It has taken me a long while to pluck up the courage to write this blog. It’s sensitive, for lots of reasons. It’s about my relationship with a very close friend who happens to have Bipolar disorder.
We have been friends for decades; we have many shared memories, most of them great or good. My friend has a great sense of humour and can make me laugh – proper belly laughs, where I can hardly breathe. We have been on holiday together and once shared a strong social network. Our families were close too. But we haven’t laughed like this in a long time.
Bipolar had already thrown this family some challenges and we have had experiences of both mania and severe depression.
Life can be cruel; a bereavement took my friend into a manic phase. Unlike in the past, they had no one to help to counter-balance some of their more destructive behaviours. At the start of this episode I tried to help but there was no talking to them. They could be mean and did some not so nice things to other friends. A couple of us tried to get mental health services involved but my friend was having none of it and gradually I came to realise that I needed to back off, that nothing I could do was going to change what was happening.
A couple of years went by. I stayed in touch with my friend’s son and offered him support where I could. My friend systematically went about destroying much of their social network. They spent lots of time with people who perhaps were less good for them. Eventually my friend’s son got in touch to ask if I would go see my friend, as things had changed.
My friend has long swings of mood, lasting months, and by now was not taking any medication and was on downward path towards a deep depression. They had moved into a new house and although they had been there for months it looked like they had moved in the day before, with packing boxes everywhere and little that was recognisable as their home. They had lost lots of weight and were not eating properly.
What has followed is the reason for writing this blog: I have been visiting every week now for almost two years. It feels relentless. There is no longer any laughter and the visits can be quite functional where I do a small amount of cleaning or changing the bed. There is no joy in this process at all. It is devoid of most of the things that made this a great relationship. We have had episodes where my friend has told lies to avoid seeing me, where they have sat for long periods and barely spoke. The house still looks barely inhabited and my friend is eating a poor diet and has questionable personal hygiene.
This is not about blame – I know my friend is has a complex mental health condition. Nor is it about looking for plaudits. But it is joyless being a friend in these circumstances. We discovered they hadn’t been taking their medicines recently and we have had to step up the care, working with the mental health team. It’s hard feeling the need to ask your friend if they feel like they might take their own life. It’s a gruelling endurance test of a friendship.
The feeling of hopelessness and lack of joy in what had been a great friendship is difficult and I understand why many people walk away. There is almost a sense of bereavement on my part – I had lost a friend who was important to me. There doesn’t seem to be much online about this, about the challenge of friendship in these types of circumstances but I am sure many people will recognise my descriptions.
So, what to do about this? The most important thing is to make sure that you look after yourself. I am lucky; I have a loving partner, a fulfilling life and cats and hens – they help me to stay resilient. I do what I can, but I don’t feel guilty because I can’t do more. Friends and family of people with long term mental health problems need to understand it’s a marathon not a sprint and be prepared for a difficult journey on some occasions.
But! There is a tiny light at the end of the tunnel; I can see it flickering. Its not very strong yet but I feel optimistic. It’s still hard though, as there are still down days, and there is still a long way to go. I sense we are on the upward curve and am prepared for all the things that it will mean.
If you are close to someone like this, I send you warm wishes of love and strength. It’s a long and arduous journey, as you know, but love and compassion must be at the heart of it. Stay well and look after yourself, it can be a long road.
I say to my friend that we will laugh again soon and I hope it’s the sort of laughter where I can barely breathe and where I snort my cup of tea. That day will be here soon, I hope.