Speaking Bipolar – A Mental Illness Translator
An inside look at communication with bipolar disorder.
Bipolar is a cruel illness for many reasons. Perhaps one of the worst is the fact you often can’t trust the way you perceive the world around you. Hence the need for a mental illness translator.
For years, I joked about writing a book with this title, “Speaking Bipolar – A Mental Illness Translator.” Instead, I opted to create this blog to share my musings with the world. The book may still come, but it’s not ready yet.
Those of us with bipolar know that we have our own special language. We also know that the words you say are often not the words we hear.
What follows is a collection of statements I’ve seen a lot in my mental illness journey. You can read more of my story in the series: Surviving Bipolar.
But You Called Me Fat/Stupid/Lazy
Most likely, those are not the words you said. If they are, shame on you. Those are ugly words and should not be spoken.
More often than not, they are not the words you used. But they are the words we heard.
For example, for a few weeks, I was unable to attend my Bible Study. Things were so bad internally that I was struggling to leave the house, let alone be around a group of people.
When I felt up to it again, I went to the next Bible Study. A well-meaning friend came up and said, “It’s so nice to see you tonight.”
Those words about sent me fleeing to the parking lot and speeding away in my car.
Why? Enter the mental illness translator.
Because what my bipolar brain heard was, “So, you finally decided to show up. Where have you been? You have no good reason for not coming to Bible Study. And how long until you stop coming again.”
Raise your hand if you understand.
But The World Looks Dark
The bipolar brain likes to put its own slant on the world. The polar opposite of rose-colored glasses, the bipolar translator makes everything negative and insulting.
“You look nice today,” becomes, “You normally look like crap. I’m surprised you were able to put a semi-presentable outfit together.”
“You look like you’ve lost weight,” becomes, “You are a fat pig. You don’t really look like you’ve lost weight. I’m just trying to shame you into finally losing some.”
“Dinner was really good,” becomes, “Wow, I didn’t know your skills extended beyond frozen dinners. Or did you just buy this somewhere?”
You get the picture.
If you don’t have bipolar, this may sound like a crazy over-exaggeration, but I assure you, it is not. That’s why you need to understand a mental illness translator is sometimes needed.
This is a very real struggle for those of us with bipolar. This is why we sometimes get a blank look on our face and take a moment to respond after you say something. And this is why we sometimes just turn and walk away without saying anything.
Part of our mind knows what you said. It knows you meant what you said and your words contained no hidden message.
But the stronger, uglier part of our brain paints everyone as the enemy.
And every enemy is out to get us.
But You Said I Wasn’t a Good Friend
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m often not, and have not been, a good friend. My intentions are generally good. It’s the bipolar follow-through that is often lacking.
When you have a friend with bipolar, you must recognize you really have two very different friendships.
One, the friend who wants to include you in every activity and talk to you twenty times a day.
Two, the friend you rarely hear from who will turn and run away if they see you in the grocery store.
I have bipolar friends, so I know this very well, from both sides of the fence. In fact, my best friends are bipolar. We seem to be drawn to each other. Go figure.
That doesn’t mean that things are easy, though.
And the phone kept ringing…
Someone very special to me did not realize she was bipolar while growing up. Her family had some inkling but were a little apprehensive about getting the help they knew she needed.
One afternoon, she decided she needed to talk to me. I was having one of those no-people days and not talking to anyone, including my family.
Still, she wanted to talk so she called me. Then called me again. And called me again.
My answering machine – yes, this was some years ago when I still had a machine – had 38 messages when I unplugged it and took the phone off the hook.
She was in stage one above.
Not long later she entered stage two. Then, along with refusing to talk to us, she also ran away with her brother’s car.
I am very proud to say that today she is a wonderful woman and happily married. When we get to be together, we laugh about what she was like before starting medication.
But Then We Run Away
What makes friendships even harder is we frequently try to cut people out of our lives. I can’t say what triggers this. If you know, please share your thoughts below.
At times it is the mental illness translator in our head.
If we are not invited to your dinner party, then you were never our friend.
If you have to cancel plans, even if you are sick, then that means you got a better offer to be with someone you really like.
And forget about what you say.
I foolishly used to say I remembered everything. It’s true there are many conversations I remember verbatim even from decades ago. But on manic days, nothing can be trusted, including the memories made while experiencing mania.
