Over the course of my BP II discovery and diagnosis (anywhere from 5-20 years), I have lived in 2 distinct cultures where the communication expectations varied greatly. Both discourage speaking up assertively or transparently. Conflict in one culture is ignored and suppressed whereas it is handled passive-aggressively in the other culture. What does this have to do with mental health? A lot. Unhelpful communication norms are likely found in most cultures, and I believe this has had a far reaching impact on my mental health. I find this particularly profound as a woman where there is even more pressure to fit society’s social expectations.
As an immigrant, I did not realize the toll that communication mores would have on my ability to express emotions or ideas. I believe that neither culture I have lived in is ideal for encouraging healthy communication, but the adjustment from one to the other has taken more than a decade to finally identify the subtleties that can trigger and worsen my BP II symptoms. For example, in my old culture, I could say something that a listener might not agree with like, “The minimum wage should be a living wage.” They might sarcastically or dramatically respond, “…yeah, like that’ll happen… .” Their opinion is clear enough and shows they are not in support of what I said. In my new culture, the response to my same, unsupported statement would be, “mmmmm.” This “mmmmm” is the same response when someone says the weather is nice or that a politician is crazy – whether they agree with it or not. It’s a polite “out” where no opinion is expressed.
Even beyond cultural considerations are the communication norms that begin to evolve in a relationship where someone has BP. The other partner develops their own language of dealing with the inconsistencies of conversations with BP me. It’s the language of quiet. It’s not exactly stonewalling by purposely blocking conversation, but it is strategically communicating to keep from rocking the boat. The intent is to keep me on an even keel. However, it has the equivalent effect to the “mmmmm,” but it is more blunt in its delivery because, as an intimate partner, they are expected to give and take in communication instead of cautiously tiptoeing around my illness.
The reason this affects BP so much is that it loves silence and loneliness. When people do not engage in a way that opens conversations wider, there is no place for the thoughts or feelings to go except for to be swallowed deep back inside. Over time, bipolar me realizes I should not utter them in the first place because they will end up regurgitated back in my gut whether I tried to talk or not. This is what illness feels like. When depressed, my thoughts and feelings are swallowed again like a bottle of pills. My thoughts that were not thoughtfully considered and given solid air time by another person become pieces of poison that rip into my gut and destroy my ability to be awake and engaged in this world. When hypomanic or in a mixed episode, the same conversation pieces that were ignored become a painful and rebellious liquor I swallow. When conversation is diverted to keep me quiet, my feelings come out as anger, rebelliousness and carelessness.
My health comes at the expense of keeping society, family, a partner or culture comfortable and content. These groups often use tactics that shorten life’s important, difficult or longer conversations, especially on someone experiencing bipolar. Cutting this conversation potential away from someone with bipolar might be from frustration, fear, a lack of awareness or aloofness. However, it is damaging to my bipolar because my voice needs to get out. The more I swallow my words, the more my body feels like a crypt holding phrases that could have been discussed to keep me vibrant, resilient and connected.