Thursday, April 30, 2009

Bipolar Friendships

In response to an earlier post, Kelly wrote, "How does a person with bipolar disorder make friends? My moods aren't exactly conducive to deep meaningful relationships. I'll go through a stretch when being with another person is the last thing I want. Then, of course, the poles swing and I suddenly seek contact with the outside world. My biggest question is always how to explain these mood swings, and whether an explanation is even necessary. I don't think I could trust anyone knowing I have bpd."

Dear Kelly,
This is a great question, and I appreciate your bringing it up. I can only present my own opinion on this, but I'm hoping my readers will respond to you as well.

In my case, since I wasn't diagnosed until I was 43, it wasn't a problem for most of my life. I have always found it relatively easy to make friends. And by the time I was diagnosed, I had a core of friends from my youth whom I had known for many years.

I had other friends whom I'd made in a wide variety of different careers, but I found that because of the competition in the industries in which I worked, I considered them more acquaintances than friends.

And while I had suffered depressive episodes for much of my adult life, the episodes weren't that disruptive to relationships. After my diagnosis, and the subsequent medication-merry-go-round, the erratic behavior that was medication induced, and the extended length of the depressions (also medication-induced), things changed.

For the last 15 years, I've had a real problem making new friends because I've been so depressed for such extended periods, and/or I alternated between depressions and hypomanias.

However, in my own case, I have been very open with long-term friends about my bipolarity. Since they had known me for so many years--the diagnosis meant nothing to them or to me. What was difficult was that once the depressions got so much worse and remained so for months at a time, I disappeared from sight.

While I know there are others who find it easier to be with people during a depressive episode, I've never been comfortable trying to make conversation when I feel so miserable that I can barely speak. And I have always found it difficult to pretend I'm interested in people's lives when it takes all of my energy just to survive.

However, again I'm not representative because I'm medication-resistant, and for years I had no relief at all from a series of increasingly devastating depressions.

Still, as I've written before, for most of my life, I tried very hard to communicate with my friends on a few levels. First, when I could feel a depression on the horizon--and since mine do last for months at a time--I would email them and let them know what was going on. I explained that I don't talking on the telephone when I'm depressed, but if I felt well enough I would respond to emails, and if I didn't--I wouldn't.

But, the moment I felt better--even if it took six months--I'd email and say, "I'm back." And I'd call people and invite them to the house for a meal or make a plan to see them. I'd try very hard to find out what happened to them during my absence, and to send belated cards for significant milestones in their lives. I tried to listen more than I talked, although I wasn't always successful.

While some friendships have waned, I have a core of people who remain friends. And now that I'm feeling so much better, I've begun meeting people again. The easiest way for me to find people I like--since I worked as a freelance writer for so many years (which is a very solitary occupation) and I'm now semi-retired--is to meet them in classes or through activities that interest me.

Currently, I'm taking a gardening class and a digital photography class. I've signed up to volunteer at my local animal shelter. I'm also volunteering at a local community garden, and I'm involved in a program at UCLA, which is my alma mater. Soon, I plan on participating in sports once again, and playing music at a senior citizen facility.

When I meet new people, I don't initially tell them I'm bipolar because it doesn't seem any more appropriate than having them tell me they're divorced, going to AA, or that they have diabetes. However, once we develop a friendship, I usually do disclose my bipolarity. The reason is because as far as I'm concerned, my behavior is "normal," although I still do suffer from periodic depressions--and I need to explain my absences without hurting their feelings.

I'm not sure if this is the best tact to take or not. And perhaps others will have different advice. But, while I spent years worrying that I wasn't a good friend to my friends because of my absences, I have finally realized that friends of mine--who are more available than I am--have other qualities that I don't particularly like. So, things even out.

I believe the only way to have good friends is to be a good friend. And without friends, life isn't at satisfying, as least to me.

I hope this is helpful. I also hope that others will provide guidance as well.

Warmly,

Susan

14 comments:

Wendy Love said...

Susan,
Here is my take on Kelly's question. Everyone has 'stuff' in their life that is difficult and good friends eventually share their 'stuff'. After you have, explain that sometimes you just don't want to see anybody, and tell them to please don't take it personally when that happens. I hope this is a wee bit of help.
Wendy Love

Wellness Writer said...

Dear Wendy,
Thanks for your advice. I believe it is helpful. I think that sometimes we just don't realize that other's have "stuff" as well.

Susan

marja said...

I have a need to reach out to friends when I go through a tough time. Different from the way it is for you, Susan. But that can cause problems too. It's natural for a person with depression to become self-centered, thinking only of her pain. Then it becomes hard to be a good friend by showing an interest in your friend's life. It can then almost be impossible to do that.

Nevertheless, I think that reaching out helps me through my depressions. I just have to make sure I make up for my self-centeredness when I recover, by trying to be as good a friend for the people in my life as I can be. I'm not always so good at that.

I try to make it clear to my friends that I want to be there for them in the way they have been for me. Support has to go two ways, doesn't it?

