How to Help Your Friend with Mental Illness

I am very grateful for my friends. I am very open about my mental illness. Being open works for me, but there are many people who choose to keep it quiet.

If you have a friend who confides their mental illness to you, I hope you will be grateful for the trust they place in you. There is a great deal of stigma against the mentally ill and mental illness in general. When we disclose to people, we are being brave.

If your friend discloses to you, ask them how they want you to help. Listen to their ideas. Most of the time, we only want someone to understand our situation and why we may appear a little “off” at times. We are each unique, and we will each want different things from our friends.

It is safe for me to say there is one thing we never want from our friends: medical advice, no matter how innocuous it may seem to you. We take our medical advice from our doctors, and it sometimes takes us many years to begin to trust them. I’m sure our friends don’t want to endanger that trust.

It’s possible that a person with mental illness but with little understanding of their illness may react inadvisedly to news from a friend that perhaps the only thing wrong is a vitamin deficiency. This person may leap at the thought they can be cured with simple supplements and cease taking their important medicines for their mental illness.

Stopping taking medicine can have disastrous effects when the symptoms of the illness return. The symptoms can be difficult to reverse, and they can sometimes lead to terrible consequences. They can even be fatal.

We need our friends. You are important to us. Vital, actually. We are often quite isolated. Listen to us when we talk. Tell us we are heard. Hug us. Let us know we are not alone.

That’s all we really need.

Caring

I am happy today to ask others to care for me and to help me care for myself. I can raise my voice among my friends and talk about my disappointments. I can accept their words of solace and encouragement. I can also readily ask them for ideas of how I can nurture myself when I’m feeling low.

I had to learn how to speak up, listen and accept, and request assistance. It did not come naturally, but I have it now, and I’m grateful.

It came in stages. I first had to learn to talk about my difficult situations. This meant I had to break through the voices in my head that claimed no one cared. Another voice said they would think poorly of me if I appeared weak. It took courage to speak above these voices and make myself heard. The beautiful part was that I learned how simple it was after doing it only once. That first time gave me great happiness to be heard.

Next, I had to accept the good wishes of my friends and their encouragement. This took some self-discipline. I want to tell myself that I’m not worthy of their kindness. I want them to know of these thoughts, too. I can say confidently today that I am indeed worthy. I learned this by gratefully listening to my friends telling me they thought I could overcome a difficulty.

The biggest hurdle came when I realized I needed to practice self-care. I not only need to accept encouragement from my friends, but I also need to give it to myself. I need to believe in myself. I need to believe that I am worthy of loving myself. This may have been the highest hurdle to jump.

I did it. It came slowly, but I gradually learned to love myself. Today, I have it solidly. I know I am worthy of help from others and help for myself. Those old voices that told me I wasn’t worth it are silent now.

Routine

Last weekend, I had a houseguest. An old friend from the city I used to live in needed a short break from her surroundings, so I spoke up and invited her to come over for a weekend. She jumped at the chance.

We had fun. We ate some very good food at a number of good restaurants I know around the city. We visited a famous site where she’d never been and took a tour. I’d been to this site only once before quite a few years ago, so I was delighted to get to go again. We also went to the mall and walked around the shops. We happened across a high-end chocolatier, and I splurged on some very good chocolates. We also got to spend time with a mutual friend, and that was delightful.

I did my laundry on a day that I don’t normally do that chore. I skipped cutting my hair on Saturday morning. I also didn’t go for my regular powerwalk.

On Sunday afternoon, I drove my friend back to the airport and hugged her goodbye. I then drove home and stayed inside for the rest of the day. I played on the internet and read a book and relaxed.

Monday, I was oddly distracted all day. It was hard to concentrate on work, and my colleague asked if I was feeling okay.

Then it struck me that I was irritable. I wasn’t feeling completely normal. I felt a bit off kilter, if that makes sense.

As I was realizing this, the reason flashed across my mind. My routine had been completely upset over the weekend. I didn’t get to do anything at my normal times.

I’ve understood this before. Routine is very important to individuals with mental illness. It’s a way we self-manage our illnesses. By performing the same tasks in the same way over and over, we comfort ourselves with the knowledge that the time is passing calmly. It’s a way to maintain equilibrium.

