I’ve just been watching my 10-year old daughter play with our new neighbor, also a 10-year old little girl. Her family just moved in next door a few weeks ago, and my daughter was delighted that the new family included a same-age girl. They’ve been tossing a softball back and forth for twenty minutes now, exchanging casual banter and discussing which of them is more likely to grow up and marry Justin Bieber.
This impromptu playdate brought tears to my eyes, for two reasons. The first is because I am so unbelievably happy to see my daughter making a new friend. The second is because I am worried it won’t last.
My 10-year old daughter is bipolar, or at least is believed to be (since bipolar disorder is extremely hard to diagnose in young children). As a result, her life (and that of her family) is very hard. Too hard for such a young girl, in my opinion.
My baby’s mood disorder makes it nearly impossible for her to maintain friendships. As I watch my two older children decide with whom they want to hang out on any given day, I realize how fortunate they are to have such a large circle of friends from whom to choose. They take for granted their friendships, because they each have so many. But my youngest? Her personality makes it very difficult for her to keep friends. She makes friends very easily – upon meeting her, you see that she is personable and friendly, pretty and sweet. She is compassionate and helpful, thoughtful and well-spoken. She loves American Girl dolls and One Direction. All things other little girls might find attractive in a new friend. But sadly, her friendships do not last. At some point, my daughter becomes jealous of “third parties”, her feelings are easily bruised, and she is possessive with her friends. She also has to be in charge, a trait not popular with the pre-teen group. She is hypersensitive. She becomes bossy and irrational when she doesn’t get her way, and cries easily because she believes that she is always being treated unfairly. Eventually, the friendships end. Nearly every one. My daughter hasn’t been invited to a birthday party in 7 months, and in this neighborhood when there are parties nearly every weekend, that is a true slap in the face for her. She is very, very rarely asked to a friend’s house to play. She eats lunch alone at school most days of the week, and teachers have to assign a partner to her when students are asked to work on a project together because nobody volunteers to work with her.
The worst part? My little girl is fully aware of all of this. And it kills me to know how much it hurts her.
My daughter does a lot of therapy with a fabulous counselor who teaches her skills and tools to deal with her strong emotions. She is trying to teach my baby how to be a good friend, how to maintain friendships and how to control her feelings when she notices things going south. But because the other little girls in her class are vaguely aware of her mental shortcomings, they have very little tolerance for her behavior. They don’t know how to deal with her intense feelings. They treat her as if she’s defective. I notice the same fate occurring with the children in my daughter’s class who suffer from autism or severe ADHD. Ignorance and intolerance toward anyone who is different.
My child has two friends who she plays with, off and on, once or twice a month. Both little girls have been her friends since they were toddlers, and their parents are aware that my daughter can be emotionally unstable, and have explained in their own words that instability to their girls. For that I am thankful, because although those two little girls frequently take “breaks” from playing with my daughter just to avoid tiring of her, they are still her friends. But they are the only two she has, and we purposely limit their exposure to each other in order to preserve the friendship.
And as I watch my daughter play with our new neighbor, who is still largely oblivious to my little girl’s intense emotions, I have begun to think about my own friendships, or lack thereof. And I wonder if my dwindling number of true friendships is a direct result of my bipolar disorder. I started to recognize that I had lost friends last year when my husband and I separated. I wrote about it in a recent post called “Who Gets What”, discussing how many of our mutual friends somehow felt the need to choose between my husband and myself, perhaps not believing that they could maintain friendships with both of us separately. For the most part, our mutual friends chose him. But as I think back to when many of my friendships started to wane, I realize that their demise coincides largely with when I started to “come out” and disclose my mental illness to my acquaintances, a couple of years prior to my separation.
I initially began telling people I am bipolar partially to help explain my occasional erratic behavior and moodiness, and perhaps partially because I needed a little sympathy. Unlike cancer or heart disease, mental illness does not elicit much sympathy. And although I believe bipolar disorder to be more of a curse than many other life-threatening diseases, it is always surprising to me that nobody else seems to agree. At least, nobody who isn’t mentally ill agrees. And even though mental illness indirectly claims as many lives as several “mainstream” diseases on a yearly basis, it doesn’t receive enough attention or the compassion that I believe it deserves.
Like my daughter, I feel as if I make a good first impression. I think that, initially, people like me. And then they learn about my mental illness, and I feel them backing off. The invitations for coffee or neighborhood walks or book clubs taper, and eventually my “new” friendships fade and disappear. Sure, people are friendly at the grocery store and chat with me by the sidelines of kids’ sporting events, but I am rarely invited to “play”. I haven’t been asked to participate in clubs or gatherings by the neighborhood women in many, many months. And before I stepped forward with my disclosure of bipolar disorder, I had something to do and someplace to go a couple of times a week.
So although I can blame some of these lost friendships on my marital devastation, I truly believe that people prefer to leave me alone mostly because they are ignorant and uninformed, intolerant of anything that isn’t “normal”, and unwilling to do the work that is required to be the friend of someone with a mental illness. Because as many of you know, it definitely is a lot of work.
However, like my daughter, I have a couple of friends who are well aware of my situation, and who have continued to love and support me, regardless of my diagnosis. And for them, I am unbelievably, truly, blissfully thankful. They stepped forward when my best friend, my husband, stepped back. Without them, my sweet friends, I would be a lonely disaster. And although I recognize that they, too, might occasionally need to take breaks from me, I know with certainty that they will always be back. They check in on me often, they listen to me cry on their shoulders (sometimes every day for weeks), they offer advice and tolerate my outbursts. They are my true and lifelong friends, and I love them. When I count my blessings, they are among them.
You know who you are, and without you, I would be lost.
Thank you for playing with me.