Did you know: Bipolar disorder is much more than mania and depression? We have psychosis, anxiety in all of its forms with a great emphasis on OCD behaviors, ADD problems, physical restlessness and an overall intellectual curiosity that causes us to continue seeking the truth in life even when bipolar slaps us in the face.
We must celebrate what we are.
What Partners, Family Members and Friends Need to Know
Partners and family members of a person with bipolar disorder face many of the same challenges. They often have intense loyalty towards the person they love, but at the same time there may be anger, frustration and fear. For partners, the main concerns are usually whether the relationship can survive the illness and how bipolar disorder will affect children. For family members, the main concerns are usually the safety of their loved one and worry over how the illness is affecting the family dynamics. If one of these describes you, or if you simply aren’t sure how the illness may affect your life, please know there is hope. This page addresses some of the issues you may find yourself in today and suggests ways you can help your loved one get better. There is a link at the end of the article that will lead you to more information on my family and partner coaching.
Essential Information for Family Members and Partners
This list may seem frightening, but it’s important to know that relationships can definitely be repaired, even after dangerous and life changing mood swings. Solid and loving relationships based on open communication are possible. And even if you love someone who can’t get well or isn’t getting well, you can learn how to help yourself first and then work with them to improve your relationship. In my work as a family and partner coach, I see miracles every day.
When my partner went into a three month manic/psychotic episode in 1994 and then into a suicidal depression, I truly didn’t know if he would ever get better. Would bipolar disorder change his brain so that he couldn’t work? Would I have to be his caretaker from now on? Where would we find the money to pay for his care? Would he always need medications? Would he live? I remember being scared every day. The reality was that he did get better. He was able to work again. And our relationship survived.
Denial of the Diagnosis
The most often asked question I get from family members is, “How can I help my loved one accept that they have bipolar disorder?” Before answering this question, let’s look at some of the reasons many people with bipolar disorder may be in denial of the illness.
One reason is that it can often be too painful for someone to face the future. Imagine what it’s like to have a lifelong illness that affects the way you think and feel, and that requires daily management and major lifestyle changes. For many people, the changes may feel too great. “Stop going out? I can’t do that! Quit my high pressure job? Are you joking? Stop drinking? Stop staying up late? Do you want me to be a monk?” Bipolar disorder often requires sweeping lifestyle changes in order to stay healthy, and it can be a lot easier simply to deny that there is a problem than accept this reality.
Denial can also be a symptom of bipolar disorder itself. People who are in great crisis because of bipolar disorder and yet still refuse to admit they have an illness may appear to be stubborn and/or self destructive, but in reality it’s often the bipolar disorder that’s in control at this time—not the person. Even when you can clearly see that the illness is destroying their life, they may not be able to because the bipolar disorder won’t let them.
Mania also plays a large role in denial. When someone suddenly stops their medication and denies they’re sick, this often indicates a manic episode and needs to be taken seriously. Mania often feels very good and can make a person forget the times when they were severely sick. Your loved one may believe they no longer have bipolar disorder, or that they never had it at all but were just depressed. Mania can actually change a person’s thinking from reasonable to extremely unreasonable and dangerous in just a few short days. It’s therefore important for everyone involved to recognize the signs of a manic episode before it goes too far. If you know for sure that your loved one has stopped taking their medication due to mania and they refuse to discuss it with you, it is time seek advice from a health care professional. This is especially true if the person is also showing signs of psychosis.
A dual diagnosis can also contribute to a person’s denying they have bipolar disorder. “Dual diagnosis” means a person has a diagnosis of drug and/or alcohol addiction as well as bipolar disorder. Drug and alcohol abuse are the number one reason for “non treatment compliance” and “poor treatment outcome.” What this means is that if the person you care about drinks or uses drugs (pot included), they may deny the diagnosis even more, because they would have to not only accept that they have bipolar disorder, but also stop their drug or alcohol use.
Take care of yourself first!