Wellness Writer said...

Dear Marja,
I know how important it is for you to reach out to friends during a depression, and I was hoping you'd write about that.

It's interesting how different people deal with depression, isn't it?

But, I do agree about giving back when we're well. And no matter how many times I've told friends I'm available for them, or how many times I've offered to help out--I've found they are less likely to call upon me in a crisis--than they used to be.

For a long time, I felt bad about that. But, recently I've realized it's their problem, not mine. All I can do is offer.

I think that perhaps the reason it happens is because no matter open I am, people rarely understand bipolarity. When I'm well, I'm truly well--for months at a time. And the highest level of stress doesn't bother me.

Yet, if our friends don't call upon us when we're well--and are so willing to help--then the relationships begin feeling one-sided.

Alas...

Susan

Periwinkle said...

Very interesting discussion ladies, Susan I was also diagnosed at the age of 43 (last Year), I cried I dont like being "mentally ill" like my past relatives, and sometimes I still cry when I leave the psycharist in my car, but by God's grace I make it through each day. I have noticed that in the winter I am more withdrawn from friends flat out refuse to go to social functions, but if my family persudes me I sit like a bump on a log and dont want to talk to anyone, I feel like I have a teeshirt on that reads in big bold letters "MENTALLY ILL : BIPOLAR" but in the summer and spring and fall I am chatty cathy with strangers almost to the point that I interview them to learn about them, this drives my husband crazy. As for close friends I have 3 girlfriends that are very excepting of me and are my little support group if I am feeling suicidal. It's difficult for me to figure out who I should tell and who I shouldnt tell I am bipolar. BUT THANK YOU SO MUCH for the comment about being in AA, or having diabetes or being divorced this helped me SO MUCH it has shed a whole new light for me. Blessings Periwinle

Wellness Writer said...

Dear Periwinkle,
Thanks for responding to this as well. Since you were recently diagnosed, I'm not sure if you're aware of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). If your moods have seasonal elements, it's quite possible that this is the real issue for you.

It would account for feeling antisocial in the fall and winter, and feeling hypomanic in the spring and summer.

There are things you can do to ease both. You might want to check out my posts on SAD. Also, Dr. Norman Rosenthal who's one of the foremost experts on this has a site under his name, and has written a book called Winter Blues.

And, as far as I'm concerned, you're not "mentally ill." No one is. For 43 years, you weren't, and nothing changes just because you got this diagnosis.

All my best!

Susan
P.S. Hope you keep on posting your flowers!

Periwinkle said...

Hi Susan,

Yes I have been told I have SAD and I think my young son does also, I will definetly check out the above book, thank you so much!!
P

p.s. I looked up the other top 10 blog spots for bipolar and by far yours is the best :)

Periwinkle said...

Hi Susan,

Posted you some more pictures tonight, see you in a month!

Wellness Writer said...

Dear Periwinkle,
You're welcome. And thanks for your lovely comment. Perhaps, because you're a new reader, I should have told you that I have the same kind of symptoms you do. This is my year to "beat them." So...don't feel bad about all this.

In terms of your son, Duane at Discover and Recover was able to help his son recover from Bipolar Disorder with diet and supplements. You might want to check out his site. And Gianna at Beyond Meds provides advice about these kinds of issues.

I strongly believe in exercise, and nutrition--particularly for children. And I also think that sometimes their sadness is a response to our moods.

And we have to work really hard to be attentive to them even when we're feeling low.

My two goals for this year--starting in April (which was my birthday) is to try and exercise every day, and to begin yoga as a method of controlling my mood shifts.

So far, I've failed miserably, which is another reason I'm taking time off. I need to focus on practicing what I preach.

Susan

Wellness Writer said...

Periwinkle,
You can always post a question on my blog, and I'll respond. In fact, I'll write a post today to let people know they can do this.

And I'll drop by and see your photos before I leave for my photography class, which is meeting this morning.

Susan

wildcat said...

wow, this is a lot of info. i do not have friends. I tend to have aquaintances for the moment where ever I happen to be - work, class, and it ends there.

I have a very full life with an 11 yr old boy and a 6 yr old girl. A 40 hr office job. And a neanderthal, that usually evolves into my husband by mid-May. And a full brain of whys and hows I want to discover as quickly.

Wellness Writer said...

Dear Wildcat,
And...in addition to all that...you have a lovely sense of humor and I so appreciate it! Thanks for commenting on this post; I appreciate it!

Susan

Kelly said...

Thanks for posting on this topic, Susan. I also enjoyed everyone's responses. I think my problem with making friends is beyond bipolar disorder, but once I do make friends, I'll have some good advice to follow from this post.

Wellness Writer said...

Dear Kelly,
Glad it helped. And I'm a firm believer in the fact that people can overcome any and every obstacle if they care enough to try--and seek help when they need it.

Sometimes, I believe the problems may depend upon when a person is diagnosed with an illness, what their behavior has been, and so many other variables.

Susan