By: Neil Mccarthy The brief—but fictional—scenes in this piece show the bias with which people with bipolar (or any mental illness) can be treated. With some luck, maybe we can evolve into a new way of treating people who are already suffering.

The Director of the small office group approaches the cubicles where two of her managers work. Upon seeing a cast on one employee’s hand, her face falls in concern. “Ruby, what happened to your hand?”

“My doctor said I have carpal tunnel. I’ll be having surgery on it next week.”

“I’m so sorry,” the Director says as she clasps her chest. “Well, take it easy today if you need to. And remember to rest your wrist so you don’t hurt it any more. And don’t worry about that deadline tomorrow. I’ll get Howie to help you out.”

Howie glances up from his computer. His eyes look puffy as he deposits a tissue in his wastebasket. “Someone say my name?” he says, trying to force a smile.

“Yes,” the Director replies as she turns toward him. “”Ruby here is injured, so I need you to pitch in a little on her project.”

“But I’ve already got—“

“I know. But we’re a team here, and everyone has to pitch in.”

“B-but it’s just that I haven’t been sleeping well and I really need to see my therapist today.”

“Is this for that biped thing you have, or whatever.” The Director waves her hand dismissively. “Doesn’t sound like a real illness to me.”

“It’s called bipolar. And it can actually be pretty serious.”

The Director sighs. “Well, you look fine to me. Clear your schedule so you can help Ruby out. She’s going to be out for a few days next week.”

Howie cancels his appointment and works up the strength to meet the following day’s deadline. He returns home after work, his mind racing with wild ideas. His girlfriend, Rose, greets him from the living room. “Heya, how was work?”

Howie hears her but can only muster, “Ugh. Don’t even ask.” He starts rummaging through the shelves in the kitchen and says, “Where are my paints. I need to do some art today.”

Rose frowns. “Oh, are you having one of those moods now?”

“You wouldn’t understand. I just need to paint tonight.” Howie straightens up and glares at his girlfriend.

“But you still need to fix that leaky faucet in the bathroom. And you need to call your mom too. She’s been trying to reach you.”

“Where are my paints, Rose?”

“I think there are some in the study. But I thought we were going out for dinner tonight?”

“I’m not in the mood.”

“I get it. You and your moods again.”

Mental illness deserves as much accommodation as any other illness. However, illnesses like bipolar are not just invisible, they can also be vexing, both to the patient with it, and the people in his life.

Some days I don’t understand my own condition. One day, I might feel overtired and anxious, and then the next day, wake up alert and energized, only to find that my mood was headed for bouts of paranoia and confusion. New variations of old symptoms pop up often, but I do my best to stay on top of them and avoid losing time at work or peace at home.

While I do my part to manage my illness, I wish that others, too, would make an effort to understand my condition. By “understanding,” I mean listening and offering compassion, because even I cannot fully understand the motivations for some of my actions, or how my condition might manifest tomorrow.

Though we cannot physically see mental illness, it permeates every thought, word, and behavior of a person afflicted with it. Over time, a person with bipolar can learn to minimize his symptoms and prevent catastrophic meltdowns. But to do so, he requires support and encouragement from the people in his life.

I’m not suggesting that family members, friends, and colleagues should enroll in a Psychology program; rather, a person with bipolar needs the people in his life to offer undivided attention, even if only for a few minutes a day. I enjoy incredible relief when someone just sits and pays attention to me. Lately, however, I only find that luxury in my biweekly therapy appointments at $160 per hour out of pocket, because my behavioral health insurance is pathetically inadequate.

But what if I could find that relief in any interaction? What if Howie’s Director said, “It sounds like you both could use some support. Let me call the client to see if we can move the deadline.” What if Rose said, “I know you’ve been having a tough time at work. Sit down and tell me about it. I’ve got a couple minutes.” Empathic listening could also benefit any friend, colleague, or loved one, bipolar or not. Let’s open up the channels of communication and really start listening to each other.

Neil McCarthy

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