Yesterday I had a lovely but utilitarian walk to the post office to get stamps for our Christmas cards. As I walked, I talked to my old college roommate, Colleen, who has been a rock of support to both me and Matt throughout this entire ordeal. I even got to hear a few attempts at words from her 10-month-old son.
We talked about a variety of things, but she spent quite a lot of time asking me how she can support me better. Various people have asked me this, and I always appreciate it, but the truth is that I don’t usually know what to say.
Lately, I’ve been offering people this pamphlet from the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA- a wonderful organization that leads support groups that both Matt and I attend). It has some good advice, to be sure, especially about how to understand symptoms of mania or depression while they’re happening.
But the more general, “how do I help you live with this chronic condition” question is one that sort of evades me.
In the past, I remember feeling uncertain about how to support others through big life events: when they fell ill, or had a family member die, or even when someone gave birth. I knew that they were going through a lot, I wanted to help, but I wasn’t sure what to do.
One of the challenges that always comes along with this is the well-meaning request for the person to “just let me know if there’s anything I can do.” The offer is so appreciated, and yet in the midst of the chaos the last thing I knew how to do was ask for help- especially when I was in the depths of depression and feeling undeserving of love.
So I’m going to outline here some things that my friends and family did to help me, in case it’s helpful for those situations where you want to help someone but aren’t sure how.
The first one is perhaps the most standard one, but offering a meal is always a great place to start- home cooked food and GrubHub gift cards honestly did really help, as thinking about cooking was the last thing Matt wanted to do (and my post-hospital appetite was insatiable).
After my first episode, before I started setting up walk-and-talks myself, my friends were great at setting up a regular schedule of talking to me on the phone- even while I was actively sick, and even when I first got home and my medication had me pretty loopy and out of it. I’m sure it wasn’t easy to make conversation in those circumstances, but the effort that they put into doing so made me feel like a person who still deserved interaction and love.
In addition to talking to me, a group of Matt and my mutual friends made themselves nearly constantly available to him via group chat, and were there to provide him with advice and support about how to handle his emotional needs in the midst of navigating my own.
I was very sentimental during my first episode, so Matt requested that my friends send me little pieces of memorabilia or notes- some of which I appreciated in the moment, some of which I didn’t have the attention span for. But reading them after I recovered meant so much to me: having tangible reminders of the people that loved me and were thinking about me meant so much.
In a similar vein, people sent coloring books and edible arrangements and memory books and picture books for Bailey and flowers and matching mother/daughter outfits. Being able to open these things when I arrived home helped take me back to what was supposed to be a celebratory time with my baby, and encouraged me to engage with her in a way that had become embarrassingly difficult.
The thoughtfulness of the people in my life honestly overwhelmed me and made me feel a little guilty, as I couldn’t remember if I’d ever directed that much love and support at them. But I tried to return the favors where I could.
As I regained my full faculties, I was still appreciative of everything my friends had done, but the embarrassment also set in. I realized just how crazy all the things I’d said and done were, and I started to withdraw from the friends that had helped me so much. My bipolar diagnosis, broadly, and experience with mania/psychosis, specifically, were still front-of-mind for me, but I (wrongly) felt like people had burned out on talking to me about it, and I hesitated to bring it up in conversations with friends.
One thing that ended up being extremely helpful for me was an idea that Matt had, which was actually to hold an AMA (ask-me-anything) with our friends, explaining my diagnosis and what it meant for me long-term. This provided an opportunity to intentionally talk about what had happened and to encourage people to ask me more directly about it. This made me feel like I’d taken control of my own narrative about it, and cleared a space for people to feel comfortable bringing it up even if I didn’t.
All this to say that I am unspeakably grateful for the support system I have, and I know that not everyone is so lucky.
And also to say that if you’re not sure what to do for someone who is going through a crisis, my best recommendation is to think of the ways in which you’d want to be loved when you are at your most vulnerable. Don’t worry about doing the perfect or relevant or research-backed thing- just do the thing that is rooted in love and trust that the right message will come through.
Thanks for reading,
82 miles down, 18 miles to go