How Not to Be a Dick to Your Bipolar Friend

I remember the moment it happened, when I realized my emotions weren't like the other kids. I wouldn't get a diagnosis for another six years. The diagnosis doesn't matter.

Aug 28, 2013 at 4:00pm | Leave a comment

“The worst thing you can call someone is crazy. It’s dismissive. 'I don’t understand this person, so they’re crazy.’ That’s bullshit. These people are not crazy, they’re strong people.” -- Dave Chappelle in 2006 on “Inside the Actors Studio,” after he reportedly turned down $40M, walked away from his show on Comedy Central and proceeded to spend a few months in Africa.

And with that, Dave Chapelle turned to light a cigarette he’d been playing with while the crowd on “Inside the Actor’s Studio” applauded him. I remember the first time I saw that clip. I remember crying. Crying because I knew exactly what Chapelle was talking about, crying because I knew I was crazy.

Rule No. 1 of how not to be a dick to your friend with bipolar disorder. DO. NOT. CALL. US. CRAZY.

Because you know what, we’re not crazy. We’re awesome and strong. We just experience irrational moods and emotions far more often than you do.

Someone punches you in the face; you get angry. That’s rational; that anger happened for a reason. Your girlfriend wakes you up with oral sex, and you glow for the rest of the day. That is rational too, your good mood happened for a reason. (Hint: it wasn’t the blow job; it was the thought/love/awesomeness that counted).

But there are other feelings, emotions and moods we all feel that don’t happen for a reason (or at least we’re not aware of why they’re happening). You experience them, try to think about what happened to cause them ... and ... nothing. Your mind draws a blank. You can’t figure them out, you can’t find a narrative from your experience that tells you why they happened. Some of those, the ones that truly do not have a cause, those are irrational feelings/emotions/moods. Us bipolar people have those feelings all the goddamned time.

I’m in the gym. I’ve just worked out. I’m hungry, exhausted and I’m stretching. And then it starts to build. It starts in the back of my shoulders, and it feels like a warm glow that tingles. It builds. I start smiling. I can’t help it. Now I have a HUGE smile on my face while I’m stretching my hamstrings and it feels like my chest is on fire. It is a ball of goodness and happiness and love and all that is right and good and wonderful in life and it grows and grows and IT FEELS SO GOOD THAT I WANT TO PRY MY CHEST PLATE OPEN WITH MY HANDS TO RELIEVE THE PRESSURE. Then it crashes. And I’m crying. Weeping. In a corner of the gym. Last Wednesday.

That’s what my mania feels like for me now. It’s not crazy. It’s just different. Without judgment.

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This is my happy place. Everyone has one, but this one is mine. It is one of the only places I can think of that gives me a good, happy rational emotion every time.

Rule No. 2: Don’t tell me to calm down.

Today is not going to be a good day. There’s a black cloud hanging over my shoulder no matter which way I turn. It lingers, putting everything in the shade. But only I can feel it. It is really dark, I’m alone in the world, I know this better than I know anything else. And the world is cruel and doesn’t accept me and doesn’t want me because I am awful. I’m barely holding in my tears.

Don’t invalidate what I am feeling -- whether it is good or bad -- because it is real to me. It might sound surreal, out there, disconnected or too much TO YOU, but it is none of those things TO ME. To me it is real, and when you tell me to calm down, it sounds like you don’t understand or can’t relate to what is happening with me. THAT IS OK. Own that. Chill in your lack of understanding, but don’t push that onto me by invalidating my feeling. Instead, maybe try what my brother did when I tried to explain what mania feels, he said, “Wow, that sounds pretty intense.”

Boom. Done. Feeling? Acknowledged. Because it DOES sound pretty intense! Hey hey! Stating facts! Can’t argue with that.

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You can't see it from here, but I want to tear the skin off my forearms.

Rule No. 3: Don’t feel sorry for us, don’t pity us, don’t think that life sucks for us.

There are many reasons why being pitied sucks for us bipolar people (as it does for all people really). First, when I first started feeling my bipolar disorder in the 4th grade it was terrifying. I DID feel crazy. I felt out of control. I felt completely and utterly "Other" when I compared myself to my classmates. I used to stop myself during recess, find a lonesome spot on the curb near the door to my classroom, and curl up in a ball and try and stop myself from feeling anything at all. I don’t know if every bipolar person has experienced this, obviously, but when you pity us you are saying that we are lesser than you, that our life sucks, that we ARE different from you and are something to be feared.

We aren’t.

We’re wonderful people who experience the ups and downs of life just like you do. But for us, the waves are a bit higher, the depths are a bit lower, and the time it takes to get from one to the other is much faster.

It's actually not worse or better or crazy.

The only thing it is -- to identify it precisely -- is different.

Please stop stigmatizing what you do not understand.