Updated: Jul 16, 2019
In the late Summer of 2012, I had ongoing interactions with a woman who has Bipolar Disorder. I must not be nearly as handsome as I'm constantly declaring I am, because, try as I might, interactions never turned to "interactions" (wink-wink* hubba-hubba* yoink-yoink* zubba-zubba*) -- OK those last two don't even make sense.
Dumb, dude jokes aside, there wasn't any attempt at romance from either of us. She and I had a friendship: I was trying to help her through whatever it was she was going through, and she was trying her best not to lose it.
What I Saw
The level of irony about my observations that Summer is way up there. I do feel a small amount of shame for the thoughts I had about her.
She was having a Manic Episode, and she completely frightened me.
I'll skip a lot of the specifics here for the sake of anonymity, but at the time, the things she was doing were reckless, dangerous, grandiose, and fucking scary... to me.
I had done everything for her that I thought was in my power, which was not a lot. I mean, I was currently living in my Sister's basement and very poor--just like every responsible 28 year old is and should be. /s
I talked to my friends, family and strangers on the internet about how I thought I was literally going to be murdered by her, and how I was really regretting reaching out to help this person. She was manic, and I wanted to get as far away from that as I could. Most of the people I talked to agreed: I was to distance myself, stop trying to intervene, and let her work it out on her own.
This. This reaction is how we, the media, and pop culture saw Bipolar Disorder in 2012. This is how I saw it. Yes, the irony is indeed heavy with this one.
What Do You See?
The diagnostic criteria for someone with Bipolar Disorder is specific:
Exaggerated self-esteem or grandiosity
Less need for sleep
Talking more than usual, talking loudly and quickly
Doing many activities at once, scheduling more events in a day than can be accomplished
Increased risky behavior (e.g., reckless driving, spending sprees)
Uncontrollable racing thoughts or quickly changing ideas or topics
It was that increased grandiosity and risky behavior, just like I've seen in the movies, that had my briefs in a bunch. I'm going to be honest, the behavior I witnessed in those couple of weeks was scary; I didn't know what I was dealing with. I didn't know...
I didn't know I was dealing with it myself. I didn't know I was participating in the risky behavior. I didn't know I was just as involved in some of the things as she was--I didn't know I had Bipolar Disorder.
I didn't know that I was looking into a mirror and I didn't know that's what was actually frightening me. My "symptoms" started in my late teens, and at 28 I still hadn't been properly diagnosed. I didn't know.
What Don't You See?
Everything up to now are the things we hear about and talk about and see on TV, but there's another side to the coin that tends to go under the radar in most cases, and can be just as, if not, even more devastating for a person with Bipolar Disorder:
Intense sadness or despair; feeling helpless, hopeless or worthless
Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
Feeling worthless or guilty
Sleep problems — sleeping too little or too much
Feeling restless or agitated (e.g., pacing or hand-wringing), or slowed speech or movements
Changes in appetite (increase or decrease)
Loss of energy, fatigue
Difficulty concentrating, remembering making decisions
Frequent thoughts of death or suicide
That's right, one of the riskiest behaviors is on that flip-flop; it has nothing to do with mania, As a person with Bipolar II Disorder, I tend to experience this in a much more extreme way than a manic episode, and I assure you it's just as frightening as someone experiencing a full-on, non-medicated Manic Episode.
But, I didn't see my friend come down from her high. I didn't witness the aftermath, and I wasn't there for her when she was at her lowest. I ran all the way to the darkest depths of my sister's basement because Bipolar Disorder was too hard to watch. I regret that.
What No One Sees
All of this negativity goes a long, long way. Go back and read through up to this point, and nothing positive will jump out at you minus a couple of very bad jokes (your positive reaction to said jokes is subjective *Zing!). This is how a huge majority see Bipolar Disorder. It's how that majority see mental illness. It's all negative.
That just isn't the case. It isn't. Not always.
All of the things that scared me that summer, all of the things that scare me about myself, are only a fraction of behavioral changes for someone with Bipolar Disorder, and some of those changes aren't negative. For me, there are so many useful things that come with having Bipolar Disorder, and that includes while manic or during the in-between (Not much good to say for the depressive side. It can go bite the big one).
All The Good Stuff:
Goal Oriented: The amount I can accomplish is incredible
Focus: If I'm working on something, that's it. I am lazzzered in
Elevated Mood: Plain and simple, I feel contentment, and after a depressive down-swing there is nothing more welcome (this is a simplification FYI)
I can sometimes have more energy to offer my kids and my amazing wife who gets just as beaten down as I can get
Community: I get to be a part of one of the kindest and most helpful communities. People with mental illness support each other like no other
Advocacy: with the podcast, Ryan and I have received multiple messages about how we have helped someone in need. I have said that if I ever helped even one person, then all these years of struggle would be worth it. It is.
Being the best: Now, I know grandiosity comes into play here, but sometimes when I'm doing things, I'm the best at them, and you can't prove otherwise.
I understand these feelings here are mine and may not be yours, but typical Bipolar behavior isn't always cause for suffering. Especially when you are informed, in therapy, and on medication (if necessary). Everything mental health doesn't have to be weird, or scary or bad. Sometimes it's neutral, and sometimes it's even useful. I am useful.
We choose how we see ourselves and others. I chose to see a friend, who was having a Manic Episode, in a negative light. What I didn't do was choose to see her as useful, and I should have. She was so very useful. She was my friend.
That's as useful as anything I can think of.
I've ran out of titles with the word "see" in them
As is often the case with regret, I wish I could go back to the Summer of 2012 knowing everything I know now. I wish I had known I have Bipolar Disorder. I wish I had known I was helping my friend escalate things so I could put a stop to it. I wish I had known how to help her. I wish I had told her she was useful.
In case you are wondering, she is alive and well, and she is thriving. Though, she will always be one of my best friends, that Summer was one of the last times I saw her in person. That's the sad part, and why this story doesn't get a happy ending.
Stigma led me to hide away. Stigma led me to believe I should be frightened. Stigma told me there were only negatives surrounding mental illness.
These days, I'd say stigma led me to believe that it's useful to have knowledge and an open mind about mental illness so we can make better decisions than I did in the Summer of 2012.
Mike Graham is a mental health advocate, podcaster, producer, husband and stay-at-home dad. He co-hosts the mental health podcast, Pop Psych 101 | Mental Health in Pop Culture