Monday, February 6, 2012

Friendship After Mental Illness

I am bipolar. For the most part, I am ok with it. I mean, I don't like having out of control moods, or a crippling anxiety disorder that stops me from going anywhere I might encounter close-packed crowds. Nor do I enjoy having to take medication everyday for the rest of my life, medication that causes me to put on weight and makes my hands tremor. Nor do I like the fact it severely impacts my ability to work or study. However, I've known about my condition for over 2 years now, and mostly I have come to accept these things as a normal part of life.

No, the worst part of being bipolar is what it did to me socially.

Before I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I was already fairly isolated. I hated who I was, and my fear of breaking down in front of others led me to avoid too much time with other people. But I still considered myself normal, and people would treat me as such. I was a regular girl, albeit one who felt blue a lot. I did a lot of volunteering for my local church group, and I tried hard to be, if not happy, at least useful.

When I was diagnosed, however, a lot changed. I was sick, very sick. I was hearing voices and spending my nights crying while I desperately tried to seem normal during the day. The doctors gave me some medication to help me control my moods, and recommended I take time off. I stopped working, and spent a lot of time at home. That time helped me get my head in order, and I began to piece together how my undiagnosed condition had affected my life up until that point.

I began to forgive myself a little for all the mistakes and failures I had made. It felt like a relief to know that I wasn't the stupid misfit I'd always told myself I was. I was sick. And it could be controlled. I wanted to let my friends and acquaintances know, partly so I could apologise for any way my condition could have affected them, but also so I could make a fresh start.

But the reaction to my news was not what I had expected. The initial response was usually encouraging, with people showing sympathy. But then I noticed something strange. Over time, people lost touch with me. Fewer and fewer people checked up on me, let alone treated me like a wanted friend. It was like a diagnosis of mental illness was so scary people couldn't be associated with anyone who was touched by it. I would contact old friends, only to find they had little to talk about with me. Older people who had acted as mentors stopped talking to me, as if it was too difficult to deal with. I felt like I had been judged on the basis of a diagnosis, and found lacking.

I became very lonely.

For a long time, I was angry at these people. I felt abandoned, right when I needed support. For all the talk about love and acceptance, my Christian friends were the first to drop me! What was the point of preaching love if people couldn't even find it in themselves to talk to one lonely and sick young woman? 

Thankfully, not all people were like this. My boyfriend stood by me the whole time, driving me to doctors, making sure I took my medication, and most importantly, treating me like I was loveable and normal. His parents took me in when I could no longer live in a single room on my own. One family I knew supported me through everything, even inviting me over to stay for the weekends when they had so little room I had to sleep on cushions on the floor. I even made some new friends - ones who cared enough to accommodate my needs and treat me like I was normal anyway.

In the end, I realised that though I had fewer friends, I was left with the best of them - the ones that  loved me for who I was. So many times, friendship is based on something other than love - whether it is convenience or usefulness or superficial similarities. My diagnosis of mental illness stripped away all the weakest friendships I had. 

After a while, I began to forgive those who had abandoned me. I began to realise just how scary mental illness can be, especially to those who know little about it. It's hard to tell if someone with a mental illness needs help, as so much happens in their minds, let alone to do something. I am sure if some of the people had known what to say or do, they would have done it in a heartbeat. But, when they realised they didn't know what to do, they reacted with silence. 

These days, I am pretty open about my mental illness. I have thought a lot about how I should approach it, and it seems to me that the more silence is kept around the topic of mental illness, the more shameful it will seem to others. Even though others may not know how to react, it is not something that should be ashamed of. Instead, I try to be honest about what mental illness is, and how I deal with it. I hope if I can deal with my sickness in an honest and open fashion, others will feel comfortable talking about it.

For every friend who stood by me, I can only express how grateful I am to you. You made me feel like a human being worth caring about. Your friendship made my life happy and my struggles worthwhile. I can truly tell you care about me for who I am, not for what you can get out of me. Thank you.

For everyone who stopped speaking to me, I am sorry. We lost an opportunity to grow together. I know it's hard and scary to deal with mental illness, but you missed an opportunity to really get to know me, and I lost out on knowing you. While I am sad, I am not angry any more. 

am bipolar, and for the most part, I am ok with it. There's some things I find hard about it, such as the moods, the anxiety, the medication, and its assorted side-effects. But there's also good things that have arisen from it.

The best part of being bipolar is what it did to me socially.


  1. Hello Felicity. I'm Susan, and I'm friends with your lovely Mum Sue. I live in Florida, and I have clinical depression.

    I have read this blog entry, and I feel like applauding and hugging you. :) Girl you have said a MOUTHFUL!! :) I have had people 'dump' me and avoid me because of my mental illness. I have made to feel inferior, unlovable, unworthy, and made to feel like I had a personality flaw... or just need to "get a grip". They do not understand that this is not something I can control.. and sometimes it last days.. or weeks.. or even months without a break.

    It's nice to 'meet' you Felicity. :) Thank you for sharing!! You are NOT alone!!

    Love Susan

    1. Hi Susan! I have seen some of your comments on my Mum's blog - you sound like a lovely person. Thank you so much for reading my blog post!

      It's funny, because when I started this post I was feeling very down. I was thinking about all the people who "dumped" me after I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and I was feeling very sorry for myself. As I wrote, however, I realised just how lucky and blessed I had been, and the post turned into a story of how I found my true friends :).

      I think people do nothing in the face of mental illness because it seems so scary to them. I wish I could convey to them that it is just as scary for those suffering, and that sometimes all we need is to be treated as normal people.

      It's lovely meeting you, Susan. Thanks again for commenting!

  2. Mario Borg has left a new comment on your post "Friendship After Mental Illness":

    Felicity, it is an blessing to have read this blog today. Experience, though painful and sometimes unwanted, when expressed as you have done, can help to shape the world in which we live. There is so much we have to learn about the human condition both in the so called 'well' and of course in the 'unwell'. Your blog goes some way to bridging the gap between the two. There is much work to be done for the two to meet but through writings such as this there is hope. Continue to share, not only is it good for you but it is a blessing for those who come across your experience!!!

    I hope you don't mind me re-posting your comment, Mario, as it got to me via email, but never made it onto the blog! Thank you so much for your kind comments, and of course, for reading! Fliq