I'm frequently asked, "What's the best way to love someone with bipolar disorder?" Usually the person asking me has the traces of a frown on his face. I empathize. We're not the easiest bunch in the world, the 5.7 million of us with bipolar disorder. But then, simplicity is not what you fell in love with in the first place, is it?
No. Most likely you were attracted to the volatility, the edginess, the uncertainty. Loving someone who's bipolar means loving a panoply of characters: the girl who's overcast one morning and the one who's radiant by mid-afternoon. There's an excitement about not ever being able to predict the emotional weather; but it calls on all your relationship skills.
So here are a few tips on how to "handle" a bipolar person, chosen simply because they reflect how I myself would like to be treated.
1) Don't try to argue a depressed person into cheerfulness. Depression is a powerful beast that demands its rightful due. It may skulk away in its own good time; but while it's present, you have no choice but to honor it. Telling a depressed person they're not depressed, or that they have no right to be, is simply illogical and rude. By far the kinder thing to do is to ask the depressed person, "Where does it hurt?" And then listen, really listen, hard as it may be not to interrupt. This is where trust, that frailest of flowers, begins to take root.
2) Do educate yourself about the illness. If you were dating a girl from Spain, you'd learn a few words of Spanish, right? The same reasoning applies. Bipolar disorder is a strange and exotic world, and it's very lonely and frightening to feel like you're traveling solo through it. I guarantee you: the respect and love you exhibit by learning the vocabulary of this disease – simple things, like the difference between mania and hypomania – will pay off in spades. All the men I've ever adored have asked me about my illness with genuine curiosity. They know how I act when I’m in a mixed state and what my voice sounds like when I’m depressed. They can help me identity what mood I'm in even when I'm not quite sure myself.
3) Do appreciate the wondrous variety that bipolar disorder bestows. Too many bipolar people are used to spending their lives in secrecy, and they never disclose the amazing gifts that they have been granted along with the depression, the recklessness, the intense mood lability. If you can establish the rapport necessary for the bipolar person to open up and show you what's really inside, I think you'll be surprised. It's a dangerous disease – never underestimate suicidal ideation – but Lord knows, it has its benefits. Creativity runs rampant through bipolar blood, and bipolar eyes see the world in a unique and fascinating way. And because we've known what it's like to struggle, we are generous with our empathy. If you love someone with this illness, you are only a heartbeat away from sharing these treasures.
4) Don't ever give up on hope. It's scary when symptoms manifest, and it's frustrating for everyone when they don't go away. But the weird blessing of bipolar disorder is that it's a disease of constant change. Eventually, a mood will shift. Or one of the many medications now available will start to take effect. I know this intellectually; but I forget it instantly when I'm suffering. What I need the most when I'm going through an episode is to hear that there is hope somewhere down the line. In the midst of my pain, I'm not always capable of sustaining that belief, so someone else has to be the custodian of my hope. Having a loved one reassure me – simply remind me that change is inevitable – is invaluable to my recovery.
So what does it take to love a bipolar person? A little specialized care and feeding. We may be a challenging breed at times, but if you're after easy, superficial emotions, look elsewhere. Bipolar feelings run deep and true, even if the course is not always smooth.