5 Things not to say to a person with bipolar disorder

May is National Mental Health Awareness Month, which is a good and embracing concept. I just wish it were called National Mental Illness Awareness Month, because I find there’s such confusion, misinformation and lack of understanding out there. By putting the focus on illness first, opening up lines of communication, letting others see that the mentally ill don’t have three heads and understanding there’s a wide and diverse spectrum to each diagnosis, perhaps those of us who are saddled with a mental illness have a better chance of feeling healthy.

As someone who has suffered from manic depression (my preferred name for my illness, as it’s a crisp and alive definition of what I experience) since I was a preteen, I’d like to share some of the comments, all said with care and love, that are just plain wrong to say to someone with bipolar disorder.

1. “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”

If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard this, I could have personally financed NIMH research into brain imaging of manic depressives. If it were as simple as that, there’d be nary a bipolar person on earth. Manic depression is a disease. No one would dream of going up to a diabetic, multiple sclerosis or Alzheimer’s patient and saying this.

2. “Have you tried prayer?”

With all due respect to religious readers, you can’t pray the crazy away. (The same way you can’t pray the gay away, but that’s another topic for another post.) Momma and Poppa Leite are devout evangelical Christians and are part of a large and active prayer community. I don’t know what prayer can do, but I’m certain it can’t fix my illness, and (pun intended) Lord knows my parents have tried.

3. “Try vitamins.”

Or supplements, tonics, colon cleanses, sage smudging, reflexology, massage, etc. I’ve tried them all. In most cases the results were at best benign, but in some cases the outcomes were so toxic that I had to get medical help. It’s not that these tactics can’t soothe a crumpled psyche, but they’re not cures. And they should be administered by a qualified, certified professional. Salespeople at GNC don’t count.

4. “Oh, you poor thing. It must be awful to go through that.”

Ugh. We’re not to be pitied. Most of us have found ways of coping, strategies that help us through the darkest depth and the soaring, white-hot highs of our daily lives. And if we haven’t, we will. But pitying us and reminding us of just how hard it can be only does one thing: makes us detest our illness, and in some cases ourselves, even more than we do.

5. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

Considering the galloping rate of suicide in the mentally ill, especially people who suffer from manic depression, who when rising out of the darkness suddenly have the energy to take their lives, few things are as insensitive as this. I’ve thought of suicide innumerable times and even came close to putting a plan in to action. And when I was in the bleak basement of my soul, there was no way I could imagine things getting better or how in the hell this could make me stronger. What I did feel, with all my heart, was that it would eventually kill me.

Of course, this begs the question: What do you say to someone with manic depression? That varies from person to person, but I believe the most important thing you can say is nothing. Just listen. We, along with every crazy, madcap, tangential, horrifying, maddening and illogical bit of our being, need to feel heard and understood. And we need to be heard without judgement. I don’t know one person who suffers from manic depression, or any mental illness, who hasn’t already done a hatchet job on him or herself. If you must say something, I think the most moving and deeply affecting thing to utter is, “What do you need from me?” And whether that’s met with a torrent of words or a simple shrug of the shoulders, trust me, we will feel heard. We will feel seen. We will feel not alone. And, in my experience, that is the first step to feeling well.


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