Bipolar Manifesto

I’ve been active in bipolar forums and we are too often let down by those who are meant to provide us support and care. We’ve also wondered if our suicidal thoughts are related to our caregivers and often, they are. Here is some advice for support providers and caregivers.

Realise that people don’t kill themselves simply because they were programmed to. Understand that when someone is ready to kill themselves, it is because they feel they have no other option left. They often feel abandoned or alienated or simply tired of being vilified because they make easy targets. People deflect on us too much and it’s easy to repeat cycles of abuse with us.

Also realise that if a family member is mentally unwell, then the chances of others having psychological issues is very high. Bipolar disorder is often genetic and if one family member has been diagnosed with it, the chances of most other family members lying somewhere on the bipolar spectrum is high. Nothing is worse for us than declaring us THE PROBLEM without finding out if you may have a problem.

This should also make you realise that it’s easy to deflect on us instead of looking inward. It is easy to demand only one person makes changes without making changes in your life as well. It is easy to see a problem in others and live in denial of the issues you may have. You are not perfect and you have no right to demand perfection from someone who is already struggling unless you can show them how. Rest assured you won’t be able to because you are human.

Bear in mind that having a genetic history of bipolar disorder does not necessarily translate into eventually getting it. The genetics rely on triggers and families are often the biggest trigger. If you left your child alone with someone who raped or molested them, you created a trigger, not the genes.

Do not hold onto one issue and grudge us for it forever. We make mistakes and are often the first to acknowledge them because we’re taught to do so in therapy. If we are made to feel bad about mistakes in the past that were rectified, then take responsibility for vilifying us. Do not focus on the only the negatives simply because it’s easy to do so. Appreciate the positives repeatedly. Let go of something that may have happened in the past if the behaviour has never repeated itself. If you don’t do so, you will will become a negative reinforcer who will impede progress greatly. You will become an impediment to the path towards healing. You may kill off the motivation to get better.

Understand how you may be repeating cycles of abuse with us. Understand that we are as human as you. You lash out at us, we lash out at someone else if we can’t say anything to you, they complain and you immediately only hold us accountable. This isn’t acceptable to us. We are well aware when you are creating cycles of abuse and to grudge us alone without taking any accountability to yourself isn’t fair. Understand that being treated unfairly can make us unwell. We have as much of a right to dignity as anyone else, diagnosis or not.

If you drink alcohol, think about the many hurtful things you may have said to us while drunk. If you don’t remember them, don’t dismiss us as liars if we express we were hurt by them. Do not make us your targets when you’re drunk. If you are unable to control your abuse and drink, then do not grudge us for wanting to stay away from you.

If you apologise, mean it. Don’t give us an empty apology. Don’t ever apologise and then repeat your mistake. Empty apologies make us feel worse, as if we are not worthy of being apologised to after being wounded.

Make an effort to treat us as equal humans who are as worthy of love, respect and dignity as any others. Do not give us special treatment by being too stern, too enabling, too mean or too negative. We are as human as anyone else. We respond to compassion and kindness more than force just like anyone else. We also need to develop insight and understanding. Healing isn’t possible without it. Do not impede this process; aid it instead.

Do not expect us to do this alone and without support. To do so would display your ignorance towards our condition. Read about it. Go to therapy but don’t ever call our doctors without our consent unless we are suicidal. Do not call our doctors and ask for confidential information. Do not call our doctors and ask for an appointment without getting our consent. Some of us struggle to find good doctors and therapists. It takes a while to build trust. If we feel the trust could possibly be breached, we may stop wanting to go to that particular therapist or doctor. Make sure we are comfortable with it first. Those of us who trust you will not hesitate but if you’ve made too many empty promises or violated our trust too many times, do not grudge us for wanting to protect ourselves. If we hesitate, do not taunt or vilify us for it. Allow us to think it through and respect our decision. Find your own therapist. If we can do it, why can’t you?

Do not judge us for our choice in medication or wanting to manage without them. Some may not want to risk an early death because of liver failure due to taking medications long term. They may want to learn to cope without medications. Do not bully them into taking them unless they want to.

Similarly, do not judge us if we do take medications or pontificate about which ones to take or not. Do not tell us how to feel about the medications we take. We get to decide. You cannot understand the side effects our bodies are enduring. Sometimes the side effects are distressing and horrific such as temporary blindness, perpetual nausea, drowsiness etc. Don’t tell us what to eat, how much to sleep etc. We get to decide because we have to learn to cope. Do not give us your non expert advice and leave that to the doctors.

Do not tell us to explore alternative therapies if we don’t want to. Also, do not impose your coping mechanisms or views on us. Some may take comfort in religion and prayer, some may not. Do not keep telling us prayer will solve our problems. It may comfort us, but it can’t eliminate a disability that has no cure.

