When You’re a Stranger

‘People are strange, when you’re a stranger.
Faces look ugly, when you’re alone…’

So sang Jim Morrison in 1967 in his song about drug abuse and paranoia. Now, although the song is about paranoia and I have suffered seriously with it eight years ago that is not what this blog is about – maybe I’ll address the issue of paranoia some other time. For this month’s blog I’m going to focus on people’s attitudes towards you when you have Bipolar in general and when you are suffering an episode in particular. I know it is wrong to generalise so I should make it clear this is from personal experience but I strongly expect it happens much more widely than my personal realm.

Each time I have an episode I become a stranger to those who know me. My behaviour changes – as do my ideas – and I live life in the extremes. But rather than try to understand my illness and thus it becoming less strange they have all, without exception and including family, walked away – no, make that ran and they kept running. Only Julie, my wife, has made any kind of real effort to listen to me and understand. When I was diagnosed I scoured the internet for information on Bipolar and put together a file that would help my friends and family get to grips with what happens to me. As far as I am aware – with the possible exception of my sister – Julie is the only person to have made use of that file. Friends disappeared as swiftly as – and in direct correlation with – the onset of the illness. Over the years I resolved not to get in touch with anybody unless they contacted me. I had always done the running and gave help where needed but when it came to me needing help I was quite alone… and a stranger.

The most singularly difficult part of explaining Bipolar is that it is not my fault. I can’t really blame people for this; I struggle with it myself but thinking rationally it can’t be the fault of the sufferer. Nobody would choose to have the states of mind that afflict someone with Bipolar and nobody would choose to act in the ways that stem from those states of mind. Yet still people think we could stop it if we wanted to. To them I say consider all the actions the brain controls without the determination of the ‘I’ and hopefully you’ll conclude that it is entirely possible for a Manic Depressive to do things that they wouldn’t normally choose to do. Behind a lot of the stigma surrounding mental illness is the belief that we could stop it if we wanted to but that’s like saying you could stop diabetes or cancer if you wanted to. The fact that Bipolar is an invisible illness doesn’t make it any less real or serious. It is definitely chronic and can be terminal but people find that strange too – along with mental illness, suicide is not deemed an appropriate topic of discussion for polite society. Better to sweep it under the carpet and keep their distance from us strangers.

One friend, as he retreated, said he didn’t understand and felt out of his depth. Yet, he refused my offer of the file. Another said, ‘I just don’t get it’ again declining the file. It was deeply hurtful to see people’s attitudes towards me change when they discovered I had Bipolar Disorder. Thankfully, my wife is wonderful and has done all she can to understand my illness and how it affects me but she needs support too as it is incredibly difficult to deal with an episode on your own and can be incredibly strenuous. But, we’re not exactly steeped in good friends and all because I’m strange and I’m strange because people won’t educate themselves.

This past week has been particularly difficult. A bit of a train wreck on Wednesday: took an overdose and ended up back at A&E once the police had found me. Of course some would trot out the old, ‘It was just a cry for help’ but I can say without doubt that it wasn’t. If I wanted attention I’d run butt naked through our local town. A deep, dark, dense fog had enveloped and permeated every part of my being. It was crushing and it hurt like hell. I didn’t know what I was doing taking those pills but I just wanted the pain to stop. It happened again on Sunday but instead of acting on it I just allowed my wife to hold me; the love of a good woman helping me go on and although I’m not completely out of the woods yet I am definitely in a better place than I was last Wednesday… but that can switch in an instant.

All I would ask anybody who knows someone with Bipolar is please don’t keep your distance. Get to know them and get to know the illness. In short, if I dare to speak for those with Bipolar – Don’t be a stranger then we won’t be strange.

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