Hello out there, normies! That’s what some of us in the bipolar community call those of you who don’t have a mental illness (or haven’t been diagnosed with one yet). You’re reasonably sane, enviably average, relatively predictable. You’re the control group. You’ve got it all going on, except . . . Sometimes you run across those of us who aren’t considered normal, and you just can’t figure us out. Maybe we’re your best friend, your employee, your boss, your child, your sibling, your lover. You’d really like to treat us well, but let’s face it: we can be hard to understand. We’re ticklish emotionally. We do strange things and don’t even realize it. It’s not always easy dealing with a bipolar person. We know.
So first let me say, on behalf of all the bipolar people I’ve met, thanks for making the effort. And in the hopes of establishing better relations between our two worlds, I’ll offer you some insider’s tips. Here are a few things you should avoid doing at all costs:
1) Never Throw Platitudes At Us
When I first started practicing law, I noticed that a great many lawyers relied on boilerplate: phrases or even whole documents that had been used before, so many times they weren’t even looked at anymore, just skimmed over in a brief. One day I asked a senior partner why the use of boilerplate was so endemic, and he told me, “Real writing means you have to actually think. Who has time for that?”
Take the time. Think. Don’t subject a bipolar person to the dregs of your intellect. If he’s going through an episode, don’t tell him, “It’s all in your head,” or “Everything will look better in the morning,” or “Time heals all wounds” or “Try making lemonade out of lemons” (my brother actually said that!) or the zillion other platitudes that are unfortunately available.
Look the situation in the face, and let your words reflect what you see. Bipolar people have been subjected to so many clichés in place of concern, they’ll appreciate any effort on your part to express what you’re really feeling.
2) Never Think the Illness Defines Us
Whether someone elects to say “I am bipolar” vs. “I have bipolar disorder” is largely irrelevant, in my opinion. When you’re bipolar, the illness is a part of your life. Some people are more symptomatic than others, of course, so for them it plays a bigger role. But for all of us who have correctly received this diagnosis, it’s a constant companion.
That said, I am so much more than my diagnosis, and so are all the other bipolar people I know. I accept the illness as a large part of my identity—it’s the lens through which I see the world, and for a writer that’s essential—but a slice is not the whole. Being bipolar doesn’t define me any more than, say, my passion for Sherlock Holmes does.
That’s why stereotyping a bipolar person is sure to lead to misunderstanding and mistakes. If I’ve learned anything from the thousands of emails I’ve received since Manic was published, it’s that there’s wondrous variety when it comes to bipolar folk. They are not just “the mentally ill.” They are doctors and lawyers and teachers and students and politicians and celebrities and entrepreneurs and artists and I could go on forever. The illness plays no favorites. But if you must stereotype us, consider the fact that people with bipolar disorder are quite often highly intelligent and unusually creative.
3) Never Underestimate the Danger
I’m going to shock you now with some statistics, because numbers tell it like it is. Here’s what studies have shown:
— at least 25-50% of bipolar individuals attempt suicide at least once;
— over their lifetimes, the vast majority (80%) will have suicidal ideation or attempt suicide;
— the annual average suicide rate of bipolar people is 10-20 times that of the general population;
— 75% of people who succeeded in committing suicide expressed suicidal feelings in the weeks prior to their deaths.
I could go on, but I’ll bring it home. In my own life, I have seriously and earnestly attempted to kill myself several times. As for suicidal ideation, shall we talk about last week’s bout? Sometimes the pain is just that bad—you figure death has to be the kinder option. I’m better now, but I disclose these facts because you need to know that suicide is a real and ever-present risk with bipolar disorder. People don’t just talk about it; they do it. And if they don’t succeed at first, they try, try again. It isn’t just a cry for help—it should be considered a call to action.
So if someone you know or love talks about suicide, even jokingly or in a passing remark, stop and listen. Ask if he has a plan. Ask how you can help. Sometimes the smallest alleviation of stress can work wonders where suicide’s concerned. Above all, take it seriously. The statistics do.
4) Never Give Up Hope
When I’m far, far gone down the blackest path of depression, I know the phone will eventually ring, luring me back to my living room. Or when I’m so high my ceiling can’t contain me, I know I’ll eventually have to come down to answer the ping of an email. I have people who love me, and they insist on annoying me when I most want to be left alone. God bless them, they haven’t given up hope.
To be frank, I don’t get it. I would have given up on me around about the second suicide attempt. But no, they hang on because they’re normies and that’s what normies do: they hang on. They drive me to the doctor and they read about the illness and they know how much I hate the pills but they make me take them anyway. They tell me stories that start out “When you’re feeling better . . .” and they look me in the eye while they’re saying that. They believe in me, and in a future that doesn’t revolve around doctors and meds and hospitals.
And I believe them, because they’re normies and so they must know what they’re talking about. That’s why normies must never, ever give up hope. They hold it in trust for those of us whose vision is slightly blurred, who can’t quite see the path, who need a dose of hope now and then to make it through the day.