Helping Your Bipolar Loved One: It All Begins in His or Her Reality
A few weeks ago, I asked you to consider five hypothetical situations regarding relationships. Let’s review the first two.
Your loved one tells you the situation is hopeless. Life sucks. She is about to lose her job and become homeless and she doesn’t want to be a burden on you anymore.
How do you respond?
I’m sure you know that “snap out of it” is simply not going to cut it. Nor is any attempt at cheering her up. And forget about offering hope. You may think you are flipping the “on” switch. You will soon discover the switch is not connected to anything. Press the button all you want - nothing is going to happen
So what can you do?
When the lights won’t come on, your best hope is to crawl down into your loved one’s dark space and wait for your eyes to adjust. She says, “Life is hopeless,” you say, “I see your point.” She says, “I don’t want to go on living anymore,” you say, “Who can blame you?”
This is about establishing trust. Once you've made the connection, you are in a position to move the conversation forward, where it is possible to imagine a more hopeful outcome.
Your loved one tells you he is going to hop on a plane, fly straight to Washington DC, march straight into the White House and demand to see President Obama and tell him how to run the country.
How do you respond?
Whatever you do - do not say what you were just about to say. To a person in a manicky state of mind, your justifiable outpouring of reason and common sense is going to come across as insensitive and provoking.
Your best bet in this situation is to say, “Good idea.” If you’re feeling inspired, you might want to ask, “Do you want me to book the tickets?”
Here the landscape is reversed. Instead of crawling down into your loved one’s cave, you are climbing up to his perch on the edge of a cliff. Once again, we are talking about establishing a connection, on your partner’s own terms.
Wrapping this up ...
Dealing with a depressed or manicky partner is frightening, frustrating, and often heartbreaking. You will be taxed beyond your limits - and beyond that. To make your life easier, here are two quick lists, based on my experiences living on both side of the equation, but first this disclaimer:
If your partner is in immediate danger or is putting others in danger, or if circumstances call for you being the adult in the room, obviously you will have to assert yourself.
... assume that somehow you have hacked life better than your partner and that you are the superior, more grounded, more realistic party in the relationship. That may very well be true, but now is not the time for alpha posturing.
... assume that just because what you say happens to be perfectly correct and reasonable that your partner is going to respond like Plato to your Socrates. Save that for later.
... go overboard with expressions of empathy and compassion. It is all to easy to come across as patronizing and phony and totally lacking in understanding.
... be willing to engage with your partner in his own reality, on his own terms. Your best hope of leading your partner back to your reality is by establishing trust in his one.
... be willing to validate your partner’s thoughts and feelings and perceptions. The overriding reality - the one that trumps all realities - is the psychic distress your partner is feeling.
... be willing to listen. Even if your partner is spouting nonsense, she will be providing you with valuable clues into her state of mind and how you can help.
And always keep in mind ...
You are by far the most important factor in your partner’s recovery. This may not seem like the case once you realize that there is no magic “on” or “off” button you can press, especially when your partner is displaying resentment and hostility towards you. But contemplate this snippet from a recent NY Times Magazine piece on comedian Maria Bamford:
“You’re horrible,” she thinks about a friend who visits her in the psych ward and says all the wrong things. “But can you come back tomorrow?”