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BY Julie A. Fast

The way that the people you love treat you can make a difference in your bipolar disorder recovery.

My family has really had a tough time because of my bipolar disorder. A few years after I was diagnosed in 1995, my mom said to me, “I don’t know how to help you, Julie.” I didn’t know how to help myself at the time, so it wasn’t really surprising to hear her say this. Seeing someone struggle with bipolar disorder is like watching a train wreck about to happen and feeling helpless to do anything about it. I know this was my family’s reality for years. Finally, in 1998, when I became extremely sick, I decided to do something about the way bipolar disorder was viewed in my family. I just knew there had to be a better way for the people in my life to help me—I was going to find out what it was. Then, I was going to teach them.

Common mistakes

My family used to walk blindly into every situation caused by bipolar. They would say, “Julie’s depressed, what can we do? Let’s try this!” I would get better and then I would get sick again and they would say, “Julie’s manic, what do we do? What we did last time didn’t work, so let’s do this!” There was no plan—it really did seem as if bipolar was just one big mess and impossible to understand. By this time, I had lost most of my friends; my family was literally worn out by how sick I was. I called my mother, crying, almost every night.

Things changed

In 1999, I had the idea to write down all my bipolar disorder symptoms. I’m not sure how or why I thought this would help, but I just kept going until the list was in the hundreds. Suddenly, as I was looking at the list, the whole thing broke itself into obvious patterns: When I was depressed, my symptoms were always the same. This was true for my mania, psychosis, and all other mood swings; they all had distinct symptoms that never varied. This meant it wasn’t a random illness impossible to address. Rather, if I could understand my own patterns, then teach these patterns to my family, they would better know what to do when I became ill. I write about this plan in my books, Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder and Take Charge of Bipolar Disorder, both cowritten with John Preston, PsyD. It took my family and me a few years to have a real system in place. Now that we do, however, all our lives are much easier.

‘I don’t have bipolar disorder and you need to leave me alone!’

My family is lucky and we all know it— I accept the diagnosis of bipolar and do everything I can to get better. Unfortunately, according to psychologist Xavier Amador, PhD, author of I Am Not Sick I Don’t Need Help! this is not the case for the estimated 50 percent of individuals who have bipolar disorder and who can’t—or won’t—see the effects of bipolar on their lives. Other people’s family members ask me all the time, “What can I do if my sister won’t get help?” Or, “My mother refuses to believe she has bipolar disorder and she’s ruining our family. What can we do?”

Of course, not seeing the havoc caused by bipolar is a common symptom of the disorder itself, Dr. Amador once pointed out to me. In other words, the person you love is not trying to wreck your life on purpose. Certainly, there are those who know they have bipolar disorder, but don’t wish to change. After all, they would have to stop drinking and getting into terrible relationships, and eventually let go of that lovely high of mania! Indeed, it’s common to hear such comments as “Forget medications! They will dull my mind and make me into a walking zombie! You’re the one with the problem!” Such attitudes can cause a lot of chaos in a family.

What can you do?

To help, you can learn the patterns of the person who has bipolar disorder and understand what you’re up against. As painful as it may be, you may have to set strong limits on what you will accept. For instance, if you’re letting your depressed son live in your basement and he’s smoking pot all day, or if you keep bailing out your father every time he spends all his money, you have to look at what this does to your life. Saying no and taking care of yourself may be one of the hardest things you will ever do. While it can feel like you’re abandoning the person you love, for some people this may be the only option. Doing this isn’t easy and I’m not making light of the matter, but when someone is not getting better, you must make some tough decisions.

My life today

When I asked my mom what is different now compared to when I first got sick, she says, “Since we started your plan (the one described in my book), it’s like being on watch all the time. I look for signs of how you use rapid speech, express excessive worries about money, or try to do too much. I then call your brother and we work together to make sure you’re okay. He calls you, or we make sure to get you out somewhere. I don’t think you notice what we’re doing when you’re sick.”

My mother adds that she and other family members try to help me before things get out of hand—this approach works. “You taught us what you need and we take over when you can’t help yourself,” she says. “We now know all your patterns. We’re no longer totally surprised by your behavior—we expect it and aren’t as scared as before.”

I guess I knew how she was going to answer my question, but it still made me cry—I hate being such a burden to my family. This illness has taken so much from us. But that is just how it is, isn’t it? It would be the same if I had a physical disability or illness. My mom says that if I had cancer, we would all, of course, learn what we could to help me stay alive.

So we have had to face facts: I have a chronic illness that will never go away. What has changed, though, is how I manage my bipolar and how I ask for their help. By working together, we have more normal and fun times than sick times. It wouldn’t be this way if I hadn’t taught them what I need—and they hadn’t been willing to listen and do all they could to help.
I’m very thankful for my family.

Printed as “Teaching Your Loved Ones To Help You”, Spring 2007


Julie A. Fast
Julie A. Fast is the author of "Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder," "Take Charge of Bipolar Disorder," "Get it Done When You’re Depressed" and "The Health Cards Treatment System for Bipolar Disorder." She is a columnist and blogger for BP Magazine and won the Mental Health America journalism award for the best mental health column in the US. Julie was also the recipient of the Eli Lily Reintegration award for her work in bipolar disorder advocacy. Julie is a bipolar disorder expert for the Dr.Oz and Oprah created site ShareCare. Julie is CEU certified and regularly trains health care professionals including psychiatric residents, social workers, therapists and general practitioners on bipolar disorder management skills. She was the original consultant for Claire Danes for the show Homeland and is on the mental health expert registry for People Magazine. She works as a coach for parents and partners of people with bipolar disorder. Julie is currently writing a book for children called "Hortensia and the Magical Brain: Poems for Kids with Bipolar, Anxiety, Psychosis and Depression." You can find more about her work at JulieFast.com and BipolarHappens.com.


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