To My Friends: The Real Reason I Sometimes Isolate Myself

Sometimes the biggest clue that I’m struggling through a bipolar disorder relapse sounds like nothing—withdrawal doesn’t make noise.

Recently, I received a phone call from someone who wanted to check-in on the state of my thoughts. I was having a trying mental health day, and I had phoned this person earlier requesting some words of encouragement. We spoke for awhile and then I carried on about my business to the best of my abilities.

I was both surprised and touched by the follow up call. I don’t think I’ve received one like it before, unless you count the one from the nurse after a medical procedure. I don’t know if there is another person in my life who understands me or bipolar well enough to recognize that it was necessary.

I’m not sure how many people in my life realize I live with a serious illness. It’s also a treatable and treated illness, but that doesn’t make it less serious. And if people who care about me don’t realize bipolar is serious, I am partly to blame for minimizing its impact on my life in our conversations.

This is a memo to the ones who care but aren’t nearby enough to see the impact of bipolar on my life as it is unfolding:

If you haven’t heard from me in weeks or months, it doesn’t mean I’m busy crushing it, clicking my heels together and chasing rainbows—unless crushing it is code for showering twice a week.

I am the CEO of a mental illness. I have been for two decades. I’m at the helm of this ship during good times and bad. The main component of success is not jumping overboard, and the the rest is taking the life preserver extended to me when I do.

It would be nice to report that after this much time I have fully mastered the art of having bipolar disorder and have moved on to more interesting hobbies like fencing or tennis. It would be nice if I could say recovery requires the standard ten thousand hours of practice and after that you’re a genius past the point of relapse. That’s not my experience.

My experience is that with the right tools and a strong support network, you can get better as things grow worse, and by that I mean you get better at coping with worse things and that you get better by coping with those things.

Certain aspects of managing this disorder have become easier for me, like identifying triggers and setting boundaries around my needs, but there is one thing I find increasingly difficult as time passes: telling you when I’m struggling.

My desire to be perceived as someone living successfully with bipolar disorder often prevents me from reaching out to the people who matter most when I need it most. When I’ve enjoyed a long period of stability, it’s tough to admit that I’m not in a good place anymore.

I forget that a relapse doesn’t mean I’ve lost all the progress I’ve made. I withdraw during these times so I won’t have to report the truth, which is I’m ashamed and that I feel like a failure.

I put off making phone calls for weeks that turn into months because I’m waiting to have good news to share with you. I want to be able to reply to the question how are you with something better than “Recently showered and using everything I learned from Aristotle’s rhetoric to talk myself into pants and breakfast.”

I want you to hear from a woman who is thriving in spite of bipolar disorder, not one who has quit a job or started yet another, not one who is picking stupid fights with her husband, keeping a house fit for racoons, struggling to get published and otherwise choking on her own potential. I want to be a daughter, sister, aunt, and friend you can be proud of.

I know you aren’t waiting for good news and that you just want to hear my voice, but it feels great to get a reminder now and then.

When you aren’t living under the same roof as someone or seeing them on a daily basis for school or work, it can be difficult to tell how they’re doing, especially if you only have brief conversations and text messages to go by. There are many physical manifestations of a change in mood, but they aren’t particularly helpful if you aren’t there to witness them. Sometimes the biggest clue that I’m struggling sounds like nothing—withdrawal doesn’t make noise.

There is a small group of core people that I talk bipolar with, and if you aren’t in that group, I’m asking you and myself, why aren’t we talking about it? I’m afraid to disappoint you, and I’m afraid to lose you. What are you afraid of?

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