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When a friend backs away from someone with bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder can interfere with friendships.

QUESTION

Hi Irene,

In 2004, I became friends with a co-worker, named Amy. It was exciting to find a friend with whom I had so much in common. We would have lunch together regularly, go out for drinks or dinner after work some nights, go shopping — the usual things friends do.

In late 2008, I noticed Amy didn’t want to have lunch anymore; all invitations for social activities were turned down. It actually took me a while to really understand she was actively avoiding me. I finally spoke with a mutual friend who confirmed that, yes, Amy wanted some “distance” from me.

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in June of 2009. In hindsight, I could see behaviors on my part that were less than desirable. It’s embarrassing and uncomfortable to suddenly have insight into one’s own undesirable behavior, but I have tried to just embrace and forgive that part of myself and to genuinely make amends wherever appropriate. I’m now very stable.

Amy has continued to keep me at a distance. However, she still sends me birthday and holiday cards and gifts, and invites me to group gatherings. Not only am I confused but the loss of her friendship has been incredibly painful. The gifts and cards and group invitations only hurt me because they are a reminder of the very close relationship we once had, although I don’t have any reason to believe Amy is purposefully trying to hurt me by these gestures.

Last fall I finally decided to take the bull by the horns and wrote Amy a long letter explaining and apologizing for the things I had done that might have upset her (I had to guess at what those might have been, as we are no longer talking on an intimate level). I got a “thank you for your letter” response, but nothing more. The few times we have had the opportunity to talk one-on-one, Amy asks me a lot of questions about my life, but does not share with me anything going on in her life, and that makes me feel overly scrutinized.

Is it time for me to end this friendship? I would of course always be cordial and I don’t wish Amy ill at all. Her rejection had been really rough on me. I’m the type of person who prefers a few intimate friendships to a large group of acquaintances, so the loss of a friendship really hits hard. If it is time to lay this friendship to rest, how do I go about doing it? I feel like I am getting mixed signals from Amy and I don’t know how to interpret them.

Signed, Chelsea

ANSWER

Hi Chelsea,

Any time someone is rejected unilaterally, it feels painful. Amy is uncomfortable being close with you but she isn’t openly hostile; she is only comfortable being with you at group gatherings. Her message is clear: She wants to be friends at a distance.

I don’t know whether you disclosed the reasons for your behavior to Amy, which would be your call to make. Either she is distancing herself because she is frightened of your mental disorder or she doesn’t want to be hurt by your behaviors again. While it wasn’t your fault, her trust was probably breeched when you were ill because you said or did things that were inappropriate or out of character.

Some people know little about mental illnesses and, therefore, are unable to show compassion, understanding, or forgiveness. If you want to reveal your mental disorder to her, you could use this opportunity to educate Amy. Given that this is a work situation, you really need think through all the ramifications. Unfortunately, even if you did this, you may not be able to get through to her and resurrect the friendship.

My sense is that you should just accept this friendship for what it is and move forward. It’s great that the symptoms of your disorder ares under control. Stay involved in office activities and with other friends. The likelihood is that you will someday find another friend to fill Amy’s shoes.

Hope this helps.

My best, Irene


 

You may be interested in this article I wrote some time ago: To Tell or Not To Tell

You might also want to glance at several other posts on The Friendship Blog about the impact of bipolar disorder on friendships:

 

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Category: KEEPING FRIENDS

Comments (18)

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  1. Sue Garber says:

    Dear Irene, thank you so much for this particular blog regarding mental illness and the loss of a good friend. I was the friend who was ill and I lost a very dear friend. Some years ago, I made an attempt to reconnect and let my ex- friend see and know that I was okay. Like your responses to others, she was cordial and sounded nice over the phone to me and via emails. But that is exactly what it was, she was just being cordial. I guess I realize now that I have not allowed me to forgive myself and just accept the fact that not everyone can handle it. Now, I can accept both of our imperfections as human beings and move on. Thank you for helping me release myself of guilt.

  2. Pritchard says:

    This has been so helpful. I befriended someone with Bipolar many years ago and have been there for them through many of their traumas. Their latest bout of Mania was particullarly distressing and impacted massively on my family. I feel that I can no longer continue with the friendship as I have had years and years of walking on egg shells. I have been beating myself up over this but some of your replies have made me realise that I do need to look after myself and my family. My friend has made choices in their life to live away from their family (mainly because they dont want to have to help or support any of their family) change their career to a very stressful job against the advice of doctors and friends and stop taking their medication. I do feel very sad and upset for them and sympathise with their condition, but I have no more to give and to pretend that I do and that I am there for them would just be cruel

  3. sepulveda says:

    Please read this entire thread, especially the two posts that Irene moved over here. You have MS, which is affected by stress and your own mental health. You sound like you need a break-a long one-from this friend. It’s not your fault she has no other friends. You have limited time and emotional energy, plus a family to care for and a home of your own. You need to set limits. You may have to “take it” when she goes off on you about being a “hateful person” because YOU know you aren’t, and it says so much more about her dependence on you than you yourself. Please take care of YOURSELF. She has a mother, and likely or not, she has resources she isn’t applying for or using. By allowing her to take advantage of you by not setting boundaries, she’s not going out of her comfort zone and finding/meeting new people.