You may have said, “I missed you at the Super Bowl Party,” but I heard, “Everyone was so happy you didn’t come. We had such a good time without you and your mental-illness drama.”
You say, “Friday doesn’t work for me to have dinner.”
We hear, “I keep trying to tell you I don’t want to be your friend. When are you going to take a hint?”
If you are friends with one of us, well, that makes you a very special kind of person. I want to thank you right now for enduring us because most likely we will never tell you.
But You Said You Wanted to Break Up
There is a very good reason why I no longer date. If you are someone I have dated, you know the following to be painfully accurate. I sincerely apologize.
I tend to destroy the people I date. That’s not hyperbole. There is quite the path of destruction behind me. Think category five hurricane.
When you have manic depression, you have two very defined and intense responses in relationships. These instincts are much stronger than that of a non-bipolar person.
One, self-preservation is always in high gear. Every situation is dangerous and every person is out to hurt you. It becomes imperative to keep people at a distance and to sometimes cut them off completely.
Two, the fight-or-flight response is always in panic mode, and flight is our number one option.
You say, “Let’s have date night Wednesday.”
We hear, “I am leaving you for someone else. But I don’t want you to be all crazy, so I want to tell you in a public place so hopefully, you won’t make a big scene.”
You say, “I’m not sure I can get together this weekend.”
The mental illness translator hears, “I’m done with this relationship and trying to let you down easy.”
Is It Possible to Win?
Unfortunately, it’s often a no-win situation. There are times you cannot say anything right. No bipolar translator can fix that.
You say, “I love you and am here for you.”
Suddenly we are suffocated and overwhelmed with no choice but to run for the hills.
On the other hand, if you don’t tell us you care, then the relationship is about to end. For self-preservation, we’ll often end it first.
And when two bipolar people date?
Well, then, look out. I know some end up happily married, but I honestly have no idea how that ever works. I have never been successful with that equation.
What About You?
If you are bipolar, I know you can relate to much of what I wrote here. If you’re not, please don’t get scared away.
Yes, having someone in your life with bipolar does bring its own unique challenges. But it’s no different than having a friend in a wheelchair, who is diabetic, or a recovering addict.
We all make changes and allowances for our friends and loved ones. Mental illness should be no different.
To all those friends and family enduring bipolar relationships, thank you. Thank you for putting up with us. Thank you for not running away. And especially, thank you for loving us even when we can’t love ourselves.
Until next time… Keep fighting.
This made me cry because all of it hit me hard and I constantly feeling like I am sabotaging all my relationships (romantic, friendships, family etc)
I’m so sorry it made you cry. Communicating can be a struggle, but it is possible to have successful relationships. Never stop trying. Thanks for leaving a comment. Keep fighting.
I FEEL VALIDATED……..your column makes me feel that “I AM NORMAL” the rest of the world is dysfunctional. i know that is not a true statement, but I think the world needs to do a lot of catching up when it comes to MENTAL ILLNESS. …Keeping it simple works. MERCI
Thank you so much for your comment. I’m overjoyed that the post resonated with you. You’re not alone or abnormal. This is the world we live in. Keep fighting.
Wow, this hit home. Hard. My best friend of 9 years revealed she was bipolar last summer. I sat next to her every day at work for all that time, did Bible study with her, camped with her, traveled with her. I had no idea what she was dealing with. The mood swings I attributed to a hard marriage and kid life. But in a manic episode she let it slip, cut me out, lit fire to our relationship and her (our) job. Two months later she took her own life. I’m broken, but I am trying now to learn, reading as much as I can, absorbing it all. Thank you for expressing whatyou deal with. I hate it for you. But I so appreciate your vulnerability, it helps others learn.
I am so sorry to hear about your friend. Bipolar is an evil animal that claims too many victims. Thank you for sharing your experience.
I have dated another person who was bipolar too. She also had extreme anxiety. It didnt last too long…like three months. I was bipolar one, she was bipolar two. Every time she freaked out for no particular reason that I could see, it made my stress go up. And when I get extremely stressed out I hallucinate. Not a good thing on my part.
Two people with bipolar dating have unique challenges. It’s good you tried and good you knew when to walk away.
I’m sorry you have hallucinations. I have them when I go too long without sleeping and know how terrifying they can be.
Thank you for commenting. Keep fighting.
