The Friendship Doctor

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When bipolar disorder creates distance between friends

Whether to disclose a mental illness is a hard call to make

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. 

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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:

 

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

Irene S. Levine, Ph.D., is a psychologist and professor of psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine. Her latest book is Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup With Your Best Friend.

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