Taking Care of Yourself When a Loved One Has Bipolar
If your loved one suffers from bipolar disorder, you suffer too.
When you love somebody you are emotionally connected to that person, so if that person rides an emotional roller-coaster, you are also dragged onto the dangerous and scary ride. It is really difficult to maintain your own stability when the household feels like a tornado. On the other hand, you know that you are the one that needs to be strong to stabilize the family. It just seems like one impossible task.
How You Can Help Most
If you take on the challenge to single-handedly enforce “normalcy” then it's probably an impossible task. However, since very few homes constantly and consistently approximate the ideal of a normal home, that should not be your goal.
So even if strength and stability are what you contribute to the household, you don’t need to force it and be responsible for everybody’s strength and stability.
A more reasonable goal would be to become and remain a beacon of strength and stability that others can learn from.
Living as a beacon of strength is no easy task! To do this you need to care for yourself, which can feel selfish - and even if you are caring for yourself so you can give to others, your loved one is likely to accuse you of acting selfishly.
None-the-less, it is the best thing you can do for the bipolar sufferer as well as everybody else involved. There needs to be one person who acts as the emotional lightening rod, the grounding force that releases the emotional shocks, the one who can anchor the floundering ship to stable reality. Sometimes that just has to be you. How in the world are you going to do that without “killing” yourself?
You have probably experienced some of the symptoms of burnout, even if you have not yet fallen apart from it.
You're on the verge of burnout if:
- You have ever felt like just escaping because it seems to you that all the effort is useless
- You have felt like you just don’t care anymore
- You feel that you need to throw in the towel
However, once you bounce back you realize that those feelings were not “really you”.
You need to act as a source of stability. You can't act this way when on the verge of burnout, so here are some tips for avoiding that overwhelming, burnt-out state of mind:
Tips for Avoiding Burnout
Care for Yourself First
If you’ve ever been on a commercial airline you’ve heard the safety speech: if the oxygen masks deploy, take care of yourself and then help your kids.
It makes sense. If you are going down the drain, how will you help the one you love? So take a look at your life:
- What would you do to have a sense of well-being if you were not caring for anybody but yourself?
- What are your own personal goals and priorities?
- Have you let that wonderful hobby (dancing, football, gourmet cooking, or whatever) fall to the side because there is just not enough time?
It could be that two hours twice a week for a hobby could help you be more efficient during high-stress periods, so in the end, you actually get more done.
Find External Meaning and Purpose
Another tactic to enhance a sense of well-being is to become active in some volunteer organization.
Get involved in something that's bigger than you and your problems:
- It could be a church or other religious group
- It could be a social cause
- It could even be an involvement in something connected to the illness such a joining NAMI or organizing a support group (albeit for some people such activities could have the opposite effect.)
There are other places to look.
- Have you lost contact with a special friend or relative? Put that on your priority list - Make a date for coffee and catch up (but not for coffee and ketchup).
- Have you put off school or training? Think about how to keep yourself in the loop. Refining your skills will make sure that you remain up to date just as you would have been if not for these added challenges.
Additionally, you don’t want a feeling of resentment when he or she recovers and your social life or professional life has been sacrificed with nothing to show for it.
Find Social Support
Stigma is scary. We live in a society that punishes people with mental illness in all sorts of subtle and not so subtle ways. Therefore too many of us try to hide that we are dealing with a misunderstood illness.
You need to find at least one other person that you can share your experiences with:
- Somebody you can trust who you know will not take over some of your responsibilities. If you feel that they might take on some of your load you might not want to burden them with your issues.
- This is a good goal for therapy if you don’t have an acquaintance that can do the job. Support groups are supposed to serve this purpose also. Join a support group and see how it goes.
This deserves an article on its own (see the article “Maintaining Boundaries: How to Say No with Compassion”). Without strong and reasonable boundaries, your other efforts for self-care will be sabotaged. You need boundaries for your time, place, emotions and virtually every area of life.
Take a good hard look and evaluate how much you can do before your begin the burn-out process:
- You need your sleep and other time to achieve your personal goals.
- You might need to place a financial boundary to make sure an attack of mania doesn’t deplete your bank account.
- If you are employed out of the home you might need a rule that your workplace is off-limits.
Most important: once you have the limits in place stick to them!
Manage Your Stress
You will be stressed, but you do not have to be “stressed out.”
Remember that a certain amount of stress can be healthy; it motivates us to get things done. But constant and overwhelming stress needs to be avoided since it will cause all sorts of unpleasant reactions in your body and to your mind. So the goal is to manage your stress – keep it in its place. This topic also deserves an article for itself (see 9 Ways to Deal with Stress).
I would like to point out that there are two ways of thinking that most people have when it comes to stress:
- Stress vacations
- Lifestyle management
In the “vacations” category are those things that people do to escape their stress. Besides actual vacations, this can include taking in a movie, going to a party, or even taking a walk. These are good tools, but they do not significantly change your ability to handle stress. If you’ve ever taken a vacation because of living through a stressful period, you quickly realize that your problems do not go away and the stress returns soon after the vacation is over.
Lifestyle changes increase your ability to deal with stress. Examples might be adopting a healthier diet or sleep schedule, or taking up a practice of meditation - or even taking a walk, if it is a regularly scheduled and important part of your daily ritual (whether you need it or not.)
Build a Team
If you have read this far you are probably thinking, “I already had too much to handle before all these suggestions - if I follow them all, I certainly won't have enough time or strength to do everything.”
You’re right. If you could not do it alone before, it will still be difficult after you start taking better care of yourself (even though I’ve seen it become easier, it is never easy to “walk on eggshells” whenever you are home.)
So one more important project in this list of suggestions is to find a partner who can pitch in with you. It could be a relative or a close friend. Sometimes it is worthwhile to consider a friend of the loved one who can help. In American culture we tend to be more isolating than in many other cultures, and can be embarrassed to ask for help. On the other hand, in our culture we tend to give help more easily than in many other cultures. So overcome any embarrassment and reach out, either to a private person or to an organization that can meet some of your needs.
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