The other day, I sat at lunch across the table from one of my very best friends. She and I have been friends since just after college and we have, up until recently, always been close. For the past few years, however, there has been a strain on our friendship. It was never anything that caused full-blown fights, but there was something going on that I couldn’t quite pinpoint.
Her behavior felt manic, she seemed to only want to spend small limited amounts of time together, and her drinking had gotten out of hand. I didn’t know how to address these changes in behavior, so I didn’t. But I found myself wanting to spend less and less time with her, despite our longstanding and very close friendship. I worried about the effect of her erratic behavior on her children. If I was noticing something wasn't right, her kids had to be feeling the same.
About this time last year, she bottomed out and ended up spending a number of weeks in rehab for alcohol. Amongst her friends, there was a sense of relief. Her drinking had become an unspoken issue. No one wanted to betray our good friend, but none of us could continue to endure nights spent picking her up off the floor after she drank too much and could barely stand up straight. So when she went to rehab, everyone in the group breathed a sigh of relief. “Oh good,” we all thought. “She’s taking care of her issues.”
Her kids were depending on her and that was even greater cause to take care of her illness.
But post-rehab, she seemed to be suffering. None in the group were naïve to the difficulties and the enduring battle that is dealing with alcohol-related issues, but there seemed to be something else happening to our friend. She seemed almost worse off without alcohol. And sadly, she was even harder to be around. We all feared a relapse and were sure her erratic and strange behavior was indicative of excessive drinking, or something worse.
As I sat across from her at lunch, I asked how she was doing. She didn’t say anything for what seemed like an eternity, and then, with tears in her eyes, she made a confession.
“I’m bipolar,” she said. “I just got diagnosed.”
She then went on to explain how a doctor had helped her see that she had been a lifelong abuser of alcohol as a way to silence the manic pulse of energy that was part of her disorder.
“I felt overcome when I was in rehab,” she said. “It was like there was a lightening bolt inside my body.”
Without alcohol to mask her symptoms, her mania had reached a fever pitch. She felt like she was going crazy. Not drinking was a good thing, so why did she feel so bad?
After some visits with a seasoned psychiatrist, her diagnosis became apparent. Bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, is marked by a chemical imbalance in the brain that causes extreme highs and extreme lows. The manic periods can mean one is unusually productive, has rapid speech and has an unrelenting restlessness that can make it hard to sleep or eat. The depressed periods can make one uncontrollably emotional, unable to focus and complete tasks, exhausted and lack the desire to do things that once were pleasing. Many who suffer from bipolar disorder abuse drugs and alcohol, as my friend did.
The diagnosis meant a long battle ahead. But as I sat across from her, I felt a sense of relief on her behalf. Here she had spent her entire life wondering why she couldn’t get it together and why she drank so much. When I heard her explanation of how a bipolar disorder works, I understood why and so did she. I felt happy for her that she no longer had to wonder if her issues were her fault.
As heartbreaking as it was to find out she was bipolar, there had to be a certain relief in being able to name her disease and deal with it. She no longer had to question her own resolve and discipline. And her kids no longer had to wonder what was going on with Mom. She understood what was going on inside her brain and so could they. And because she was a mom, she knew that managing her symptoms and her medication was top priority. Her kids were depending on her and that was even greater cause to take care of her illness.
Dealing with a bipolar diagnosis is not easy. Her road to recovery will be a lifelong battle that will require expert doctors and a constant balance of the right medications and therapies. But she’ll no longer have to wonder if she’s weak and she’ll no longer think she’s someone who can’t get her shit together. Now she’s got a plan and experts in her corner, which is one giant step toward recovery. What a relief!