It has taken me a few days, but I now feel like I’m back to my old self again. My routine is in place, and my equilibrium has returned.

I am grateful for this reminder. I am also grateful I could enjoy the weekend. It felt wonderful to participate in activities that enriched my life. I loved seeing my old friend again. Even though my routine was discarded for a few days, I was able to cope, and then I regained my routine shortly after and got back to my comfortable feelings.

Invisibility

I have a job now. I’ve been working for about a year and a half. There are two of us in the office I work in, and we are both persons with lived experience with mental illness.

I lived on disability for twelve years. It was a long time, and some days were very difficult. It is very difficult to describe, but for those twelve years, I was invisible as far as society was concerned. I was not a contributor.

Make no mistake. I was not idle for those twelve years. I volunteered at the library’s literacy center teaching English as a Second Language. I was very active in the community theatre group where I lived. I even served on the group’s board of directors.

Perhaps it’s because I’m male, but since I was not being paid for this work, it was not highly valued.

I was invisible.

One payday not long after I started working again, I was holding my paystub, and my colleague in the office, the other person with lived experience, said, “It feels good to be paid, doesn’t it?” I quickly and loudly agreed. It felt quite amazing actually. I appreciated it like I’d never done before.

Today was my colleague’s birthday, and I arranged an office party for him with all the other people from the larger office. It was a pot luck, and everyone gladly brought food to share. It was a real feast. We had much too much food. The office refrigerator is bulging at the seams with all the leftovers.

A birthday party hardly seems like a special thing. On a grand scale, it is very small. Still, I was near tears. All these people were celebrating with a person with mental illness. There he was; I was right next to him. We weren’t invisible. We were considered valuable members of the group.

It’s a very big deal.

My Schpiel

New clients view me with a mixture of distrust and curiosity. I am usually introduced to them by a case worker who gives little information about me or about what I do. Initially, I am seen as part of the system.

I have to break through any figurative walls quickly and carefully to reach a level playing field where I can teach the skills I’ve learned. Passing along what has helped me is my whole reason for working. Giving the tools that help me stay well and not relapse into crisis is what being a Certified Peer Specialist is all about. It’s my job.

In training, I was coached on how to introduce myself. I was given the Five Key Concepts and directed to use them when I meet a new client or group. Those concepts are

  • Hope
  • Personal Responsibility
  • Education
  • Self-Advocacy
  • Support

My introductory pitch to a new person is important. It will determine how we are going to interact. Once the mood is set, it is difficult to change it. I have to be vigilant in my own recovery and follow my own WRAP daily to be ready for these precious meetings. They are precious. Each meeting and each session and each client is a gift to my recovery. I heal freely sharing what I was taught.

My schpiel or pitch is conducted completely using “I” statements. It’s my story. It’s never exactly the same, but it meanders along an outline something like what follows:

When I was diagnosed with a mental illness 12 years ago, I was devastated. I felt like I’d hit a brick wall with no possibility of going around or over it. I lost my job, the respect of my family and many friends, and my self-respect. I felt utterly worthless. My life as it had been was over, and I felt damaged. What’s worse was I felt abandoned by society as a whole. I was an outcast.

I had many dark times. There were days when I had no energy to get out of bed except for the most rudimentary needs. There was a time I wouldn’t leave my apartment for days. I despaired that things would never improve.

I had no hope. Darkness swallowed me.

Luck put a group of loving friends in my life. They listened to my complaints and distracted me with silly card games and other activities. They dragged me into the sunshine when all I wanted was to stay locked behind my door. I also had a kind prescribing psychiatric nurse practitioners and at other times good psychiatrists. I have been extremely lucky to be in therapy with a highly regarded psychologist. All these people gave me a few tools to get through each day.

They showed me that hope was possible. Trying different combinations of medicine gave me ideas that I could improve. Getting out to socialize even in simple settings like the coffee shop was a labor for me, but I did it regardless of my internal desires. I began to exercise. I clung to my friends. I renewed my interest in meditation or guided visualization. I began to see how taking care of my most basic needs was an act of self-love.

Hope rekindled in me. It was slow, and over the course of years, I realized that I had a stake in making me feel better. I was miserable, and I wanted not to be. Those little daily tasks like taking my medicine, socializing, exercising, and meditating became a mantra of sorts. I saw that I had to take some responsibility if I wanted to feel good.

