CW: disordered eating – paragraph 2, self-harm, vomiting – paragraph 7
On the first day of August, 2019, before I knew I was bipolar, I had a terrible serotonin-induced break with reality. I got through it with the patience of my lovely friends and a helpful paramedic. For my own dignity, I won’t detail the episode itself, but instead the toll it took afterwards on my body and mind. It was as if my mind could only manage one task at a time – I had to remember to breathe, to blink, to put one foot in front of the other. It took me a whole day to be able to walk in a straight line again. I spent most of the following morning crawling around my flat before slowly progressing to upright wobbly steps in the afternoon. I was fucked and I didn’t know what was happening to me, but my friends made it less scary.
After that ordeal, the conclusion of an intensely hypomanic episode, I wallowed in depression for about two weeks. It was manageable at my day-job, but I found weekends excruciatingly lonely. Luckily, I had a good friend who came over and cooked for me — he knew I struggled with disordered eating — and allowed me to cry snottily into his chest for the rest of that summer. We were very good at having fun doing absolutely nothing, most weekends he came over and we took a bus to a green space and we lay about in the grass, basking in the sun. When we got bored we ate and walked around until we found other, nicer green spaces. Importantly, he also encouraged me to check in with my psychiatrist, which led to my bipolar diagnosis.
Ours was not a perfect friendship. While wholesome and nurturing when I was depressed, our friendship became ever so toxic when I was hypomanic. We truly brought out the worst in each other. I knew it, he knew it, other people knew it, and yet we persisted. He had a petty feud with one of my other guy friends at the time, both convinced that the other one was secretly in love with me when really, neither of them were. This did not help the grandiose self-image I adopted when I was hypomanic.
After my diagnosis, I was hyper-fixated on the fact that he enabled many of my harmful hypomanic behaviours in the past. One day, I got mad at his entire being and cut him off for three months. I was still struggling with my diagnosis when I did it, but talking to other bipolar people helped me realise that my short fuse was not going to help me sustain friendships in the long-term. Around Christmas, I apologised. We’re friends again now, but we’re living on opposite sides of the world.
I think the most important thing to have in a friendship with a bipolar person is patience. Guidance from Mind, the mental health charity, gives practical steps to take in caring for a bipolar loved one: being open about bipolar disorder, making a plan for manic episodes, discussing challenging behaviour, learning triggers and warning signs, trying not to make assumptions, and, most importantly, looking after yourself.
I find the most challenging things to overcome in a friendship are discussing challenging behaviour and learning the triggers and warning signs. Usually, something that you would find challenging, like a friend being unreasonably obstinate, is a warning sign of an impending episode. There’s usually nothing you can do to change their mind at that moment because there’s nothing you can do to alter their perception of reality. It’s best to let the situation de-escalate and try to resolve the challenge when your friend is in a healthier state of mind.
It’s also important to know your friend’s triggers to avoid setting them off. The word ‘trigger’ has been bounced around a lot lately, but in this context there’s more to worry about than making your friend squirm a bit. When I am triggered, for instance, it can set my life back by two days or more. I will usually spend hours sobbing uncontrollably, vomiting, and contemplating self-harm, if not actually doing it. After all of that tires me out, I will need to sleep for a solid day to recover my bearings. It’s completely disproportionate to the scale of what triggered me, but my brain doesn’t care about that. It’s important for friends to know my triggers because while I can maybe manage if a stranger says something upsetting to me, my brain won’t let me do the same for friends.
As I’ve outlined before, friends are absolutely crucial to my survival as a bipolar person. They mess up sometimes, but the things they do to help make a world of difference to how I experience my condition. I have had friends lend me a hand with errands like doctor’s visits and trips to the bank. I have had them give me a safe space to vent even when I’m being unreasonable. I have their kind words lift me up through my most confused, agitated, and anxious moments. It’s safe to say that without friends, I wouldn’t be here.