SOUNDOFF!: Relationships & Bipolar
It’s not uncommon for people with bipolar disorder to become so involved with their own challenges that relationships with friends and family suffer. If you have faced this, how have you met those challenges to retain your relationships?
Before I accepted my diagnosis, I could be very cruel to my family. I divorced my husband needlessly because I was either angry or in agony and suicidal. I realized that I needed to stop pitying myself and I sought help. I stuck to my medication and therapy. My family watches my behavior and my moods. My husband and I remarried—we just celebrated our 11th anniversary.
I have openly discussed with family and friends when I am struggling. This gives each of them an opportunity to be open with me and to provide insight into their feelings, as well as to offer suggestions to help rebuild our relationships.
—J.B., Springfield, MI
I have had to muster up the courage to let people around me know that I have times when I may want to be alone. However, I do care about them when I seem “distant” and I will always need them in my life. In short, I have to be open about my bipolar so that people will stick with me.
—A. S., Highland Village, TX
I have to take care of relationships as an integral part of my bipolar treatment. It is something I just can’t afford not to do (like regular visits to doctors and pharmacies). While waiting to pick up my meds, I choose greeting cards (“thinking of you,” birthday, and thank-you) for the special people in my life. It’s a concrete way to keep family and friends in plain sight, as well as a gentle reminder that it’s not just all about me.
—J.A., Hilton Head Island, SC
I lost custody of my son when he was 5. I always planned to get therapy and get my son back. Well, my hopes and plans never materialized. But I always maintained contact with him—sometimes when he didn’t want me to. Now I am 64 and my son is 31. After all these years, he told me that my strongest traits were “loyalty and that I pursue things that are important to me.” These few words made all my efforts over the years worthwhile. I love my son dearly. He is now a strong healthy adult. No matter what, never give up hope with your loved ones.
—J.C., Portland, OR
I’ve learned that when I don’t put social expectations on anyone, I can avoid a cycle of disappointment and humiliation that can trigger another cycle of depression and humiliation. It’s been said that “stability is a place that people with bipolar visit…none of us actually lives there.”
—C.R., East Brunswick, NJ
I take responsibility for identifying stressors in my life, working to keep them to a minimum, and by utilizing stress/anxiety reduction techniques. Most of all, I trust those who love me to be truthful about my behavior, so that I may reflect better at times when I am not objective.
—C.B., Liverpool, England
I have learned that a way to protect my marriage and friendships is to keep people involved. I help them to understand bipolar and have asked them to keep me in check by asking about my moods. My husband has been really great about doing this and understanding my bipolar—this has improved our marriage. Medication, therapy, understanding, and the involvement of people around me keep my relationships going.
—N., Middletown, DE
Invite your loved ones to therapy. They become included in the healing process and are active participants in your treatment. I attend most of my therapy sessions with my wife—this helps us keep a very strong relationship.
—M.M., Bronxville, NY
After being diagnosed with bipolar II, everything changed for the better. Those whom I had offended were able to understand my impulsive and reckless behavior and so was I. You have to redefine your relationships and find what is important to you and those you care about. It is a day-by-day crawl to some sort of sanity.
—T.S., Fort Wayne, IN
It’s been helpful to me to have a social support network of people with whom I make an effort to do specific things [and who] have nothing to do with bipolar. For example, I have a friend who helped me during my last hospitalization—we’re also in a band together. We get to talk music more than we talk about bipolar.
—J.G., Anchorage, AK
I lost the only woman I have ever truly loved. I lost my home, an old friend, and my life’s savings. You can’t unscramble an egg and you can’t “unring” a bell. I found acceptance through my spiritual growth. My challenge is to understand my relationship with God and to be aware that there is a mysterious guiding force at work in life. For instance, I was guided to find bp Magazine.
My 36-year-old son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder two years ago after a serious run-in with police. Since then, we’ve always dealt with issues honestly. I promised him I would never lie to him; I intend to keep that promise. If I feel he is too self-absorbed, I say so, telling him that he needs to get out of his own head and into the world—work out, engage in a creative exercise, reach out to someone in need. He needs to give as well as to take. So far, he trusts me and I work hard to sustain that trust.
—L.H., Des Moines, IA
My son, who is 16, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 6. Although social and likable, he used to have a difficult time keeping friends. What he found works best is to get to know someone for a year and truly become connected [with that person] before mentioning that he has bipolar. This way, the other teen already has a good impression of him and does not care about his diagnosis.
—R.L., Springfield, VA
First of all, I have found my spirituality to be of tremendous help in releasing concerns about myself. It helped me to rise above my problems and to let them go, so that I was able to think of someone else. Secondly, therapy has been instrumental in helping me to find peace with the past and to live in the present. Lastly, volunteer work has allowed me to focus on another person so that I could once again think of others.
—B.B., Altadena, CA
I have a dear friend who has bipolar disorder. We have known each other for over 20 years, so I understand there will be times when she cannot talk to me on the phone or answer my letters and cards. But that’s okay. I try to let her know that I will always be there when she does want to talk or meet up.
