Friendship and Bipolar Disorder (Part One – Erika)

How has bipolar affected friendships throughout your lives?  What was it like when you first discussed your illness with friends?  How long did it take for you to feel comfortable being open with friends about your illness?

Four year old me, just before I started going to preschool. I was anxious, moody, overly hyper, scratching myself, and sensitive; but I still smiled and laughed quite a bit back then (in a very non-manic way).

In the time that I was undiagnosed, untreated, and unstable, Bipolar Illness – and the other diagnoses I bear – pulled me away from other kids, putting up a wall between us that I could not break no matter how hard I fought. While I did have a few friends that stuck by me, and to them I am grateful, most of the welcoming arms and hours spent playing mindlessly seemed to be reserved for everyone else. When it came to me, other kids either teased and harassed me – saying how weird, freaky, fat, ugly, nerdy,  and stupid I was – or ignored me completely. I was never picked for projects or teams, and even today when the teacher asks us to work in groups, I feel panicked and sick – even though I now have friends. Most days, I would sit in the back doodling or escaping to meditate under a tree at recess, as my Dad had noticed my anxiety and taught me how. They seemed to come and find me no matter how far I went, walking around me in circles singing about how weird, lonely, and bad I was (all to the tune of “Mr. Lonely“, by Usher). Still today, if I close my eyes I hear their voices ringing against my ear, scraping it as if they were steak knives. I loved going to school to learn new things; however, the way I was treated caused me to hate it, and most everybody in there.

I do not excuse what they did to me in those years; but I can now understand it. There is still so much fury and pain ripped open about the way they treated me. I was just a kid, and should have spent it socializing and playing, not hiding in my own world trying to escape their taunts. However, they were only kids themselves, and  I wasn’t like most any kid they had met before. To them, I must have been like an alien species from an entirely different planet, and they had no idea what to do around me. As is only natural, they looked at the adults in their life, the teachers and parents, and I can just imagine the conclusions they got from that. Back then, teachers treated me like a spoiled, lazy, stubborn, ungrateful brat. They screamed at me in front of everyone when my mind wouldn’t let me fit the mold of how I should act, and they looked at  me as less than the other kids. I never heard any of it; but I am sure the parents whispered and assumed a lot. To those other kids, they must have walked away feeling it was OK to bully me that way, because the adults obviously had no problem treating me differently.

I was different, too. Situations that all the other kids seemed to handle, would break me like a camel’s back. Often, we would be playing a game like Four Corners, and when I got out I would be thrust into a full out, screaming, kicking, crying meltdown. In my mind, that one thing ruined the whole day, leaving me snapping at anyone who tried to cheer me up. I didn’t want their comfort, and to me, nothing could fix the situation. It was already done, and I made sure that everyone knew how upset and angry I was.  This could happen many times in a day, and most kids in my class saw me in complete hysterics  at least once. Once, when I was three, my class was told we were going to take a walk around the daycare, and I refused and got upset. Not phased when the teacher grabbed my hand, I ran in the other direction, ignoring the pain, until my very socket got pulled out of my elbow. Despite the pain, I was still happy I didn’t have to walk.  During free time or when I was at home, I would play with toys a bit roughly, and they would break or go missing. Not only did I immediately fall into this ocean of sadness I couldn’t swim out, crying and scratching my arms as hard as I could, it was impossible to lift me out of it. Getting the toy repaired or replaced just made me fall deeper, as it would never be the same as the one I started with. Every time I seemed to calm down, I would be reminded and lose it all over again. Hours would be spent moping around, not really playing with anyone, complaining to everyone that listened. Then, just as it had come on, something would happen and I would go off and play. This lite switch effect seemed to go with my anger, as well, and I had a very short fuse. One time at my Birthday party, a friend had asked me quite innocently how old I now was. In response, I clenched my fists, got red in the face, pointed a finger straight at her and scream, “DO NOT ASK ME THAT!“, leaving the girl understandably hurt and confused. Once it was triggered, everything seemed to set me off, and I was angry at the world. Nothing could make me calm or happy in that moment: I just wanted to scream. Many times, I lashed out and scratched people in the face, which only came back to me as a taunt of “Erika the Cat Lady”. On the flip side to this, I could also be hyper and confident. In my three old day care class, my Mom would constantly be called about how I wasn’t following direction, doing things that could hurt me (using playground equipment the wrong way, for example), acting all over the place, and being revved up and happy about it. When you add to these behaviors and mood swings Aspergers traits, Sensory Processing Disorder, severe anxiety, psychotic episodes, and issues with trauma I had due to sexual abuse, it was easy to see why making, and keeping friends, was hard. For those I didn’t scare away before we met, my tendency to isolate, mood swings, anger, and eccentric thoughts, many had a hard time tolerating me. I am forever lucky that there were a few that were patient with me, because they are the reason I never gave up on making friends completely.

