4.3 Editor's Pick
June 2, 2021

What I learned from my Kind, Brilliant & Empathetic Friend—who also Happens to have Bipolar Illness.

Editor’s note: Elephant is not your doctor or hospital. Our lawyers would say, “This website is not designed to, and should not be construed to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion or treatment to you or any other individual, and is not intended as a substitute for medical or professional care and treatment. Always consult a health professional before trying out new home therapies or changing your diet.” But we can’t afford lawyers, and you knew all that. ~ Ed.


I take my friendships seriously, but sometimes I am not ready to hear what they are trying so desperately to teach me.

Timing can be a mysterious teacher, and being in the thick of it, the lesson is not always apparent.

My new friend, James* (not his real name), whom I met in an online writing group during the pandemic, became a friend when we realized we were on a similar spiritual path.

His supportive, intelligent nature had us in lengthy conversations that covered our different yet religious upbringings, to our similar paths with Buddhism, bhakti, shamanism, and, of course, writing. James enjoyed our writing group so much that he created another group for those who wanted to continue outside the online class.

He set us up to engage with our shared muse of Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way, once a week. And while the group was not a spiritual group, the book was clearly spiritual, as noted in its subtitle, “Creativity as a Spiritual Practice.”

The weekly tasks and exercises push the writer to get in touch with their core being beyond the ego-mind, and the impact is deep if the writer is consistent. This is a 12-week commitment filled with multiple writing exercises and tasks to fuel the creativity within.

The pandemic seeped its way into James’ life in ways that were not revealed in a linear way.

It’s hard to know the full nature of someone’s life, especially long-distance, on Zoom and phone, even if they are telling you what’s happening—listening is crucial.

Stress can trigger past trauma, and the stress was building for James with a divorce looming, caring for his mom who had COVID-19, his partner who also had it. A new puppy, working as a volunteer on the suicide prevention hotline, and working through multiple lengthy writing tasks from the book became too much to handle, and sleep deprivation settled in.

The teakettle came to a rapid, rolling boil and needed to run over. He flooded the group with inconsistent messages.

I didn’t understand some thoughts he expressed in the group chat or on the phone when I begged him to get some medication to help him sleep. Speeches about God and archetypes and self-loathing ensued.

The little red flags in my brain were like a toddler pulling on my shirt. “Pay attention to me!”

My ego didn’t want to say, “I don’t understand,” and I knew it wasn’t good. Staying open is something I try to do as an empath and then analyze later.

Some writers became concerned and uncomfortable—but silent. Some nicely asked to remove him from the group chat.

Awkward. Wrong. Heartless.

Truthfully, we were ill-equipped and fearful. Here he was, melting his ego right in front of us, and it was too much.

Although I have my own experience witnessing someone having a psychotic break, I was unsure of how to help from 3,000 miles away, and I knew I could not abandon him.

Silence is powerful and cutting—James did not return to the group that he founded with such an open heart.

The medical term for those with thought disorders is psychosis, or sometimes known as bipolar or schizophrenia. There isn’t one clear definition for any psychosis.

Each person’s experience is individual, which is why it’s difficult to diagnose and often misdiagnosed. It is said that people “lose touch” with reality, which may involve seeing things, hearing voices, or having delusions.

People with psychosis do not want to be fixed or saved.

They want to be witnessed, held, loved, and supported, and respected to make their own decisions. There is a vast range of circumstances for people having a thought disorder.

It can be one, some, or multiple reasons: a genetic chemical imbalance, a trauma resurfacing, and it can be socioeconomically related as well. You can also add the underserved communities and their daily stresses and the political systems that barely support them, and it’s a perfect storm for undiagnosed psychosis to emerge.

My experiences of people with thought disorders are that they are deeply empathic, kind, sensitive, and have a hidden brilliance. Many have creative talent and often can see the big picture in a situation and have a sixth sense of who is safe and who is not.

Interestingly, others with neurodivergent minds, like people with autism or dyslexia, also carry these traits. I believe recovery is possible for people living with psychosis.

Here are six ways to help someone who is symptomatic:

1. Don’t panic or overreact.

2. Listen and be nonjudgemental.

3. Medication, treatment, or diagnosis should not be the focus.

4. Speak slowly and simply.

5. Stay positive.

6. Contact their family or mental health professional.

Healing is possible through a combination of medication, therapy, healthy habits of eating, and exercise.

It is vital for people to have a support network of community and family support. I truly believe that we need to hold people where they are and allow them to be who they are without judgment.

I am so proud to call James my friend, and when we speak, it is authentic and truthful. And that is the crux of life, witnessing another, awareness, and being seen for who we truly are.

Our teachers come to us in all forms and mysterious ways.


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