“Through thick and through thin”: what I learned (too late) from my friend’s bipolar diagnosis

Broken heartWritten by Anonymous

My first encounter with mental illness came during my junior year of high school, when my best friend – seemingly out of the blue – experienced a manic episode that bought her a two-month stay on the adolescent unit at the local psychiatric hospital. It was 1988. The first time I visited her in the hospital, my friend told me matter-of-factly she had been diagnosed with “manic depression” (now known as bipolar disorder). She informed me that Ernest Hemingway and, most likely, Vincent Van Gogh, had suffered from the same disorder. Considering everything they’d accomplished in life, I figured it couldn’t be all that bad.

I visited her as often as I could during those two months, and when she came back to school I resolved to stick by her, “through thick and through thin”, as if nothing had ever happened. The day before her return, a favorite teacher had taken me aside and attempted to warn me that it wouldn’t all be smooth sailing, but I’d chosen to disregard that warning. After all, my friend had been in the hospital for two whole months. Surely two months was enough to cure any illness, wasn’t it?

At first, everything was fine. I assured her that I’d never judge her, never think of her any differently. We’d be friends forever, “through thick and through thin”. We picked up right where we’d left off – weekly sleepovers at each others’ houses, gossiping about our classmates, giggling over our adolescent crushes. Just as if nothing was wrong, nothing was different. And things stayed that way for a good, long while.

By senior year, though, things shifted. My friend’s behavior became increasingly volatile and unpredictable. I tried to expand my social circle while still inviting her along to parties and group outings, but these often ended with me feeling embarrassed and struggling to offer an explanation when she lost control of her emotions and created a conflict or made a scene. Then, in the middle of our senior year, I decided I couldn’t take it anymore. Slowly but deliberately, I began to separate myself from her. I started making excuses when she invited me over, I stopped returning her phone calls. I started hanging out more with other friends – girls who’d been our mutual friends before the onset of her illness, but who were now even more put-off by her behavior than I was. Girls who would’ve chosen me over her any day if forced to take sides.

My understanding was so limited then. I didn’t realize her hospitalization was only the beginning of a struggle my friend would be navigating for the rest of her life. I didn’t recognize that during our senior year, she still wasn’t well and that she probably needed my support and friendship more than ever. I told myself that it was her doing, that she’d driven me away by being a bad friend, when the truth was, I was the bad friend.

We didn’t stay in touch after graduation. I couldn’t even tell you where she went to college. When I became active on social media years later, I thought she might surface among “People You May Know” like so many other high school classmates, but she never did. She retreated into the far corners of my memory. Until 25 years later, when I came upon my junior yearbook and saw the entry she’d inscribed:

READ ME NOW + REMEMBER ME LATER

What can I say? We’ve made it through 3 years + only have 1 more to go. I’ve just been looking back over this year and w/o your genuine caring and understanding, I think I would have been very lonely! I will never ever forget the way you’ve stood by me through thick and through thin and the way you didn’t judge me too quickly like everyone else did makes me feel very special. This isn’t coming out gramatically [sic] correct because it’s coming from my gut + thoughts are flying. I don’t know what to say because what you’ve done for me is beyond words…You know I’m sooo proud of you!! Whenever you’ve doubted that you could ever do it, I always knew you could. Boy, I don’t know why this is sooo hard! Just thinking about what we’ve been through cracks me up… You know I’ve only known you for 3 years but it feels like a lifetime… You know – anytime you need to talk or need someone to be there – just let me know – YOU KNOW I LOVE TO ANALYSE DIFFICULT SITUATIONS! YOU’RE PRETTY, SMART & HAS [sic] GOOD TASTE IN FRIENDS + (FUN) YOUR HONESTY IS WHAT I LOVE THE MOST (Don’t let anyone take that away from you) + DECENCY (DON’T FORGET ME!!!!) WELL, IT’S 2:46 AM (YOU’RE SLEEPING & I’M POOPED). NO MATTER HOW FAR WE GROW APART GEOGRAPHICALLY YOU WILL ALWAYS STAY CLOSE TO ME (FOREVER)!!!!