    Can you use call waiting, caller ID, etc when she calls? Have your husband/partner answer and tell her you are not available?

    Cancelling plans at the last minute, etc isn’t so much because her mental illness. It’s plain rudeness. You don’t treat friends like that, even accommodating ones like you. Tell her you will have to limit your time with her to ever six weeks, or less, and stick to it.

  4. Anonymous says:

    i have a friend who is bipolar also she will make plans to hang out with me and then will either cancel at last minute or when i call her she will just ignore me or will just stand me up and leave me hanging. ive known her for years. weve had alot of ups and downs and i have a big heart and i always forgive her weve had a lot of fights. i am also married ands shes gone off of me telling me off of stupid stuff and telling me how my husband is controlling which he isnt i try to ignore it because she lives at home with her mom still and i know its her illness. i am her only friend. she doesnt work and doesnt drive. i try to be supportive. ive also found out i have multiple sclerosis to and now i am having my own issues plus having to deal with her stuff. she tells me she wants me to do stuff with her every weekend and like i said i dont mind but its frustrating when she doesnt bother calling or letting me know at last minture and cancels and expects me to drop everythint the next day to take her out im only off on weekends and thats the only time i get to catch up on housework and see my family. dont know what to do about the friendship because if i ignore her she goes off on me and tells me that im a hateful person? and i dont need the stress since i have ms

  5. Anonymous says:

    I too had to end a long-term friendship because of bi-polar. We had been great friends for many years. I had taken her to the hospital a few times when she was having episodes/

    However, when does one say enough. I had endured cruel, mean-spirited comments, public displays of anger, etc. One of the reasons I maintained the friendship was because I too have a mental illness. I suffer from MDD, which meant that every time my former bi-polar friend struck out at me, I would end up depressed, hurt and weepy. There comes a point in any relationship, where the “I’m sorry; it wasn’t me, it was my bi-polar, etc.” are unacceptable and the excuses become thin. There is a reason that Jeffrey Dahmer started eating people, but that doesn’t excuse his behavior. I will miss her during our fun times, but not the abuse and the depression I would suffer because of it.

  6. Irene says:

    Thanks for your very helpful post and also your blog!

    Best,

    Irene

  7. Anonymous says:

    This is a really interesting read. I was diagnosed with Bipoalr at the age of 17 and really had a torrid time at School because there was confusion between me just been a moody teen and Bipolar.
    Thankfully mental health is taken more seriously these days and the NHS do a fantastic job.

    There is a stigma about mental health that really does need dealing with. I always try to promote mental illness in a positive. Its true! there is life after diagnosis

    For people researching bipolar I write a Blog that is full of my personal experiences and information. I hope you find it useful. Mental Health has positive side that is often overlooked.
    http://www.lithiumandchips.com (for the blog)

  8. Anonymous says:

    I had to give up a friendship with someone who had a bipolar disorder. The demands, manipulation and the time I had to put into the friendship was too much pressure on me. I found it was not reciprocal as most times she burdened me with her problems and I rarely talked about myself. I knew her for years and we had some really special moments of our friendship, but overall I had to evaluate and prioritize and realised I couldn’t help fix anything anymore, nor be available to listen. I had my own very busy life, family, work, study and finances to deal with on my own. I still feel awful because I just withdrew. I know she feels hurt and betrayed by it. But I didn’t know the right way to go about it. Give her the space she needs and move on and make new friends who will be available to support you.

  9. Anonymous says:

    “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” ~Dr. Seuss

  10. Anonymous says:

    I’m sorry to hear that you are going through this. I’ve lived with bipolar disorder for 11 years now and am 50 so I hope my perspective can help.

    When I lost my marbles friends didn’t disappear, but, that sure did happen when I told them the diagnosis. It hurt like hell and I’ve run into the same thing since.

    The stigma against bipolar is so great I wouldn’t advise disclosure, but, if you do disclose be aware that those rejecting or distancing are doing the same thing as if you were Black or gay. Their bigotry is really about them not you because it speaks to their intolerance and fear.

    Also, I’m sure you’ve experienced friends backing off or done it yourself. It’s a fact of friendship that these things happen. It isn’t your fault your friend chose to do this. She has her reasons and while the bipolar bigotry may be a factor it isn’t necessarily so. Afterall, how often have we had the friend who puts some friendships aside when she’s deep into a new relationship or gets married?

    If you’re concerned that your behaviour while really ill had its effect, that’s not illegitimate, but, bear in mind it was the illness not the healthy you. How other people react is their choice and not your fault.

    Since this is a work situation, you have a responsibility to get along with her on a professional level just the same as with the office jerk. This doesn’t mean being good friends anymore, it means demonstrating that you are a team player and a professional. You’ll have others’ respect for doing that.

    Look for other friends who understand your illness in settings like a mood disorder support group.

