In their must-read book, Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder: Understanding and Helping Your Partner, authors Julie A. Fast and John D. Preston, PsyD, provide a wealth of information on how readers can support their partners with managing their illness. Each chapter features practical and wise ideas on better understanding bipolar disorder and working together to identify problems, triggers and effective solutions.
One of these tips is creating comprehensive lists of behaviors and activities that minimize symptoms and those that don’t. It can be tough to know how to help your partner, and sometimes, naturally, your own frustration, confusion and anger may get in the way.
Plus, some of the behaviors and activities that work may not be intuitive or automatic for you, especially if you’re stuck in old patterns. In fact, according to Fast and Preston, you may be surprised to learn that “bipolar disorder often doesn’t respond to traditional problem-solving behaviors.”
First, it’s important to identify your partner’s major symptoms, and to write these signs down in a journal. The goal is to figure out the main categories of your partner’s symptoms and to list the signs under each one.
Fast and Preston include categories such as depression, mania, paranoia, anxiety, anger, psychosis, self-destructive behaviors and problems with focus and concentration. If possible, talk with your partner about the problems that consistently interfere with your relationship because of bipolar disorder.
Next, you’ll create the “What Works” and “What Doesn’t Work” lists for each major symptom. Work together to create these lists, and remember to take them out whenever the first signs of each symptom strike. Also, your “What Works” list needs to include a section on medication, doctors and hospitalization.
To help you figure out what goes on your lists, Fast and Preston offer these six valuable suggestions.
1. Ask your partner about their wants and needs for each main symptom when they’re stable. For instance, you might ask them how you can help when they’re depressed and don’t want to get up; how to contact their doctor when they’re manic; and how you can help them calm down when they’re angry. However, some of your partner’s ideas may not be reasonable. Fast and Preston give the example of your partner asking to be left alone when they’re depressed.
2. Learn to respond to bipolar disorder instead of reacting to what your partner does or says. Bipolar disorder is a frustrating illness, and it’s normal to get frustrated yourself and make comments like “What’s your problem?” or “Why can’t you just calm down?” or “If you cared, you’d try harder,” according to Fast and Preston.
But this only makes matters worse and heightens your own frustration. Instead, the authors suggest starting statements with “I can see that you are…”; “It seems to me that you are sick…”; “I know you don’t feel well right now. What can we do to treat bipolar disorder so that you can feel better?”
3. Help your partner make good choices around relationships. Stressful relationships are one of the biggest triggers for symptoms, according to Fast and Preston. It’s helpful if you can become a buffer between your partner and these relationships by being a good listener and talking about how your partner’s symptoms are affected. It’s also important to work on your own problematic relationships.
4. Help your partner lead a healthy lifestyle. “Bipolar disorder is very hard on the body,” write Fast and Preston. Fortunately, you and your partner can use diet and exercise to manage symptoms and boost your well-being. That’s because both diet and exercise can affect mania, depression, anxiety and anger.
Help your partner figure out which foods negatively affect their symptoms and what physical activities they enjoy doing. You also can help by cooking healthy meals that support the body, mind and spirit.
5. Learn about complementary treatments. In addition to medication and psychotherapy, complementary treatments, such as aromatherapy, massage, acupuncture, yoga and meditation, may be very helpful in managing symptoms. Help your partner by researching these methods.
But remember that just because something is “all-natural” doesn’t make it safe or effective for your partner, according to Fast and Preston. For instance, they note that herbal supplement St. John’s Wort can have dangerous drug interactions. Also, some treatments may not be appropriate for certain symptoms, such as an intense massage when your partner is manic.
6. Help them with their medication. When they’re stable, work with your partner to figure out what helps and what doesn’t help for taking their medications. If the medications don’t seem to be working properly, help your partner make an appointment with his or her doctor. Encourage them to voice concerns. It can take time to find the right combination.
Fast and Preston include sample lists for depression symptoms. These are a few of the items they’ve included in their samples:
What Works for Depression
- I can exercise with my partner.
- I can respond to bipolar disorder by saying, I see that you’re depressed; let’s treat the depression instead of arguing. Or I can ask, What can I do to help?
- I can help more around the house.
- I can remind myself not to take bipolar disorder behavior personally. I can’t reason with depression.
- I can help my partner remember to take medications.
What Doesn’t Work for Depression
- Reacting to what my partner says by saying You just need to get motivated! instead of offering suggestions that help depression.
- Telling my partner what to do.
- Thinking that medications are the only solution and that my partner should be better already.
- Always believing what my partner says when sick.
- Trying to talk my partner out of being depressed by telling them they have so much to be grateful for.
- Remaining unaware.
Lastly, don’t forget about taking good care of yourself. In fact, that’s one of the best ways you can find what works for your partner: by figuring out what works for you. This way, you’ll not only have more know-how on what contributes to your emotional, physical and spiritual health, but you’ll also have more energy to help.