Relationships & The Bipolar Trap

Last Updated: 31 May 2019

Relationships. We make them, and we break them. Then, we have to repair them.

Illustration of Two Women On Phone - Relationships & The Bipolar Trap

Recently, a friend asked me, “Julie, why don’t you write a book about bipolar disorder and relationships?” “I already did that with my first book for couples where one person has bipolar,” I replied. “I don’t mean couples, Julie!” he exclaimed. “I mean friendships. I can’t seem to keep any friends.”

I know what my friend—a man in his late 30s who struggles with bipolar disorder—meant by this statement. Like me, he wanted good relationships, but often found that bipolar got in the way. In the years after I was finally diagnosed with bipolar in 1995, I managed to lose almost all my friends because of my neediness, irritation, paranoia, medication side effects, and more. In 2001, I hit rock bottom when I received a letter from my best friend (I’ll call her “Melissa”)that changed my life forever. While it was terribly hard to read, this letter ,in fact, saved my future relationships.

Melissa and I had been friends since high school; I was always the aggressive force in the relationship. As my illness got progressively worse, I became weak while she became strong. She started sticking up for herself; I, on the other hand, began to sink into a hole of depression that seemed inescapable. I called Melissa constantly and complained about my life. When she didn’t respond the way I wanted, I became paranoid and angry, telling her she wasn’t a good friend.

An unwelcome look at ‘relationship killers’

Looking back on it now, I had become prey to the typical bipolar relationship killers—neediness, selfishness, and paranoia. One day, my friend, in a five-page, single-spaced letter, made it clear that she couldn’t take it anymore:

It seems to be a continual problem with us that you think I don’t spend enough time with you. What am I to do? I go long stretches of time without seeing lots of people, and they just don’t seem to have a problem with it. They are busy, too. They have lives. I guess I’m just tired after all these years of feeling like I have to continually defend myself that I don’t give you what you need. I wish you could accept what I give and not seem to continually feel that I’m not giving enough.

I cried and cried when I read Melissa’s letter. How had this happened? I was indignant, angry, and sad—I felt misunderstood and attacked. Didn’t she understand how terrible bipolar is? How could she be so insensitive? I had been the popular one in high school and used to have so many friends. I was mortified as I read on:

Julie, you are such a wonderful person. I could list 50 positive things about you. But I can’t be the primary support person in your life that you seem to continually want me to be. I don’t have anything left. I’m 36 and I don’t want to be the caretaker I was in my teens and 20s. I want to care for me. That doesn’t mean that I’m a bad friend or a bad person.

Overcoming the ‘bipolar trap’

At the time, I overlooked the words, Julie, you are a wonderful person. All I saw was the criticism. Iwas utterly unaware of the “bipolar trap”—allowing my mood swings to determine my behavior and in the process losing all reasoning.

Indeed, because my depression made me needy, I excessively looked to others for help. Selfishly, I couldn’t focus on the lives of my friends—my despair was all-consuming. Finally, my paranoia became so intense—I couldn’t stop myself from sending long, rambling emails about how people didn’t really care for me.

The final blow came toward the end of Melissa’s letter:

I want you to have fun with my friends. One friend liked you a lot, but she was a bit concerned with the slew of illnesses you described. I know you want to be honest about your illness, but you also have to realize that [your fulsome descriptions] can scare people off on a first meeting. Sometimes I want to include you with things I do with friends, [but] they would prefer not to.

As I read this passage, I realized that few people really wanted my company. Honestly, I had no idea that bipolar’s mood swings could do this to a person—I was still blaming others for my unhappiness.

Concluding her letter, Melissa said that while she cared about me, she could no longer be friends. I replied with a long, miserable email about how she didn’t understand how hard life was for me—she was insensitive!

Eventually, most of my friends left me. Because my self-treatment plan was then at a beginning stage, I hadn’t made the connection between bipolar’s mood swings and my own behavior.

