What not to ask… a letter to my non-bipolar friends

    When friends know you are sick, it’s natural that they should want to help. I am very pleased to say that I have never found bipolar an exception to that rule. I know, and I’m sorry, that some people do find their friends melt away after a mental health diagnosis; all I can say is that, thankfully, I have not found that to be an issue. So I thank you for being here for me, whether I know you online or in person. I thank you for listening to me over hot chocolate, for reading my tweets, for commenting on my blog, or for texting me because you’re wondering how I’m doing. I like it when you ask me how my week has been and really want to know. It’s great when you remember when I’ve had a medical appointment and ask me how it went. And I love it when you celebrate my little victories, from a good night’s sleep, to less frequent appointments with the psychiatrist.

And yet there are a few things I wish you wouldn’t ask. It’s not really about you; it’s about the questions that I hear over and over again, and which I honestly don’t know how to answer. I’ve tried, many times, to answer honestly, but they reveal where the gaps are greatest between the non-bipolar and the bipolar experience. Sometimes I get annoyed when you ask them. Understandably, you then get upset; you were just trying to help. Let me share with you what goes on for me whenever someone asks…


1) “But why?” Sometimes when my mood state has recently shifted, I don’t like to mention it to you. I know you mean well when you ask me how I am, but disclosing a switch in polarity or a move from elation to irritability sets me up to be asked why. If you have no personal experience of mental health difficulties, or tend to get clinically depressed in response to a clear trigger, I can see why you’d find it hard to understand a mood state with no obvious cause. I know that many people feel low because they have experienced a bereavement, a redundancy, a relationship breakup or other loss. Elation too can be part of the normal human experience. It’s natural to feel over the moon if you receive good news; the longed-for pregnancy, the prestigious job offer, the exciting new relationship are things that give most people an emotional buzz.

But it’s not like that for me, or for many of us with mood disorders. Sometimes I can pinpoint triggers that bear some resemblance to my mood state. But in most cases, if there’s “cause”, I’m not aware of it. That can be hard for you to accept. It doesn’t connect with your personal experience, so you think I’m not being honest. You hope that if you dig just a little deeper, I will admit to something that’s troubling or exciting me, so that you can understand why. But when there’s really nothing there, looking for reasons just makes me feel guilty. I start to feel that I should feel happy when I’m actually depressed; that’s it’s not OK for me to be anxious, because there’s no reason for it. Sometimes, a mood is just a mood, and I’d love it if you could trust me on that.

2) I hate what those drugs are doing to you. Have you thought of trying natural remedies instead? I can see why you’re asking this. Yes, they are really strong, and they do have nasty side effects.I understand that you, or someone dear to you, may have had a bad experience on psychotropic meds. I’m actually not that keen on Big Pharma myself, and worry about the over-prescription of drugs in the place of scarce talk therapies.

The thing is, sometimes anything less than drug therapy isn’t going to cut it. I used tea tree oil on my son only the other day when he had an infected toe. But if it doesn’t clear up, we’ll be getting oral antibiotics. And if for some reason (God forbid) the infection became systemic, I wouldn’t think twice about having him admitted for IV antibiotics. I’m all for treating things yourself, using self-help and possibly natural remedies, when things are mild. I don’t set out to cost the NHS who knows how much of its drug budget. But bipolar in all its forms is serious, and I’ve been in a particularly long and acute episode, even by my psychiatrist’s reckoning. I’ve been way beyond treating myself for decades now. So yes, I’ve considered taking fish oils, or St John’s wort, or cutting out sugar and alcohol. But to a certain extent, my drugs work. They’re incredibly blunt instruments; they reduce the functioning of my digestive system and make me so dopey I’m not allowed to drive. But they are making me sleep well for the first time in over two years, and they also help my mind to be less busy. And I don’t believe there is any food or complementary therapy that can do that. So thanks, but I’m not about to swap my lithium for walnuts at the moment.

3) But what does it feel like? In a way, I’m glad you ask. I’m glad you’re not like the friend who “explained” to me that people with bipolar don’t feel emotions any differently to the rest of the population (presumably this means that I am just a “poor coper”, unable to weather life’s normal ups and downs). So I’m happy that you recognise that someone only gets a bipolar diagnosis if they feel emotions much more strongly, and for longer periods, that most people. I just don’t know how to answer you. What is it should I describe? People tend to be particularly interested in elated (hypo)mania, and that’s possibly the easiest to describe. But it’s not just about depression or elation. I know the name makes it seem that way, but there’s whole lot more. I’m sure when you asked the question you didn’t want me to go onto irritable hypomania, anxious hypomania or mixed mood states, and that’s a good thing, because I really don’t want to relieve how it feels to be out on control and the mercy of negative emotions while I’m just having coffee, or at a party or tweet-up. So please don’t think I’m being rude when instead of answering, I pass you a business card and suggest you check out my blog.

