Guest Post by Rebecca Muir
Living in a family where a member is affected by a serious mental illness is never easy. Depending on the disorder present, you experience life differently. Living with a bipolar spouse can feel like an unwanted rollercoaster ride. The complexities and challenges of navigating everyday life can feel overwhelming. Often despair and feelings of powerlessness are the status quo when living with a bipolar spouse. So, having support for each family member is crucial to empower families, partnerships, and diagnosed individuals when Bipolar Disorder (BPD) is present.
It is easy to blame the person diagnosed with BPD for family and relational dysfunction. Living with a bipolar spouse can easily drive you to assume that if the spouse with BPD would only get “better” then everything would be better. However, life lived with those affected by BPD is rarely that simple. Psychopharmacology, therapy, and a balanced healthy lifestyle for the diagnosed person address only part of the needed support for the bipolar spouse and family.
Additional support is needed because relationships are by nature joint ventures, and a family is a group effort. In any family, the health and well-being of each individual member is important and directly affect the well-being of the whole family. When BPD is present, this is especially true.
So how do you enhance your own and your family’s health and well-being? To achieve this, I suggest putting your energy into three main areas.
- Education – Educating yourself about BPD and how it impacts family members can be immensely helpful in understanding some of the more baffling and hurtful behaviors you encounter. Additionally, gently educating your bipolar spouse and other family members about the effects of BPD on the family can help everyone offer better-informed support for each other.
- Self-Care – You cannot pour from an empty cup. It is vitally important to take care of yourself in relationships and families where BPD is present. You are better equipped to handle hard times, more prepared to flourish during good times, and overall more balanced in your experiences of life when you place taking care of yourself as a top priority.
- Support – You are not alone. There are many other spouses and families struggling with the turmoil that can ensue in families contending with BPD. It can be a relief to know that you are not alone in your struggles. Finding support through podcasts, support groups, and social networks can provide another layer of stabilizing insight and support.
There are many great resources to learn about BPD. Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder: Understanding and Helping You Partner by Julie Fast is a great start to both educating yourself about the complexities of BPD and how to live with a bipolar spouse. Also, All the Things We Never Knew: Chasing the Chaos of Mental Illness by Sheila Hamilton is a great resource for families in crisis. When Someone You Love is Bipolar: Help and Support for You and Your Partner by Cynthia Last is another good book written by a clinical psychologist who both lives with BPD and treats couples with partners diagnosed with BPD.
Self-care looks different for each person. There is a misconception that self-care entails spending money on yourself and taking bubble baths. But true self-care is more meaningful than this and will vary from person to person. Likely self-care actions for most of us include the following.
First is saying no to obligations that drain you. Saying no is something that can be learned. If you have trouble with saying no, start with saying, “Let me think about that and get back to you.” And you’ll be on your way! Self-care also means setting healthy boundaries with loved ones to protect your energy and your sanity. No one is or must be everything to everybody.
Self-care also means doing things that fill your cup (e.g. helping others, finding passion in creative outlets, spending time in nature, and/or pursuing our education and career goals). It’s true that you have to have something in order to give it away, so filling your cup helps you live life more fully. Living a life that is true to your deepest values and giving yourself permission to speak, live, and seek your truth is a kind and transformative act of self-care.
Another arena of self-care is your physical health. Eating healthy foods, drinking enough water, getting enough sleep, and getting regular exercise are some widely supported components of good physical self-care.
Lastly, finding ways to nurture your spiritual health is important. This too will look different for everyone. Some may go to a church, temple, or mosque. Others find peace and clarity in meditation. Some people find a connection to nature or music to fulfill their spiritual needs. Regardless of the way you find works best to serve your spiritual health, taking care of this aspect of life is a necessary component of self-care that cannot be overstated.
There are numerous supports out there for people living with a bipolar spouse. One such support, which is also an educational resource, is a podcast called The Mental Health Marriage by Em Kacey. Listening to this podcast can help you realize you aren’t alone in living through the chaos that BPD can create. The host does a wonderful job of being real and candid, but also encouraging and hopeful. Listening to it from the beginning is highly recommend.
The Depression and Bipolar Alliance (DBSA) offers various free in-person and online support groups for families and spouses of people experiencing, you guessed it, depression and bipolar disorder. These groups are usually facilitated by a qualified expert like a social worker, psychologist, etc. They have structured, supportive discussions. Also, you can help your bipolar spouse by pointing them to the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI), which offers free peer-led support groups. The NAMI website has additional resources for mental illness education.
Lastly, it’s wise to exercise caution with “support” groups found on Facebook and other social media. These groups are created for spouses and significant others (SOs) of people living with BPD. While there may be an occasional useful and solution-focused post, many of these groups find their identity in focusing on the tragic, infuriating “ills” of this disease, and serve as an outlet for venting by frustrated and fed up SOs. While most people can find some benefit in a shared understanding of the difficulties people face living with someone with BPD, without a focus on education, self-help, and support, these groups do little to help us find our way toward a more balanced, healthy lives and relationships.
Living with a partner or family member with BPD can be a lifelong challenge, but you can equip yourself with tools to better navigate these challenges by educating yourself, taking care of yourself, and going through it together with those who understand and can support you. It is important to each family member, especially your children, that you do this. You cannot do a good job of taking care of others when you haven’t first taken care of yourself.
If you’re in the northern Illinois area and want help with living with a bipolar spouse, contact the therapists at Life Care Wellness. A therapist can be part of the support you need in facing the challenges of bipolar disorder being present in your home. Contact us today to be connected with a counselor in our Glen Ellyn, Sycamore, Jefferson Park (Chicago) offices.
Blog by Rebecca Muir
Rebecca is currently attending the online Master of Social Work program of Tulane University in Louisiana. She loves incorporating mindfulness-based strategies during therapy and encourages clients to use them outside of sessions to help create a more peaceful, joy-filled life. Rebecca is a Board-Certified Autism Technician (BCAT) as well as a Mindfulness and Meditation Therapist. As an intern at Life Care Wellness, she can accept clients on a self-pay basis only. She offers a low sliding scale so that individuals of all financial backgrounds can be seen.