The difficulty of communicating with people who don't have mental illness.
|I am just truly starting to try and take control of my mental illness, and it certainly isn't easy. It takes a lot of willpower and effort, and most of all, it takes a lot of time and patience. I know that it will take time for my current mixed state (being simultaneously manic and depressed at the same time, one of the most volatile and terrifying mental states we experience) to end. Most importantly, I know that I cannot do this alone.
Unfortunately alone is a state those of us with mental illness often find ourselves in. The statistics indicate that marriages with one partner suffering from bipolar have a 90% rate of failure. It is incredibly difficult to find friends who are willing to listen, or even to endure the ups and downs. It is especially difficult for people of my generation or younger (I am in my late twenties), because everyone hates 'all the drama.'
Once I had a 'friend' who was perfectly happy to seek my advice and listening ear whenever she had a problem, but avoided me whenever I had one. Ultimately, she sent me a series of incredibly cruel text messages, including such gems as "you're f***ing crazy" and "you're such a loser," which helped me to recognize that she was no kind of friend at all. Luckily, her unreasonable level of cruelty made it very easy to end the farce of friendship. To this day, I know I didn't lose a friend, just a lot of dead weight. An albatross, if you will.
I wish that I could say this was the exception, but it's much more the rule. When I was at my lowest, drinking often and using illegal drugs to self-medicate, I found myself with worse and worse people. It wasn't just that they were substance abusers as well, though that obviously contributed; the real problem was a thorough lack of compassion for their fellow human beings. If someone cried, they were 'ruining the party with their drama,' and everyone would gather to mock them. If someone started having symptoms of depression-- not going out, gaining weight, seeming sad and slow-- they were 'going crazy.' Like I said in my previous piece, that's a mind I don't ever want to understand, and if that's a rational mind, thank God that I don't have one.
It is definitely a sad day when you look around and realize that finding a genuinely kind and compassionate person is incredibly difficult in our society. We glorify corporate climbing, greed, and excess as measures of our success. Listen to any song by Katy Perry, for example: most of them are about partying and getting so drunk you can't remember the night before, and she is one of the most popular artists today, beloved and looked up to not just by adults, but by children. So we as a society are quite literally teaching our kids from elementary school onward that the only way to be happy is to be drunk and trash your house, or your friend's house, or a hotel room.
Nonetheless, there are people who have great and very real compassion. I am fortunate enough to know a small handful, and I must make special mention of my family. It isn't an exaggeration when I say that without my family's love (and especially lately, their immense support) I would be dead. Maybe I would not have killed myself, but the drinking and drugs certainly would have led me into an early grave.
So onto that subject of support. I am just now realizing, thanks to such amazing support groups as the Depression-Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA), that I don't think like a normal person. Not at all. What works for normal, rational minds simply doesn't work for those of us with mental illness. My mother suggested to me just this morning "what if you tried telling yourself 'I'm exaggerating' whenever you have bad thoughts?" I immediately told her that would only trigger worse thoughts, that telling yourself things in such a negative light has never helped me get anywhere but down the spiral.
I can't stress how important it was for me to tell her that. She truly wants to help me; she goes to Monday DBSA meetings with me and we were actually driving back from a joint session with my therapist. To her rational mind, saying 'Stop thinking like that' or 'you're overreacting' works. But my mind is not rational, and that is something we both must come to terms with.
My mother just read the amazing book An Unquiet Mind by Dr. Kaye Redfield Jameson, a noted psychiatrist who also suffers bipolar, and one of the strongest advocates for the mentally ill. I read it, too, a long time ago, when the diagnosis was first discussed, and I didn't see anything wrong. How she thought made perfect sense to me, because it's how I think. Yet my mother found it deeply frightening. One of my brothers just started it today and he admitted after reading just the prologue that the way she (and I) think is "completely alien" to him. I laughed and told him it didn't seem that way to me, and added, "hey, after you've sat in a full bathtub in a dress, nothing seems weird anymore."
The fact that my family is making this effort to learn about my illness and how I think is, I believe, absolutely crucial to their ability to support me. For my own part, it has helped me to realize just how different our minds are-- quite out of tune with each other. It helps me to recognize just how frightening and frustrating it can be for someone whose loved one has this disease, especially when they do not know how our minds work.
Overall, I think that this is one of the most important elements of treatment for bipolar disorder, after medication and therapy. Accepting that your mind works very differently from others' may be painful at first, but it does help in the end. If you have bipolar disorder, or another mental illness, it's important to communicate this to those people you look to for support. There aren't really words to describe it, just labels; I have found it helpful to list specific urges so that people have examples of how strangely my brain functions compared to theirs.
On the flip side of this, if you have a friend or family member suffering from this disease (and believe me, they have suffered a lot more than you might realize), don't try to 'get' how they think. Don't try to understand, don't try to advise them on how to stop thinking that way. It won't work. The best thing that you can do is simply to accept that the way you think is fundamentally different from the way we do. Once you realize that, you'll be able to connect and communicate far better.