After I read it, I wept. I wept for my friend, for whom I’d turned out not to be remotely there through thick and through thin after all. I wept for myself, because I’d learned the lessons I should have learned decades too late. Like recognizing that even as she wrote that yearbook entry, my friend was most likely manic – or at least hypomanic. She was wide awake at 2:46 a.m. and experiencing flight of ideas morphing into all-caps because those ideas seemed too big to be contained by English-language conventions. And I wept for all the kids out there in the world today, struggling with mental illness and misunderstood, judged and abandoned by the very people who form their tenuous threads to normalcy.

After high school, I completed my undergraduate studies at a top-ranked university, then earned a PhD in clinical psychology from another top-ranked university. I’ve helped hundreds of people through their mental health difficulties and crises. But I can never change the fact that I failed the very first person I ever encountered who was struggling and needed my help.

To all the kids – and adults – out there today who might find yourselves in a similar situation with a friend: Be compassionate. Be understanding. Be forgiving. Cut some slack. Don’t judge too quickly. Don’t label. Don’t abandon. If you don’t understand what’s happening with your friend, find someone who can help you understand. Don’t let my regrets become your regrets.

To my high school friend: I hope things have turned out well for you. I hope that you’ve found ways to manage your illness and live your life. I hope you have good support, and good professional help, when and if you need it. I hope you’ve found real, tried and true friends, the kind of friend I couldn’t manage to be for you. And I hope you know that if I could, I would go back and change everything.

 

Image credit: Romel

 

The author is a clinical psychologist practicing in Chicago, IL who has published on a variety of mental health related topics. The events described in this story are what sparked her interest in pursuing a career in a mental health field. She is sharing this story in the hopes that it will help others who are struggling in their efforts to support a friend or loved one living with mental illness. And encourage those who find themselves in this situation not to face this challenge alone, but to seek out information and support for themselves. In the interest of protecting her friend’s privacy, she wishes to remain anonymous.


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Comments

  • Rachel

    Comment from Facebook that I wanted the author to see…used here with permission…Trish

    Learning can be painful. This story is important in many ways, but not only in regard to the mental health and friendship core. This story speaks to me of self forgiveness. How do we stop the haunting from the times when we were not our best selves? How do we apologize when we can not? I guess this is one way.

    • Paul

      What an important comment from Rachel. “The Haunting.”

      Begs the question: How much forgiveness do we see people offering in the wider world?

      It seems to be in short supply, or on the verge of extinction.

      All the more reason to forgive oneself.

      Paul

  • Mom

    Comment from my Mom she sent me in an email. Used here with permission… Trish

    I read the story and thought how different it was from the others.
    Hopefully it encourages someone to have patience with someone who is going through a mental illness.
    It was just one of those posts that makes you think.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for sharing these comments, Trish. They really capture my two biggest purposes in writing this piece: 1) My own personal reason, finding a way to somehow reconcile regrets of the past in a situation where a face-to-face reconciliation simply isn’t possible, and 2) My “for the greater good” reason, encouraging others to be persistent relationships, even when the going gets tough, and hopefully avoid having those regrets in the first place!

  • Katherine

    Thank you for sharing your story. As someone who has been diagnosed with bipolar, it is refreshing to see the kind of compassion you feel and the impact this girl had on your life.

    I have encountered a lot of people who have reacted both positively and negatively to my mental illness. My biggest struggle is not with the illness itself, but trying to help people understand and treat the next person with more understanding and compassion than they were or could be with me.

    Thank you for giving me a little hope that there is understanding out there for the difficult days and struggles I cannot find words to explain to people.

    • Anonymous

      Thank you so much for taking the time to share your reactions, Katherine, and to share a bit of your own story as well. I agree that coping with others’ perceptions and reactions can sometimes feel more difficult than dealing with symptoms of the illness itself. I definitely learned from my own experiences of being the one who didn’t understand; I am glad that my story could offer some sense of hope.

  • Shannon

    You have captured so much in your article and I want to thank you so much for sharing it with us.

    • Anonymous

      Why thank you, Shannon. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

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