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.
Bipolar Disorder Symptom Checklist
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.