After reading Melissa’s letter over and over and weighing my options, I had a moment of clarity that I can vividly recall: I could stay as I was—miserable and friendless—or I could take advantage of this amazing gift my friend had unknowingly handed me. With these reflections, I felt my hurt and my anger slip away. To get better, I would have to change every negative behavior Melissa had described. I had no idea how I was going to do this—the problem appeared insurmountable. Still, I made the important connection that if I could somehow control my bipolar disorder, I would become a better friend. This meant finding a way to manage my symptoms. In this way, I could manage my behavior toward potential friends even when I was experiencing the mood swings. Furthermore, I realized that myself-treatment plan simply wasn’t working at that point. I needed to make a change if I was going to get better.

Turning things around

Confronting my shortcomings was one of the most painful things I’ve ever done. It made me realize that there was nothing wrong with my friends; rather, there was something wrong with me. So I let go of my pride and got to work—I learned to manage the illness and my emotions to the point that I started to become a better friend.

It took me many years to truly change, but I kept going. I stopped talking so much and started listening.

I consciously tried not to monopolize the conversation with my health worries. By using the self-treatment plan that I developed and now discuss in my books, I began to recognize the signs of these relationship killers and to limit their occurrence.

As I began to better manage the illness, I saw the huge connection between the random emotions caused by untreated bipolar disorder and the real me—the good me—beneath all the symptoms. I taught myself to live by the new code I had created and not according to this horrible illness.

Now—seven years after receiving this letter—I’m surrounded by friends whom I care about deeply. They often compliment me on my friendship skills. Sometimes I tell them about this letter, explaining that it’s still a struggle for me to be a good friend. And while I have certainly wrecked a few relationships over the past few years, I know that I have come a long way.

Unfortunately, Melissa and I stopped seeing each other in 2001. She has no idea that she changed my life with her compassionate, kind, and truthful letter. Perhaps I should send her this column and let her know she is one of the main reasons I’m now able to write books that help others become better friends.

*   *   *   *   *

Tips for being a better friend

  • Listen more than you talk.
  • Limit talk about your health problems.
  • Stop complaining and start changing.
  • Don’t send email or make phone calls when you’re feeling sick and needy. It will never go well.
  • Read about the “bipolar conversation” I discuss in all my books.
  • Always ask yourself, is this the real me or the bipolar me? Then make sure the “real you” is in control when you see your friends.
  • Give yourself time to change. You can become a superb friend in less than a year!

Printed as “The bipolar trap,” Winter 2008

About the author
Julie A. Fast is the author of "Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder," "Take Charge of Bipolar Disorder," "Get it Done When You’re Depressed" and "The Health Cards Treatment System for Bipolar Disorder." She is a columnist and blogger for BP Magazine and won the Mental Health America journalism award for the best mental health column in the US. Julie was also the recipient of the Eli Lily Reintegration award for her work in bipolar disorder advocacy. Julie is a bipolar disorder expert for the Dr.Oz and Oprah created site ShareCare. Julie is CEU certified and regularly trains health care professionals including psychiatric residents, social workers, therapists and general practitioners on bipolar disorder management skills. She was the original consultant for Claire Danes for the show Homeland and is on the mental health expert registry for People Magazine. She works as a coach for parents and partners of people with bipolar disorder. Julie is currently writing a book for children called "Hortensia and the Magical Brain: Poems for Kids with Bipolar, Anxiety, Psychosis and Depression." You can find more about her work at and
  1. I just lost a 2nd friendship due to stress related. I could not find a football field for my grandson who is 10 years old. There are no signs to direct a person. While walking in the high school parking lot – 2 young students wearing the school sweatshirt and another parent on a bicycle had no idea where the rocket football field was. I texted my friend who is in upper manageme t to ask her to tell them to implement these signs. I started in anger – piss poor set up etc….and she replied on i dont know how it can be so hard to find. Since i dont have trouble finding it – you tell them.
    I worked in the banking/investment field for 20 years before it get too hard to hide my problem. We were encouraged to help resolve customer conflicts etc. Well..i was not too kind in my reply – telling her she was not a very proactive employee and went on the above .. I know it was so.ething tbat was a game changer but do you think i cared? I said i helped you so you could sell items on facebook and gave you a recipe for the 3rd time? I then called and she would not answer the phone. I said we need to talk. Then she sent another text and brought up all the times she helped me as if she did so much more for me – i said i did not realize you were keeping tally of everything on a teeter totter lol and i said i am done. She replied i am done too and blocked me on facebook.

