How do we keep connected to those around us when we’re struggling with the symptoms of our mental illness? How do we keep our relationships healthy as well as take care of our own individual health? How do I talk about my mental health without making others uncomfortable? How do we make meaningful connections? Is connection to others even important?
A friend of mine asked me some of these questions not long ago. I’ll be honest. I wasn’t sure how to answer. I think feeling understood and making meaningful connections to people is hard, especially in the middle of a mood episode. One of the first things I do when my mood starts to shift is isolate. I feel overwhelmed, irritated, short tempered, paranoid, and often angry. If I’m dealing with racing thoughts, there is often no room in my head for extra communication. I simply don’t have the energy, nor the patience to muddle through social interaction. My brain just goes into shutdown mode when things reach a certain point. Most people in my family or inner social circle know that I have bipolar. However, many have no idea what I struggle with. Because of the paranoia I struggle with I often assume that the person I’m talking to probably thinks I’m crazy and they wish I would just shut up. I often try and hide what is really going on in my head because it’s just easier than trying to explain it. This is a pattern I need to stop. It doesn’t help my family and friends and it doesn’t help me. By remaining quiet I increase stigma and discourage education, understanding, and empathy. Remaining quiet also keeps me feeling isolated and alone. It takes a great deal of open communication and patience to deal with me when I am symptomatic. I am aware that some of my behaviors can be interpreted as being aloof, uncaring and selfish when I’m in depressive episode. I can be over emotional, and impatient. When I’m manic, I can be loud, have a limited filter on my mouth, and in general be inattentive and distracted. I’m sure I would hurt less feelings if I was open and honest about what I am struggling with. I just get so damn sick of talking about what’s going on in my head! But how can I expect others to understand if I don’t communicate? No one is a mind reader. I need to speak up and not be hurt when others try and communicate in return.
As many people with mental illness will attest to, relationships can be hard to maintain. It can be very lonely being us. It takes a lot of hard work, communication and patience to keep relationships healthy and thriving. It also takes a great deal of trust. It’s hard to come to terms with our mental illness. If I share with someone that I’m bipolar and they react negatively it will be hard to build a good relationship. Over the years I’ve built a support network that helps me to get through any challenges I may face. I have a medication team, a talk therapy team, and a mental health support buddy. I have a place to go for support meetings if needed as well. I talk about what I am feeling and/or thinking with not only my counselor, but with my partner too. We try very hard to do mental check ins and discuss some possible coping ques. We’ve made action plans for hospitalization, stressors, etc. We try and make adjustments and have developed many different options for coping. Communication is constant, and sometimes exhausting. However, the alternative is to do nothing and have the relationships most important to me deteriorate. Relationship building is important and having connection to other people is a vital part of our mental health. We need connection.
Right now, it’s a challenge to remain connected to others. The quarantines many of us are in the middle of make seeing other people impossible. Many of us are stuck in the house with children and spouses who are frustrated, sick, and stressed out. Other family members and friends are quarantined away from us and that too can be stressful. It’s now more important than ever to keep in touch and check on the people we love. Feeling connected and understood helps relieve stress. It also lessens anxiety and panic to keep connected to others. It’s important to call family, Facetime, have a group video chat with friends, etc. We need other people. Be honest about your struggles and feelings. Communicate with family and friends in an open manner. If you’re sharing how you feel and they aren’t open and supportive, call a different support member. Find another person to support you on your journey. Negativity helps no one, try and be positive. Misery doesn’t always deserve company. Most counselors are doing video calls to keep appointments. Contact NAMI or your local mental health community for support. If you are in a harmful domestic situation, call someone. We are all under extra stress right now. We are overwhelmed. We feel alone. We are scared. Now is the time to make an effort to check in with our loved ones. Help our elderly neighbors. Donate to community food programs, etc. A small act of kindness could change someone’s day for the better. So, call your parents, video your nieces, nephews, brothers and sisters. Check in on your friends and family. Drop off some toilet paper to the elderly couple across the street. Bake some bread for your neighbor. Be kind. Be safe. Be smart. Hang in there. We will get through this together.
If you want to get more out of the relationships you have, consider these steps:
- Make a list of the people you want to contact regularly. If necessary, add a reminder to your calendar.
- If you cohabitate with others, commit to a certain amount of time together each day or week—without phones, iPads or other distracting contraptions. Make dinner together. Play a board or card game.
- Have a weekly FaceTime or Skype call with those family members and friends that are far away.
- Listen. Repeat what you heard to make sure you understood.
- Ask for specific kinds of help. Even the best of friends can’t read your mind.
- Show how much you respect, support and appreciate your friends and family. You may think positive thoughts but sharing them works wonders. Say “Thank you”, “I love you”, “I’m thinking about you”
- Move out of relationships that make you feel unsafe, lower your self-esteem or draw you into unhealthy habits, like abusing drugs or drinking.
Here are some links to other interpersonal relationship helpers along with some articles on connecting to others. The YouTube talk I posted is also very helpful.
Connecting with others
Tips on How to Help a Person with Mental Illness
5 steps to mental well-being and connecting to others