I have a high school friend diagnosed with bipolar shortly after finishing college. We were really close at high school and drifted apart as college and then work and life took us in different directions. Recently, she split up with her boyfriend she has had since college (10yrs ago) and the fall out caused her to stop taking her meds, drinking, offend her work colleagues, and lose her job all in the space of a week. I went to see her and she seems relatively positive, is taking her meds again, exercising and feels confident in being able to handle things better next time. She is now talking to me more about her bipolar so I have been reading for a couple of hours a day about it to help me to react in the right way and give the right advice. As this is very new to me I am unsure how to help? If she is manic and being abusive I will certainly be patient and not take offense but should I try to calm her down and how should my attitude be towards anything she says to me? Should I give her some space to calm things and then try to lift her when she goes the other way into depression?
I also feel really guilty that I should have done more in the past to help but I now feel mature enough to actually make a difference and without excusing me not doing enough I have been preoccupied with a career/husband/children that I believe would have left me without the patience needed to help.
I would really appreciate your thoughts as I keep reading about how bipolar can make friendships so difficult and I really want to get it right…
First of all, don’t feel guilty. It sounds like you’re doing everything you can for your friend now. Second, don’t assume that bipolar disorder will make your friendship more difficult. She may never become “manic and abusive;” each person’s experience with bipolar is different. I cannot recall an instance where a friendship ended because of my bipolar disorder—not everyone with bipolar reacts to situations the same way. Not everyone with bipolar has a temper (though television would tell us otherwise). Third, continue to educate yourself—your friend sounds very blessed to have you in her corner! Fourth, just listen to your friend. This may sound simple but it goes a long way. If your friend is depressed, just listening can make the bipolar experience less lonely. I remember a Sunday in college when I woke up so depressed I couldn’t get out of bed the whole morning. A friend came over while I was in the midst of my crying spell and it gave me the strength to go on. I got out of bed that day and was able to function. Fifth, you can do little things to help her when she’s having a hard time like exercising with her, helping her buy groceries, making dinner, or visiting a support group together. Sixth, if arguments do arise in the future when your friend has bipolar episodes, learn to navigate “bipolar conversations” by responding to the bipolar disorder, instead of reacting to the outburst. Though the book is originally intended for couples, I recommend Julie Fast’s Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder for learning how to respond—not react.
*****Here are the links for our previous interview and book review with Julie Fast on her book Loving Someone With Bipolar Disorder***