Do not obsessively monitor our medications or make judgements on them. Medications are awful, with many side effects. Allow us to choose which ones suit us. Do not tell us which side effects are bearable and which ones we should or shouldn’t endure. We need to learn how to take them ourselves, how to manage on our own just like any other human adults. By monitoring or wanting control, you are creating a dependency which also have negative long term repercussions. One day you won’t be around and we’ll have to cope on our own.

Always remember dependency on medications alone is detrimental to our well being. Never forget that the amount of medications we need to take is necessarily related to stress levels. The more stress we have around us, the more medications we need. This is why most of us can only work part time and many of us may need breaks from work. We value our sleep more than others because sleeping well helps us immensely.

Because some of us can’t work full time or work consistently, do not judge us for not making a lot of money. Many of us have already decided that peace of mind is worth more than wealth. If there’s any group that knows money cannot buy happiness, it is us. It can help pay bills etc, but it can’t bring anyone peace of mind. When we’re commodified and told we’re not worth much financially repeatedly, we may end up connecting it to self worth. We value the self esteem it often takes us years to build. Don’t kill it.

Create a relationship of trust which must be mutual. Your bipolar loved one must feel and believe they can trust you blindly. To ensure this, make sure you don’t make promises you can’t keep, don’t create expectations you know you can’t live up to, and don’t betray our trust. If you do, don’t grudge us for not being able to trust you. It’s only natural.

If you have a negative behaviour such as a nasty tone or are loud, and then tell us off for the same behaviour, then realise you are responsible for the resentment we may feel. It feels hurtful and hypocritical. People who live in a loud house are loud. Soft spoken parents have soft spoken children. We all model behaviour based on our loved ones. If you want to see a change, change it in yourself as well.

Do not provoke or bait us when we’re down simply because taking advantage of our vulnerability is not only downright evil, it has severe long term repercussions. Instead of wanting to reach out when upset, we will end up actively avoiding you if we fear you will not provide support. Don’t ever forget we’re very high risk for suicide and sometimes the slightest trigger may create ideation. If we can’t trust you to treat us with compassion, we will not be able to reach out to you. We will feel hopeless and abandoned. Suffering in silence is as suffocating for us as any other person.

If you’ve helped us during a suicide attempt, always remember your reaction impacts if we’ll reach out to you again or not. If you mocked us or ask us the wrong questions such as why, then realise we would rather allow the attempt to succeed instead of asking for help for fear that being kept alive will mean being subjected to the same behaviour. Too many of us have contemplated suicide because we feel we failed you, let you down, made you miserable. Instead of wanting to live for you, we yearned to die for you to end your pain.

Understand this and apply it because if you don’t, one day, you may find someone you love hanging by their fan or wake up to find a corpse in their bed. You will have no one else to blame but yourself, you will have blood on your hands.

Being Bipolar

From the latest edition of Paper magazine

Growing up, I aspired to be rich, successful and famous. I dreamt of becoming a human rights lawyer who would fight all wrongs against humanity and be lauded for it. I also wanted to be a famous novelist, rich enough to own her own island. Like all children of rich, ambitious parents, I equated financial success with happiness. As an adult, I realised how wrong I was. Currently, I’m not working myself into the ground and as a result, am always blissfully broke. Money comes in, money goes out, but slowly it’ll start to trickle in more. Instead of freaking out about not being able to make any savings at the moment, I remind myself daily, how grateful I am that I’m happy. And that’s what matter, that’s what counts.

At the age of 24, I started to take my mental health issues very seriously. I was always a troubled person so when my doctor confirmed for me that years of depression were a misdiagnosis and that I was really bipolar, it all started to make sense. Weird, too intelligent for my own good with an imagination that had a life of its own, I was always living on two planets at once: this world, where I physically belonged but didn’t love, and my own little planet in my head. I hated this vicious, cruel world and aspired to change it. I didn’t belong but I desperately wanted to. I hated this world so much, that the thought of it ending never upset me. The thought of dying and leaving seemed appealing at times. I’ve kept some of the suicide notes I’ve written over the years to remind myself that even when I’ve hit rock bottom, I’ve managed to pull myself up again. They disturb me but they also comfort me and remind me that I’m a survivor and that is something to be proud of.

But I wouldn’t be here, writing this, and sharing my story had it not been for some major life changes and many years of painful therapy. Had I not changed my life, had I not made the effort to overhaul a major part of who I am and taken all the medications, I am convinced I would have been dead. I do not expect you to understand or even comprehend what it is that I go through, but I’m hoping some insight into my condition will help you develop a sense of empathy towards those of us with invisible disabilities.

