You just don’t get it, do you?
Of course you don’t. Not unless you’re bipolar. Unless it’s something you’ve lived through, it’s just not something that can be grasped. Much like a man has no clue what it’s like to be pregnant or a child can get what it means to be an adult, it’s something that has to be experienced.
I guess that’s why we have a tendency to stick together.
We seem to find each other, and create ways to connect. Sometimes it’s deliberate. For years I attended a support group for depression and bipolar. It was shortly after my diagnoses and right after my ex-wife and I split up. I was just beginning to learn about my illness, and I found that being around others who had gone through, or were going through similar circumstances helpful and comforting. There were many members who had successfully learned to manage the disease, and that gave me hope. Others were struggling as much as I, and I didn’t feel so alone. And there were those who were in an even worse situation; I was thankful I didn’t have to go through what they were. But it was deeper than that. We could all relate to each other. Talking about manic episodes didn’t shock, and we could nod and say to ourselves; yep…been there, done that. There was no sympathy for a depression, it was empathy. Even though everyone’s illness was unique and we all had different thresholds and coping mechanisms, we had one thing in common.
We all were suffering from mental illness.
One place where this was extremely evident was in hospitals. We were all in some form of acute stage. And the patients were in various stages of recovery; recently admitted, about to be released or in various stages in between. Every time I’ve been hospitalized (and there have been a lot of them) it’s been the same. We develop our own little community. Some of it is by design. When you have that many people in crisis crammed together in such limited space, there has to be some kind of order to the chaos. So there were rules pertaining to how to get along. There were mandatory morning meetings that put structure to the day and outlined the general treatment regimen. We even elected officers who were responsible for running the meetings or keeping order. It was a way to keep us all under control.
But it went beyond that.
Friendships were developed, and at the time they were true and real. Even in such a diverse mix of personalities there were a lot of similarities and compatibilities. Connections were made like to like. Affluent, comfortable, poor – rural, metropolitan or suburb – even different diagnoses would clump us together into our own little cliques. However, this created tension too; there were a lot of differences, and groups became competitive and judgmental. Plots were developed and conspiracies created to put others down or inflict problems. Accusations were made to the staff about some infraction or other. There was even sabotage; sneaking into someone else’s room and taking things that didn’t belong to them, or damaging items that were important.
But, by and large we took care of each other.
I remember one time where a gentleman was brought in sometime during the night that was very belligerent and angry. He didn’t think he should be there and resisted the whole inbound process. His estranged wife had him committed after he came to her house screaming and yelling, and attached her car; breaking out windows and pounding dents into the body with his bare hands. He was clearly out of control. But in his state of mind he was justified, and extremely pissed off that she had done this to him. They finally got him calmed down enough through reassurance and medication, and everyone went back to sleep. The next morning, he was confused and belligerent, and not even sure where he was. A group gathered around him, first listening to his story, then by talking him through what he could expect while he was there. We explained to him that he was going to have to be inpatient for at least 48 hours (a minimum for a domestic charge) and that the sooner he got with the program the sooner he could get out. It was supportive and caring from people who could truly empathize, and explain things from the same point of view as his. It was only four days before he get his act together and was released.
Often, more serious relationships develop. It is inevitable I suppose. We are together 24 hours a day with very little to do except talk to each other. It’s a very vulnerable time and I think we crave that intimacy.
It’s where I met my second wife.
Back in the 80’s hospitalizations were different. It wasn’t unusual to remain inpatient for 45 days or more, and it gave plenty of time for relationships to develop. The current length of time is now an average of six days, and it’s less likely that such a strong connection can be made. But when you have a month or more of those constant interactions allow strong attachment evolve.
These relationships and cliques are distraction as well. Being hospitalized can be intense, and it’s easy to shift focus from yourself to someone else. Instead of facing the demons that put you in such distress that energy is spent on either helping, or hating, or even infatuation with others. It is much less painful that way, even if it doesn’t really do much to resolve the real issues.
So what’s the point of all this?
No matter who we are or where we came from, I think we all want to be understood and accepted. Sometimes it’s easy to relate to each other. Even though being raised in the North or South might be different, the home life could be very similar, even if culturally different. Having grown up with an alcoholic parent might not be as easy to relate to, and it’s not uncommon for that person to end up with an alcoholic of their own for a mate. So in that regard, being bipolar isn’t all that different when it comes to being related to. But it still creates an environment where we look for others who get it, and who know what it’s like to live with this disease. There is comfort in numbers, and congregating together gives us each a sense of belonging and support. It’s good to know that you’re not alone. In many ways, it’s our own little world.
And only we can belong.