A great perspective from a spouse of someone with bipolar!
Friendships with someone who has a mental health disorder can be quite tough at times. In fact, my group of friends is quite small. Most of them actually are other people that have a mental illness, because they understand what it is like. But I have friends that do not, and they are great!
I know that sometimes, being a friend or in a relationship with someone with a mental illness can be hard sometimes though. You don’t know what to say when certain topics come up, you don’t know how to react to certain situations, or maybe you don’t know what they are looking for or what help they want.
Being someone with a mental illness, there are a few things that friends do that really help me and I think most people with mental illness would say they look for in a good friend:
1) They listen – My true friends simply listen. They don’t judge me and they just listen. They don’t try to think ahead to what they are going to say next or how to respond while I am talking. They carefully pay attention to what I am saying, then they take the time to form a response if one is even needed. Many times I don’t need a response, I do not need advice, I just need someone to listen.
2) They support me – They validate my feelings and show me that I am not alone. They cannot always be present in person 100% of the time, but they let me know that I can text them or email them, Facebook them or leave a voicemail, and when they get it they will get back to me as soon as they can. They let me know that they care and that they are going to be there for me. They are empathetic.
3) They ask how they can help me – Sometimes, they don’t know what to do. Sometimes I don’t even know what I want them to do. I just ramble on and on. So they ask me what I am wanting. What do I need? This question gets to the bottom of things. Do they need to drive me to a therapy appointment? Do they need help studying for a test because of stress? What type of support is needed. It may seem direct, but there are nice ways of saying it, “What can I do to help you?”, “I want to do my best to support you right now, how can I do that?”, “What are some of the things you need right now?”
4) They are educated about mental illness – They know what is going on with me. They do not assume I am faking it, that it is all drama, or that I am “crazy.” They do not stigmatize mental illness. They take the time to learn about what is going on with me by either listening to me tell them about it or by doing their own research (or both!). This helps so much in the friendship.
5) They support me healthy coping skills – My good friends do not tell me I just need to have a drink or smoke pot or have sex to feel better. My good friends tell me I need to do something nice for myself, get a massage, read a good book, exercise, talk to them or my therapist, etc. My good friends understand that going out and partying late at night and drinking alcohol will interfere with my psych meds and mess up my sleep schedule thus possibly throwing my mental illness into disarray. My good friends encourage me to go out with them for alternative activities like a movie or a comedy show.
6) They take care of themselves – I don’t want my friend to feel like I am a burden on them. I want them to have their own lives and I don’t want to be clinging onto them. Knowing that they take care of themselves first and put up boundaries protects them and me. If they get overwhelmed by me, then it puts their mental health in jeopardy and most likely I will also be losing a friend. It is so important when you are friends with someone with a mental illness – or anyone for that matter – you take care of yourself first. Because if you cant take care of yourself, how can you take care of anyone else?
I know my illness affects those around me. I know that I have said and done things that have hurt my loved ones. I am sorry for that.
Today, I saw a post on a site from a family member of someone with mental illness (no one related to me) that said something to the effect of, “What about the family members, we deal with them all the time, we have to suffer all the time!”
I actually had two reactions to this:
-In one way I was actually mad. You deal with it! Think about me! I DEAL with it. I LIVE with it. Think of what goes on in my head. How much I struggle with it. Think about how much I hate to do the things I do and struggle to not do them and fight with myself and feel depressed and manic and suicidal and have no idea what is going on in my head a lot of the time.
-And then, there was a part of me that agreed with their comment. Yeah, they do have to deal with us. They deal with our “drama” of our emotions and ups and downs and hospitalizations and medication changes and whatever else we might be going through.
So what can family members do to help them when they are having a hard time with us? There are some things that family members can do to help them cope with having a family member with mental illness. This will allow them to keep from the anxiety, frustration, exhaustion, and burnout that can occur from the caretaking and worrying of their loved ones.
1) Avoid placing blame – You cannot change anyone. You are not a magician. Just be supportive of yourself and your loved one and look toward the good things.
2) Take time for yourself – set aside time each day for yourself. Even if it is just 20 minutes that you can get away at first and slowly build up. Practice meditation, read a book, get out in the sun, go for a walk, do something you love to do. This will give you some time to relax.
3) Set limits (boundaries) – Learn to say “no.” If your family members are asking to much of you, just say no. Take care of yourself first.
4) Educate yourself – Learn about the mental illness. Sometimes it helps just to know about what is going on. If we understand what the person is going through we are more empathetic about their situation and often get less frustrated when situations occur and know what to do during a crisis.
5) Find a support group – NAMI has a Family to Family Support Group where family members and friends of those with mental illness can come together for support. NAMI also has a Family to Family Course that is 10 weeks which helps educate on different mental illnesses. DBSA also allows family members to attend their support groups alongside those that are mentally ill, so it is a mixed support group. There are also support groups for those with mental illness through both NAMI and DBSA that you can get your loved ones involved in as well if they are willing.