At the same time as I was being diagnosed and tested for bipolar disorder, I was working at a bank and was downright miserable. I was only working there to please my family who I had a strained relationship with. I desperately wanted my parents to be as proud of me as they were of their “normal” children so even though I was miserable, crying myself to sleep every night and waking up with a sense of dread, I continued. I hated my job and had extreme ethical issues with much of what I was being asked to do and put up with. Other than the work politics, which I later realised was nothing compared to the education industry, being placed in service and treated like an object was dehumanising and made me incredibly angry. Day after day customers got away with abusing me when they were in a bad mood. Aunties got away with grilling me about my love life and marriage plans. Men stood at my desk and stared at me like a sex object. No matter what I wore, no matter how conservative my clothes, I was ogled, glared at, asked out and felt more like a sex worker than a banker. There was nothing I could do. Whenever I attempted to complain, or told my misogynist boss that I wasn’t happy, he told me to suck it up because the customer is always right. I didn’t like him and as a result, when I did something good and was praised for it, it didn’t feel good. It just felt empty.

In order to cope, I started self medicating with alcohol and partied hard to relieve all the stress that had accumulated over the week. Needless to say I did incredibly stupid things that I later regretted and actually had no control over my impulsive need to drink when in the company of drinkers. I only gave up when given a choice: alcohol or mental health. The medications I was taking wouldn’t work if I continued to drink so reluctantly, grudgingly, I stopped. Luckily, they helped control my impulse so I was easily able to say no. I instantly started to feel better. My unquiet mind, with its constantly racing, distressing thoughts, was at peace. I was able to sleep. The ticks in my head didn’t keep me up and the silence allowed me to focus. It was probably the best decision I ever made even though it lost me many friends.

When I stopped drinking and decided I would sort my issues out, I realised what a toxic circle of friends and relatives I had around me. Instead of being supportive, many judged me for not drinking and partying excessively like they would. Indeed they only wanted validation and my refusal to give it to them strained our relationships. Many would get drunk and abuse me, killing off the tiny bit of self-esteem I had built up. They never apologised and eventually, instead of forgiving them for it over and over again, I simply cut them out and decided I didn’t need such people in my life. If people who claim they are friends choose not to support you and deliberately aggravate you, there is either something wrong with them, or they simply are not worth investing in emotionally.

At the same time, I made a major career change. I started teaching, something I never thought I’d do. I had a degree in women’s studies and didn’t think teaching would be a career choice that made me happy. Yet it did. Even though I never loved the environment or politics, I loved teaching. It was immensely rewarding and made me feel good. It also allowed me to be creative and forced me to remain open minded. Through teaching, I could change the world like I had always wanted to. It also inspired me to start blogging and writing on a regular basis.

Because of teaching, blogging and activism, I also met many wonderful people who I am now proud to call friends. The elite bubble I had earlier associated with slipped away into oblivion and there’s no going back. There’s no going back to a culture that I personally find toxic. Most of the elite I know have a sense of entitlement that makes them supremely unsympathetic to the horrific world around them. I have heard them make statements so callous that they have left me wounded. They judge me based on how much money I’m making and most have told me, to my face, that teaching is noble but not enough. They cannot comprehend that the pursuit for money is not something everyone aspires to and they judge those who don’t. They don’t understand any perspectives other than their own, and as a result, I find that culture toxic and intolerant.

Another form of support in my life other than my doctors and family are many other bipolar people around me. I’ve been active on bipolar forums and support groups for many years now and they have served as an incredible form of strength. Therapy, along with medication, is crucial for recovery but doctors can’t always be available, nor is it feasible to rely on just one doctor alone. Support groups are a form of group therapy and we provide each other with a lot of motivation. We keep each other going through the hard days and we all provide support, without judgement, because we can truly understand unlike those who have never experienced severe mood shifts.

I teach critical thinking and believe in constant self-reflection which most people in this country resist. We don’t admit our wrongs. Instead we point fingers and blame others. I honestly feel we suffer from a collective psychosis and if you have mental health issues, this attitude is dangerous. It is dangerous because the process of recovery and learning to cope in this world necessarily requires self reflection and being forced to confront your mistakes. Unless you can do that, you cannot get better. It’s easy to convince ourselves that we aren’t the problem. I know. I’ve been there. But that state of mind, when one is nothing but just a victim, is counterproductive and doesn’t lead to any healing. Instead it only leads to pain, bitterness and anger.

I turn a blind eye to those who judge me for who I am. Years of teaching, writing and part time activism have made me a thick skinned and strong woman who knows her strengths. I’ve also made the effort to study my illness, to understand it, to do what I need to in order to stay functional and happy such as avoiding all triggers. I decline late nights, no matter what, because unlike others, I need a full eight hours of sleep. Those who love me truly understand and do not mind my absence. Without restful sleep, my day is ruined and there’s a danger I will have an episode.

These days I only work part time. I no longer associate with any schools and quite easily gave up a very prestigious teaching position because it was making me miserable. I now work when I can and when I can’t; I do not have to medicate myself into a stupor just to function. I’ve learnt to value and crave stability over financial gain or societal approval. It honestly doesn’t mean much without happiness. Sadly, I still see so many bipolar people stuck in this vicious trap, miserable and in immense pain. As a success story, I’m hoping this inspires them to become pro active and take their life into their own hands. If I can do it, anyone can.

Download PDF: Being bipolar

Paper’s latest issue is available now & also available on ipad.