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How My Friends Affect How I See My Bipolar Disorder

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This weekend, my best friends and I were playing a game of truth or drink. Naturally, we all chose to be honest and open, for, between us, there are no secrets or judgments. One of the prompts was, “If you could change or take away one thing about each person in this room, what would it be and why?” Because of our intimate and emotional state, we gave this rather pointed prompt a positive spin. Instead of saying things that could be hurtful (though I couldn’t think of any at all), we chose to say things like, “I wish you could see how great of a person you are and believe in yourself more,” or, “I wish you wouldn’t be so hard on yourself — you have already accomplished so much in life to be proud of.” When it was my turn, my closest friend was quickest to answer. “I wish you didn’t have to struggle with mental illness.”

Ever since I remember reacting to situations and feeling emotions, sadness and depression have been present. I remember my parents commenting on how “dramatic” I was as a child. How “sensitive” I could get when someone corrected me. How “emotional” I was after being disciplined. Everything seemed to hurt me just a little bit more than everyone else, and my reactions that reflected such were construed as inconvenient or inappropriate for most situations. “Stop crying.” “Toughen up.” “Don’t take things so personally.” Those words told me I needed to change. Those words indicated what I was feeling was invalid and needed to be fixed. Those words told me I wasn’t good enough.

• What is Bipolar disorder?

I learned to stop crying… until no one was around. I toughened up by hardening my face and painting on a smile. I stopped taking things personally by using humor to mask the hurt and the shame and the self-loathing. I bottled all of my emotions up so I wouldn’t inconvenience anyone by ruining the mood. I did this for elementary, middle and high school. It wasn’t until my last semester of college that I learned how to really open up to someone I trusted. If I hadn’t done so in that moment, I wouldn’t be here to write this. Unfortunately, the result of my waiting so long to express my emotions in a healthful way was a lifetime of therapy, medication and an escalation to bipolar disorder and panic disorder. While I do believe my depression is genetic, being that I have been afflicted my entire life, I still think my bipolar disorder triggered as a result of my choice to not deal with my problems. My internal wealth of emotional trauma reached a breaking point, and I no longer could handle it on my own. However, as terrible as my lowest moments have been, I cannot help but notice how much my mental illness has shaped my goals and ambitions, my relationships and my passion for the many things life has to offer.

Another prompt from this evening was, “How would you describe each person in the room to someone who has never met them?” Again, my friends and I made the point to build each other up, as all girl friends should do. All of my friends agreed I was funny, outgoing, thoughtful, deep and supportive. However, it again was what my closest friend said that stood out to me. “I feel like you see the world differently than everyone else.”

I see the world differently than everyone else. I think about this often, actually. I mean, other than the scientific fact we cannot have an identical life experience to any other person who has lived or is alive, there are aspects of my illnesses that have shed light on many human afflictions and other life situations. I have spent lots of time sorting through human emotions, both my own and those of other people, and therefore understand the bounds of grief, peace, hatred, excitement, depression and many others better than most people I have met, young or old. I care deeply for people, and I can detect how sensitive someone is on the inside based on micro movements, including how they breathe and where their eyes are resting. I have found that pain and other negative emotions live inside all of us to some degree, and we all greet them differently. I have learned there is magnificence in the darkest of places as well as the lightest, and that ugly and broken can also be beautiful. Mostly, I see everything in layers. What I mean by that is not everything is presented to us at face value. A smile could be masking a night spent crying; a joke — a cry for help. While one emotion may be at the forefront of our thoughts, all the others are on standby for when the situation will inevitably change.

I firmly believe change is one of the most beautiful gifts in the universe. I know there are dynamic ends of spectrums and endless gray areas in between, and that balance is always wise. I preach friendship and understanding in all I do. I feel a real sense of love for strangers driving by in their cars, pushing around their shopping carts or simply doing their jobs. When I see a criminal, I see the inner pain they have neglected to address and the people in their lives who neglected to help them do so. When I see a new mother, I see her mother and her mother before her, each promising at 15 to be nothing like the former, and again at 40 wishing they possessed even a fraction of her strength. I see people in webs of interconnected relationships, and again on a timeline spanning before their birth to this very second. I feel every reaction in a room, every tear on your face, and every soul as they leave this life forever. I see the world differently than everyone else, because of my past with mental illness.

Of course, my friend intended for the thought to be kind. What she really was saying was, “I wish you didn’t have to struggle with the most painful emotions at all, let alone all of the time, because I love you.” Her sentiment deeply touched me, because there were years of my life when I didn’t think anyone cared enough to convey anything of the like to me. But I know now that it was always there — I was merely unable to accept people’s love for me as truth due to my own concept of self-loathing. Through my friendships, I have grown exponentially and in a better direction. They are the ones who help me perceive the world first and foremost as beautiful, despite the darkness attempting to convince me of otherwise. They are the ones who have shown me how to love others and allow others to love me. They are the reason why I see the world differently, and I hope I never take the lens of their friendship for granted.

Follow this journey on the author’s blog.

Thinkstock photo via Photo by Becca Tapert on Unsplash

Originally published: September 17, 2017
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