Life with bipolar: a PSA

Several weeks ago, I wrote an article for the Collegian, called He is Here, about finding God through whatever trials you’re undergoing. And I stand by that. I still believe that you can find God in the midst of whatever the world throws at you.

Yet there are still moments when I don’t feel that. There are moments when my slight bipolar disorder and severe depression get the best of me. One of those was last night, and because I think I freaked out every soul who was with me in the movie theater when I burst into uncontrollable sobs, this is a PSA, from one sufferer, to everyone who comes into contact with sufferers.

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Bipolar, depression, anxiety…they are all insidious mental illnesses that affect a large portion of the population, yet they are still wildly misunderstood. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been accused of being apathetic, attention-seeking or just plain insane when I was having a breakdown, when in reality I was trying my best to keep it from happening, to keep the attention off of me.

So, last night. It started innocuously: with five-inch heels and a group of friends walking too fast for my new found height. That devolved into sitting at the end of the row in the theater, waiting to watch “Mockingjay: Part 1” (a very excellent film, by the way), and, as I said before, bursting into uncontrollable sobs.

That’s what happens when you have a mental illness. Little things are blown out of proportion, and from one second to another, in between steps even, you can go from being perfectly fine, even happy, to the throes of despair. It has nothing to do with you–you, the friend of the sufferer, did not cause this. I cannot stress that enough. It’s because of chemicals going haywire; it’s because of angry words spoken to a first grader about themselves; it’s any combination of events that came together in one devastating concoction to form what can only be spoken of as mental torture.

Last night as I sat in the theater, I felt like my whole world was collapsing. I felt my gut squeezing, my future floating before my eyes, my friendships vanishing in the wink of an eye. Once my defenses were down, every negative thought I’ve had about myself came rushing back, overcoming me.

That’s another thing that happens with mental illness. Something as simple as a stray glance can break someone down so much so that every negative thought, word or whisper they have ever experienced will come screaming back into their mind.

So, again, it’s not your fault. But what can you do when a friend, acquaintance or stranger is obviously going through something like this? It kind of depends on the person, but since I know there are other people like me I’ll tell you what works for me and let you go from that.

  1. Be there. Put your arm around me, hug me, say it’s going to be okay.
  2. Don’t blame yourself. If I don’t respond (which I probably won’t), don’t think it has anything to do with you. I’m in mental turmoil and it’s hard to step out of that for any amount of time. I promise I’m not mad at you…and if I am, it’s only because my rational capabilities have broken down momentarily.
  3. Make a joke. If I laugh, I’m happy.
  4. Distract me. Talk about something innocuous…like popcorn. I’m telling myself I’m the worst kind of human, but popcorn is always a pleasant thing to think about instead.
  5. Be there. If you’re there in the moment, and the next day, and the next, I can’t even tell you how much that will mean to me.

This has been a PSA to everyone who comes into contact with me (and others who suffer from mental illnesses). There will be bad moments. There will be dark times. And while you can help in the moment, you can’t fix me or anyone else. You can only love me as best as you can. I promise I see it and I appreciate it and you are helping me go forward.

There’s one more really important thing: if you can’t do any of the above, for your own mental health, don’t. Because you can help, yes, but you can’t save me. And it is absolutely not worth your own health to try.

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