Relationships: When Someone Plays the Bipolar Card

Patient Expert

Four years ago, here at BipolarConnect, I posted a piece with this rather provocative title, Bipolar and Proud. The piece started off:

I just received a personally autographed book in the mail called "The Bipolar Advantage" by Tom Wootton. I haven't read it yet, but the opening two sentences kind of intrigued me: "This is bullshit. There is nothing good about being bipolar." ...

The "good" in bipolar is another discussion. The topic here is about what loved ones have to go through, which was triggered by a comment to my piece:

"Interesting that I found this when I did," wrote Valerie more than a year later (which is why I haven't seen it till now). "My husband is the one who said 'this is bullshit' in the seminar we both attended at Tom's home that weekend, and all we got out of it was an autographed book."

She went on to say that after six years of trying to help her husband, "I've discovered that - bottom line - if a person is determined to see only 'bullshit' in bipolar, that's what they're going to get.  Nothing anyone else can say or do." In her own words:

I've literally lost all I have financially, am hanging on the precipice of Hell emotionally, and am in the process of trying to save myself from the damage I've suffered at the hand of my soon-to-be-ex husband's self-loathing, which has been turned against me time and time again, despite my sincerest attempts to help him.

She continues:

This "bipolar" man has pretended to be suicidal, threatened me, belittled me, intentionally said things he knows are devastating to me, used me, physically abused me, and has come very close to succeeding in robbing me of my joy in life.

In the end, Valerie decided to save herself and leave, but not before her now ex pulled out all the stops, goading her, confronting her, pretending again to be suicidal, trying to make her feel it was HER fault, her problem.

"Finally," she concluded, "after being dragged through Hell and sacrificing my future financial well-being trying to help this selfish individual, it's my turn to say BULLSHIT."

I hear you, Valerie. Speaking as a patient, I am profoundly aware of the hell we put you through. Likewise, I have also experienced this illness from the same side of the equation you have, so let me share with you some of my observations:

A lot of your ex's outrageous behavior may be attributable to bipolar, but certainly not all of it. I have written on this before, and the topic is well worth revisiting. We get many queries here from individuals bewildered at the outrageous behavior in their loved ones. "Is it bipolar?" they inevitably ask.

"Probably not," I have to answer if we are limiting our discussion to abusive or thoughtless or manipulating behavior. This is not part of the bipolar diagnosis. Hitting below the belt is universal. If there is a measure of predictability to this behavior, psychiatry has a range of other labels - not bipolar - to choose from: Antisocial, borderline, and narcissistic spring instantly to mind.

The labels can be confusing, as no one fits neatly into a diagnosis. We are nearly always talking about a blur of things going on. But here's something you might find interesting. The DSM is fairly neutral in its criteria for depression and mania. In essence, we may be out of control or not thinking straight, but you won't find anything you can interpret as an antipathy or hostility toward others.

Contrast this with the personality disorders:

"There is a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others."   "Lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another." (Antisocial personality disorder.)

"A pervasive pattern of instability of interpersonal relationships, self-image, and affects." "A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation." (Borderline personality disorder.)

"A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy." "Believes that he or she is "special" and unique." (Narcissistic personality disorder.)

So yes, Valerie, your ex may have bipolar, but the real issue is what he does with it. Most of us with the diagnosis are doing our best to live normally in a crazy world. When things inevitably go wrong, we tend to be mortified. Typically, we ask for understanding, but we're not making excuses. We take responsibility, we do our best to make amends. But in the end, we accept the bitter fact that we may prove impossible to live with.

Your ex obviously isn't like that. Fortunately, you are free from him. We are not. He's still out there, playing the bipolar card, hiding behind an illness he may not even have. Trust me, every time he pulls one of his thoughtless stunts, every time he gives someone like you a reason to fear and loath people like me, my life instantly gets that much harder.