You may think that building a support network depends only on finding supportive people. The most important lesson I have learned is that we have to keep in mind something very important. It is no less than critical for you to consider what it is like to 'be' the people whom you wish to support you. You have to understand that they simply cannot understand what it is like to have bipolar disorder.

The one of the biggest mistakes I have made was assuming other people knew what it was like to have bipolar disorder. Life without the disorder is nowhere near what we have to deal with. While they may have the same type of emotions we have, they don’t have them anywhere near as intense, nor within the same timeframe that we do. We can go from relatively happy to rage in a split second. We can be depressed one minute and manic the next.

If that is not enough, we can have both a manic episode and depression at the same time, which is called a mixed episode. The toll or effect this takes on our perspective and our person is tremendous. What I am saying is, take your normal, everyday, average person, and give them the intensity of our moods, and cycle them as fast as they do for us, and they would behave the exact same way as you and I do under those internal circumstances.

Therefore it is critical that you inform them of what you are feeling, because they cannot know if you don’t tell them. Once they know what you are feeling and thinking, they can be supportive. While they can imagine how hard it must be to be suicidal, they don’t know until they have been there. Although they may do some research on what we do and what it might be like when we are manic, they cannot feel the intensity of our mania.

Your family and friends love you very much. It causes them great heartache to see you being self-destructive. They wonder why we do the things we do. They wonder how we could possibly think suicide is an appealing option. Most of them are concerned and care about you more than you can know, until someone you love has bipolar disorder when you are high-functioning. High-functioning means you perceive things relatively clearly. I have learned that this disorder is perception based; we have valid feelings and thoughts: it is our perception that is off.

We believe the thoughts and feelings we have are valid thoughts and feelings. We believe our feelings and thoughts are based on a valid perspective. That was my biggest mistake; assuming that what I perceived was accurate, although what I thought and felt were 'normal' and 'valid' based on what I perceived, what I perceived was off by a hundred miles!

I perceived people were out to do me harm when no one was. I perceived there was no hope when there is plenty of hope for me. I perceived that medication was a waste of time when it was just that I was not on the right kind or amount of the right kind. I perceived I was invincible when indeed I was not! I perceived that self-medicating worked, when it really was just clouding the fact that it wasn’t working, and that it was creating more problems than it helped with.

With this in mind, try to explain to those in your support team:

  • How you feel
  • Why you feel the way you do
  • What you think
  • Why you think what you think is true
  • What you want from them
  • What you need from them

They may not understand still, but at least they know how you feel and why you feel that way. Then, ask them:

  • How they feel
  • Why they feel the way they do
  • What they think
  • Why they think the way they do
  • What they want from you
  • What they need from you

This enables them to start to understand you and you to start understanding them in return. When you are discussing the above topics, you are communicating on a deep level and this should enable you to resolve problems with your family, friends, co-workers, and doctors, or other supporters. I had to start being honest with people before I could gain support, and I became honest because it got to the point where I realized I needed help. If we are not completely honest, we will never know that people really know who we are and that they do love us as we are.

Once you get good at communicating this way, you are well on the road to developing a supportive team of people. That is how I became high-functioning, basically explaining what I thought and what or how I felt, and listening to how others thought and felt. Right away I saw the difference and realized my perception was way, way, way off. Then in therapy I learned how to change what I perceived. It took time, but that is how I became high-functioning, by seeing through the bipolar disorder perception.

The way I built a support team for myself was by being honest about what I perceived and thought and felt as a result. This enabled the psychiatrist to know which diagnosis to give me and what medication I needed. It helped my therapist to know how to help me, and my family how to support me, and all of them to better understand my problems and me.

Although I was isolated for decades, it wasn’t until I started being honest about what I perceived, thought and felt that I gained the support of others. The ones who cared to listen and understand are the ones who support me to this day. Because early on I kept my perspective, thoughts and feelings a secret, I had lost all support from everyone I ever loved! I finally got into enough trouble not being honest that I couldn’t get myself back out without help!

It is always considerate to offer something to our supporters in return for their support. What you will do for them depends on two things, 1. Who the person you wish to support you is, and 2. What role they will play in your support team. Most of them will simply want honesty and respect in return. They may want you to take responsibility for your behavior even though you may not 'feel' responsible for it. Whether you did something you believe is beyond your control or not doesn’t matter. We are adults, and adults take responsibility for our behavior by being honest with people about the reason why we did something, (what we felt or thought at the time we did whatever it was.) Being responsible, suffering the results of our behavior, helps us to not make the same mistakes over and over.

Every person can relate to doing things we regret later. That is a part of life, but blaming things, such as your disorder, is not taking responsibility for it. This is critical for developing a team of supporters because although you can say, 'I was manic and did something wrong.' That doesn’t get you off the hook for your behavior. Neither is anger an excuse for inappropriate behavior.