4) Are you sure you’re not a bit high? Of all the dreaded questions, this is the most annoying. Remember being a kid, and your parents responding to some behaviour on your part by asking, “Are you tired?” Remember how if you said, ”No! I’m not tired!” that was taken as proof that you were? Can you call to mind just how frustrating it was to be told your feelings weren’t your feelings, that they were down to some other cause?

That’s how it can be to have bipolar. As soon as you show any sign of being happy, someone asks you, “Is that a sign you’re going high?” There are only two possible ways I can respond to this question: irritation; and irritation. Because if I am actually getting high, the last thing I want you doing is bursting my hypomanic bubble by asking me if my elation is pathological. Yeah, maybe it is, and do you know what? If I really am hypomanic, I DON’T CARE, and I don’t want to be dragged away from what I’m feeling.

If I tell you I’m feeling good and I’m genuinely not hypomanic, I’ll still feel irritated by this question. It’s incredibly dispiriting if you ask me if I’m high. I know you’re worried for me. But whenever I’m finally feeling well – not fast, not elated, not over-enthusiastic, not BRILLIANT! or FANTASTIC!, but well – I’m proud of that fact. If you question that wellness and ask if it’s symptomatic, you knock the relief and pride that I am feeling out of me. I start to wonder, why bother? Why share my delight in being stable, if delight is going to be viewed as pathological? It’s dispiriting. And it’s…irritating.

Of course, there are times when you genuinely worry for my mental health. But there are ways and ways of expressing that. I would rather hear, “You seem to be getting a lot of things done, are you feeling productive in a good way?” than, “Is all that rushing around a symptom of going high?” “I’m concerned you don’t seem to be getting much sleep, do you think that’s becoming a problem?” is better than, “Uh-oh, are you hypomanic?” Focus on the possibly worrying behaviour you’ve noticed – but try not to suggest your interpretation. I rarely have a problem with self-awareness. If I think I am going high, I will already know, and I will happily tell you. If I’m well, please don’t take the joy out of that by labelling it a “bipolar high.”

I know I sometimes seem irrational in response to these questions. I hope I’ve bridged the gap a little between my experience and yours. I’m not really that irrational. I just think like a bipolar.


About purplepersuasion

40 something service user, activist, writer and mother living with bipolar disorder. Proud winner of the Mark Hanson Prize for Digital Media at the Mind Media Awards #VMGMindAwards 2013. Winner of the World in Mentalists Mood Disorder blog 2012. Regular guest blogger for the International Bipolar Foundation http://www.internationalbipolarfoundation.org/ Expert by Experience working with Mind training department. Working on The Incoming Tide, a bipolar memoir. Find me on Twitter @BipolarBlogger or at my Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/BipolarBlogger
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19 Responses to What not to ask… a letter to my non-bipolar friends

  1. Kat says:


  2. tomsprints says:

    Thank you for writing and sharing this. I’m thankful “only” to suffer bouts of severe depression myself, and not to have a bipolar disorder, but I too can relate this to my own experience of people’s questions.

    “Is there anything I can do for you?” “Wonder what set that off?” “You have taken your pills, haven’t you?” “Will it help to talk about how you feel?” All well-meaning and common. Innocent questions, of course. I was even asked whether I was “envious of those with bipolar?”. I asked why? “Because they get the ups as well as the downs. You just get the downs”.

    Hang on in there!


  3. Helen Pengelly says:

    You are so right about the first one especially! There is a total difference between feeling a bit depressed & being clinically depressed.Until I was put on sodium valproate I used to have a 2 year cycle of a few months of lovely mania followed by the same of miserable total awful depression,then a long sort of in between phase.I used to think it was triggered by the run up to Christmas as I had to work my socks off & loved it but then I was diagnosed & it all became crystal clear.

  4. JuliesMum says:

    You can always spot someone who has had their own brush with mental illness – they don’t ask the why question. Everyone else does, it seems to be instinctive. And it’s impossible to answer.

  5. Hi, I completely understand that “but why” part, I also find it annoying when i’ve had an episode and someone asks what set it off, it could be nothing, it could just happen at once, or it could be set off by something but whichever it is you don’t really want to be psychoanalysed all the time do you? Best wishes

  6. Pingback: What not to ask… a letter to my non-bipolar friends | Mental Health, Politics and LGBT issues | Scoop.it

  7. “Are you getting high?” is maddening (literally!)

    I share your high level of self-awareness, however input from others can cause me to question that self-evaluation. I’ll start to ask myself: “Is there something happening I’m just not aware of here?”

    I’m learning not to ask that question, and to distance myself from people who need to manage my moodstate. The reality is, they’re needing control, which is their issue. I don’t need the aggravation of having to manage their boundaries.

