Hey all! Today’s post is one that I asked my husband to write about living with someone who is bipolar. I thought it would be nice to get the perspective from the other person living with my mental illness. I feel like the caregivers and family members aren’t given the attention they deserve. In many cases, they go through just as much as the person who is dealing with the disease. This applies not only to mental illness but any chronic disease. Hopefully this will shed some light on what it is like for them.
I am not sure we’ve been formally introduced. I am Mr. Just Christopher. “Just” is my legal name, but it is meant as modifier. So, yes, everyone who actually knows me calls me “Christopher”, or “Chris” if they are in a hurry. I spent 30 years living in the deep south, so I also answer to “Sir”, if that makes you more comfortable. In addition, I currently reside in California, so “Dude” is also perfectly acceptable.
I am the utterly devoted husband of Michelle. And today, I am here to share some of my insight and experience with you, as a family member of someone who has a mental illness, specifically Bipolar. Let’s get rolling!
Michelle and I started dating at a time when she was in remission. This does happen from time to time, and while they are nice breaks from intense symptoms, these peaceful times can also be extremely dangerous! They often give someone with bipolar the sense that they are “cured” or that they never had an illness, or that it wasn’t what was diagnosed. Michelle’s remission was doubly dangerous, as no one had ever official diagnosed her as bipolar, due to the mood problems associated with her endocrinologist’s ability to balance the thyroid levels in her blood (long story, worthy of another post)! So, naturally, we were totally unprepared for when her bipolar illness started rampaging through our lives, about three years ago.
On the plus side, I had the opportunity to see Michelle as she REALLY is, and I fell in love. Knowing who your loved one really is, underneath all of the illness, is absolutely crucial, and it’s going to take Faith. Not just “faith”, but “FAITH!!” You can bring God into it if you need to, but I’m talking about Faith in your own Knowing of your memories and discernment. Because, your Faith will be tested, and if it’s only “faith”, then it’s going to fail. Your loved one will go off into “crazy time”, and it may be gradual. It may creep up on you and them over a period of weeks, and during that period, it may seem to them, and you, and any outside observer that your loved one has lost all love for you, and that they are denying every human virtue. At least, that’s how it became for Michelle and I. Due to her Type 2 Bipolarity, she’s very prone to “mixed states”. That’s when the depression and anxiety mix to form a cocktail of pure paranoia and rage. It’s referred to as “black” or “dark” mania! Sounds scary right? Well it is. And at times like that, you need to have Faith that what you are seeing is not your loved one, but their disease. It doesn’t matter if they know all of your secrets, and are using them against you, it’s not them. After that episode is over, your loved one may not be able to face you, because they felt like it was them too! That’s the problem with mood disorders! Our emotional state is the cue to our mind that something is “real”. So, your bipolar loved one is likely to be feeling horrifically guilty, when they are coming down from all that, even though they didn’t have any control of it.
Coping: Through Awareness and Respect
I’m still working on the coping. I wish I could say I have it licked, but hey, if it were easy, and anyone could do it, would their really be any need to post a blog about it? I mean, do you see a lot of blog posts about tying shoes?
But I can share with you a few things that I’ve learned.
Firstly, emotions are infectious. I’m sure you know that, but you need to be aware of it, every day. If your loved one is depressed, you’ll start getting depressed too. Overly happy? Same thing. Angry? Woo BOY! What’s your usual reaction when someone gets angry, and is shouting at you? Most folks just shout right back.
Secondly, the more powerful the emotion, the MORE it will infect you. In other words, the worse off that your loved one gets, the less control you are likely to feel over yourself. It’s backwards right? When they are feeling their worst, you need to keep it together! But, that’s not the way humans are wired.
Thirdly, over time, everyone is worn down by negative emotions. Everyone. No exceptions. It does not matter what kind of happy-go-lucky saint of love and compassion that you may be, if you are constantly exposed to a loved one who is in the grip of terrible emotions, then your control will falter, your mood and your thoughts and conclusions will become dark. At which point, you will be almost no help to your loved one at all.
If I could send you away with only one thing, I would say “Respect the Power of Emotions!” and remember these three points. If you think you can just tough it out, or smile your way through, you will fail. I speak from experience. If you respect the strength of emotions, not only will you be less shocked when they blow through your defenses, but you will have a much greater appreciation of the AWESOME effort that your loved one is going through, as they fight their mega-emotions every day! They are not weak. They are just fighting a constant battle.
By being aware of these three things, you may save a life. No joke!
Helpful Hints for The Loving Ones:
That’s you and me. We ARE the Loving Ones, and that is the most important thing to remember.
Love has no conditions.
Love does not judge.
Love has no limits!
Depending on the symptoms that your loved one is facing, you may feel that you are running a little low on love. But, you can’t try to pull it out of them! They are probably having huge problems with that themselves! The thing to do is to focus on something you love, family, friends, good stories, sports, and fill up on the love! Focus! Then bring that love back to the one who needs it the most!
Michelle and I have been rather isolated, during this time of trouble, so it’s been kind of rough for us. But, even if you don’t have friends and family nearby, or you don’t have the extra money to plan fun trips or purchase new toys to take your mind of your troubles, there are still plenty of things you can do.
Let the professionals do their job!
