Living with Someone with Bipolar Disorder | NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness

Living with Someone with Bipolar Disorder

By Cary Silverstein

Just when you think things are going well for you and your loved one, your partner enters a manic phase and the rug is pulled out from underneath both of you and your worlds are upside down. As someone living with a significant other with bipolar disorder, not only is it a challenge for the individual, but also for their family, friends and caregivers. In a recent NAMI meeting I attended, the parents of children with bipolar disorder shared their experiences with the sudden changes in behavior that make each day, week and month a challenge. Your world is suddenly unpredictable at best.

Even when your partner, child or friend with bipolar disorder is well, you are constantly on your guard, waiting for the other shoe to drop. You listen to each word, phrase and watch every action looking for cues that something bad is about to happen. The fear of the next crisis is always in the back of your mind. Your life is similar to a “roller coaster” ride; small ups and downs are followed by sudden drops and severe climbs, only to fall again. Never knowing what to expect, you as the caregiver are always on a heightened state of readiness. Over time this level of stress will sap your strength, both physical and emotional. The slightest move in a positive direction will provide hope and the fuel your need to handle the next negative situation. Sometimes you yourself will crash and need to take a mental health break or consult with a behavioral professional to regain your equilibrium.

One of the keys to your survival as a caregiver is to see bipolar disorder as a disease of the brain, not just a mental illness. Be angry at the disease, the illness and not the person who is afflicted. The love of your life or your child is suffering terribly and you in many ways are feeling scared, confused and helpless. Your perception is that you have no control over the situation. That is true, but you have power, the power to advocate for their right to receive the care they require from their medical team. Use that power and you can provide the emotional support they need fight the fight. Remain consistent in how you relate to your significant other, which is most difficult when you find yourself under constant stress.

The treatment of bipolar disorder is difficult by itself, but when coupled with OCD or other conditions, such as substance abuse, it becomes extremely difficult. As their advocate, there will be times you need to challenge the doctors in a positive manner as to their therapeutic approach. You have seen your loved one when they were good and when they were bad. You have their medication history, knowledge of their previous hospital stays and access to their medical records. You know what has worked and what didn’t work regarding their treatments and medicines. Don’t be afraid to share that information with the doctors, it will aid them in treating your loved one.

As the significant other, husband, wife, daughter, brother or wife you need to work diligently to maintain your health during this period of illness. Being a caregiver is a great responsibility and also a drain on your emotions and health. Above all, you must take care of yourself before you can take care of someone else. You need to access the services of a behavioral professional to ensure you have an outlet for your frustrations and concerns. You may need medication to aid you in recovering from the strains of being a caregiver. Joining a support group through NAMI or another community organization will provide the information, training, references and emotional support you need to continue the journey. You need to sleep, eat right and exercise in order to maintain your strength and health. Know that some of your friends will understand your plight but others will not be able to identify with your situation. Be aware that mental health challenges are very scary to people who have not been exposed to someone who has one. Don’t be afraid to share your feelings with your friends, help them understand your situation. Don’t isolate yourself from your community; this is the time when you need to be socializing. You need their emotional support to make it through this period of uncertainty.

Guilt and shame needs to be confronted and discussed with your behavioral professional. As the significant other, child or caregiver, you feel a great sense of guilt that you cannot do more for the one affected with bipolar. Helplessness turns into guilt, which is not an emotion you want to deal with alone. When this feeling sets in, it is time to get professional assistance. There is nothing to be shamed about, remember it is a disease that can passed on from one generation to another. Your behavior as a parent, husband wife or sibling is not responsible for their bipolar disease.

One other feeling you need to confront is “giving up” and the desire to leave the situation. Running from a problem is an option, but never a solution. You may have these thoughts, but you need to discuss them with a behavioral professional. I am aware of a number of divorces in which the wife or husband could not cope and abandoned their significant other. You need to marshal your resources, stay the course and fight this disease. When the opportunity presents itself, step up and help someone who needs help. Sharing your strength with your loved one is critical, but you need to save some for yourself. One day someone will step up for you.

Remember the disease is the “enemy” not your loved one. Fight the disease, but embrace your loved one, let them know you are there for them and understand they are the one suffering. This is a battle that you will eventually win. Research into bipolar is ongoing and there will always be new drugs that will help fight this disease. This is not a race, but a marathon.

Have faith and hope!


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