  8. Pingback: Please talk to me, but don’t say…. « An' de walls came tumblin' down

  9. sueperfluous says:

    My latest “what not to ask” question: Are you happy? (Said with great stress on the word happy)

  10. Jeni says:

    First of all, thank you so much for putting yourself out there the way that you do! I’ve been reading through some of your posts and I think you should know that you make me feel less alone. I was diagnosed BP1 about 5 years ago after a pretty sweet psychotic break. I have yet to find someone to talk with that would truly get what I go through. I can talk to my husband, he definitely knows what I go through, but even he doesn’t have the perspective to really know how it feels. Reading your blog reaffirms what I so often find myself doubting. BIPOLAR IS REAL!!! And I am not just a pathetic looser that can’t seem to keep her shit together! How else could you explain so many of us having such similar feelings and experiences? For example; I am so with you on your post about questions that irritate the he’ll out of us. Sometimes I feel like I have to monitor myself around friends and family when I’m just genuinely happy just because I know what they’re thinking.
    They are wondering which pole I’m headed for… “Is she going to strip off all her clothes and start dancing on the crazy pole of mania?”or when I’m genuinely bummed about something… “Is she sliding down the slippery pole of depression again? Probably to disappear from site for God knows how long.” Another real favorite of mine is “Everyone’s bipolar in some sense!” Oh come on you suckas! I find that good ole sarcasm is the best way to handle this one. “You’re just jealous that you can’t work that manic stripper pole the way that I just did! We may be bipolar. We may seem crazy at times… we may even seem satanic at times… but CHARISMA??OH YA BABY WE GOT IT!!”

    • Hi Jeni, thanks so much for your comment. I relate in that even though I have this body of evidence that I have a serious illness, like a Consultant psychiatrist, and the pills I take, and what my family say – sometimes I STILL wonder if I am making it up! Bizarre but good to know I am not the only one. Best bit about the internet as far as I am concerned is the ability to connect with others with similar experiences 🙂

      C x

  11. My friends and family always ask me the “but why” part all the time. It irritates me. Most of the time, there isn’t a reason. I could wake up refreshed and happy and emotionally crash a few hours later. I’m so glad that someone gets it. Awesome post!

  12. Nicki says:

    I also hate “Have you been taking your meds?” accompanied by a weird squinty look. HATE IT! (I have severe depression and anxiety, but every time I express an emotion doesn’t mean I’m off my meds!)

  13. James says:

    “I’m done trying to convince you”
    That was a line from Spiderman III.
    Why am I quoting a kid’s movie?

    Because people either understand or they don’t.
    And for those who don’t, won’t or can’t understand, I don’t waste a second trying to convince that what I have is real, not something I conveniently invented to make excuses for why I am, the way I am.
    And I got sick of trying to make people understand.

    I applaud at your bravery… telling those close to you that you have a disorder.

    I tried. First person I told was my (ex)wife. I told her 24 hours after I was diagnosed.
    I got the divorce papers, 72 hours after that.

    I’ve seen the terrified look on my friend’s eyes.
    I’ve seen layers of egg shells I’ve created for them, which weren’t there when they didn’t know.
    I’ve learned that it’s easier for everyone if they didn’t know.
    And for me too.

    So for now, I’m taking the easier route… and again, I applaud you for taking the harder route.

    And thank you for sharing.


    • Hi James,

      It’s not the harder route, for me. Not at all. I am really so very sorry you have had those experiences, but I can honestly say I have never had anything like that happen. For me, NOT telling, living with the sick anxiety of trying to seem “normal”, to worry that I am going to break down and that my partner/friends/colleagues will find out the truth, is FAR more stressful and miserable than simply TELLING the truth. I literally can’t live with the stress of trying to be something I’m not. And if people don’t like me for who I am, tough. They’re not the people I need around me.

      Maybe I just browbeat them into acceptable by acting like I don’t know why they would have a problem. I don’t know! But it works for me, and this is how intend to proceed for the rest of my life.

      Again, I wish things weren’t so hard for you 😦

      Charlotte x

  14. Gram says:

    You are perfectly articulated about some of the same issues I deal with. Like James above, I avoid telling people. I have a pretty good handle on my bipolar and my swings aren’t incredibly noticeable from the outside (from the inside, I can tell ya, it’s a rollercoaster). I feel like if I tell people it will compromise the normality of our relationship and create trust issues or doubt in my rationality.

    Anyways, just want to thank you for being so open and providing a way for me to read about the feelings that I can’t quite put in to words

  15. “What’s the point of coming home with straight A’s if you can’t cope with the stresses and strains of life?”

    Said “at” me by my sister-in-law, Nov 2005.
    She was talking about her little girl and how they only wished for her to develop “emotional intelligence” and to be happy, and that academic achievement would be a bonus but not the aim. (It turns out: not only is she a spitting image of me, she is also following in my academic footsteps! And she is very sensitive…)

    I was going through yet another difficult, very low time and this flippant-with-intent comment was like being punched in the stomach. I utterly loathed myself for being so weak and incompetent and useless – suffering from “a-copia” I believed – and totally despising myself for it, and for being the way I am; for being me.

    I finally received my formal bipolar diagnosis in March 2014. I am still on the journey of coming to terms with it, but I’m accepting it. Everything is becoming crystal clear and slotting into perspective of “normal for bipolar.”

    Have I told my family of origin? No!
    Am I going to? I don’t think they deserve to know. Or to know the “real” me.
    I’m worth the effort; they are not.

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