By Jen Teh
In a recent conversation with a good friend, we talked about a mutual friend who appeared to be showing signs of bipolar disorder but who was quite closed to the possibility of a problem. The conversation meandered to what it was like when I was first diagnosed with bipolar, as this friend had known me since then. I wanted to know how open I was to other people’s input when I was potentially headed for trouble, particularly with mania. She acknowledged that there were a few times where it seemed like I was getting into another manic cycle but I would brush off concerns raised by friends like her. The good thing was that she could then speak with my mum or sister, and they would talk to me. She said, “You always listened to your family. They could get through to you. There was a safety net there.”
I started thinking about how being open to input from trusted individuals can be a protective factor against symptoms that can grow out of control. How do we develop this necessary openness in our relationships? Who can get through to us when we are at risk of losing insight?
I am thankful for God’s blessing of a solid family where trust was a given. No matter how imperfect my family members were (myself definitely included), I always knew that they cared for me. So when they were concerned about how late I was staying up, or how many appointments I had booked in my day, etc., I would take their advice openly. Sometimes, I disagreed with what they said, but it did make me more careful – and that itself probably went a long way in preventing a relapse.
I realize that not everyone has family members they are close with. A romantic partner could play the same role of providing insight, but not everyone has a romantic partner either (I am attached now, but was single for years after my first diagnosis). This leads us to friends. In my journey, especially since I have been living in Australia and was away from family for a few years, it was very important that I let a few key friends know about my bipolar diagnosis.
I am fully aware that friendships take a lot of work – and unfortunately, some friendships are only for a season and they do not last, for whatever reason. But friends can play a key role in our mental health. The more we can develop our friendships with a few key individuals who can get through to us in times of need, the better. I have thought of three simple questions that I think will be helpful to ask:
1. Do you have at least 2-3 friends who you will definitely listen to even if you do not necessarily agree with them?
2. Are these friends able to contact each other if necessary?
3. Are other people in your life able to contact these friends if necessary?
Answering yes to all three does not mean that issues of losing insight magically disappear, but it does give one more of a safety net. Quite a few people have come to me for advice when they were concerned with someone they know showing some behaviour that seemed out of the ordinary. I do find myself asking whether they feel this person would listen to them if they were to raise their concerns. And if they say no, I ask whether they know of someone close to that person that they could maybe sound out. It may sound like we are talking about people behind their back, but I think it is different when we are concerned and wanting to prevent a more serious breakdown. The culture of secrecy surrounding mental illness can make things more challenging, but I do believe things will change for the better as society getting more informed about mental illness and its prevalence.