    But this happened once before but it was something totally so stupid. She was immediately angry blocked me etc…

    Any input would be greatly apprciated…i never look at my email but i ck facebook every date if you want to private message me would be wonderful gina marie jarvis

    Do you have angry replies back to friends? I have had 2 divorces -1st 1 was a generation gap 2nd 1 was telling not to take meds…eat right and take vitamins

  2. This article was great, so great that I felt the need to comment, something that I have never done before on the net.
    I am 42, I have had bipolar since I was a young child and was misdiagnosed with ADHD. I was diagnosed at 38 but was not getting proper or incorrect treatment for it. 6 months ago, I quit my meds entirely cold turkey as they were causing extreme weight gain and I felt they were not really working. I now see that this was a very bad move, it was working somewhat, just needed to be adjusted properly. Until this article I did not realize the needy aspect of this disease. It took the loss of a family member 3 weeks ago to bring this all full circle. My 2 best friends said that they were at their limit in every aspect of our friendship and now I see why after reading this article. I was undiagnosed for 30 plus years and always knew something was not quite right about me compared to others. I make friends easily and would have lots and be very popular then would crash and go into a depression wondering what happened after losing all of them just as quickly. Until last week, I truly did not know it was me. Reckless, careless behavior, manic drunk rages, and outbursts on anyone and everyone at any time. I was an alcoholic because of this for over 10 years, I have caught an incurable STD, lost so many jobs that I cannot even count all of the places that I have worked at, lost so many friends that I can’t remember and would always ruin relationships with my girlfriend’s due to the neediness, rages, or extreme sex drive that comes with the mania. I have had girls tell me that I am not normal because of this. I thought all this time that I was gifted. it is a curse. I currently have no job, no friends, and no girlfriend and could probably not even get one due to this std which i contracted from having multiple sex partners due to alcoholism and extreme unchecked mania. I feel constantly amped, agitated, and irritable about everyone and everything. I dominate conversations talking fast and loud and like to argue and debate and be right even if I am not. I go and see a new Dr this week in hopes of getting this under control once and for all. I have tried controlling all of this by myself since actually realizing it and see that this is actually impossible as it is literally minute to minute. I hope that soon I can get this under control once and for all because it will literally kill me if it continues. There seems to be no way out. Thanks for the read.

  3. I was diagnosed thirty years ago as bipolar. It wasn’t until very recently I understood my especially embarrassing things I’ve done to many of my relationships. I cling firmly, then get obsessed with people – mostly men – and become wildly inappropriate. I’m just understanding why. Or am beginning to, anyway. Yours is the very first bit of relationship advocacy I’ve seen and it’s given me a tiny bit of redemption! Thank you.

  4. I can definitely see some truths in this article, for example how unhealthy and unmanageable it is to hang your whole wellbeing and reduce your support network to one relationship, and how there’s a symbiotic relationship between your moods/symptoms and the rest of your life and relationships (for better or worse), but I also feel that Krista’s comment was needed. Since my default way of thinking about myself, and by extension my bipolar brain, in relation to other people in my life is negative (i.e. I always worry that I’m a burden to those close to me, etc) when I read the article, although I could relate to several things (BECAUSE I could relate to several things) it triggered my usual guilt and self-loathing — until I read Krista’s comment! Now I believe that a happy medium exists, for me anyway, between the point of the article and the point Krista is making in her comment. So all in all, a good and helpful read! 🙂

  5. I just isolate, stay to myself & dont interact w/ life unless its for a specific purpose. I dont have any family, no friends or aquitances at all, nor do I date. I dont want to disrupt ppls lives w/ my illness. I tried the friendship thing, it was a disaster. I found I had nothing in common w/ anyone at all. I also discovered that me not having anything to say or converse about w/ anyone is also apart of my illness. Ppl didnt & dont want to understand, that im a very ill person. My mind dosent work right, nor does it work normally like theirs do. It never will. I process things way differently instead of those around me. Ppl didnt/dont want to understand that I wake up everyday wanting to either kill myself or wanting to die, nor did they understand that I cant regulate how Im going to be or how Im going to feel from one minute to the next. Im under the care of a doctor on meds & this is me on a good day. Ive tried filling for disability because of this.. To no avail. So, im forced to be around ppl, when its probably alot better if I just dont be around ppl at all.

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