Inspired by a recent conversation at a family gathering...
My brother is Bipolar. It does not make him less of a human being. It does not make him a loser or a criminal. He may have made many manic-induced bad decisions over his lifetime, but that doesn’t mean that he’s stupid or deserving of ridicule and eye rolling.
I don’t claim to be an expert and sometimes I get just as aggravated at him as everyone else, but I am tired of the judgment and criticism of him. From members of his own family. From people who have never taken the time to learn anything about it. People who equate “not feeling good” as being hung-over. Being manic does not equate being drunk.
In my experience, people who are not familiar with mental illness, bipolar or otherwise, tend to have skewed images of the issue. Perhaps the view they have is due to the numerous shows on TV which portray the mentally ill as criminal or dangerous. Maybe it is just ignorance. Either way, it’s not justifiable. If there is someone in your family, immediate or extended, someone at work, or maybe just a neighbor, there really isn’t any reason not to learn a little about their affliction. There are countless sources online or at the library. http://www.nami.org/ is an excellent source of information.
Bipolar Disorder, also known as Manic Depression, is characterized my major shifts in mood, energy and the ability to function. The cause is unknown and it effects men and women equally. The shifts can be subtle or dramatic, last for days or for weeks. While manic, behavior may include elation or extreme irritability, increased physical and mental activity, racing thoughts and increased talking at a much faster speed. In my brother’s case, his vocabulary also changes when he’s manic. Risk taking and impulsiveness are also characteristics. While in the depressive stage they have low energy, have no interest in anything or anyone are often easily annoyed. They suffer prolonged sadness, worry excessively, have abnormal feelings of guilt and worthlessness. They often contemplate suicide.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 10 million Americans suffer from bipolar. It’s more common than you’d expect. This number does not, however, take in account all the families of those who are effected by bipolar family members. Spouses, parents, siblings, who all try their best to “be there” and to understand. And there is nothing more disrespectful than the uninformed who undermine the family’s intentions.
While that sounds harsh, it is exactly what happens when someone says something thoughtless. It puts the family member on defensive and they immediately feel to need to protect and explain, which often falls on deaf ears. Due to my brother’s rapid cycling, he is often absent from family gatherings, either because he is too manic or has fallen into a deep depression. Trying to explain his absence is very difficult to people who have not taken the time to understand. To his immediate family, when one of us say “He had a bad night”, we instantly understand. You say that to someone else and they smirk and comment about his drinking and give each other knowing looks.
Even in this day and age, when technology and the medical field have advanced so far, there is a stigma to bipolar and mental illness. It’s really inexcusable.
If you want to be a help to the family, the main thing is to be understanding. Ask questions only if they are an honest attempt to understand. Be there and be willing to listen. Do not judge and don’t offer advice.
Sometimes, the only thing the family may need is a compassionate, fellow human being who will not judge and make assumptions. Someone who makes an effort to understand.