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Helping Bipolar Disorder Families Understand

by Patty E. Fleener M.S.W.

If you are like me, you will or have reached a point in your life where you ask that million dollar question "why do bad things happen to good people?" "Is there any meaning to my suffering?" 

If you are in the midst of much pain, trying to survive your bipolar disorder, you are not afforded the luxury of this question. I have often explained to people that being very ill is a full time job. It takes every ounce of your energy, every moment of your day just to get through the day. Am I not correct?


How do we explain this to our families? This is very difficult to do as our illness is "unseen." We cannot show someone a physical open wound to show how much pain we are in. They would take one look at that, tell you to sit right down, get you a pillow, offer you something to eat or drink and have that concerned and understanding look on their faces. 

However with the bipolar disorder, you will hear from many people that they would rather have a broken leg any day than suffer the kind of pain these disorders inflict. To me, a broken leg is even a poor example to compare suffering to these disorders and an insult to those of us with those disorders.

People do not take their lives because of a broken leg. They do however over these disorders very frequently - much too frequently. 

I am speaking to families now. You must see with your ears and your heart what your eyes cannot see. You must listen carefully to what your loved one is telling you. What they describe to you may not make much sense to you and may be difficult for you to understand. Sometimes it may seem to you to be a different universe that they discuss. Know that it probably is. You don't have to fully understand their universe and you cannot possibly. However hear their pain, listen for red flags always of any danger signals where you may need added assistance. I like to call it "sending in the troops." Anytime your loved one does not seem in touch with reality, or seems at risk for suicide, homicide or any high risk behavior, it is time for you to call 911 if it is an immediate risk or their counselor and/or their Dr. If you don't know who to call, call 911 and ask them. Tell them what is happening.

You will hear many things from your loved one that to you seem so easy to resolve. You may wonder why they make the same "wrong" decisions over and over again. Why haven't they learned by this time? Why can't they see the senselessness of their behavior? They may seem to be getting their life together and them bottom out all over again. 

What is happening here? Is your loved one lazy, stupid, immoral, etc? Nope. Their physical brain is very different than yours. They experience the universe differently than the way you do. They feel different than you do. If they are manic they may be spending money or driving unsafely. They may be cutting themselves if they have the bpd. They might be discussing suicide because they are depressed. They might have gotten fired for the 33rd time because the boss didn't like their personality or because they blew up at work again. Your loved one may treat you cruelly and say horrible things to you. You may wonder what you said or did that made them angry. Do they experience mood swings? Never know what mood they will wake up with?

Are they bad? No! They have a physical illness and it isn't their fault and they didn't ask for it and they don't deserve it.

Well if they are physically ill then maybe families should just put up with whatever they put them through?? No way!

No matter what, no matter what reason, it is not ok for anyone to cause any form of abuse to another person - physical, verbal, etc. Don't put up with it. Set boundaries for your loved one. Protect your peace of mind. Be there for them but let them know that you will not tolerate being hurt. Let them know exactly where the boundaries are.

What if your loved one is ill and they don't want to get help? They don't get help, that's what happens and you must decide if this is a situation that you can live with. Do not become codependent with your loved one. Remember you are powerless over this person. You are not their counselor or their Dr. If they choose not to get help, the case is closed. You can only intervene in emergency situations - danger to themselves, danger to others or gravely disabled. What do you do in these situations? Call 911.

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