Part of the point is, it's possible to be bipolar and not know it.
When I started dating her in the mid-1990s, I knew she was getting treatment for some physical issues. Early in our dating, I'd often walk with her to the Student Health Center on our college campus, for her appointments. She was working on other issues; I don't need to list them all, which more or less added up to "she has issues, and she has reasons for them, and it's best to be gentle with her." I would be good at that sometimes, bad at that other times. The last few months of our being a couple, in the spring and summer of 1997, were difficult; this period included what was likely the most stressful day of my life up until then -- I had trouble breathing, purely from relationship-related stress -- and then she and I had a phone conversation that is still one of the worst phone calls I've ever had. We were no longer a couple after that.
We moved on. I did so literally, moving to Hermiston, Oregon for a job. She continued to deal with her issues, and get treatment. It was after the break-up that the big issue, rumbling underneath the other issues like a fault line, was finally, finally, diagnosed properly: she had bipolar disorder.
She knew this by the time we got regularly back in contact in 1999, this time as friends. And finally knowing that, many things came into stronger focus for me.
Her treatment got better. Her treatment remains better. She also knows that her case of bipolar is not as powerful as it can be: at her lowest moments she wants to curl up and sleep, not self-harm. And we treat each other better now -- we just relate better as friends than as a couple -- so at times when I felt that she seemed a little "spun up," which can leave empathetic me feeling more "spun up" as well, I could remind myself that some of the manic was leaking through the effects of her treatment. (And I could also think Get over yourself. Do you really want her to feel depressed when she sees you?)
So I wonder: What if we'd known she was bipolar while we were dating? Would that knowledge have helped me be more patient with her, more "there" for her? Would the knowledge have helped us work better as a couple? Would we have ended our relationship earlier? How would knowing that have affected things? But both of us would rather have known, so that we could do Something about it. Which she did, once she knew.
It needs to be known. Catherine Zeta-Jones went public with her diagnosis as bipolar, after she and those in her more immediate circle learned that and started to deal with that. She has supporters around her.
If you're not bipolar, you might know someone who is. Maybe you're not clear on that. Maybe even the person you know who is bipolar isn't clear on that, either: they just know something is "off," sometimes hugely "off." It's a struggle. People can make that struggle easier, they can pick up some of the load, but they have to be willing to pick it up. And, before that, they need to know that the struggle is there, that it's happening.
Because, ultimately, generally, all-encompassingly, it's better to be there and supportive of people than not to be. Deal with it. The person who's depressed is dealing with more.
This is written as a reminder to myself as well as a reminder to others. I've dropped the ball before on this. I've been a non-supportive hindrance to others. I've been over-wrapped up in my own issues many times before.
Can we lighten the load? Can I?
Take care of yourselves, and others, when you can.