Insight Is 20/20

Exploring the pervasive, and unperceived, patterns that govern our lives

Bipolar Disorder: Loving Someone Who Is Manic-Depressive

Loving someone with Bipolar Disorder can feel like riding a roller coaster.

Bipolar Disorder is one of the most severe mental disorders a person could have. The lives of those suffering from it are hugely impacted by it. While other disorders, such as depression and anxiety, may work in cycles or waves, Bipolar Disorder requires constant, vigilant management. The disorder is typically managed by daily medication and talk therapy.

The trademark of Bipolar Disorder is a major mood imbalance. The person may go from depressed to a manic state, or may experience other shifts in mood that affect the person's ability to function. People who have Bipolar Disorder often have a hard time sleeping. It's not unusual for someone unmedicated with this disorder to be up for two or three days straight because their mind and body simply won't let them sleep.

How do these symptoms affect the loved ones of these people? It has an effect. Parents, siblings, friends, and co-workers see these individuals pass between depression and mania, and they see what a toll it takes on them. One of the realities for the loved ones is they begin to understand that they cannot expect the person to always be consistent; they know the mood and behavior can significantly change.

The situation is more difficult when the loved ones aren't ware of what the problem is. Watching the moods shift can be confusing. If the loved ones don't understand how the disorder works, they can get caught in a cycle of trying to figure out why the person changes so much. Know that if someone's mood appears to change a lot more than yours, they probably have a mood disorder. Just as Depression is one example of a mood disorder, Bipolar Disorder is another.

The situation is often the most difficult for the loved ones who live in the same house as the person with Bipolar Disorder. The reason for this is because the sufferer goes through major mood 'spells' and the sufferer himself or herself feels overwhelmed and often feels a loss of control as a result. This mood shift often spills over to others, and this can set the tone for the mood in the entire house. Loved ones can find themselves walking on eggshells because they never know what to expect next.

In addition, when the sufferer goes into a manic cycle, the inability to sleep can disrupt the whole house. If you share a bed with the person, you may wake up at 4 a.m. and wonder where that person is. You may be further upset when you find that he or she has been up for the third night in a row, unable to lay in bed and sleep. Even if you don't share the bed, that person may be up making noise in the middle of the night and may keep others in the house awake.

Overall, loving someone with Bipolar Disorder creates fear and anxiety in the loved ones. The loved ones learn that medication often does a good job managing the symptoms, so the loved ones become extra cautious and almost parental: "Did you take your medication today?" Though the loved ones would prefer not to worry about this, they know what happens when the sufferer goes off his or her meds.

One of the most helpful things you can do if you have a loved one with this disorder is to find a friend who has a loved one with this disorder, too, or find a therapist with whom you can discuss how this affects you. Though you may try to believe you're fine and you have made the best of the situation, talking things out may help reduce your own frustration and anxiety.

Finally, there is a wonderful organization called NAMI. You can find it easily online. The organization offers groups in many communities in which you can meet others who have loved ones with mental illness, and you can also work with others to advocate for greater understanding of mental illness.

Seth Meyers, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist with the L.A. County Department of Mental Health.

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