To My Friends: The Real Reason I Sometimes Isolate Myself

Last Updated: 10 May 2019

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?

About the author
Lynda has been living with Bipolar II for nearly two decades and is expecting to receive her award nomination at any moment. She is a language tutor, furniture rehab artist, and founder and owner of Pink Unicorn Revival, a home decor upcycling initiative. She holds a B.A. in English and a diploma in Professional Writing from Mount Royal and MacEwan universities respectively. She lives in Calgary, Alberta, with her partner, one spoiled cat, and one very spoiled dog. Catch her tweets @CocoRubes.
  1. Thank you for your insight. My husband was diagnosed with bipolar 15 years ago and I still to this day find myself struggling to understand most days. I know when he is in a bad place and I usually feel as if it is an excuse. But reading your insight shows me that it may not just be an excuse. Does anyone have tips for me to help him out of his deep depression stages? Together we have decided for him to be a stay-at-home dad again because that is when he seemed to do best. But I want to try and encourage him to get out when I take the kids out do to things, or to attend the kids sporting events.
    Also, as the working spouse in the home, I feel like he is only concerned about how much money I make so that he can spend money on “toys”, does anyone have any insight as to how I go about approaching him on this topic? He will not go to counseling because he doesn’t like talking to a therapist. He just wants his medication and be done with the doctors office. I have been by his side for the last 15 plus years and I don’t want to go anywhere, but I find it hard to deal with the bipolar sometimes. I try to explain to him that it not only hurts him but hurts me emotionally.

  2. This really hits home, I lack the inner circle needed to keep me from going over the edge. Family and friends either are non believers, uncomfortable (which I can understand) or I hide the worst of my illness from.

  3. I am “newly” diagnosed BP1- I am still struggling to accept that this is a real disorder, but deep down I know it’s real. I still think I can control it. I still think it doesn’t get worse. I still think this doesn’t define me, but makes me strong and outspoken and independent and an over-achiever. I know my limits…most of the time. I am figuring out my triggers and I can now identify my depression. I never recognized depression as depression- I live in a state of hypomania with brushes of mania for a week to 4 at a time. But I am only now able to see it for what it was. Sort of. I’m sure I have suffered from psychosis during mania, but I came out the other side with some major and a lot of minor relationships to repair- I don’t think that will be the case the next time, I fear it would be the last time. I still believe that bipolar disorder is not a curse, but is the thing that makes so many of us vibrant and funny and a magnet for others. I am surrounded by friends, many of whom struggle with depression and anxiety- they get it & they don’t judge. They worry when I don’t call for months at a time, but they are never judge. Maybe this is why I don’t think this has to be a curse- it’s the reason Elon Musk is a millionaire and movie stars become movie stars- we build empires- we just have to careful not to burn them down the next day.

  4. Thank you for writing this! It really, really helps to hear people’s actual struggles. To realize that this illness is and probably will be, a lifelong struggle. Strangely, admitting this frees me up from thinking I will get to a magical place called better someday, but that life is not easy and it can also be a source of joy. I am learning and working througjh dbt and talk therapy to make my life worth living. I also need the reminder that I need to be honest with selected friends about how I am really doing. Thank you for your honesty. It is inspiring.

  5. I was diagnosed with BP11 in 2005. It is now 2019 and as God is my witness, I’ve only just begun to accept my illness this year. As a matter of fact, only in the last two weeks have I truly accepted that I’m bipolar 1. I believe my untreated illness of BP11 has escalated or progressed to BP1. On another note, I know that I have a lot to offer when I am stable. I am now ready to take full advantage and responsibility for my recovery. My children need their mother and it is my responsibility to properly take care of myself. I am finally reaching out for help because I know that I need it. I accept the idea that I struggle and live with bipolar 1 disorder. Thank you all for sharing your stories and life experience in living with BP. Amen.

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