I also had a lot to learn. I was fortunate growing up to have an older sister who worked in the mental health field. I knew a lot about the importance of taking medicine each day. I heard about her experiences with patients, and I knew I did not want to be sick. I wanted good mental health, and I had to educate myself on my illness. Living with the Internet, this process was much easier than just a few years ago. I had a wealth of information at my fingertips, and I used it.

I began using the new information I’d gleaned from the Internet and books and sundry other resources to talk to my healthcare providers about my treatment. I became an active participant. Looking my psychiatrist in the face and stating plainly that I wanted help with a particular problem altered my life. I was a force in my own decision making. I was not a pawn of any system.

Finally, I permitted myself to have a group of supporters who have my best needs at heart. Today, I have an excellent prescribing nurse practitioner, and we work closely together on my medication needs and talk openly about events in my life. I have a top-notch therapist that I’ve known for over twenty years. I have a case worker who is one of my greatest cheerleaders. I have loving children. I have friends who truly love and support me in my endeavors.

I have a new lease on life.

The above is a broad example of my schpiel or introduction. It’s tailored for each setting and each new client, but it’s my joyous responsibility to follow the Five Key Concepts and model them in my life.

If there is anything I would like to emphasize it is regaining hope. Without it, I was lost. I cannot say enough how thrilled I am to do the work I do, to live the life I have, and to practice my own recovery. Today, I am hope-full.

A Wide-Ranging Session

One client during my internship has grown into a really interesting case. Readers will remember him as the combative one. He has returned several times since that appointment, and his attitude has always been good. He enjoys lively conversation, but he’s never returned to the highly argumentative tone.

Today, he arrived and sat down and informed me he’d almost taken the bus to a town about two hours away. Taking this trip is his way of saying he wants to kill himself. He’s taken the trip many times in the past decade, but he’s thankfully never followed through. His routine there is always the same. He drinks rum on the bus ride and then continues to drink the first day there. He also smokes cigars that first day. He sleeps outdoors and awakens with the intention of killing himself the second day. Instead, he takes the two-hour bus ride back to the care home where he has a bed.

I knew about this habit of his, and I’ve known about his chronic suicidality since I first met him. My response to him this morning was to thank him for telling me about his plans. Then I said that I was glad he hadn’t gone on the trip, because it would have left me without a client and I would have been bored.

He quickly said, “That’s not a good enough reason for me not to go.”

I responded that I completely understood, but that I still didn’t want to be bored. He was really interested in my seemingly nonchalant answer.

My real answer was to then launch into continuing to fill out his WRAP folder. We approached the section entitled Crisis Plan, which requires a lot of writing by the client. They have to think thoroughly about how they want their care to be conducted in case they fall into crisis. My client mentioned simply that he didn’t want to do it. I agreed that we should stop since I’ve been trained that WRAP is self-directed. He did say he wasn’t ready to completely give up on the Plan. He wants a hook. He’s looking for something that will give him a lease on life.

I told him again of my own WRAP and how it changed my life. I went from having chronic negative self-talk to none. I talked about the dark times I’d seen, and I called them that: the dark times. I kept it general. Using “I” statements, I mentioned that since writing my WRAP, I had not relapsed into dark times, and I had not required a stay in the hospital. My WRAP has kept them at bay.

His reaction was to announce that dark times are the natural state of mankind, and they shouldn’t be fought. I thank him for telling me his ideas, and then I surprised him. I agreed with him. Dark times may be the natural state for many, but I don’t have to stay stuck there. I was careful to mention that I was speaking for me.

This client has a set of interesting ideas that he regularly says for all to hear. “Man is a primate.” “Man is alienated from life.” “Life is meaningless.” “God is dead.”

I surprised him again today. I agreed with him once more. I told him I thought it was indeed difficult for people to find an ultimate meaning in life. He smiled and said he had nothing to say in response. I continued with my story and how important WRAP was to helping me out of the dark times and into a state of serenity. That piqued his interest. I explained how the Daily Maintenance List kept me on an even keel so I wouldn’t fall back into a crisis.

“The whole meaning of WRAP is to keep us out of crisis,” I said.

He looked at me quizzically and muttered something about the meaninglessness of life.

