“I’ve drank gallons of holy water. I’ve had my hair shaved. I have dozens of incisions on my scalp filled with burnt herbs. I’ve taken so much antibiotics and pain killers that they’d probably have grown out of me if they could, all because I have Bipolar Disorder.
“All these were before I was properly diagnosed and after that, I had friends dragging me to yoga classes and spas and prepare foods that would cure me or magically get me to “snap out of it”. I have had days of being called lazy, reckless and unwilling to accept help. I wish, I just wish, they could walk in my shoes for just a month. Perhaps then they’d understand just how painful it is to be me.”
Those were the words of a friend who suffers from bipolar disorder. Most times we do or say things that we think of as advice to our mentally ill friends and family, not knowing that we are just making their conditions harder for them to cope with.
This disorder is shrouded by a lot of misconceptions and while most of us understand that people with bipolar disorder suffer from depression and mania; we also need to understand that nothing, including bipolar disorder, is as clear cut as they seem. People suffering from this disorder battle against a lot of things outside these two apparently known states. Therefore, if we can’t be a source of support to them, then we shouldn’t be an extra burden on them.
Here are a few things we need to understand about people suffering from Bipolar disorder:
They are not just being lazy.
Them laying down on the bed after crashing from episodes of “hyper-everything” or during periods of depression does not mean that they don’t want to or are not making anything any effort. They know they have dozens of things to do, deadlines to meet etc. but at that moment, life for them is bleak (if that expression is appropriate) and most times; they just can’t find the strength to lift their bodies into the shower.
If your friend’s episodes are more powerful than or different from that of someone you are familiar with, it doesn’t mean that he or she is exaggerating his or her symptoms.
Bipolar disorder has a wide range of symptoms and it manifests in different ways. Someone else’s symptoms cannot and should not be used as a yardstick for another person’s.
Yes, everyone has highs and lows but Bipolar disorder is more than having highs and lows.
Its comes with a lot of baggage, like feeling anxious, irritable, being unable to sleep, feelings of worthlessness and suicidal thoughts. Sometimes, the highs and lows occur as the same time and someone has described that as “exploding in a slow motion”. Just imagine how painful it will be to not be able grasp what state your mind is in. You are high and desolate at the same time and you just can’t get your mind stop slashing at itself. Sometimes their episodes can be physically painful, so no, it’s not all in their head.
Mania is not fun.
Some people come up with talks like “Thank God, you aren’t depressed all the time. At least, you have energized happy moments. That should make up for the days of depression”. While having a lot of energy is sure a very great thing, it can be hazardous when you had no control over your actions at that “high” moment. Imagine being filled up with restless energy, losing touch with reality, you are irritated, you are angry, you can’t get your body to shut down and have rest. You are awake when the world is at sleep, you are drained but the energy just won’t let you go to sleep. You make decisions which on a normal ground you won’t do, but at that point, your mind rationalizes and justifies that decision. These periods of overspending, irrational thoughts and actions, and over confidence has a very big impact on their family relationships, social life and financial stability. So no, mania isn’t fun.
People suffering from bipolar disorder like other mental illnesses cannot just control or snap out of it.
If they had the ability to tell their brains “No, I don’t want to be in this mood”, they won’t be bipolar in the first place. Sometimes, bipolar episodes just hits them and they can’t just tell their mind that “stop it, this is not the right place or time”.
Periods of depression, mania and mixed states do not define the people suffering from bipolar disorder.
They are in no way different from you and I, except that they need professional help, understanding and support. Their needs don’t mean that they have weak minds or have lost their capacity to think and make decisions. Living with bipolar means that are strong and that every breath they take is a sign of victory. Victory of a battle won among several battles in the war that they are fighting. So rather than make their battles harder with our critism and advice of exercises and diets that will “cure” them, let’s just try to be there as a support since we’ll never really understand what they are going through.
It’s never your fault.
When your bipolar friend is exhibiting signs of low mood swings. Don’t keep apologizing (“what is wrong with you? What did I do wrong? Did I say something? Why are you like this? Did I do something wrong?”) Please note that they can’t snap out of these low moods and you asking several questions they can’t really answer will further worsen their moods or make them feel guilty.
Most people with bipolar disorder often forget to take their medications seriously.
They may forget to take them in a day due to low moods or super high moods or deceitful balanced moods that makes them think everything is now okay and they don’t need the drugs. As much as we want to love them and go all ‘tough love’ on them, don’t try to make them feel guilty for forgetting to take their drugs. You can gently explain to them how the medications are beneficial to them and why they should use it or go for therapy. Honestly, it’s hurtful for some to have to stay on meds for a long time, and some really just can’t afford it, so before you try to guilt your friend into taking their meds, think about the underlying factors, but try to explain that they need to stay on those meds to prevent relapse, and they shouldn’t stop using a drug without consulting their doctor. Also, understand that you can’t love the illness out of them.
Don’t tiptoe around them.
Trust me, they’re strong. They won’t break. If they make you angry, let them know. Don’t try to avoid talking about the important things because you think it might hurt them.
Don’t use their disorder to cover their behaviours
If your friend is very upset and shouts at you, don’t say ‘I understand that you’re behaving like this because of your disorder’. Don’t refer to their actions as ‘implications of being bipolar’. They know you did something wrong, and if you feel they’re overreacting, let them know without raising the bipolar flag. Also, if your loved one gets violent, don’t try to force them to stop. Leave that area immediately and try to get an older person or a doctor that could help.
“My boyfriend does annoying things, and when I complain and shout at him, he says I know it’s the bipolar in you talking cos you’re overreacting” This hurts me a lot and frankly, it’s irritating because I am a human being with my own emotions too” – Tomi
My mom gets into a bipolar rage once in a while. She has thrown a knife at me once and thrown a pot of hot water towards my little brother. I know she has no control over these things, so I leave when things start to get out of hand. I stay around to try to watch out for other strange behaviours though, but at that moment, I don’t fight back because I know she’ll come back to herself and cry her eyes out” – Adeola
Adeyemi-Taiye Rukayat (I.R Adams)