What Not to Say to a Person With Bipolar Disorder (and What You Should)


I’ve had some incredibly touching experiences in the midst of my struggles with bipolar disorder. Unfortunately, it’s also par for the course that I’ve had some really sh*tty ones, too. Over the last decade, I’ve heard so many things, like “There’s nothing really wrong with you, you’re just an attention whore” or “It’s all in your head.” And to that I cheerily reply, “Of course, it is happening inside my head, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” I feel like Dumbledore would be proud.

I’ve come up with a list of phrases I’ve heard over the last 20 years or so that I feel you should never say to someone with bipolar disorder, and why I believe they shouldn’t be said.

1. Snap out of it.

I really hate this expression, because I feel it insinuates I’m choosing to act this way, whatever way that might be. That I have a switch I can flip to go back to “normal.” Fighting the struggles of bipolar disorder can be an all-encompassing job, and to imply I’m not doing all I can to feel better is insulting. Sometimes, all I can do is make it from my bed to my couch, which can feel equivalent to a hike up Mount Everest when I’m depressed. While walking 20 feet can be too much to handle, “snapping out of it” is an even more impossible task.

2. “Why are you doing this to me?

Talk about a guilt trip from hell. I really despise this, because it can make you feel even worse about something you can’t control by implying that you’re doing this on purpose, to be vindictive, or for any other reason. It’s as if they’re trying to make you own their emotions, and give you a weight you don’t need to carry.

3. “Happiness is a choice.”

This one really gets to me. Yes, there are choices you can make to lead to happiness, but there is more to it than that. There are other people who can affect your path to happiness. There are neurotransmitters that affect your happiness. There are situational factors that affect it as well. I’m a fan of Viktor Frankl, who wrote about finding happiness after surviving the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. He even created a school of thought from what he learned there, called logotherapy. He knew you couldn’t just choose happiness — you had to work for it. Albus Dumbledore once said, “Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” I love this quote, because it reminds me that what I focus on is what I see best. If I’m dwelling in the dark, I’m not going to find happiness.

4. “Have you thought of trying ____?” or “You should get off all those pills.”

I know this one may be well-meaning, and it’s usually brought up in a loving manner, but to me, it’s still patronizing. It hurts because I have a doctor, and 99 percent of the people in my life know I have a doctor, and we work quite well as a team to keep me stable. I’m not going to risk my stability on an herb that could have grave consequences should I try it. And quitting my meds? I’ve burned so many bridges that the people suggesting this to me likely didn’t know me when I was off all those pills. They wouldn’t want to see that. I know I don’t.

5. “You’ve got it so good, why are you depressed?

This one hurts, probably the most to me right now. I am fully aware of how incredible my life is, how blessed I am and everything I have to be grateful for. I still cry big tears of sadness and feel like I don’t deserve any of it. It’s possible to have a great life and still be depressed. Pointing out everything great doesn’t make the depression go away; it just makes me hate myself more for being an ungrateful brat.

So, what can you say to someone with bipolar disorder? You can say, “I see you’ve been struggling lately, what can I help with?” You can say, “I see you, and I am here with you.” You can even just be silent, and sit and give your presence as a show of solidarity with the person struggling. You can just listen instead of talking. You can offer a hug. I know for me, I had one experience in the psych ward where I was just devastated and the tears wouldn’t stop coming, and the nurse on duty just came and sat with me. And listened. And just her presence was enough to calm me down. She then gave me a hug and gave me an encouraging platitude, and it was enough. I’ve never forgotten that, even though I’m sure she probably doesn’t remember this at all by now. Never underestimate the power of silence.

We all just want to be accepted as we are, warts and all. Treat us as you would want to be treated. And remember this above all: In a world where you can be anything, be kind.

Image via Thinkstock.

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