Time Doesn't Heal All Wounds
I don't know who originally penned the phrase, "time heals all wounds," and, personally, I don't care to know because, frankly, I don't think it's true. My adult life has been littered with impulsive outbursts and long periods of isolation alike, which has, not surprisingly, taken a toll on my friendships. I wish I could always be the bright-eyed, well-adjusted, interesting and ambitious woman that I am when I'm at my best but my life is marred by instability, crippling social anxiety, and chronic depression.
*If you want to avoid a sort of disjointed rant, scroll to the bottom for some advice Ive figured out along the way.
What they don't tell you though is that it's hard to come back, which is why I assume I lot of people just don't.
I've been struggling a bit since moving back to Philly last autumn. I knew it would take some time to get re-adjusted but now that my house is finally feeling like a home, I'm settled into my new job, and I'm ready to get out and have fun again, it's become so glaringly obvious that my social circle didn't wait up for me. (Not that I should expect them to, at all.) They tell you that getting away is important, and I'm so thankful for the year I was separated from this place. What they don't tell you though is that it's hard to come back, which is why I assume I lot of people just don't. I know I can't be alone in this so I've decided to share my story.
In my last personal post, I shared about what it's like to depend on meds, and wrote a little about what it feels like to come out of an episode. Feel free to read about it if you feel so inclined but I can sum it up in a few words: imagine the shame and confusion that comes after a night of heavy drinking but instead of messing up your chances for having a nice, relaxing morning, it breaks apart some of the most important relationships you have and it tarnishes the reputation you're worked hard to build. (The broken relationships are what we're going to talk about here though.)
In the wake of these traumas, I've felt at times that the onus has been on me to reach back out, yet even at my most self-aware, it simply did not seem like a possibility. I miss my friends. I miss the close-knit relationships I had with my family. While all that's in me wants to cry out, "IT WASN'T ME," the harsh reality is that while I have been largely unable to control my emotions, my temper, my incessant depressive spirals during an episode, the person committing these crimes, loosely resembling me, doing so in my name, actually was me. Those who are perhaps a bit too empathetic towards the struggles of the mental ill may say, "fuck 'em, if they can't understand it." Part of me gets it. But the other says, what about them? What about the want and need for a stable relationship? If you don't want to be in a relationship that involves a mental breakdown from time to time, you shouldn't have to be in a relationship like that.
For someone with bipolar or anything resembling it, this next paragraph will feel all too familiar. My illness has, in a way, created pockets of friendships based on how much or how little of myself I feel comfortable sharing— how guarded I feel the need to be. I'm not sure if this is entirely healthy but when you're in the throes of a manic or a depressive episode, self-preservation can mean the difference between life and death, particularly when you're coming "back down" and are more aware of "self."
I have a larger group of friends that enjoys my company when I'm going through slight bouts of mania. That's the space they occupy. Theirs are surface-level relationships but are still meaningful because, well, these people are humans, and any positive human connection is worth celebrating. I have others who have stuck with me through the tough times, but not the toughest times. These are the ones I tend to alienate after a while, which is why I've had a decently high "intimate friendship" turnover in my adult life.
Every episode not only brings about a difficult but necessary existential restructuring, but also an upheaval of my entire social ethos.
More than anything, I wish that I could keep relationships. I long for the kind of closeness that can only be had through time and experience. Every episode not only brings about a difficult but necessary philosophical restructuring, but also an upheaval of my entire social ethos. Countless times I've been told, "you're not fun anymore," "you're more shy than you used to be," and I have to fight hard to hold in the words I so desperately wish I could say. "It's not me." "That wasn't me." With each and every crisis, I fall deeper and deeper into the unknown. I don't know who I am.
I've found that this is the most devastating effect of bipolar. The depression is awful, the mania is horrifying, but the existential dread that accompanies times of relative peace is something that I would not wish on my greatest enemy. (And trust me. I've made many.) I worry about who I'll alienate next, how I'll rebuild that relationship (if it can even be salvaged), and how many more times this sick cycle will have to repeat itself. It's exhausting but if nothing else, it's taught me to choose my friends wisely, and to not be so concerned with protecting my heart that I lose the more beautiful parts of friendship that can only be cultivated through vulnerability.
The depression is awful, the mania is horrifying, but the existential dread that accompanies times of relative peace is something that I would not wish on my greatest enemy.
I've contemplated life with bipolar and what the illness means for my friendships and here's what I've landed on: que sera, sera. You can't control how others perceive or react to you, and it's probably the last thing you're thinking about when you're going through an episode and just trying to survive. There are some actions you can take to mitigate the frustration on both sides though, here are some key points to keep in mind and my advice for you:
- Be open about your illness, especially during those in-between times when you're feeling alright and capable of discussing these sentiments. Tell your friends what your mental illness means to you to and list the ways in which you feel alienated yourself. One of the most difficult things I've noticed my friends have had to deal with is when I begin to dissociate. I reiterate that it's scary for me, as well. They feel that I'm distancing myself, which hurts them, but my mind is also distancing me from myself. When I feel like a stranger in my own body, how good of a friend can I be? (Something I'm trying to work through.)
- Be understanding that the very nature of your mental illness will make you "difficult to love." Remember that while this may seem like a horrible sentiment, it's not. The ones who really do care about you will say, and the ones who won't will naturally fade away. This doesn't mean that you shouldn't try to make relationships work when it's rough, but if you notice that a friend jumps ship immediately after you start getting a little sad, don't hang on too hard. They likely won't be there if it gets much worse.
- Let your friends know your triggers and the warning signs for when your moods begin to change, and what they can do to help when it begins. Here is a great worksheet to fill out.
- Keep a journal of kind thoughts and sentiments for your friends and loved ones. When you're feeling distant, go through them, and if one of your relationships need a little reassuring, show them your true feelings for them and how, just because you're depressed or not yourself, you still cherish them. List reasons you're thankful for them, your favorite memories you've shared, and thoughtful quotes that remind you of them.
- You're allowed to be hurt if someone doesn't "get it" and ends their relationship with you— especially if you're acting out. It might seem hurtful but you mustn't dwell on the person you were during your last episode: you can only work on making sure you don't fall apart as much during the next one. Apologize, be kind, but accept that not everyone will be entirely sympathetic, and that's okay. Does it make them bad people? No, not at all. Everyone takes on what they can handle. Everyone is fighting an unseen battle, and not all are willing to share openly. That's okay.
If nothing else, I hope you take the last point to heart. I feel this way about my former best friend. We didn't part on the best terms and I miss her dearly. I know there was a lot of mutual hurt, we both spoke out against each other pretty freely. Seeing her on the street a few days ago is what inspired this post, because I've been struggling with being alright just letting bygones be bygones. Sometimes a grand apology isn't important. Sometimes the time just isn't right for it. Sometimes, we've unfortunately done too much damage. We must continue to press on though, and make ourselves stronger in the end. If episodes are guaranteed, we might as well be aware and plan accordingly. Wishing you all the best on your journeys.