By: Courtney Davey, MA, MFT
We as humans are social creatures. Our relationships with family who raise us, partners who love us and friends who care for us influence our understanding of ourselves, others and the world. While family is assigned to us and partner(s) are one to a few people, our friend group can be ever-expanding and changing. Friends are chosen social supports and can be there through the best and worst of times. When someone is living with bipolar disorder, the challenges that occur can affect the way in which friendships occur and are maintained. These are a few important pieces to remember while maintaining them.
Explaining your symptoms– It is an unfortunate reality that not everyone is well-educated on mental health challenges. For those who you are close with and care about, it is important that they do understand that you struggle with your symptoms and what they look like. Having a basic idea of mania and depression is likely beneficial, but focus the conversation around how this affects you. What types of behaviors do you do when you are experiencing a symptomatic episode? What is it like when you are swinging?
Identifying triggers– What are some things that are particularly triggering for you that increase your symptoms? Are any of them things that occur in your friendship? Being able to discuss this and what they can do to help decrease triggering events and to support you through those times will be important in not adding to the emotional stress that you already experience when experiencing symptoms. As well, is this friendship healthy for you at this time? Unfortunately, sometimes friends want to engage in behaviors and activities that are going to work towards your detriment, and being able to identify where you need to take care of yourself over the friendship in its current state may be necessary. If that is the case and you want to keep the friendship, have a conversation about boundaries and how you want what is best for both of you, but that its current state may not be that. Be aware that the relationship may change or end, which can be emotionally hard, but it may be healthier in the whole of your management.
Set up a dialogue for checking– For many who do not experience mental health challenges, it can be difficult to talk to a loved one who does about it. There can be a natural discomfort and fear of upsetting you, offending you or making you feel judged, when their interest in helping you feel supported. Give them the type of dialogue that you will be receptive to. How can they approach you if they are afraid you are sinking into a depressive episode? What way is best to discuss that they have noticed an increase in risk-taking behaviors? Helping them understand what is going to work for you will relieve stress and tension.
Be receptive– Part of establishing dialogue means being able to hear it during times that it may be hard to do so. The work that you do on a daily basis to manage your symptoms should allow you to be attuned to your body and the symptoms you experience. However, things can still be missed that are easier to see from the outside. When a friend comes to you concerned about your well-being, whether they are right or not, it should be acknowledged as a sign of caring.. Could they be seeing something that you do not? Is it easier to ignore what they are saying because you are enjoying how things are going, particularly if you are experiencing mania? Remember to fully evaluate the concern before shrugging it off.
Remember it is give and take– All relationships are work, and so friendships are no different. They traditionally involve spending less time together than a romantic relationship and there can be more choice in boundaries compared to family, but they are work nonetheless and they go through good and bad patches. It is important to remember that your symptoms affect not only you but the relationships that you engage in, including your friendships. Some people who live with bipolar disorder describe it as “exhausting”, constantly managing symptoms and swinging on such extremes. Similarly, the amount of work someone who has a loved one with bipolar can become exhausting at times as well. Emotional work can be difficult, and there may be times that that person needs to pull back some to take care of themselves before returning to the full force of the friendship. It can be hard to think about, but making sure to give them that space if they need it is important. As well, ensure that you are being in a similarly supportive role for them. The types may be very different, and it can be impossible to be supportive when you need support, but if one person is always receiving support and the other is always giving it without reciprocating, this will strain any relationship in the long-term.
Managing friendships can be challenging at times, and the boundaries and expectations of each friendship can be incredibly different. However, it is important to remember to incorporate all parts of your life that affect you regularly when you manage your relationships, and that will include bipolar symptoms. Remembering to nurture and care for these people and for your relationship with them should lead to an increased sense of understanding, communication and support.