People will respect you and be willing to support you when you say something like: 'Boy I was really manic or depressed when I got angry at you and said the wrong thing. I am sorry. What can we do together to prevent it from happening again?' That is the right way to take responsibility. We need to get a handle on our behavior, even if we didn’t have control, it is our job to get control by being honest with our psychiatrist, and asking for them to adjust our medication if needed. Perhaps it is some error in our perception that caused it which therapy can help us change.

For family members, or other supporters who have abandoned you, it is important to realize they care very much about you. You may feel angry with them at times, but your family and your support team are more important than any other relationships. If you have offended them in the past, it doesn’t help you or them to blame your behavior on having bipolar disorder. What they want to hear is that what you did made you regret what you did when you calmed back down after an episode.

They don’t want to hear, 'Well I couldn’t help it, and you just have to forgive me.' That is not taking responsibility for your behavior. Saying sorry and telling them that you were out of control, but that you are working with your doctor to adjust your medication to manage you moods better, and that you will talk to your therapist to try to find ways that you can prevent it in the future will win back their support, in most cases.

I have bipolar disorder myself, and it may be true that there are some things we cannot help or could not help at the time. If I don’t say 'I’m sorry,' they won’t know that I am sorry. If you put yourself in their position, and they did to you what you did to them, would you want to hear them say 'Well, I couldn’t help it, you should forgive me?' Or would you rather someone says 'Well, although I couldn’t help it, I am sorry I did such and such. Will you forgive me? I am willing to change. What can I do to either fix the problem or make it up to you somehow?'

Something along those lines is what will repair damages done in the past. As one person told me 'There is being sorry, and there is not doing it again.' It is of utmost importance to do our best to not make the same mistake twice. If you do, tell them how it makes you feel, what it makes you feel, what you think you need from them to help you not do it again. And offer to do something to make up for it. That is the best way to ensure you get support from the people you need support from!

Gaining the support you need from your psychiatrist and therapist is a two way street. 1. You need to find a doctor that cares about you and has had some success treating bipolar disorder, and 2. You need to find a doctor 'you' feel comfortable being completely honest with. While they need to be professional, they need you to be as honest as you possibly can be. That is the give and receive rule again. If you are afraid of what your psychiatrist and therapist will think of you if you tell him you have disturbing thoughts like jumping out in front of traffic, or thoughts of harming other people or yourself, they won’t know you need help with that.

If they don’t know, they can’t help you. One of my biggest fears is when I started getting psychotic thoughts. I was afraid to tell my doctors I was having crazy thoughts, thoughts that disturbed me. Once I did tell them, my psychiatrist stressed that it was a medication issue, and to let him know if they didn’t go away with medication. My psychiatrist increased one of my medications, and the thoughts went away. Medication is the first approach to take, talking these things through is sometimes necessary, sometimes both are.

Another area we may be afraid to talk to our doctors about is our sexuality. Bipolar disorder tends to include having sexual problems of all sorts. While it may be, and sometimes will be embarrassing to talk about them, it is vital to getting help with these problems. Sometimes the way to solve the problem is medication, other times it is talk therapy, and again, sometimes both. I highly suggest you talk to your doctors about these problems. Since they are doctors, they deal with these problems all the time. You are not an exception to the rule, though you may feel you are; you are not alone. Most everyone with bipolar disorder has had problems with sexuality.

Tell your doctor the same things as with your other supporters:

  • How you feel
  • Why you feel the way you do
  • What you think
  • Why you think what you think
  • What you need from them
  • What you want from them

It is critical to getting diagnosed with whatever problem(s) you may have. Sometimes we have a combination of mental disorders. I have PTSD, bipolar disorder and ADHD. So I am on a lot of medication, but I function well. Better than I ever thought possible. But it boils down to honesty with a doctor. While it may not be the best idea to tell your family 'every little detail', it is critical that you share exactly what is going on with you to your doctor 'in detail'. If we fail to tell a doctor what ails us, they cannot properly diagnose and help us! They can’t put a stethoscope up to your head and hear what you’re thinking.

I found the right doctors by calling my insurance company and getting a list of several of the providers covered by my insurance company, and by interviewing them while they were interviewing me. They ask us a bunch of questions in our first visit, it is imperative that we make a list of questions for them, such as:

  • Can I call you 24 hrs a day to leave a message or page you in an emergency?
  • Do you have an answering service that you can be reached if I need admission into a hospital in the middle of the night?
  • How long does it take you to call me back if I leave a message for you on your machine, or with your secretary?
  • How do you treat bipolar disorder, what is your approach?
  • How many people have you successfully treated that have bipolar disorder?
  • What do you expect from me?
  • What can I expect from you?
  • Do you visit me if I am in the hospital or do I see a different doctor in the hospital?
  • What time frame do you see people in, can I have evening appointments (if you work).
  • Any other questions that pertain to you specifically.

