Today’s question comes from my sister. She asked me last night, “How do I love someone with a mental illness?” Her husband has a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder and she wants some thoughts on how to support him better. First, I want to say that if you are strong enough to remain in a relationship with a person who suffers from a mental illness, you’ve already taken the highest role of support you can. I have a diagnosis of Bipolar and PTSD. I know that it is no easy feat to care for someone who is mentally ill. You are not only taking on the role of wife but also the caregiver. And I know how exhausting it can be for both him and you.
In order to give provide him with support you need to be able to understand what it is he is dealing with. Well, to the best of your ability as someone who isn’t experiencing the symptoms. Educate yourself as much as you can about Bipolar Disorder and it’s symptoms. Read read read. Always see room for improvement, never feel there is no hope. When my son was first diagnosed with Bipolar I went on a crusade to find a way to help him. In the beginning, when I talked to people about his illness I would say, “My son is Bipolar.” A very wise and compassionate social worker, who happens to be our Aunt Margaret, said to me, “Amy, he HAS Bipolar. Not he IS Bipolar.” Bipolar is just a part of what makes up your husband. In times when you are frustrated and maybe even questioning why you stay, think of the things that made you fall in love with him.
You can’t support someone else without support for yourself. Build a support network for yourself. It can be some friends and family or a support group for family of someone with a mental illness. Take some you time once in while to recoup and unwind. Some time to give yourself the love and care you need and deserve. If you need a break from the stress you’re under during a depressive or manic episode, take one. Even if you can only lock yourself in the bathroom for a while.. Take a nice candle lit bubble bath!
Don’t expect your husband to be able to tell you what is wrong with him when he is in his depressive phase and may even be isolating himself. Chances are good he doesn’t know himself. Give him the space he needs but let him know that you are there if he needs you. Don’t push him on days that he can’t function at all, and can barely drag himself out of bed. Believe me, he wants to, and he hates as much if not more than you that he can’t. But he can’t. Never tell him someone else has it worse than he does. For each individual with a problem in their lives, no matter how trivial it may seem to someone else, that problem is the biggest and most significant problem in the world. Minimizing it will only make things worse.
What you can do is communicate. Set up a plan. Make some clear expectations and don’t leave any room for negotiation. Make medication mandatory. People who suffer from Bipolar don’t want to take medicine at all but when they are manic they believe all is well and it isn’t needed anymore. I can’t tell you how many years I was unstable because of this. Talk about the things that he is aware of that might trigger his depressive states. Pay attention when he is manic to what’s going on around you and try to pick out some things that may be triggers for his mania. Ask him, what course of action he would like you to take when he is depressed. Does he want to be left alone? Does he want you to try to motivate him to get up and do things? Let him know he needs to make clear what his expectations of you are so that you are better prepared when he is cycling through his phases. Figure out what works most effectively for your situation and family. Put it into a verbal plan and write it down if need be, and stick to it. Another thing that helps in most households that have someone who is mentally ill, is consistency.
Here are a couple of links to information, and I believe one of them has a support group, free, that you can do online for family and caregivers. In case you have the time and energy to do it, I want to also suggest checking out NAMI. They offer the opportunity for you to start your own support group in your area if one doesn’t exist. But I can’t imagine it’s easy. I was a support group facilitator for a year, for an already established group for parents of children with mental illness and it was sometimes a challenge. Making sure I got there, finding topics to discuss, sometimes guest speakers, and you have to familiarize yourself with Hippa laws and stuff like that. I can tell you that the 6 years that I did volunteer work with the parents, between the group and a network I volunteered with, was a very rewarding 6 years. I helped a lot of families and it felt pretty good knowing I was capable of accomplishing that.Mental Illness, relationships