—A.O., Cambridge, UK
My husband suffers from bipolar. We have been married two years. He has cycled five times this year, along with gambling and [demonstrating] alcohol abuse. My advice is to provide support and guidance to [make] better choices. It does no good to chase and rescue a loved one. He had to make his own choices to become well. With counseling and treatment, he is now able to live a better life with those who love and support him.
—T.B., Cuyahoga Falls, OH
I live with bipolar and my partner lives with depression so [things get] real tense around here at times! It’s important for us not to be walking around on “eggshells.” We were undiagnosed when we met nine years ago so it’s been an interesting journey. Open communication and lots of breathing room have worked for us so far. We are both in therapy and have a support system in place. Life is really one day at a time and sometimes minute by minute.
—E.V., Toronto, ON
When I am depressed, I become so introspective that I tend not to make contact with friends. I always stay in contact with my family, and especially with my daughter, who is 26 and a psychologist. She is very good at grounding me and making me give up myself-pity.
—M.S., Dublin, Ireland
[I succeed] by always acknowledging the “bipolar talk” first—analyzing the thoughts, and not reacting with a “bipolar reaction.” [Also by putting] a stop sign up to intrusive thoughts and managing my life with routine, using the bipolar health cards for family and friends, and never forgetting my medication.
—K., Brisbane, Australia
It’s a constant challenge. I focus on my wife first, force myself to listen, and acknowledge her feelings without getting defensive—even though my head is screaming to be heard and understood. For the first year after I was on medication, listening to my wife was the “baby step” I focused on. After I learned to hold my tongue and listen, I found I could genuinely “be there” for others in my life. That’s as far as I’ve gotten. Maybe it is enough.
—P.W., Doylestown, PA
Parents, siblings, family, and the few close friends that I have … these people I can’t do without. I immediately forgive and forget anything that is between us. I can only hope that they do the same with me.
—Name Withheld, La Verne, CA
When I was diagnosed, I did a major “cleanup” of people in my life. Because of my self-isolation and mistrust of people, I don’t have any friends except for my younger sister. Those in my life include my family who understand me and love me. Although I am sometimes lonely, the fear of stigma keeps me at home, alone.
—L.R., Montreal, QC
I was not able to repair my relationships with others until I began to recover from my mental illness. Medication and therapy helped me. Only when I began to take responsibility for my illness and its treatment was I able to reestablish severed connections.
—D.K., Oxnard, CA
I am supportive of what my husband is going through when he closes himself off from the world to face his own issues. I give him the time he needs and do not take anything too personally. I understand that he needs the time to focus on himself (we all do at times) and I know that he will come around. I pray for him and I let him know that I am there for him. The more space I give him the better he is able to cope.
—J.B., Boyce, LA
My challenge is the effects of the mania when I have done things I wouldn’t normally do to family, friends, and total strangers. I’ve said horrible things that I later regretted. When I regained my health, I made amends and educated these individuals about the symptoms of my disorder. Almost all people are receptive and not judgmental [but rather are] forgiving.
—Name Withheld, Kahnawake Mohawk Territory, QC
This is primarily a problem when I’m depressed. I tend to just withdraw altogether and then people feel rejected. My best strategy is to “act as if”—making a real effort to do the kinds of things that keep a relationship going. It’s hard but it’s worthwhile. I think it’s good for me, as well as for the other person.
—J.B., Champaign, IL
The best and most effective way to resolve problems of communication is to empathize with the other’s dilemma. It is only in understanding their difficulty that one surpasses his own.
—P.W., Palmerston, ON
I apologize for my behavior and choices and try to help those close to me to understand that my bipolar can inhibit my thinking. At the same time, [I try] not to make excuses .I have lost some dear friends—friends I thought I’d have for life. Those who have stuck by me help me to appreciate true love and friendship, and how forgiveness and understanding need to be a part of each of our lives.
—Tracy Crowe Jones, Rocheport, MO
I developed insight with the help of an excellent therapist who told me in no uncertain terms what my behavior was doing to my family. Being a psychology undergrad helped—seeing my behavior in print in textbooks.
—C.B., Johannesburg, South Africa
I find that counseling provides me with new ways to deal with my symptoms before they affect those around me. Additionally, I have found that seeking spiritual guidance has been a tremendous help. Through my church I attend a men’s group that acts as another part of my support system.
—A.N., Rockville, MD
My husband puts my needs before his all the time, so that when he does occasionally ask for something—to have friends over for a visit or go out for dinner with friends—I agree. I cope by telling myself that he doesn’t ask for much and it’s the least I can do to thank him for all he does for me. I make sure I have nothing planned the next day, so I can have a day of rest if I need it, and I usually do. This works for us.
—Name Withheld, Orangeville, ON
Printed as “SoundOFF: Relationships & The Bipolar Trap”, Winter 2008