These are just a few of the reasons a person may deny a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. There are many others, and it can be extremely frustrating for partners and family members when their loved one refuses to get help. I work with many family members and partners in this situation and I always ask them, “If your loved one won’t get help right now, what are you going to do?” I don’t mean what are you going to do about them, but rather what are you going to do to help yourself? There are many options. The first step is to create a management plan that you and the people around you can use when you have to interact with your loved one. There are ways to communicate with your loved one even when they are in a severe mood swing. You can learn to stop fights, deflect accusations, deal with destructive behaviors and be there for the person you love whenever possible—all without losing yourself.
When someone just isn’t getting better
There are also many people with bipolar disorder who do accept the diagnosis and are open to treatment but are simply not getting better. They may have tried many medications, but their mood swings are still raging. In this situation they may turn to their partners or family members in desperation for help. Often the only thing family members know how to do is seek further medical advice and hope that love and support will be enough to make things better. Unfortunately, this is usually not enough. When a person isn’t responding well to traditional treatment, a comprehensive management program is an absolute necessity, one that addresses specific behaviors and symptoms.
If you are in any of the situations mentioned above, you probably do not know what to do. It is not innate to know how to help someone manage bipolar disorder. Most treatment books on bipolar disorder are only for those with the illness, or else they are fact-based books explaining bipolar disorder on a technical level. While these books can be helpful, what family members and partners need most—especially once the illness is in full swing or if the person they love has tried everything and can’t get better—is a practical, hands-on management plan to deal with all the various situations that arise.
I coach partners and family members of those with bipolar disorder. My goal is to help you get a loved one into treatment and then started with a management plan. My success rate is high. I understand what you are going through. Here is a link to learn more about my coaching: Family and Partner Coaching.
It can be hard to love someone with bipolar disorder. What you may have learned in the past about maintaining stable and loving relationships simply doesn’t apply when faced with this illness. You must therefore learn everything you can, including the various bipolar medications and how they work, the full spectrum of symptoms, triggers and behaviors specific to the person you love, etc. You must also learn effective ways to communicate with your loved one around the illness, especially when they are in a mood swing. And you will need to create a plan for yourself that you can use with your loved both during and between mood swings.
1. Notice the position of my shoulders. Yep. Up against my ears. I just lowered them. Doing this helped me take a natural and deep breath.
2. Focus on breathing. I put my arms behind my head and clasp them together. I push my shoulders back and breathe.
3. Go through a short EFT tapping session. Ah, that feels better. I am now back in my body instead of floating with anxiety.
4. Create a short to do list. Get it Done When You’re Depressed reminds me that to do lists can be short and in the moment. I have one task, to answer email and bill my clients. I have five hundred other things I need to do as well, but this is what comes first. So my to do list can be short. Answer email. Send invoices. I don’t have to make the list any longer than this.
5. Feel the anxiety and do it anyway. Work anxiety is my bugaboo. Grand goals send me out of my body and into a universe of worry. Getting myself BACK IN MY BODY helps me focus on what is in front of me instead of what might happen or what might go wrong.
6. Praise myself all day long. I do my best. You do your best. We are doing our best. Bipolar disorder is a challenge we can rise to and meet.
We are strong. What project do you want to start today? What are the first three, tiny steps. Do those little steps and go from there.
I can do it. You can do it! We can do it!
This is the Mental Health Bipolar Disorder Brigade from my upcoming book Hortensia and the Magical Brain.
This Brigade is there to help kids with their wayward thoughts. I love this fun sketch from my amazing illustrator Kaytie Spellman. (There is more info on this book project in earlier posts below.)
Remaining playful during a panic attack helps. Yes, I just talked myself through a panic attack. You can do the same!
The following is an excerpt from latest blog on Bp Magazine.
by Julie A. Fast
I used to think that being alone was a strength. I grew up with the very 1980s and 1990s idea that we have to ‘learn to be alone in order to really be with another person.’
That might make sense if you are stable and life is going well.
For people with bipolar disorder, alone-ness and learning to be by yourself before you can really succeed can be dangerous if taken out of context.
I have found that accepting people into my life when I am depressed is far more difficult than being alone. Depression makes me isolate. It makes me see the phone as an instrument of torture. It makes me turn to social media instead of reaching out to live human beings.
