Talking about bipolar disorder is awkward. It’s getting better, but there is still a huge stigma surrounding mental illness. Telling someone you have a mental illness is more of a coming out process than it is a casual explanation of behavior. I frequently used (and sometimes still do) the vague phrase “I just don’t feel well.” It jars people to hear “I’m having a depressive episode and I just can’t handle social interaction right now.” This isn’t the case all the time. When people know about and accept mental illness, this sounds like a perfectly reasonable explanation and we appreciate the honesty. Even though it can be so difficult to discuss bipolar disorder, there are ways to improve communication all around.
For people with bipolar disorder:
Not everyone knows that bipolar disorder is more than just swinging between depression and mania. Not everyone knows that you can have problems between episodes or that bipolar disorder is related to other diseases like migraines, PCOS, diabetes and heart disease. Your psychiatrist is a great source of information that can be tailored to your personal experiences. Once you know more about what you’re dealing with, it’s easier to explain it to others.
Write it down.
Sometimes it’s difficult to express how you’re feeling. “I’m depressed,” doesn’t quite cut it. Take a few minutes to self-asses. Write down what you’re feeling both emotionally and physically. Then read back over it and summarize it. You can use this summary to better express aloud how you’re feeling.
Have a game plan.
When you’re in the throes of an episode, it becomes even harder to communicate effectively. Come up with scenarios with your loved ones between episodes. Think back on past experiences and recount what worked and what didn’t. Agree upon potential problems and solutions. Write it down.
Unless the person you’re talking to also has bipolar disorder, they really cannot imagine what you’re going through. Answer their questions without judging them for not knowing. When they ask how they can help you, tell them. They’re trying to make life easier for you. Unless you have a legitimate reason not to, trust them. You can’t do this alone.
For people without bipolar disorder:
Talk to us like you would anyone else.
We’re adults who can grasp complicated ideas. Don’t be condescending or treat us like children. If the situation warrants it (like during a manic episode), you can keep it simple or go back to the previously mentioned game plan to get through. Otherwise, just have a normal conversation.
It can be incredibly difficult for people with bipolar disorder to explain what we’re going through, especially if we think there are going to be negative consequences to making ourselves vulnerable. Focus on what we’re trying to say and ask for clarification if you don’t understand.
Just like we have a responsibility to learn what it means to have bipolar disorder, it will make communication a lot easier if you know more about it too. In addition to practical information, it may be helpful to see a therapist who specializes in helping loved ones of people with mental illness. They can also give you personalized advice on communication.
Please be patient.
Bipolar disorder is hard on you too. You’re the one on the other end of our mood swings and our shortcomings, but we have to ask for compassion. We did not do this to ourselves. While it’s our responsibility to do what we can to function and communicate as well as possible, we need you to recognize that it’s going to be harder for us than it would be if we didn’t have bipolar disorder.
When we ask for help, please help us.
Asking for help can be the absolute hardest thing to do for someone with bipolar disorder. So when we say we need help, we mean it, whether it’s something as simple as talking them through a hard time or getting a suicidal person to the hospital. It could literally be a matter of life and death.
Photo credit: db Photography | Demi-Brooke