Repairing Old Relationships and Building Healthier, New Ones

Having supportive friends and family as well as a structured regimen can help create a successful recovery.

By Karl Shallowhorn


There’s nothing like knowing there’s someone you can go to when the going gets tough. Relationships are like guideposts along the road to recovery; they can help you stay on track whenever you start to feel like you’re losing your way. I’ve seen the value of supportive relationships firsthand, both as a person living in recovery from bipolar disorder and addiction, and as a counselor at a mental health agency.

When I experienced my first bipolar episode, in 1981, my support system consisted of my well-intentioned but somewhat confused parents and extended family. I was 18 years old. My friendships at that time were tenuous at best, and usually involved drugs and alcohol. I was in desperate need of help, I had no insight into my illness, and I felt lost and alone. My folks did the best they could, but as with many parent-adolescent relationships, things were often rocky.

This is where my friend Doug comes in. When I first got sick, Doug was one of the few friends I had who was willing to spend quality time with me and not judge me for the condition I was in. Even after he went away to college, he always kept in close contact to let me know he was there for me—and he still is, no matter where I am (geographically or psychiatrically).

And then there’s my cousin Carolyn, who is like a sister to me (I’m an only child, so that means a lot). Her support and guidance have kept me keeping on, through thick and thin. During my numerous hospitalizations in the ’80s, she would come to visit me bearing not only her usual warm smile and compassionate words, but also sometimes a fresh, hot pizza!

My most significant significant other is my wife of 18 years, Suzy. Suzy knows—sometimes before I do—how I’m really feeling, and she doesn’t hesitate to remind me to take care of myself through exercise, regular sleep, and a sensible routine (even if that means “kicking my butt” if necessary).

If I’m feeling down, she encourages me to just get up and do something, like go for a run or attend a self-help meeting. When I need someone to talk to, she is always ready to listen.

My therapist, Jane, is another great resource. In the secure, confidential atmosphere of our sessions, I have learned how to “get real” and be honest about what I’m dealing with; in return, she gives me objective feedback on whatever I may be going through.

Through forgiveness, repairs to relationships can be made. With recovery, new, healthier friendships can be forged.

When you have bipolar disorder, it’s not always easy to stay on good terms with people. Let’s face it: it’s hard to be pleasant and considerate and easygoing and patient when your illness can cause you to feel so angry you literally see red one minute, or so depressed you feel like it’s more effort than it’s worth just to keep breathing in and out. It can be almost as upsetting, confusing, frightening, and exhausting to care about someone with bipolar disorder as it is to have it yourself. And that can be hard on relationships.

At the heart of any healthy relationship is good communication, and that’s one of the key elements I stress to my clients—and try to keep uppermost in my own mind. Being able to express your feelings is central to the recovery process, which is one reason that participation in a support group is so valuable. In my own recovery journey, the atmosphere of empathy and understanding I have experienced in group has helped me to become more comfortable with opening up and sharing my feelings with others. These are communication skills that are valuable in my other significant relationships, too.

Thanks to substance abuse combined with manic episodes and delusions followed by the inevitable devastating crash, I did more than my fair share of damage to other people’s feelings over the years. But since then, I’ve also benefitted from receiving—and giving—some life-changing second chances and new beginnings, and I’ve worked hard to develop communication skills like telling the truth (to myself as well as to others) about how I feel, and listening with empathy and compassion.

Through forgiveness, repairs to relationships can be made. With recovery, new, healthier friendships can be forged. Why not start today?



Printed as “Both Sides of the Desk: The Significance of Significant Others”, Summer 2013