Many depression episodes are the personification of loneliness in that our brains tell us that being alone is all we deserve and that life is a lonely path we have to travel without support or love.
Does this sound familiar:
Good heavens Julie! What is wrong with this picture?
Maybe you an spot the huge inconsistency between reality and what my brain is saying……..
That’s exciting. I went to the Kindle store to see how my books Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder and Take Charge of Bipolar Disorder were doing on the bipolar disorder page. These books are in the top ten ranking- and then I saw that Bipolar Happens! was doing well on Amazon.
Fantastic! Bipolar Happens! is an enjoyable book about a serious topic.
Guess what- it’s only $.99 I want it to be available to everyone.
Yes, I think this is a great deal and a good way to get helpful information about bipolar disorder at minimum cost. Bipolar Happens! was my first book. I knew I wanted to talk about how I manage the illness, but I also wanted to tell stories about how it affects my life daily.
There are stories about anger, manic spending, anxiety at a baseball game and what it feels like to be psychotic! It’s a book that family members love too. I love it myself. It’s hopeful.
Click here to go to amazon.com. You can read part of the book and then add it to your Kindle. Wow, $.99!
PS: If you’re new to my work, this is a great way to experience my writing style and the quality of my information. If you like it, you can come back for more.
I was just interviewed for Slate Magazine regarding a daughter who wants to help a parent who has bipolar disorder manage an inheritance. Fascinating. I LOVED talking with columnist Helaine Olen. My interview is in the second section.
Here is the question from a reader to Helaine Olen for her
How Do You Help a Parent With a Spending Problem?
My father recently received an inheritance. He intends to spend part of it on a house, and I assume save the rest for his retirement, which is eight to 10 years away. Here’s the issue: My dad has bipolar disorder. The condition is under control with the help of medications, but he has experienced severe manic episodes in the past that have caused him to become impulsive and reckless, financially and otherwise. He’s made big, impulsive purchases like a riding lawnmower; taken impromptu trips with no plans to return; and stolen money from his own children’s piggy banks and savings accounts after getting cut off from family finances. He’s divorced from both my mother and my stepmother, and I’m wondering what I can do to protect him and our family if he experiences another manic episode, especially now that he would have access to more money. I want to make it clear to him that I have no intention of interfering with his finances unless absolutely necessary, but I would want to limit his access to his money if he was significantly impaired or unstable, as well as have access to his accounts to make sure his bills would be paid if he could not do so himself. I would never, under any circumstances, take money out of his accounts for any other reason. I’ve brought up this topic before, and it clearly made him uncomfortable. I know he feels like people treat him differently even though he’s been stable and responsible with money in the recent past. My hope is he will be well for the remainder of his life, and I will never have to use this nuclear option. However, it’s a good possibility he will experience a manic episode again. What can I do to protect his investments and retirement?
Let Helaine know what you thought of her answer. I really enjoyed our interview. She knows her stuff!
PS: Thanks to Helaine for such a great interview. When I started writing books about bipolar disorder around 20 years ago, people would say, “What is bipolar disorder?” Now, we are so open about serious mental health disorders, we can talk about management in a practical way. I have the illness. Like the woman who asked about her dad where I gave my opinion, I too have to get help from the people around me in order to stay financially stable. It’s great that we are finally talking about this in a rational way. Bipolar disorder is a genetic illness, passed through generations. It is very easy to diagnose and very, very difficult to treat. Our mania pretty much knocks out our frontal lobe functioning (Dr. Jay Carter has some great You Tube videos on this topic) and our ability to self monitor our behaviors is GONE. Her question is one that all of us affected by bipolar disorder much answer. How do we as people with the illness set up checks and balances if we get sick? How do the people around us find the courage and resources to talk with us about this tricky topic! I talk with my clients about this regularly. Yes, it’s hard to talk to a dad this way when you are the daughter, but it’s essential. Bipolar disorder doesn’t care about anything. All of us with the illness can benefit from putting our pride to the side and asking for help. Julie Fast
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