Sharing your space with others isn’t easy. Here’s how to make it work with someone you live with who manages bipolar disorder.
It can be difficult living with someone who has a severe and chronic mental condition. This is true whether you’re a roommate, partner, parent, child, or friend. But with some planning, communication, and compassion, you can make it work well for both of you.
The triggers of these episodes and their duration varies greatly. It’s helpful to remember that bipolar disorder is a neurocognitive condition that starts in the chemical messengers (neurotransmitters) within the brain and manifests outward, showing up as mood shifts last. It’s not the person’s choice, and it’s not about control.
Feel free to adapt the following tips to fit your particular living situation.
We’ve all said or done things in the heat of the moment that we regret later. But for a person with bipolar disorder, the symptoms of depression and the symptoms of hypomania or mania can magnify this. During these episodes, they may say things to you that they’d never say while in the calm state of bipolar disorder, called euthymia (you-THIGH-me-uh).
When this happens, you can try to look past any hurtful words to the clinical symptoms of the disorder. Remember, actions are spurred by the disorder and aren’t necessarily a reflection of how the person you live with truly feels about you.
However, you’ll need to learn the difference between ignoring someone’s negative actions, enabling their behaviors, and enduring emotional abuse. It’s not OK to be subjected to abuse of any kind. Set boundaries for what isn’t appropriate and let them know.
Take time to research bipolar disorder. It will be easier to navigate any situations that arise at home if you understand what your housemate is going through.
After you’ve learned about bipolar disorder, have a conversation with the person you live with about the condition and their experiences. And do more listening than talking. This can open a dialogue between you and be a valuable foundation for future communication.
Here are some pointers on how to talk with someone about their mental health disorder, and here’s some advice on what to say to someone who has depression.
Living with bipolar disorder can be a lonely experience when others don’t understand it. If you’re familiar with bipolar disorder symptoms, it can help the person you’re living with feel validated and understood.
Living with someone who manages bipolar disorder can be stressful and exhausting at times. But having bipolar disorder is also painful and draining for the person who is experiencing it. There may be times when they miss a utility payment or don’t complete a chore. If you plan ahead for these contingencies, it can help avoid conflicts.
A note on finances and bipolar disorder
Symptoms of mania, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), can include:
“Excessive involvement in activities that have a high potential for painful consequences (e.g., engaging in unrestrained buying sprees, sexual indiscretions, or foolish business investments).”
If your roommate or family member is emboldened financially to overspend during manic or hypomanic episodes, you might offer to help them or have a conversation about household bills. Consider clarifying who will manage shared finances and how bills will be paid.
Doing so could take extra pressure off the both of you.
Just cooking a meal or helping with the dishes can go a long way in supporting your housemate. If it’s a family member, you may also need to be an advocate. They may need help getting a medication change or accommodating that highly recommended routine for managing bipolar disorder.
Having someone by their side during episodes of severe mania or psychosis can be beneficial for their well-being.
When your roommate is in a calm state, creating an action plan for a bipolar disorder psychosis episode could be just as useful as the prepacked overnight hospital bag and birth plan that expecting couples are known to make.
You might try brainstorming some of the difficult times you’ve already experienced together, and come up with a strategy for the next time an episode warrants intervention.
For example, if they’ve expressed thoughts of suicide, discuss what you should do if they start talking about suicide again.
Preparing and rehearsing for these severe scenarios can help you both feel more at ease, and it might minimize episode escalation, in-house conflict, and stress.
You can be very helpful here, as loved ones and friends often notice symptoms of mania before the person living with bipolar disorder does. Being ready for its onset can help you both.
Levels of mania and hypomania can differ significantly. Depending on the person, mania can range from what seems like a high-flying mood to severe agitation to psychosis. It can last from a week to months at a time.
Pay close attention to how it usually starts. Do they seem to have a sudden flow of ideas that don’t seem typical for them? Do they go several days with hardly any sleep but don’t seem tired?
Does the person you live with experience mania at a particular time of year, each year?
When you see symptoms of mania beginning, be careful not to engage in activities that might make things worse or cause harm. In some cases, it might be tempting to go shopping or drinking if they suddenly want to be social, especially after a long depressive episode.
Symptoms of mania to look out for at home
If your roommate is experiencing a manic episode, they may be:
- talking more than usual, often rapidly
- gregarious in a way that’s outside of their typical persona
- participating in activities that have a high potential for social, legal, or sexual consequences
- engaging in more goal-directed activities, like new projects
- showing signs of psychomotor agitation, like fidgeting, restlessness, distraction, and absentmindedly pacing, picking, or adjusting clothing
Use your best judgment and knowledge of the person when deciding what activities to engage in during mania.
If the person you’re living with is experiencing a depressive episode, you can let them know that you’re there for them through your tone, body language, and words.
You could ask if they’d like to spend time together by doing low-effort activities, like watching a movie or playing a video game. If they don’t have the energy for these activities, you can offer to pick up their favorite food or treat.
Or, if it’s your partner or family member, offer a massage.
And sometimes, silence and just being there go further than any verbal prompts you’ve been rehearsing in your mind.
Your basic needs must be fulfilled in order for you to be helpful to others. This is especially true if you are taking on the role of an advocate or caregiver.
These caregivers also
In addition, high levels of caregiving strain are linked with clinically significant levels of depressive symptoms and burnout.
Be sure to prioritize your sleep, eat a healthy diet, and exercise. Take time for your own personal hobbies and engage in relaxing, enjoyable activities, such as reading or taking walks in nature. Consider joining a support group for family members or friends close to someone who has bipolar disorder.
Begin a meditation practice
Living with someone who’s managing bipolar disorder can put you on guard. You may be constantly watching their words and body language to detect any hints of a potential crisis. This may be especially true if they’ve previously attempted suicide. This type of hyper-vigilance can lead to being in a constant state of fight-or-flight arousal or anxiety.
Regular meditation allows your mind and body to react less severely to stressful events. One brain scan study found that long-term meditators had reduced amygdala activation when shown emotionally negative images.
As with any severe and chronic mental illness, bipolar disorder can be challenging to live with, both for you and the person experiencing it firsthand.
Overall, you can make sure you communicate clearly with each other and plan ahead for types of episodes your housemate says are part of their disorder. It would work best to be supportive, not overly reactive, and kind. Try not to take anything personally, but set boundaries.
If you are a caregiver, know that you are playing an incredibly important role in their life. The person you live with who manages bipolar disorder most likely appreciates you more than you know. But remember to care for yourself as well.