Bipolar disorder advocate and podcast host Gabe Howard explains how the condition can impact you socially and why it’s a good idea to tell your friends about it.
This is a much more complex question than meets the eye. When I’m at my best — and since I’m in recovery, that is most of the time — bipolar disorder really doesn’t impact me at all. My friends tolerate the few quirks I have in the same way I tolerate the few quirks they have.
But I wasn’t always in recovery. When I was actively symptomatic, I drove off my friends and caused rifts in my family because my behavior was erratic and hurtful. I once told my wife (now ex-wife) that I hated her. I screamed profanities at my mother. I made promises to help people, and then didn’t show up, and then got angry at them when they were justifiably upset.
Relationships that have long since been repaired have “emotional landmines” that we accidentally step on. I don’t think I’ll ever fully earn my family’s trust back because they were impacted by my illness, and while they love me and forgive me, they cannot truly forget because they have emotional scars as well.
If I dig deeper, I’d have to confess that the trauma of living with bipolar disorder — from discrimination, lost relationships, and regrets — lingers in current and new relationships and social settings. I live in constant fear that the people I care about will abandon me, that if I say the wrong thing, I’ll be fired or committed to a psychiatric hospital.
I’ve worked hard to cultivate healthy relationships. It has been difficult, but it’s been worth it. I don’t want people to think it was easy or quick. It took years of hard work to minimize the impact of bipolar disorder on my life, and the work will always be ongoing.
I want to make sure we stay focused on the word “friends” as I answer this question. “Friends” doesn’t mean co-workers, neighbors, or members of your bowling team — I mean people we know and have bonded with in a significant way. The people in your life who have keys to your home and who you would call at 3 a.m. if your car broke down.
The answer, for me, is yes, you should disclose. My best friend took a phone call late one evening right after my grandfather died when I screamed at the world, cried without constraint, and was so devastated and angry that I couldn’t see straight. In that moment, she was able to be at her most supportive because she knew everything about me. Had I kept anything from her, her ability to support me would’ve been compromised.
The best part of friendship is the support, the love, and having someone see you. That feeling of being understood and connected is why we seek out other people. If we hide such a significant part of ourselves from our friends, we can’t achieve that level of connection, and that’s a loss. It also sends a subtle message that we don’t trust our friends — a message they will eventually pick up on. They will figure out we are hiding something and realize that we aren’t as invested in the friendship as perhaps they are.
Finally, in the event something happens that makes hiding bipolar impossible, and after 2, 5, or 10 years, your friends discover you’ve been hiding something from them, they will most likely be hurt. Instead of our friends being able to be there for us 100% in our time of need, they’ll have this emotional conflict to contend with, along with all the confusion that any crisis brings.
The same way you would if you didn’t have bipolar disorder. Being open, honest, and being a good friend in return.
Sometimes, the simplest answer is the best one.
Gabe Howard is an award-winning speaker, author, and podcast host who lives with bipolar disorder. He’s the host of the Inside Bipolar podcast for Healthline Media and is the author of “Mental Illness is an Asshole and Other Observations.”