Living with bipolar or any other serious mental illness is not easy. However, some may say it is even more challenging to be the support system for these individuals. I haven’t been on that side of the relationship, but I’ve had conversations with the people who love and supported me during my mental health issues to understand what they went through.
I would like to share some insights from those conversations, along with some useful thoughts from coaching I’ve received regarding this, in addition to my own experience of living with bipolar disorder for more than 25 years. I hope you find this helpful if you are going through a tough time supporting someone you love who is going through a mental illness challenge.
There are several types of relationships, but to be able to talk about it in a way that might be the most beneficial, I will focus on the parent-child relationship (most of this will still apply if you replace it with your relationship situation). When your child is first diagnosed with this disorder, regardless of how old they may be, it will seem like your world has turned upside down. You might think the life and future you envisioned for your child is instantly taken away. It could be difficult for you to accept this reality for them; while at the same time dealing with your own grief of losing the child you thought you were supposed to have.
As a parent, when you watch your child suffer, it creates a feeling of powerlessness. You think your child shouldn’t experience pain. Unfortunately, you can’t change what your child is experiencing as much as you may want to. The truth is your child will suffer in life. It is not your job to make sure they don't suffer; it's your job to be there when they do. Once you realize you can’t control the life your child has, it will be easier for you to allow them to feel the negative things they feel and just be there to support them.
If your child is not able to accept their diagnosis initially, give them time and space. It’s equally important for you to have acceptance of it. If you don’t acknowledge they have bipolar and speak about it in a negative way, they will think something is wrong with them because of it and fight their diagnosis even more. From your acceptance of their disorder, they will be able to share with you freely without fear of judgement and it will help them slowly come to terms with it.
There will be turmoil in both the manic and depressive phases, each will bring its own challenges. Your child may not be receptive of your support and even be annoyed by it. Don’t make it mean anything about you or your child when they react in a certain way. Don’t judge yourself or your child through this; believe that you are both doing the best you can. Try accepting this is the child you have right now, it may not always be this way, but it’s what you must deal with at the moment. Your child will one day appreciate you even more for being there and loving them when it was hardest to do so.
As their support system, the best thing you can do is to let your child know that they always have a safe landing place with you. You will always be there regardless of how difficult it may get. You won't be able to see it now, but this is an opportunity for you to show up differently than you ever thought you could as a parent. Your relationship could take on a whole new level because of this–if not now–in the long run.
Decide who you want to be through all of this and show up in that way as best as you can. Be kind to yourself because it will not be an easy journey with lots of ups and downs. Remember to take care of yourself in the process. Find your own support system. Having a child with mental health issues can feel isolating because you don’t feel like you can talk about this to just anyone. There are numerous resources available these days if you search for it. It can be helpful to know that other people are going through the same things you are. Being able to speak about it can bring tremendous relief.
Having bipolar is not the life you wanted for your child. However, in their struggle, they could find remarkable strength and build character they wouldn't have otherwise developed. They will also get to experience the amazing parent you are because you showed up with your unconditional love and support. It's an opportunity that would not have been available if they didn't have bipolar.
Additionally, I’ve always had the philosophy of giving others a second chance. This most likely stems from my wish for others to give me a second chance for the things I have done when I was not well. When someone living with bipolar is in a manic or depressive state, they may not be aware how their behavior affects those around them. Even though they may want to get better for others around them to not worry or get upset with them; they can’t snap out of it as much as they may try.
If you wrote off someone in your life who lives with bipolar because having them in your life was not easy; if it is possible for you, I encourage you to reconsider your decision and that relationship. Bipolar disorder is something one is born with and didn’t choose for themselves. In life’s toughest moments for someone living with bipolar, they often have little control over their actions. This may be hard for you to accept, but if this person is important to you, try to find it in your heart to forgive them and love them despite what might have happened.
I am not recommending overlooking horrible things someone may have done repeatedly, not necessarily as a function of their mental illness, but rather as a part of their nature. Mental illness happens to good people just as likely as it happens to bad people. All I am encouraging you to think about is to not discard a relationship with someone who might have meant something to you. You could be missing out on the most significant relationship of your life.
Conversely, if you are reading this as the person living with bipolar who can’t accept yourself for the things you have done because of your disorder, I invite you to think about it in a different way. Consciously ask yourself this question and take time to answer it deliberately. How is blaming yourself and having guilt and shame over past actions, which were not in your control affecting your life right now?
Of course there are things you wish you could re-do from your past. Unfortunately, life happens in the present and eventually the future. Your past can’t be different than it was. Your present shouldn’t be spent dwelling on things you can’t change. With intentionality, focus on what you want your life to look like moving forward and work towards that future. It is never too late to change your life, regardless of your past or your age.
“We don’t have to do all of it alone. We were never meant to.” – Brene Brown