Learning When a Friend is Bipolar – Dealing With Mental Illness

Dealing with someone who has a mental illness is a challenging experience. Throughout my life I have come across several people with various mental illnesses. My first experience with this was when I was a child. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I knew that my aunt’s behavior was irrational. She was later diagnosed as bipolar.

Here is an excerpt from my book UNHEARD, told from a child’s eyes:

“… something happened to her because she went crazy. Someone said she went to a psychic and never was the same again. I also heard she went crazy after she got beat up by her husband enough times. The worst story that went around about Aunt Nadine was that she was gang raped by a bunch of black men and that she lost a baby that they think was black. I don’t know what happened to her one way or another, but I know I didn’t like it when she wasn’t on her medication. That meant she would get really crazy – like the time we went to the shopping mall, and Aunt Nadine accused people there of stealing the boots out of her closet. Another time she accused Uncle Charlie of stealing her underwear, and Uncle Charlie laughed at her like a hyena, which really set her off. Sometimes she spit at us and started fights and talked to herself while she stomped up and down the hallway back to where the Boogey Man was. I was afraid to sleep in the house with Aunt Nadine there, because I didn’t know if she would try to kill me like the time she said she was going to kill Grandmaw and Grandpaw.”</em>

While sometimes mental illness is immediately noticeable in a person, other times it is not. I met a young woman once that shared some common interests, and we became friends. Although she’d always had some type of drama, it was when she stayed with me for a few days from out of town that I started noticing something wasn’t quite right about her. She seemed normal one minute, and the next she was unexpectedly combative. I didn’t know it at the time, but she told me later that she was bipolar. I learned it was best to keep my distance from her because I did not trust what her behavior might bring.

Sometimes staying with someone for a period of time turns on light bulbs. Years ago, I’d met a wonderful woman that helped me out during a very trying time in my life. I looked up to her – she was spiritual and intelligent and had a lot to offer in friendship. We were separated by moves but frequently kept in touch. The last time Vanessa and I saw each other was an eye opening experience for me and quite different from all of the other times.

When I flew across the country to visit Vanessa, I was exhausted. Instead of being the concerned friend I was used to her being, she talked continuously about herself and insisted that we visit all of her friends that day. Hesitantly, I obliged. During my trip I noticed little things that I hadn’t before. Vanessa said things to me or about me that were inappropriate. Her living and hygiene habits were out of the ordinary – not at all what I remembered her to be when I’d first met her. I also caught Vanessa in several outlandish lies, although I’m not sure if she understood them to be as such. How she presented herself and who she really was were two different people.

During my visit, Vanessa and I took a road trip and stayed in a hotel. So that I didn’t wake her, I quietly got up in the middle of the second night to get my own room because I was unable to sleep with her atrocious snoring. The following morning she was agitated that I had done so. Even though I tried to explain that I hadn’t slept well in three nights and it was important for my well-being to rest, Vanessa’s concern was about herself. It was clear that she was oblivious to everyone around her. Throughout the trip, she continued talking about herself – about all of her ex husbands, her family, her friends – and explaining how each of them had done her wrong. This was the gist of the entire energy-depleting four-day road trip; I surmised that Vanessa was a narcissist.

It wasn’t until I met Vanessa’s adult son that confirmed for me that she had some type of problem. Because I wasn’t sure what was truth and fiction coming from her, Vanessa’s son made it clear that her stories were half lies and the other half was her imagination. It took someone close to her to confirm for me what I’d been questioning over the past few days – but I still didn’t know if Vanessa had a true mental disorder or if she was just a narcissistic liar. After we left from visiting her son, Vanessa continued talking about herself on the long drive to her home. My tired mind could take no more, and although I pretended to be asleep in the passenger’s seat, Vanessa kept talking, this time in other voices. I couldn’t wait to return home; I no longer trusted my safety around her.

At the end of the trip, I thanked my friend for everything, we hugged goodbye, and I flew home. I was very sensitive and aware not to say something that might set her off or offend her. I chalked up her behavior to a learning experience and knew that I would never stay with her again. But the worst of everything with Vanessa happened after I arrived home.

Still physically and mentally exhausted from the trip, I received an email from Vanessa that was the most insulting thing I’d ever read. She accused me of the most outlandish things that no one in their right mind would say, of things that never happened during the trip and of not thanking her, and insulted my intelligence and spirituality. At the end of the email she said that she didn’t want to have any contact with me again, but wished me luck in life. It was completely out of the ordinary. I was extremely hurt and didn’t know where all of this was coming from. I replied to her that I was very appreciative for what she had done for me and, although heartbreaking, that I felt the same way about parting our friendship. I left it at that.

Over a period of about a year, Vanessa continued to send me random emails attacking me, accusing me of yet more outrageous things. I ignored them each time, perplexed by it all and still hurt. By then I knew that it wasn’t about anything that I did to her – that it was her – because I remembered all of those stories she’d told me about all of the people in her past that had done her wrong – and I had become one of the characters in Vanessa’s stories.

After receiving the last out-of-the-blue email, I decided to contact Vanessa’s last ex husband (the only one I’d met) to ask him if there was something mentally wrong with her. He stated that she is bipolar and that she does this to everyone. He apologized that I had to deal with the brunt of her anger because he knew we’d been such close friends. Now it all made sense to me.

Since my experience with Vanessa, whenever I recognize the same traits in other people I take a step back. Because I cannot predict their behavior, I refuse to put myself in a potentially volatile predicament.

I haven’t heard from Vanessa in over a year. I often wonder how she is, but I am also thankful that I am no longer her target of angry rants. At the same time, I am sad that I lost someone whom I considered a great friend to a disease that has no cure.

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