Once I knew what was going on with my brain and I could function semi-normally at school, things began to change. While Bipolar still made keeping friends hard in many ways, it is easier to reach out to others more, especially since my anxiety is more under control. Things go “normally” for awhile, with the other person just shrugging me off as a bit weird or anxious. Then, something happens that warrants an explanation: a meltdown or rage in front of the friend, stupid manic behavior, time away from school due to hospitalization or an outpatient program, me talking to/about a hallucination or delusion, or something of that sort. I freeze when the question is asked, and my mind races. Will they hate me? Spread rumors? Stop being friends? Treat me differently? I stand blank for quite some time, paralyzed. At first, I would try to laugh it off or come up with some other excuse ( anything but mental illness!) Sometimes it work; however, most times I would be stuck explaining. The reactions have been mixed, ranging from someone wondering if I was going to murder them, to curiosity, and just a shrug of the shoulder and an “OK”. Some friendships broke under the confession, while other stayed the same or got stronger. Either way, once it was said, I would push it back under the rug, and not discuss it with anyone again until I needed to, pretending it wasn’t real.

It would take a long time before I became as open as I am now, and a lot of the sharing began on the internet. Starting with sites like Recover Your Life and First Signs (both self-injury related), where I went for help and a voice to speak about my cutting. Slowly, I found the blogsphere, where I commented on two that are some are my favorites still today, More Than Words and Jani’s Journey. Around the time I posted my opinions on those sites is when I opened up in real life. I didn’t try to hide it or push it under the rug anymore. When I needed an accommodation, I asked the teacher before I suffered because of it. If someone made a stigmatizing or ignorant comment, I spoke up about my experiences. When complete strangers asked where I had been, I told them the truth: I was in a psychiatric hospital because I was suicidal. No longer did I freeze or crumble when I had to explain it: I just calmly explained the situation. Now, with this blog and other work, I’m not hiding anymore, and I have gained something from it: friends that understand, both on and off the net.

Many of the people I consider close friends I’ve bonded with over this mental illness things. We may have been acquaintances before; but now we ran to each other when our minds began to misfire. One time, I was even in the hospital the same time as one of my best friends, and sharing that whole experience brought us closer than anything else could. For once, having Bipolar Disorder is actually helping me with friendships, and I am blessed for that.

It’s not as if people have stopped reacting badly, and Bipolar Disorder still makes friendships hard. The behaviors, isolating habits, manic impulsivity, and rages where I could very well hurt someone have a way of scaring people away, and turning you into that alien that nobody knows how to react to. At school, kids still look at me that way, and many make an effort to avoid me. They don’t want me to kill them, or go all “psycho” (as they so eloquently put it) on them. It hurts, really badly, and those insecurities about telling still get to me. The difference is I now have a place beyond school where those people don’t come find me, those sleepovers with friends who understand me and the writing I do here. They allow me to escape to a place where this doesn’t take away friendships, and that allows me to deal with those I am stuck with in this town.

I hope that answered your question.

With Love;
Erika

5 thoughts on “Friendship and Bipolar Disorder (Part One – Erika)

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  2. Erika,

    Thank you for answering my question. I have a number of friends with bipolar, anxiety disorders, depression (the list goes on), and it’s so important to me that I understand at least some of what they’re going through. I believe we all live such separate journeys sometimes, and it’s impossible for me to completely understand something I have never lived, but I want to try. Almost every one of my closest friends deals with some type of mental illness, and I think part of my fear is that I may have hurt them, unknowingly, because of that at some point. I love my friends dearly, no matter their illnesses (and in some ways, I think because. Without them, they wouldn’t be who they are), and I want to know more so that I can be a better friend to each of them. Thank you for sharing your story! It certainly helps to give me insight into what you’ve gone through because of your illness. I’m so happy you’ve found people in your life that support and love you, beyond your illness.

    Thank you!

    Jessica

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