These questions are but a start. But they are the ones they need to answer to your satisfaction. For example, if a doctor says, 'Yes, I treat bipolar disorder all the time, I know exactly how to treat you.' you need to be careful because no one knows exactly how to treat bipolar disorder. The correct medication and dosages depends on each individual’s body chemistry. So that should send up a red flag, and I wouldn’t trust them. He or she should say, 'I have treated _X_ number of people with bipolar disorder, and the correct treatment depends on your cooperation with me, your honesty, and taking your medication properly.' something along those lines.

If they say they cannot be reached at any time, I probably would try to find another one that can. We never know what to expect with bipolar disorder, so it is best to have a doctor whom you can at least leave a message that you are checking into a hospital or if you are having problems with a new medication at any time. If you can only find a doctor that meets most of your expectations, go with the one who meets most of them. We may not find a doctor who can call us back in a short amount of time for example, but does everything else right. My doctor calls me within 24-48 hrs after I leave a message on his machine.

And about hospital stays, if you can, try to find a hospital with a good reputation 'BEFORE' the crisis hits and you need to check in. While some are very good, some are very bad. And you sure don’t need to check into somewhere without knowing anything about it. Once you check in, you often can’t just discharge yourself right away. So be prepared by doing some research now before you get in a crisis. That way you can know where to go in a crisis. Have a plan, in other words.

My primary supporters are my parents. Although I am 42, they have been good to me. I talk to them almost every day. Just to check in with someone. If you don’t have parents, perhaps a sister or brother can be your main support line. But we all need someone to talk to, almost daily, to check in with them and so they can keep an eye on us, and our condition. If I start getting squirrelly, they are the first ones to notice.

If I start spending all my money, they can tell me I am spending too much money too fast. Basically our main supporters, whether they are an aunt, uncle, grandparent, parent, sibling or cousin, or neighbor for that matter, as long as you have someone you can check in with on a fairly regular basis, is what is important. They need to have the phone number of your therapist, and your psychiatrist so they can let them know if you are acting out of character. They also need to have a list of the medications you are taking, in case you stop taking them and get in trouble. Often others can see us backsliding before we can, and they can either tell us, and/or the doctors to get us the help we need.

People who have no support may not have it because they have alienated themselves from all the people who could be supportive. If you are isolating, it is very important that you tell your psychiatrist and therapist that you have been doing this. Everyone needs people in their lives. Without others, life gets depressing, lonely, and we become fearful. Perhaps you could go to a local psychiatric hospital to ask if they have any support groups going on, or ask your psychiatrist if you need to do an out-patient hospitalization to get some contacts and support.

Twelve-step groups are another excellent source of support. Although they have many different kinds of support groups in larger cities, smaller towns may not. It is a good idea to call your local United Way hotline. You can find their number in the phone book, or by calling 411. Ask them what support groups are in your area. If you can, try volunteering somewhere to meet happy, healthy, supportive people. Usually everyone who is a volunteer is nice, non-judgmental and supportive.

I started gaining help from supportive people basically by being honest with them. Anyone who doesn’t know you have bipolar disorder will not know that you need support. Sometimes asking for help is the hardest thing to do. We may feel that this is a sign of weakness. If it is a sign of weakness, then why does it take so much strength to do it? Asking for help takes strength, and courage. We may be afraid that we will be rejected and misunderstood. While this can happen, not asking is a form of assuming. Assuming things got me in a LOT of trouble, and kept me isolated because I was too afraid to ask for help, so, I never did get help, or diagnosed until I did start asking for help and became honest with my psychiatrists, parents, psychologists and friends.

I know of no one with bipolar disorder who can survive very long without a support team. The depression will more than likely take over and may consume us. Even people who do not have a bipolar disorder do not thrive without support from someone, or many people in their lives. We are social beings. We all need people. As one song said 'People Need People!' No one is exempt. I could not possibly be high-functioning without medication, therapy, a supportive family, friends, a twelve-step group, and more. Friends make life worth living.

Medication makes life possible to tolerate. As I said earlier, bipolar disorder is a perception-based disorder. While our thoughts and feelings are valid based on what we perceive, what we perceive is way, way off base. It takes medication, talking and sharing with other people and listening to their point of view, or perspective to be able to know ours is off base. I don’t think it is possible for anyone with bipolar disorder, or without this disorder to survive without support. I know it is impossible for me!

So if you have burned all your bridges, cut yourself off from all support, I strongly recommend you swallow your pride, or kick it aside and ask for help. Be humble, apologize, and ask what you can do to repair the damage. Ask what they expect of you for them to start to trust you again. It is hard to start with, but with the right medications, right therapy, and support from people who love you, before you know it, your life is worth living, and you will even wonder how you could have ever even considered ending you life, how you thought there was no hope. There is plenty of hope for us. There are many high-functioning people with bipolar disorder and you can be one too!