  11. Irene says:

    Another view
    On June 13th, 2011 Laura (not verified) said:
    I can sympathize with Chelsea that it is painful to deal with the distancing. However, there is a piece of information that Chelsea may not know about Amy.
    Could it be that Amy grew up with a parent or sibling with the disorder that so affected her negatively that she never knew how to cope and therefore, "runs away"?
    Could it also be that Amy has someone relationship right now with someone with the disorder that she can only handle one person at a time with it because of the intensity of the relationship? I find myself in the same situation. I have a sister who refuses to treat her depression. I can’t really handle a friend with the same disorder. I have fibromyalgia and have my own issues to deal with. That limit my ability to be there for people with very debilitating conditions like mental illness.
    I don’t want to belittle Chelsea’s hurt feelings nor excuse Amy — but I think it’s kind of her to still include you in group activities. Wouldn’t it be more hurtful to be absolutely excluded? If you can, can you reframe this positively that she hasn’t cut you off completely? She has reduced the level of intimacy but she still asks about you. That should count for something.
    The same level of understanding that you wish people had for you, could you in turn reciprocate to Amy, even though you don’t have any information about why she took these actions?

  12. Irene says:

    On June 13th, 2011 Anonymous (not verified) said:
    I’m sorry but you’ll have to excuse my candor on this one. I have had the life experience of being very close friends with a woman with bipolar disorder. I was young and naive and thought I could help her and maybe I did at some point but it was at the expense of my own mental health. The constant ups and downs; the demands; the manipulation; the heartache; the non-reciprocation of friendly behavior; the theft of personal items; the draining of my soul; the going off/on her pills and the betrayal…. it was too much for me to handle. She went to a therapist one time and then told me the therapist was an idiot because the therapist had told her she was the person responsible for her own actions and for her life. I guess that wasn’t what she thought she would hear. I tried to back away but that just made things much, much worse.
    Unfortunately the friendship had to be dissolved completely. No contact. This is the only friend I have completely blocked out of my life but I had to for my own health. It’s not a friends place to be a therapist. There is a reason therapists get paid so much money, it’s because they have endured years of training and education to help deal with people with mental disorders. Now, I believe people with bi-polar disorder deserve friends just like the next guy but make no mistake about it, an understanding friend still can’t take the place of a trained professional. My advice is to stay on your meds, see a therapist regularly and don’t be so hard on the people in your life.

  13. Anonymous says:

    that I am currently being successfully treated for anxiety/depression, and have been for years. Having said that, my personality is such that I like reassurance from friends, cry when hurt, and talk about interpersonal issues when needed. My colleague/friend is not receptive of tears, reassurance, or talking about issues. I believe that she feels she’s not the friend I need, which hurts. I’ve told her that it’s not the case and that’s all I can do. Ultimately, it’s her decision as to whether or not she wants to be friends with me.

  14. Anonymous says:

    I feel your pain, Chelsea. I, too, became very good friends with a co-worker. I, too, noticed after about five years that my good friend was distancing herself. She would only hang out with me in group situations and would make excuse after excuse for not hanging out with me. I finally confronted her about it after a few months of increasing distance. She said that she didn’t want to be close friends anymore. That was hugely painful. I’m still in the process of figuring out exactly what that means. She doesn’t appear to want to have nothing to do with me but she doesn’t share with me anything about her life anymore and doesn’t ask about mine anymore. It still saddens me because I was really close to her. I have a couple of other close friends but to lose one is not fun. I hope that we can reconnect over time. What confuses me is how someone who’s so close to you can lose the desire to share with you and ask about you, too. I haven’t lost my desire to share with her and hear about her life but a close friendship takes two…nuff said.

  15. Dandelion says:

    Unfortunately, it seems really easy to say “just forget about the friendship and move on, you’ll find somebody else”….

    As a spouse of a bipolar husband, I am first-hand witness of how hard it is for people with a mental illness to maintain friendships, because a lot of people just don’t want to deal with the reality of it…. make NEW friends? Even harder.

  16. Julie says:

    You also mention that she asks tons of questions about YOU but answers no questions about herself! That IS an inequity. She wants to know all about you, but really, she’s lost that right.

    You could:

    Change the subject to work topics;

    Say that that’s too personal a question (without

    pointing out she never answers your questions)

    You can be vague, and avoid the topic.

    Be straightforward, and gently say you’d rather not talk about [subject].

  17. This is a tough situation to be in, but I have to give myhonestanswer: I’m afraid I’d just try to move on and forget about her. This all happened a couple of years ago now, I think you’ve been dwelling on it for too long. Sure, this was an important friendship, and as you said, you prefer fewer deeper friendships. But, you know what? You made a good friend once, you can do it again.

    And hopefully, this time you can find a real friend – who will stand by you through illness, and accept a genuine apology when it is offered. Amy doesn’t deserve someone like you; you clearly takes friendship and responsibilty very seriously, and aren’t afraid to admit to, and apologise for, mistakes that you have made.

    Be coridal, stay in touch, but forget having a deep friendship with her. There are plenty more fish in the sea.

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