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Living through Bipolar Disorder

One of things so bad about depression and bipolar disorder is that if you don’t have prior awareness, you don’t have any idea what hit you.

Kay Redfield Jamison

Looking back now, I can only imagine how she felt.

My earliest memories were of the daytime vigils with me trying to cajole her out of the darkened room where she had imprisoned herself. My best friend, in the grip of her illness. For days, she would lock herself in her bedroom and weep silently for hours. This was no prolonged expression of sadness, there was simply too much of it for no apparent reason. Nobody knew what to do.

And none of my antics worked. Nothing anyone said or did could shake her out of her anguish, she said she felt empty and had a gnawing where her heart used to be. I listened; all around her was the near-perfect world she had made for herself. I simply couldnt understand why she was so unhappy.

And I desperately wanted her back. I did not recognise this rapidly collapsing person; reckless at times, feverishly energised and manipulative at other times. I just wanted my co-conspirator back; my buddy, my beautiful sister with such an amazing talent.

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10 years on, having left the shores of Nigeria behind, my friend was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and she completely got worse. She did everything possible to prove the doctors wrong. And I believed her.

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Growing up in Nigeria in the 80s at a time when the idea of the internet was not even a dream, I certainly didn’t know about depression. Infact, anything to do with “mental” illness was synonymous with outright madness which only happened to other people. The other people who ended up raving in the streets; clothes ragged and hair matted; leaving no one in doubt of their madness. Depression? I just didn’t get it.

Thus, rather than educate myself, like many in her life, I chose to put myself in a state of high vigilance, typical of the response one would have to an unspecified but tangible threat.
I primed myself to manage the erratic outbursts of unpredictable, manic behaviour whenever I was around her. At other times, I lapped up the elusive moments of sisterhood and the familiar rituals of friendship.

Looking back now, even though her illness had a name, I remained just as clueless about the seriousness of her condition as I had been 10 years earlier in Nigeria. She was in denial and so was I.


Now, almost 20 years since that first knock on the door of that darkened room, still she weeps. But now we know why. Her body is adjusting to her new medication. The tears are softened by her explanations-she understands-she has control over why the tears flow.

She laughs at her tears. She is excited about a future where she sees herself differently. And I laugh with her, I understand hope. I have grown too.

Bouyed by my reading about the illness, its powerful effect on every aspect of one`s life, and the sometimes slow, arduous process to finding ways to understand oneself through depression, I look at my friend and I am inspired. Her optimism lifts me as she attempts new steps both in thoughts and actions.

I no longer have an opinion or any judgments about decisions she has made in her life. I offer her just as much compassion as I offer myself. And then a little bit more.

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