Before my partner's mom had a stroke, she helped her husband manage his bipolar disorder and OCD. Now that she is impaired from the stroke, his condition has been rearing its ugly head.
Compulsions, black and white thinking, badgering, anger...these have all been permeating the house, changing the focus away from mom's recovery from the stroke to having to focus on him and his emotional volatility.
I end up feeling frustrated and helpless.
And so I turn to my friend, Julie Fast.
I met Julie in a writing group, where we worked together for over a year. She wrote her first book, LOVING SOMEONE WITH BIPOLAR DISORDER during that time. She is herself suffers from the illness and is unable to take most bipolar medications. She has spent years figuring out how to manage living with the illness. She developed a treatment plan that is adaptable to everyone's own individual situation, which she discusses on her website, bipolarhappens.com. (isn't that a great name?)
We've lost touch over recent years, my own mother had a stroke and declined in health, the writing group disbanded, she's doing her writing and work, and I'm doing mine. I did buy her books as they were released, buying them to support her as an author. I never planned on using them myself.
But here we are, with bipolar disorder in the family, and I have been combing her books for guidance on how to deal with this disease.
In one of her books, TAKING CHARGE OF BIPOLAR DISORDER, Julie has a chapter about The Bipolar Conversation.
She talks about how bipolar disorder affects people's brains and how they interact with others. When people with bipolar disorder are 'ill', they might get depressed, and say that life isn't worth living. Or they might get angry and lash out. Or they might get paranoid and think that people are after them. Their emotions are uncontrollable. The words they say aren't an accurate reflection of their lives, rather they are an expression and indication of their unmanageable emotions.
Her point in the chapter is that reasoning with people when they talk this way doesn't work. Trying to explain that nobody is after them, or that their life IS worth living does nothing to help the person get out of that mindset, nor does it help the person doing the rationalizing.
The person with bipolar gets stuck going around and around confirming what they said and the person trying to talk with them gets frustrated because they perceive the other person's conversation as unreasonable. Frustration all around. Sometimes, she says, relationships are lost or broken because of this difficulty in communication.
Her suggestion in this chapter is not to try to argue with the person about the specifics of what they are saying - their life isn't worth living (yes it is!), they don't have friends (you have lots of friends!), but instead to focus instead on the illness. This is how the person talks when bipolar disorder is unmanageable and they are 'ill'.
Better, she says, to say things like "This is how you sound when you're depressed. (or feeling paranoid. or manic.) Let's see how we can help get you out of the depression" (go for a walk, see a movie, go out for coffee).
One of the keys (and I don't think this can be emphasized enough) is to talk about this with the person with bipolar disorder BEFORE they are 'ill'. Before there is a crisis. Before something triggers their spiral into depression or anger or paranoia.
My stepdad in-law had a pretty major trigger; his wife had a stroke. It's not surprising that his illness is harder to manage at this time, that he's lashing out with anger, that he is obsessing about certain topics.
We have tried to work through logistics with him, seemingly simple things such as having their church deliver meals to them so they don't have to cook. This has caused him to obsess about diet and religion, two things he obsessed about before the stroke. When we tried to talk to him about this (and other things), he's gotten angry and unable to talk about it. We've been reduced to tears repeatedly, and he's carried his anger with him in the house like a scythe.
We've been trying to navigate the stroke recovery, AND his turbulent emotions. It's been hard to figure out how to help them as he alternately thinks he can do it all (he cannot), and realizes that he can't do it all but won't accept any help.
We've spoken to his daughter on the phone, who advised us to stop trying to reason with him, it doesn't work (that's for sure!).
When I read Julie's chapter on The Bipolar Conversation, I saw that that was what she was talking about too. Rational, reasonable discussion is impossible when his emotions are so turbulent.
Julie Fast's books are proactive and positive. She is realistic about the difficulties and challenges of living with bipolar disorder, and she gives concrete guidance. She stresses how important it is to work with the person with bipolar before there is a crisis to come up with ways to deal with the volatile emotions before they rage out of control.
This is not possible right now, we are right in the middle of it. So now we're trying not to trigger more emotions by not talking about his current trigger topics and doing problem-solving and logistics planning on our own.
Thank you, Julie, for all your help!
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