering illness that affects the very way your brain works. Do you actually have to tell people that? Do you have to tell people you have bipolar disorder? Well, like with everything in life, it depends.
Recently I was contacted by someone who was unfortunately going through a divorce. He felt that his spouse left him because he was bipolar. He asked me the question that so many people with a mental illness have asked themselves: I’m bipolar – will anyone ever love me? Well, I can’t tell the future, but I do know a few things about love.
I hear from people over and over again how they can’t reach out to others because they are too sick. Normally this is because the person is too depressed, but it could be because the person is too anxious or in some other mood state. And I know for myself that asking for help can be the scariest thing in the world, but if we ever hope to turn the tide, if we ever hope to beat back bipolar, we need to be able to reach outside ourselves for help and support.
When people realize they have a mental illness like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, one of the first feelings they have is fear. And there’s a lot to be afraid of. There are the treatment, doctors, symptoms, side effects and then there’s the illness itself. It’s completely reasonable to feel scared in that situation. And in that moment, or possibly in a moment shortly thereafter, the fear of abandonment becomes a reality. A very reasonable and realistic fear is that people will abandon you because of the mental illness.
I am single. I have been single for a long time, actually. It’s OK; I don’t mind it that way. I have my dalliances, I have my friends and I have my cats. It’s a touch stereotypical, but it’s my life. I have, however, fallen victim to an irrational line of thought from time to time – I really want to couple. Some of this desire is completely rational. It’s normal to want to spend Sundays in bed with someone and have someone to share orange juice with in the mornings. What isn’t rational, though, is the idea that a relationship will make me “happy,” will make me “better.” In times when bipolar feels it’s darkest, more than anything I just want someone to hold onto even if holding onto someone doesn’t work. Holding onto someone, however special, will not cure bipolar disorder.
I’m an independent contractor. This means I sit in front of a computer screen, working at home, alone and writing all day. While this is the dream for many a writer, I can tell you it gets lonely. It’s tough not having work in an office where there are coworkers to chat with at the water cooler. And this lack of socializing is particularly salient because I have bipolar disorder. I have a tendency to cocoon anyway, and then you take away the day-to-day interactions with people and I suddenly find that I haven’t talked to a person in real life in a week. So I have to schedule in a personal life – whether I want to or not.
I get all manner of comments here and many of them scrape against my bones. Because I know these people. Because I know their brains. Because I am these people. Sometimes people think because I write or advocate or win awards I am not them, but it is precisely because I am them that I can do these things. It is precisely because I feel their desperation that I can truly write about it. One does write what they know, after all.
A few weeks ago I wrote an article on the worst things to say to a person with a mental illness. This ended up becoming a very popular article. I think that’s because most of us have heard some or all of these dismissive things from people in our lives. But a commenter posed an excellent question: What are the best things to say to someone with a mental illness?
Go to the ocean. The ocean may have been calling or I might have simply been talking to myself. But somewhere in my head a voice said, "go to the ocean." I went because I thought the warm sun might feel good on exposed skin. Skin that hadn't felt a breath in weeks.
After my last post, where I commented on my fear around being bipolar in public, a discussion came about regarding attitudes, and how I’m the same as everyone else. Well, I beg to disagree. I’m crazy. And the implications of that are undeniable.