The article content is fine. But I seriously find fault with referring to people who are diagnosed with bipolar as “being bipolar.” They have a disease. The correct and kind way to refer to someone with a bipolar diagnosis is “she/he has bipolar disorder.” They are not their illness. You don’t say someone is cancer, when someone has cancer. There’s a huge stigma, as you well know. You’re article is perpetuating it.
Thank you for visiting Speaking Bipolar. I appreciate your taking the time to share your thoughtful comments.
I’m not sure if you have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but I have been and so have many of my friends. While I wouldn’t want my health issues to be my only identity, I do not have a problem with identifying myself as “being bipolar.” If I were on the autism spectrum, I would be just fine with “being autistic.” Bipolar is also a brain disorder, and it colors everything in every day of my life.
My friends and I like to say, “I’m bipolar” because it’s sort of a badge of honor that we are mental illness warriors and still in the fight. Having bipolar is a unique experience that only someone with bipolar can truly understand. We usually refer to each other as “being bipolar,” and those words come from a place of love.
Much of my writing is written specifically to help others who have also been diagnosed. I want to increase mental health awareness while providing validation to anyone with a diagnosis. The best way to do that is to be authentic, to be me, and these are the words and expressions I use in everyday life.
I can understand why you might not like my expressions. If those words bother you, then you should not use them.
Again, I really do appreciate your visit and comments. If nothing else, you gave me something to meditate on today, and internal thinking is always a good thing. I hope you realize that all of my words on this site come from a place of love and understanding.
I agree. I am bipolar, autistic, and adhd. They are part of my identity. I have no problem with the way the article is worded.
Thank you so much for sharing your story! It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who feels this way.
I have had several friends in my life who were and are bipolar. Tough thing to fight. I don’t have it but have my own problems with PTSD and concentration problems.
PTSD is a beast in its own right. I’m sorry you are dealing with it. I appreciate your taking a moment to leave a comment and hope you will stop by again.
Would really benefit to be able to understand or have some tools for how to parent someone with bipolar and tools to be their friend.
Thank you so much for the input. I was just thinking this morning I need posts about and for kids. In the meantime, another great site is bphope.com. There are posts there specifically for parents. I hope you will come back to this blog too.
This is an excellent post! When someone says to me “You look nice today” I am thinking to myself; Only today?
Thank you for sharing, my stepdad was diagnosed recently that he is bipolar.
Again, great post!
Thank you so much! I appreciate you taking the time to leave a comment as well. Be sure to tell you stepdad that there is life after Bipolar. It may take some time to get the right meds, but life can be good again.
Thank you for this. This describes the majority of my marriage, my husband hearing something completely different from what I’m saying and as hard as I try to break it down for him he just never seems to get it. He just recently was diagnosed with bipolar 1 after he suffered a psychotic break during a manic phase and I had to check him in somewhere to get help. The whole ordeal, while a nightmare at the time, I’m beginning to feel is a blessing in disguise. All of these problems we’ve had for years finally have a reason behind them and that gives me hope to be able to move forward and fix them out at least be able to work with them. ImI’excited to send him this article and maybe it will illuminate what I’ve been trying to explain to him for the last decade. Thank you for writing this.
Thank you so much for taking the time to share your experience. Dealing with bipolar offers all kinds of challenges for the patient and their loved ones. I’m so glad your husband is getting the help he needs. Hang in there. Things can get so much better.
I really love this post. My husband and I are both bipolar and it has been the best and worst years of my life. We love each other very much and it will be 20 years in May. I can seriously relate to the part about having friends or lack thereof. Most people do not understand why we do the things we do. I will stop talking to someone for a period of time and then wonder why I haven’t heard from them. I thought about it and realized that I wouldn’t talk to me either. Thanks for the post.
Twenty years of marriage in today’s world is really something to celebrate. Congratulations!
It brings me great joy when my posts resonate with someone. Thank you for taking the time to let me know.
I’m not sure what it was that made me open your article but gosh, I’m so glad that I did. I have never been diagnosed with bipolar as I don’t really experience manic episodes unless I’m really into someone and I really want their attention (and then when I’m ignored I self-destruct). Reading this though has resonated with me profoundly. I don’t know if that’s my Borderline talking or not but I hear things the way that you have described and fight with myself to try and hear things like a “normal” person. It’s so painful when you never really feel secure with another person. I thought that maybe I was just insecure and overly sensitive or over-dramatising some things but this may be the reason that I do the things I do. You’ve given me something to speak with my psychiatrist tomorrow that’s for certain! Thank you!
