Talking to someone about getting help for their unmanaged bipolar is more effective if you make it about you instead of them.
Talking with someone about getting treatment for bipolar disorder can feel like walking into the lions’ den before the lions have been fed. Depending on the person’s current mood—or if they perceive your words as some kind of judgment or attack—the situation can feel impossible, or even downright scary. I wish we could simply tell someone they need help and they would listen, but, as you probably know, this rarely happens.
In my experience, the only way that people who are in a relationship with me will change is if they want to stay in a relationship with me. I share my own story with them and tell them what I need, and then they get to decide what they want to do. This, in turn, determines if they get to be in my life. It took me many years to come up with this policy.
Here’s an exercise to get started:
Write down all of the reasons you want a person to get help. Make a long list. You’ll be happier! You can keep a job! You can finish school! You can stay alive!
Now, take a good look at your list—and make sure you don’t say one single thing on it when you talk with someone about bipolar.
If this kind of conversation worked, we would more readily accept treatment. Yep, that was a trick exercise!
Here is what I have found works for me, the majority of the time:
Create a list of how your life is impacted by someone else’s bipolar disorder.
Think of how your life would be different if they took their bipolar seriously and did something about it.
Decide how much longer you are willing to be around someone who is consistently ill because they are refusing help.
This becomes what I call your “needs list.” When you talk with someone about managing bipolar, this is your go-to list. You can safely say these things and back them up with action.
Only by focusing on your needs can you impact another person enough for them to see that they might lose you if they choose to stay sick.
I suggest you take charge of your own life and determine what you want from a relationship. Then, if you are okay with being in a relationship where your needs are not being met, you stay by choice. But if you decide you deserve better, you keep making changes so that your needs are being met elsewhere. This doesn’t always mean that you leave the person who has bipolar, but it does mean that you are no longer just standing there getting abused by their mood swings.
I’m sorry this is so hard. I practice this with my own family, so please know I am not just talking here. For me, finding peace usually means making and sticking with a strong decision. Staying in the middle of something complicated is purgatory. I’m sometimes lonelier, but I’m definitely happier since creating this policy in my life.
Here is a script you can use to walk into the lions’ den and keep yourself safe:
I love you and care about your future. I’m not your caretaker, and what you do with your life is not my business. I care about my own life, though, and I care about my peace of mind. I want you in my life, and here is what I need for that to happen. Relationships that are even tend to work out the best, in my experience. Right now, this feels uneven. I’m constantly harping on you, and that is not who I am. Trips to the ER and calling the police are for TV, not for my life. Being with someone who is stable is essential for my well-being. When I’m around mood swings, I feel like I’m getting sick as well—I don’t sleep, and worry takes over my life. I’m not willing to live like this. I want to be with you and I want to be there for you. This means I need you to take care of your health. We can be a team, or you can go your own way. I prefer being a team. For this to happen, I need you to get help for your moods.
Julie A. Fast is the author of Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder, Take Charge of Bipolar Disorder, Get It Done When You’re Depressed, and The Health Cards Treatment System for Bipolar Disorder. She is a columnist and blogger for bp Magazine, and she won the Mental Health America journalism award for the best mental health column in the US. Julie was also the recipient of the Eli Lilly Reintegration Achievement Award for her work in bipolar disorder advocacy. Julie is a bipolar disorder expert for ShareCare, a site created by Dr. Oz and Oprah. Julie is CEU certified and regularly trains health care professionals, including psychiatric residents, social workers, therapists, and general practitioners, on bipolar disorder management skills. She was the original consultant for Claire Danes for the show Homeland and is on the mental health expert registry for People magazine. She works as a coach for parents and partners of people with bipolar disorder. Julie is currently writing a book for children called "Hortensia and the Magical Brain: Poems for Kids with Bipolar, Anxiety, Psychosis, and Depression." You can find more about her work at JulieFast.com and BipolarHappens.com.
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