I answered him by describing the meaning I find in a string of small things. I love my job. I love my family. I enjoy reading and writing for myself and others to read. Finally, I have a passion for theater. While I reserved my speech to “I” statements, I tried to steer the conversation to his enjoyments. He loves classical music and speaks about it with fervor.

Then I mentioned the word “pleasure,” and we started a tangential discussion of how a meaningless life could or couldn’t possibly have any. The talk was fascinating. We spoke about hedonism, and yes, we used that word. He’s a smart man and has read a good deal of philosophy. I threw Epicurus into the mix, and he was impressed when I mentioned that Epicurus was a champion of the middle path rather than what Epicurean philosophy has come to represent, namely hedonism. My client said he preferred a more stoical way.

We ended our time together with a talk about Shakespeare’s sonnets and specifically, the unknown lady mentioned therein. My client called Mozart and Beethoven eternal, and I said the lady of the sonnets was, too. Shakespeare even tells the lady she will be eternal in his words. My client appreciates the beauty of those words. He was surprised at me again that I seemed so enthusiastic about the Bard. For our session next week, I’m going to take a few of the sonnets for us to study, I think.

It was indeed a great session. I am blessed to know this man. He touches me with his candor. He honestly appears to be searching for something that he can’t or is afraid to grasp. I’m not so presumptuous to imagine I will help him find it, but I truly hope I can demonstrate that reaching out doesn’t have to be painful. A desire can sometimes lead to pleasant surprises.

Bipolar Dating Ideas

Can it be so very hard to date when one has bipolar disorder? If the disease is untreated, then daily life is hard and not just relationships.

Is it so very hard to date a person with bipolar disorder? Again, if untreated, then everything is going to be a struggle.

Relationships are difficult for all of us regardless whether one has a mental illness or not. Conversing, listening, deciphering body language, and understanding are not easy with a veil of worry cast over one’s eyes. “Is she listening?” “Does he care about this topic?” Our internal dialogue bounces with questions and conceptions.

Add bipolar disorder to the mixture, and a cauldron seethes boiling and popping. Let me speak from experience.

I once saw a drama depicting a man meditating. Actors moved slowly behind him reciting lines of his wandering thoughts, distracting him. It raced to the forefront of my mind that I thought in an entirely different way. My thoughts never wandered in and out. They charged. They bombarded me. I could simultaneously hold a thought and understand I was conscious of the thinking, and I knew on five different levels my brain was electrified with inspiration, thinking about thinking about thinking about…sigh. It tires me now to remember.

Yet, I’m very lucky. With my prescribing nurse practitioner, we’ve found a regimen that works. With the job training and WRAP, I’ve found a written system I use to calm my racing thoughts. I found help, and I believe it’s out there for all of us.

Getting help was the first step for me. I’m stable, and with that knowledge, I can reach out to friends and associates, searching for a mate. That search is exciting. The Internet is open with a plethora of sites waiting for us. Some cost. Some are free. Our local areas have many places we can volunteer our time, opening the door to meeting many new people.

What to do then becomes the question. How do we spend time getting to know someone? How much of ourselves do we reveal and when? Those questions plague people with bipolar disorder. I started slowly with my current beau. So far so good, but so far is so far.

We’ve met for coffee. We’ve lunched together. We’ve sat by the water and strolled through the park. We haven’t seen a movie together. We haven’t done many things together. He’s busy and far away. I’ve been busy with job training. Life happens. We’ll see where things go.

I enjoy imagining free or low-cost things for us.

  • Walks along the seashore.
  • Casual days in the park.
  • Picnicking.
  • Driving on country roads.
  • Taking in scenic spots.
  • Visiting free museums.
  • Meeting at the coffee shop.
  • Sightseeing like tourists.
  • Roaming a bookstore.
  • Leisurely meandering through the local library.
  • Reading aloud together.
  • Sitting in the sun.

Really, the list is endless. There are so many joys of life to be gained by exploring the ordinary world around each of us. The artist Andy Warhol once said, “Once you ‘got’ Pop, you could never see a sign the same way again.” Finding beauty in the ordinary is what I strive for. Making a date of the usual turns any day into magic.

Looking for magic in a relationship turns any couple into a happy one.

Let’s make magic happen. Let’s be open to the warm touch of another. Let’s recover. Let’s do it together.