In our case, that was the most difficult part. I understand that not all doctors are created equal. And they certainly aren’t infallible! But, there’s a special kind of patience you need to have when someone is screwing around with the brain chemistry of your loved ones. I kid you not. It’s way too easy to come to the conclusion that all of these psych meds are bunk, and that they cause more harm than good, etc, etc. But, what we’ve learned is . . . in the long run, bipolar gets worse, not better. Some folks, who were diagnosed early, and received treatment, may not need the level of medications that Michelle is taking now. But, after decades of Michelle’s brain being under constant stress, that isn’t an option for us, and . . . well, it’s time to take our medicine.
Psychotherapy is a necessity too. Mood disorders, especially those that go untreated for as long as Michelle’s, leave countless negative neural pathways blazed right into your brain! Thus, every time one of our loved ones experiences a trigger, they go ZIP—POW! Right to a negative thought pattern/conclusion that is so fast that it bypasses their ability to stop it! The point of psychotherapy is not to sit around and gripe all day, or talk about your childhood, indefinitely. What is needed is cognitive retraining. Folks who are bipolar don’t have the luxury of going through their lives with the sloppy levels of awareness and emotional control that most of us exhibit during our day. For them to get through the day, it’s like they need secret agent/ninja/fighter pilot levels of mental discipline/control, in order to handle the stupid levels of stress that are considered to be “normal” in our current culture/economy.
Due to the nature of mental illness, it’s probably not going to be right on target the first time. Psychiatrists and Psychotherapists are usually aiming at a moving target, a mass of symptoms, a maelstrom of conflicting brain chemistry that is beyond “challenging”. It’s more like an epic quest! I would say, if you need to switch doctors, that’s fine. But, don’t quit doctors! Mark my words.
Another big item I have found, for Loving Ones is time to heal ourselves!
Remember, emotions are powerful! They take their toll on you, and you are going to need time to heal. This was a really big issue for me, and I’m guessing that if you have a caregiver personality, then you may have run into this too.
With me, it was constantly trying to run around, and guard Michelle from her triggers. It left me exhausted, and with no time to get myself together, which ultimately meant that when Michelle needed me the most, to be stable and calm, I just had nothing left.
When the times of crisis are over, and the scramble to get ahead of these waves of emotion is done, you are still left with the day to day, which will also be tinted by the experience of all this madness. For one thing, the repercussions of mental illness take many forms; new financial burdens, lost friendships, miscommunications, broken property, and even physical injuries or the onset of other physical disease. For all of that, acceptance of your current reality is crucial! It will be important for your loved one too. They may be having a hard time finding the focus and energy to clean the mess (especially if there is no quick fix), and you can’t change that by getting on a soap box and preaching. You are going to have to set the best example you can.
Deal with your situation, as it is, because wasting your energy on a lot of “If this hadn’t happened” or “If we had known” or “If we had the help we needed” will just suck the life out of you. You’re going to need all of that energy to do you best, every day, in every way you can. You may be losing some sleep, or putting in a lot of extra hours (at work, at home, and dealing with outside agencies of various kinds). Better to focus on your current status, and what you have to work with it!
In addition to the fallout from the more exciting times, there are certain ongoing aspects of mental illness that are dealt with every day. In Michelle’s case, her medications can only correct so much of her emotions swinging this way and that. So, without making your loved one feel like some kind of porcelain doll, you need to keep the lines of communication open, find out what their daily level of mood and energy are, and step in to support as needed.
Another example from Michelle’s day to day symptoms is that she has a certain level of anxiety that is always present at a background level. For this, I make a very specific adjustment: I minimize all griping. At work, and just about anywhere I stop on my long commute, I encounter people who seem content to maintain a minimal level of satisfaction in their lives, and they will share some negative news with the person standing next to them in line, without a second thought, such as, “Did you hear about those Firefighters who died yesterday? It’s the damn politicians cutting funding to what really matters that left those guys short handed.” Random much? Did I look like I wanted to be bummed out just now? Why don’t people do the same with positive news? “My neighbors lost their dog last week, but a couple three towns away found him, and brought him home! Isn’t that cool?” “Hey, my church raised $10,000 this month, to support the local homeless shelter! Kinda gives you hope, huh?” Now bringing that back to my Michelle, I am around folks all day, who are griping, and hearing the griping all day, but I have to make sure that I don’t pick up the habit, because griping is a dangerous habit around someone who has extraordinary levels of anxiety. Thankfully, this is a day to day practice that helps me too! Having a constant reminder to drop the negativity helps keep me up and smiling!
Finally, just as much as acceptance, I think that gratitude is key to your every day life, as a Loving One. For you and your loved one, it can become easy to think about how different things are, from how you wanted them to be. But, that kind of perception just hides the accomplishments you’ve made and the gifts you’ve been given. I mean, if you lost $100 on Monday, then when someone hands you $20 on Tuesday, are you going to say, “Shoot. I’m still $80 short.” Or are you going to say, “Thank you! I really needed that!”? See what I mean? If something goes your way . . . celebrate! It doesn’t matter if it’s no big thing. Be aware of everything little thing that goes your way, and allow yourself to feel grateful!
That’s a lot to digest, so I’ll just sum up.
Believe in your Loved One and Perceive Them For Who They Really Are!
Respect the Power of Emotions! Be Aware!
Let the Doctors and Therapists Do Their Job!
Give Yourself Time, and Heal!
Be Grateful for the Little Things!
Bring the Love!
Because My Dear Brothers and Sisters, You Are The Loving Ones!