This photo shows me back in 2018 posing with the two paintings my daughter, Tami Hammond-Collins, painted of me in mania and depression. (The paintings were used for the cover of my memoir, Mad Like Me: Travels in Bipolar Country.)
As I explained in the previous blog post, I offer free consultations with book clubs and mental health support groups wanting to explore any aspects of bipolar disorder. Some adoptive and foster parents from a book club contacted me after reading Mad Like Me, and we did a Q&A together via Zoom. As always, I asked them to brainstorm questions before the event, which they did.
I shared a few of their questions with my responses in Part 1 and will answer some others here.
As I suggested in Part 1, to get the most out of your time with this post, you may want to pause after reading the question to formulate your own response before reading mine below.
Q: What advice would you give to someone caring for a loved one with bipolar disorder?
Oh, where to begin?! So many things! Let me answer that in two parts: first, what advice do I have for you yourself as a caregiver; and second, what would I advise you to do to best help your affected loved one?
1. Advice for you as a caregiver
1. Take care of yourself first! Living with and taking care of a person affected by bipolar can be absolutely exhausting. Especially during the early stages before an accurate diagnosis is made, and appropriate treatment is started. (Even then, it can take several years before the correct medication combinations and dosages are found. Each case is so unique…)
2. Refuse to bow to social stigma against mental illness; that will only increase your stress. Tell family members and friends you trust about what you’re dealing with. (They can’t support you if they don’t know!) No one is to blame; there is no shame. Mental illness is everywhere!
3. Seek support from others in the community who know what it’s like to have a mentally ill person in the home. For example, you might contact your local branch of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). Many communities have community organizations specifically set up to support the family members of people living with a mental illness, and they offer support groups, movie nights, courses, webinars, etc.
4. Watch relevant movies, video clips, TEDTalks, and read, read, read about the disorder from as many perspectives as possible. Memoirs by caregivers like yourself, and by people like me who have been diagnosed with the disorder can be equally enlightening. You may also find my 2022 anthology, Navigating Bipolar Country: Personal and Professional Perspectives on Living with Bipolar Disorder to be useful as it has powerful sections by bipolar patients, our family members, and the health professionals who work with us. (See my blog post about this book for details.)
My daughter, Tami, and me at a book launch for my bestselling 2018 memoir, Mad Like Me: Travels in Bipolar Country
2. Advice about how to relate to your affected loved one/person
1. Don’t patronize them! (Never say things like: “Oh, pull yourself together,”or “Just calm down, will you?”) Speak to them like they are a full human being; like a worthy person. “Seems you’re feeling depressed again?” or “Do you find you’re feeling a bit speeded up?” (or “racy,” or “zippy,” or whatever term you use for (hypo)mania).
2. Believe them when they say—1) in depression—“I can’t get up; can’t eat; can’t focus; can’t work; can’t go for a walk; can’t face seeing my friends; can’t take the garbage out; can’t cook…” … and—2) when (hypo)manic—“I can’t fall asleep; can’t work; can’t drive safely; can’t stop spending money; can’t sit still; can’t stop talking (fast & loudly!); can’t stop the creative flow of ‘brilliant, innovative’ ideas and grand(iose) plans…”
3. Meds are critical in my opinion: encourage your person to be patient until the doctors can find the right doses and combinations of meds. Understand that they may need several different meds (as many as 5 or 6) in the beginning to calm the brain down and get the bipolar under control; the staff will wean them off later. (For example, I’m only on two meds now; several others that were needed to control my rapid-cycling moods in the beginning have been stopped.)
4. Finally, once they’re more stable, encourage them to take greater control of their bipolar management. Say something like: “You are the driver of your own bipolar bus. Take charge. Educate yourself. Make a self-care plan. I will support you, of course, but only you can take charge. It's your mental health; your disorder; your life!”
I hope these ideas, together with those in the previous blog post will help you as someone who’s accompanying a person living with bipolar disorder.
If you have any specific questions you’d like me to address in a future blog post, please use the Contact Form to send them in. I’d love to hear from you!