It makes me so happy that this post resonated with you. You are not alone in your struggles. Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment. Keep fighting.
I cried to realize how true this was.i relized may way is not the rite way. my main problem is trust. I don’t trust the system documentation on who can see my information..HIPPA is a joke..I was in the medical field and I no that stops me from getting proper help.butvty for this it open my eyes
Christine, Trust is a common issue when you are dealing with mental illness, but at some point you have to trust someone. I understand, though, because I still fight every day the inclination not to trust people. As hard as we might try, we can’t fight this battle alone. Maybe try to find a support group in your area or online that can direct you to a trustworthy medical professional.
Thank you for commenting and sharing your experience. You are right, HIPPA has not done most of the things it was designed to do. Please don’t let that stop you from getting the help you need. There are good doctors and nurse practitioners out there who will keep things confidential.
That’s a useful read. I think most people–bipolar or not–do at least a little of that.
Thank you for your comment. I think you are right about that.
So glad I read this. My sister-in-law is bipolar, and so often I have absolutely no clue what to say without creating some sort of angry reaction from her. For some reason Bo, though, can joke all he wants around her and she takes it in stride. I just kept thinking it was my fault somehow, never saying the right thing.
It’s likely not your fault. There are some days you can’t win no matter what you do. Keep trying and be there for her, and that will mean more than anything.
Thanks for the encouragement!
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Really good read! I have been in a relationship with a “nonpolar” for the better part of 27 years. The first were the most rocky, as I was just developing bipolar. The last few have been sketchy as well, on both our parts for one reason or another. I love the way you were able to clarify what we are thinking vs. hearing. It can be difficult, especially someone new to the disorder or newly learning their selves. Thanks so much!!
Thank you so much for your kind words. I hope things continue to work for you.
Great article! I have bipolar schizoaffective disorder and rapid cycling. And your text is spot on! He says this, I hear that. It’s like every time he says something, I am convinced in my heart that he wants to hurt me emotionally. Really sad.
🙂 bookmarking your page!
I’m so sorry to hear about your struggle, but I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Hang in there. I do believe we can win this fight.
Wow! Tx so much for this….I always wanted to explain how my bipolar made me act the way I do but I didn’t really know how to articulate myself so that people can try to understand. This is a keeper for sure….
Thank you so much for commenting. I am planning to make this post into a series. Is there anything else you would like to see covered?
Wow. I truly did not realize how ignorant I was of my own illness. This article provided a clarity on issues that I have never truly explored. My relationship with my family has been strained for several years because of the misunderstandings and maybe this article will help some light for them as it has for me. Thank you.
I’m so glad you enjoyed the article. I would like to turn the post into a series because it tends to be the most popular post on my blog. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.
Going to send this to my possibly bipolar narcissistic love of my life he hardly understands, 6 years strong. Great translation and spot on
Thank you so much. Let me know how he responds.
I had a depressive episode, he heard me talk and told me, “that is the Bipolar talking” I believe he read it, I also shared with another friend who has bipolar and he enjoyed the read.
Thank you for sharing it with others. I hope you continue to thrive through the chaos bipolar can bring. Please come back again.
Scott Thankyou so much for sharing this… I have been with the most fabulous man for the past 8 months but i’ll Be honest it’s been a roller coaster as I’m positive he is bipolar, infact I’m 100% positive he is. When he is in his ‘ dark’ times he wants to do it alone and pushes me away and yet when he’s in his ‘ yellow happy times’ there is no one on this earth I would rather be with. There is very little out there to help and support people like me that just want to love someone with bipolar…so Thankyou so much for writing this as it helps people like me so much. Sadly I have recently vacated my seat on the roller coaster, not because I wanted to but because I had to… I hated giving up on my beautiful man but it was exhausting and it hurt but I remain hopeful that we can resolve things… Thankyou again xxx
I’m sorry you ended up having to take a break from your relationship. I know it’s been very hard for people to date me. If you see potential, try not to give up on him. He might just need to know that someone will stick around. Thanks for your comments. I hope you’ll stop back again.
This is a great post, Scott. It’s wonderful to read this from a man’s perspective…bravo for writing about the illness that must not be named. 😉
I’m bipolar type 2, so there are some differences — but so many similarities in coping mechanisms etc. Our friends are indeed treasures.
Healthy, Savvy & Wise
Stephanie, Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. It’s important for all of us to help hold each other up through this struggle.