I survived! I survived my family reunion – which meant being stuck on a boat (granted it was a cruise) for 1 week with some of who I am quite close to and others who I do not have the greatest relationship with. Even though it was a cruise which had lots of fun activities – I still was required to spend quite a bit of time with family, who as I said, I am not particularly close to and do not have the best relationship with, and was not able to do things I actually wanted to do, which was frustrating.
I did have a good time, but getting through the week was very hard also.
Traveling when you have mental illness is not the easiest thing though. So many things can go wrong. Who are you with, medication problems, sleep issues, why you are traveling in the first place, how long you will be gone, missing therapy appointments, where you will be going, and so many other things! So how do you deal with all of this?
1. Who are you with – Being around people you do not have a great relationship with can be VERY stressful. Make sure you have time for yourself. Schedule time for yourself. You might have to eat meals with them or go to certain events with them. But tell them that you need a nap or have to take a break, especially if they already know about your mental illness, they should “hopefully” understand. During this time, do whatever makes you happy that you can do – read a book, take a nap, draw, practice deep breathing, take a walk, etc.
2. Medication – If you take psychiatric medications (or any other medications), make sure you have an adequate supply. If you will run out during the trip, get an over-ride by your insurance company to get it filled early. It is so important to take all your medications as prescribed. If you are traveling outside of the country, also bring a copy of your prescriptions as some countries will require the copy of your prescriptions when you enter or leave the country as well. While most do not, it is better to be prepared than to run into a problem. Always make sure they are in the prescription bottle. Put your medication in carry on luggage if you are traveling in an airplane as well so it will not get lost if your luggage is misplaced.
3. Sleep – When you are not in your own room in your own bed, sleeping can sometimes become a problem. And if you are traveling across the world, jet lag will really throw you off. Be consistent with your sleep. Lack of sleep can throw you into a mania if you have bipolar (according to my psychiatrist). You can also go into a deep depression. Bring any sleep medication that has been prescribed to you as well in case you might need it.
4. Missing therapy sessions – Make sure you talk with your therapists about what to do since you will be missing therapy sessions. Can you have extra session before the trip if needed? Will you have a session scheduled after the trip or will there be a waiting period to get back in? Is there a way to contact him/her during the trip if you need to? If not, do you have a friend that you trust to talk to if you cannot talk to those you are traveling with about what is going on?
5. Where will you be going – If something happens related to your mental health, do you have a system in place for what to do? Are there mental health hospitals available? Do you have the suicide crisis line number to call? Does your health insurance cover out of state/country medical emergencies (mental health emergencies/hospitalizations) Of course, you do not want to even think about this as you just want to hope for a good time, but especially if you are traveling outside of the country, it is something you might want to think about as many countries have different ideas of how to handle mental health crisis, and many international travel insurance policies do not cover mental health care or pre-existing conditions.
6. Coping skills – These are super important. You need to remember to use these when things get hard. If you need to bring anything to help you, bring it. Paper for drawing. Markers. Coloring book with crayons. Crossword puzzles. A book. Magazine. They are generally small enough to fit in a backpack or luggage. A stress ball. Then there are always the skills that do not need an object such as deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation. Simple meditations.
Having bipolar, ptsd, and borderline personality, along with bad social anxiety causes me to have problems with relationships in my life. So many times in my life I have been involved with people that bring me down. They destroy me. I long so much to be wanted, to be understood, to have someone care about me though that I don’t seem to understand that these people are just making my mental illness worse and they are hurting me.
I have such bad social anxiety that once I do find someone I am comfortable being around, I don’t want to leave that situation even if it is a bad one – be it a friendship or a romantic relationship.
I didn’t grow up in a great environment. I don’t have a great relationship with my parents. I currently talk to them, but I try to set up boundaries around the relationship I have with them because I am not comfortable with them. It took me a long time to learn how to create boundaries with people though. I always use to say “yes” to people. I didn’t know the word “no.” I was a people pleaser as some might say. My friendships were usually one sided — I would always stay up late listening to other peoples problems, but no one would listen to mine. I would always go out of my way to help them go get something, but when I needed something I was left on my own. So many people in my past had hurt me though, that I felt like if I didn’t do these things that I would lose these people who I thought “cared” about me.
Boundaries are a big thing. I didn’t know how to even set them. It took years in counseling for me to understand what boundaries were and how I could implement them into my life. I still have problems with it today, especially with my parents. I feel guilty since they are my family. But they are also toxic to me many times. I have to set boundaries no matter how people are related to me if they are more detrimental to my health than helpful. That is something I have had to learn and am still coming to terms with.
Someone told me one time, “No is a complete sentence. You can just say no. You do not have to add on to it or justify it or create some story. Just answer them with ‘no’.” If you need to set up a boundary with someone and you don’t want to be with them or spend time with them that day, say you cant, tell them no you cant help them out. It is ok. Take care of yourself first.