When asked by Time to Change to blog about a time when "someone – perhaps a friend, colleague, family member or even a stranger – has been there for you when you’ve been struggling with your mental health?", my first inclination could have been to talk about the times when Bipolar Disorder has held me up against the wall, or beneath the surface. Times when my brain has considered removing itself. Times when I am eternally, unspeakably grateful to those who like my brain for pointing out that times like these are very real but they will pass. They do this with a human touch, with a phone-call-reminder of a meal or laugh we have shared and could - will - again, or by simply sitting beside me, silently offering fleshy hope avatars.
But, this isn't my day-to-day experience. Such days only come around once or twice a year, thankfully. Thankfully. Many with Bipolar Disorder are much less fortunate.
My day-to-day experience is one of undulating shifts in perception
No, my day-to-day experience is one of undulating shifts in perception, slight behavioural changes only understood as separate from my personality by those close to me. Thankfully, mostly everyone I know is close to me. By this I mean my life, such as it is, only allows for acquaintances or people I know will be around more or less forever. Due to my often unpleasant behaviours, there is little space in between. If you don't like my behaviour, you shouldn't have to put up with it.
This, I accept, is fair enough. I don’t blame you. I might act similarly in your position. I don't, however, have a choice in the matter. My brain and I are in it for the long haul, much like me and those close to me. They cannot change the way I sometimes behave, nor do they try. But they accept it, knowing it will pass. Magically, they cherish the whole of me. When I consider this common attitude that the people I love share, I feel humbled, and the desire to better myself for those who refuse to turn their back on an often irritable, insecure, impatient, or just simply un-fun person increases.
The held-hand in the dark; these memories will remain
When exercising, eating well, or any of the other things I do in order to keep my illness at bay, I'll often consider the memory of a friend who patiently sat by my side in the darkness last year as I alternately ignored or berated him for hours on end, as he alternately held my hand or ignored me in return; how a friend abroad once sent me a single cherry wearing a marker-pen smile through the post in an effort to relieve a two week-long depression. It didn't work, but the depression eventually passed, with time, and was forgotten. The held-hand in the dark, the stupid cherry; these memories will remain.
If suffering from a mood disorder such as Bipolar Illness, one must accept that a life of extended friendship groups might be implausible. But, much like the advantages conferred by the illness (personally: heightened sensitivity to the physical world, conceptual over-inclusiveness, deep passions, empathy for others), this can also increase the quality of one's life: being forced to keep a small, hand-picked group of good eggs around - rather than dozens of passing ships - can ultimately prove much more fulfilling as the years and decades pass.
You really, really, can help
Bonds between friends, family ties - these things only strengthen when tested, if genuine. This is not to advocate drama - I am ashamed of the violent words and actions that that I have witnessed in myself and others, and would walk a thousand miles barefoot to take back some of the things I have said and done to those I care for when in the middle of a mixed state. When blessed, however, with the courage to accept that this is impossible, I am reminded of the unglamorous, daily kindnesses – unnoticed or otherwise - I barely deserve, and this pushes me to run that extra mile, to attempt the same for others.
For anyone reading this that may be close to somebody with a mood disorder, who has decided that, on balance, this closeness is worth the often unpleasant behaviours you must endure, the closest thing to advice I have for you is:
When the depression hits, you can’t help, not really. Not in any profound way. This is beyond human control, I think. This is the nasty truth, I think. But you really, really, can help, even if it feels like you’re not doing so at all. Depression removes the desire to engage with others, with everyday activities. This cannot be altered. But you can offer to share a walk, or a meal. When the probable rejection comes, try not to take it personally. Just remind them that you’re around, and will continue to be when they feel better. I can promise you, they’ll never forget it. And so, the next time they are submerged in the murky skull, there will be a glimmer of a memory, a tiny, glinting fish on the surface, whispering: “Don’t worry; they’ll be there when you find your way to the surface. They were last time, remember?”
It might help.