When I worked at Stanford
University as the ecumenical Protestant campus minister, some
of my student friends suffered from bipolar disorder.
It's relatively common among people with unusually high
disorder, once known as manic depressive illness, often
first manifests in young
adulthood. So on a couple of occasions, when I saw them
exhibiting signs of the problem, I counseled students to seek psychiatric
One such student went through a long and very difficult episode with
her disease, which had been diagnosed when she was in high
school. After she got a new therapeutic regimen in the
hospital, and learned some new coping skills, she went back to school and
graduated. She has had few problems since.
One of her techniques of staying mentally healthy particularly impressed
me. She had plenty of friends, but they had not been terribly sensitive
to her needs and issues related to her disease. So she instituted a
"friendship contract". When she was first getting to know a new
potential friend, she would give them a piece of paper, or send them an email,
with the contract: If you want to be my friend, here's what you need to
know and need to do. If I start talking or acting strangely, call me on
it - ask me what is going on and if I am taking my medication. If I
suddenly stop talking to you, stop showing up, become anti-social, do
something about it - I might be going into a bipolar depression. Here are the medications I
take, and when I take them. Here's my psychiatrist's phone number.
Call if you notice something strange.
When she showed me the contract, I signed it and then I said, "You know,
everybody needs one of these! Not just people dealing with mental illness." Her idea is
a brilliant one for us all. Everybody needs friends who will speak up
when they sense something isn't quite right. We all need somebody to
seek us out, if we should suddenly fall off the social radar. We all
need friends who don't just throw up their hands when the going gets rough,
but roll up their sleeves and try to be useful. It helps to get specific
about the kind of intervention and support that we need.
Of course, friendship can get tricky if we intervene too much in each
others' lives. Few of us want friends who are going to take over and
boss us around. But neither do we want friends to fail to show concern
when we appear to be in crisis. Sometimes we let our friends down when
we go too far in protecting their privacy.
Each of us draws the line at a different place, so what a great idea it
is to speak up and tell our friends what we hope from them in tough
I admire the "friendship contract" that Jesus specified for his
disciples. He let them know what he wanted from them. He spelled
it out in detail: stay with me, watch with me, pray with me, preach with
me, heal with me, continue my work after my death. To be sure, they broke that
contract repeatedly. But his "contract" with them was ultimately
unforgettable. Even after he was gone, they tried to follow it with each
other. His is an example for us to emulate in expressing to each other
what it really means to be friends.