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Bipolar disorder tends to shatter relationships. We sometimes “burn bridges” with anger, sometimes vanish into holes of despair. It’s hard for friends to stick with people whose patterns are so inconstant. And yet, I have found, it is possible to maintain even long-time friendships when living with bipolar.

Making and keeping friends can be challenging with bipolar disorder. Image by Jess Foami from Pixabay

One of the most painful “symptoms” of bipolar disorder is the trail of broken relationships we tend to leave behind us. When we’re depressed, no one at all matters. When we’re manic, no one but ourself matters.

Lately, I’m working on some large projects and I’ve needed to ask a lot of different people for help. In the process, I’ve discovered — much to my amazement — that a lot of people are willing to help me. Some of them are people I’ve met rather recently; some are people I’ve known since elementary school. (Not that you’d be wondering or anything, but elementary school happened somewhere between a decade and a century ago for me …)

What has made it possible for me, as a person with bipolar, to have friendships that span so many years? Here are some of the skills I’ve learned:

  • I know my cycles and I use them. It’s harder to reach out when you’re down. So I make sure to reach out when I’m in a better place. And goodness knows, I tend to be more fun then anyhow.

    This lesson was a bit hard won, in the way it often is for people with bipolar. When I’m in a “better” place, lots of projects and goals clamor for head space.It’s easy for me to dig into writing or gardening or home repair or extra hours at the office and completely forget people. I need to connect with the people I know even during times when all I think I need is my brain full of ideas and my laptop (and file cabinet and sewing table and work bench) full of projects.
  • Because I know I have cycles, I prepare for them. It’s very easy for a depressive cycle to sideline you for weeks on end. It’s harder to be sidelined when there are places you must go, people who expect to see you. I’ve learned to build my life so it includes regular activities that aren’t very demanding, but do involve other people. For me, these include weekly attendance at a small church where it’s easy to be greeted and known; weekly choir practice; a weekly meeting of my Rotary Club.
  • If can care for my cats, I can care for my friends. I pay attention to my two cats whether I’m down or up. They need food and water every day. Their litter box needs to be cleaned regularly. I have to pay attention to my cats’ needs no matter how I feel. And surprisingly, my cats attend to me no matter how I feel. They climb into my lap for petting and purring, or demand a belly rub.

    Relationships, likewise, need “food” and “water” on a regular basis. In the 21st century, a “like” on Facebook or a text message can maintain a bond when you’re not feeling up to going out.

How I Care for Friendships When I’m Not My Best Self

I owe a lot to friendship guru Shasta Nelson for setting me on a helpful path in my friendships. From her, I learned how to discern among the kinds of friends I have, to name the kinds of friends I want, and to know how to get closer to my friendship goals.

The core concept I learned from Nelson is that friendships fall into one of five main categories. They start out as acquaintances — the folks you say hi to in the hall or on the street. But that’s as far as the relationship goes. Casual, friendly, in passing.

Some acquaintances are more accurately “place-based” friendships. These are people you see regularly because your kids are in the same soccer league or you go to the same church or you work in the same building. But the friendships are linked to the location. You’re friendly when you’re both in that place, but you don’t see each other elsewhere.

To advance these into closer friendships, you need to migrate them into additional settings. You have coffee together, or go for a run, or meet at the mall. As you experience each other in other contexts and share other kinds of conversations, you may grow closer.

The “best friends” we all want are never more than a small number of our total accumulation of friends. These are the folks to whom we can say anything, who are willing to carry us when we’ve fallen.

And somewhere in the middle, there’s a totally different category: the “lifetime” friends. These are people you’ve known so long that even if it’s been a decade since you’ve talked, you feel like you’re sitting down to a conversation you just left off.

For me, a return to my “lifetime” friends was a lifesaver during a difficult transition a few years back. I had yet to make friends in a new setting, and Nelson’s work assured me that making new friends is generally a two-year project.

But I fill the relational gap by reaching out to people I’d known years ago. And some of those friends from high school and junior high and elementary school are now among my “closer” and “best” friends.

Technology as a Friendship Helper

The technologies we have now make friendship a lot easier for me. I’m shy at the best of times, and expect rejection at almost all times. So the transition from telephone to text has been fabulous for me. When we only had land-line telephones, you never knew if someone would be home to answer, if they’d be too busy to chat, or if they were just pretending to be busy because they didn’t want to talk to you. (There’s that expectation of rejection popping up!)

With text messaging, people tend to respond quickly, although briefly. It’s easy to schedule a time to call or meet without ever having to interpret someone’s tone of voice or apparent distractedness.

Have you found tools that help you maintain friendships despite your bipolar disorder? Let us all know in the comments below!