I knew her in high school. We didn’t always run in the same circle of friends, but our high school wasn’t one of the largest. She was perpetually happy, and there was a never a high school function that I didn’t see her at.
Fast forward, 9 years later. She is telling me a story and I cannot believe that this is the same bubbly girl I once saw bouncing down the hallways of my high school. My friend suffers from severe bipolar depression, an illness that creeps up on you as it did my friend.
The scariest part of her story? When she first started experiencing what she soon learned to be bipolar depression, she had no idea anything was happening to her. She was on no medication, she had no diagnosis.
Eventually, she tried to take her own life. Twice.
Getting to know her, I quickly learned that the soul of this person is one that I want in my life for a very long time. She puts literally everyone and their feelings before her own, even though her feelings are so fragile. She is accepting of who she is and her struggle that got her to this point (something that most mid-twenty-somethings still haven’t figured out). I’ve learned that being friends with her comes with a set of responsibilities different from any other relationship I have in my life.
My friend has a mental illness and dealing with it as an outsider looking in is not always easy. Here’s what I have learned so far.
Sometimes you are not going to know who you are talking to. By that, I don’t mean that they sound different or there is something different in their voice. I mean you literally won’t know, are you talking to the friend who is fine, and I mean really, truly, fine? Or are you talking to the friend who is telling you they are fine when deep down they are struggling worse than you could imagine.
If you start to feel frustrated, try not to confuse it with concern. More than likely, the feelings you are having are just concern. If you’re like me and something IS wrong, you just want to know how you can help them. That’s when you can get frustrated because odds are, if they are in the “dark place”, there is absolutely nothing you can do. It is heartbreaking. The best thing you can do? Educate yo’self. There are plenty of articles and books that can answer your questions, some of which can really put you in the mindset of the person struggling. I promise, this is going to help you. For example, I learned that my friend could sit in the “dark place” for 6+ months. Yeah.
It doesn’t take much to make my friend over think, and it is this overthinking that can send her into a place that I know she wouldn’t wish on her worst enemy. Let me remind you that just because you can’t understand it doesn’t make it less real. This is their reality. It is not for you to understand, it is for you to be understanding.
However, it is going to be hard for you to understand how something so small (small to you, that is) could send them into such a downward spiral. There is no advice you can give them, no amount of hugs and girl-talk that will make them better. You have to literally sit there and watch as this horrible beast absolutely consumes your friend. Then…you wait it out. And you will wait it out because your friend is still in there.
Get ready, because you might not see or hear from them for a very long time. If you do, it will be short conversations and don’t even think about trying to get them out of the house more than a few times a month (yes, it can last that long). The worst thing you could do though is to not check on them. You know that phrase “Well, it’s a two-way street”? In any other circumstance that notion would apply. In this case, it is not a two-way street, it is a one-way street and your responsibility to check-in with them. Not every day, but every once in awhile and when you do get them on the phone, they might sound fine. Keep in mind, this is not a lie, they aren’t faking you out. This is them fighting, that is your friend PUSHING their way past the clutches of this terrible depression monster.
You’re going to notice a certain strength in them that you could not compare to even the strongest man on earth. This strength comes from within. Their willingness to fight every single day, is something that will truly astound you. This monster that is consuming them, gnawing at their every thought and emotion, is relentless. However, you will watch them fight tooth and nail to defeat it and more than likely, every day will be a failure until one day, they’ll win. The heartbreaking part? This win is temporary. They will live with this the rest of their life, all they have left to do is keep the beast tame and hope for the best. So think about your worst day, think about the feelings you had that day, the emotion. My friend has to take medicine so that she doesn’t feel that way every day. Yeah, let that sink in.
Her illness breaks my heart, but more often than not I don’t find myself feeling bad for her. I find myself feeling so incredibly proud of her and proud to stand by her as she fights this battle. There is no hour of the day too late for me to chat, no plans I couldn’t break (aside from a few) if she needed me, and there is never going to be a time where I won’t do everything I can to help her stay out of the “dark place”.
So, in conclusion, it is not easy to have a friend with a mental illness.
It is, however, so easy to be friends with Jessica.
Click here to hear Jess’ story.
If you or someone you know is struggling with bipolar disorder, depression, or any other mood disorder and you live in the Charlotte-Metro area, I invite you to join Jess and Good Shepherd United Methodist Church on South Tryon on Wednesday nights from 6PM – 8PM room 321.