Helping a Family Member With Bipolar Disorder

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Bipolar disorder is a significant challenge for the person suffering from the illness. This is a condition that will need to be managed long-term and the cycles of ups and downs, especially before the disorder is diagnosed and treated, can be disheartening. However, bipolar disorder never affects only the person directly involved. It always touches the lives of family and friends too. They also will need to avoid discouragement and pace themselves for a long-range support role.

Bipolar disorder comes in two forms – bipolar I and bipolar II. The difference between I and II is really more about extent than content. In other words, the two conditions look very similar, with bipolar I having the same symptoms as bipolar II, only more severe. Bipolar disorder is characterized by two extremes of mood – mania and depression. Mania is an “up” phase and the depressed phase is pretty self-explanatory. Those with bipolar II experience what is known as hypomania, meaning that their manic phase is not as debilitating or intense as is the manic phase for the person with bipolar I.

The most important thing a family member can do for their loved one with bipolar disorder (I or II) is to learn all they can about the illness. The more a person learns, the more they know what sorts of things to expect – because unrealistic expectations are relationship poison.  Here are just a few things to understand and expect with bipolar disorder.

During a manic or hypomanic phase, the person may sleep less but seem more energetic. Their mind may seem to be brimming with interesting thoughts and ideas. They may become extremely talkative, trying to share all that is going on inside of their head. The person may seem sunny and bright at first, but pretty quickly their positive energy shifts to edgy and irritable.

The person may show very poor judgment during this phase. Impulsivity is common. Reckless spending, reckless driving and other sorts of risky behaviors may show up – gambling, unprotected sex, drug use, etc.

Then, the person may swing the other direction entirely and become very blue and apathetic.  The depressed phases of bipolar usually last far longer than the ”up” manic phases. It wasn’t anything that was said or done; the mood swing is part of the illness.

That is important to keep in mind because it means that the person may show emotions that you don’t understand. For example, just because they are mad doesn’t mean they are mad at you.  They could be mad at being ill. Don’t personalize what isn’t personal – that is good advice for all of us.

It also means that the person may suddenly cancel or not show up for an event. Unexplained “no-shows” are often due to unexpected mood swings. Don’t stop inviting the person. They want to be a part and the next time they may be able to follow through.

Family members can help by being empathetic without saying “I know just how you feel”.  Feelings are a major difficulty with this condition and nobody can get 100 percent inside someone else’s skin.

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