What Does Bipolar Support Really Mean?
Bipolar patients, their family and friends, share their definitions of "bipolar support."
Meaning of Bipolar Support
Offering bipolar support can be a tricky proposition. Parents, family members and friends want to be helpful, but many times are confused because they are rejected by the patient and told "you just don't understand." Before actually providing support for bipolar disorder, a good rule of thumb is to ask the person point blank: "How can I help you? What is it you want from me?" To provide bipolar family members with further insight into the process of offering helpful support, we asked people with bipolar disorder and their supporters:
"What does bipolar support really mean?"
Below are responses from people living with bipolar disorder, and their friends and family members.
Bipolar Support: What I'm Looking For
"Support people of someone with bipolar disorder need to be patient, patient, patient! We are easily distracted, have difficulty with concentration and focus, forget what you told us 5 seconds ago, much less being able to remember to do something you asked us to do 5 hours from now. We lose things, misplace things, or just plain do not see things that are right in front of our eyes. While looking for that 'misplaced' item, we may misplace 10 more items. By this time, our mind is in a panic and total state of confusion. We used to be organized and on time, but now it can take hours to get organized and get together the things we need when preparing to get out the door to go somewhere.We lose our train of thought, what we meant to say comes out backward or the word we meant to say comes out a different word that starts with the same first letter. At times, we fly into a rage over seemingly nothing. Some of us get physical - most of us are not. To those bipolar support people and/or family and friends, understand that none of the above is personal. The irritation, frustration and confusion that you feel about us at times, we feel triple that amount about ourselves plus add in a huge scoop of guilt and shame over our actions."
"With my husband, I adjusted to make doctor appointments, call for medication refills and other things for him. After the diagnosis of bipolar disorder, my continuing to do these things allowed him to deny that the bipolar disorder was HIS illness and he needed to deal with it. So I quit! I will do these things occasionally when needed, but I made him responsible for his doctor appointments. I do not count his pills. I do not ask him if he is taking his medications. I have made him responsible for doing these things and I trust him to do so."
"The most important way a significant other or family member can help me, or offer support for bipolar disorder, is by understanding me. I may act in ways that aren't 'normal.' Realize that this is due to bipolar disorder. You can best do this by reading up on this disease, learning the characteristics of this illness, the actions that it may cause me to do so that you are not surprised if one or two of them happen. Through understanding me, you can empathize with some of the difficulties I experience. I don't need nor want your pity, but empathy goes a long way. It allows you to see why I may do something that would puzzle you if you had not read about my illness."
"Trust me, yet know when to step in. Allow me to live my life independently and freely. Don't count my pills or tell me to take my medications. Let me make all my decisions as I would normally, yet recognize the warning signs of depression and mania and get medical help for me if I am unable to do so. Read up on the bipolar medications I am taking so that you know what possible side effects I may be experiencing. But most of all, believe in me and support me in my choices. Believe in me when I am going through a hard phase. Tell me that I will get better because you have faith in who I am and support me because you love me."
"Do not treat me as though I no longer have a brain. Do not hover. Trust me to make my own decisions, including those that effect my treatment and the course of my illness. Make me take responsibility for my illness and my actions, but love me regardless."
"Bipolar support? Understand that you will never really understand what is going on in my mind, because I rarely understand it myself. Know that when I say, 'There's nothing you can do to help,' that is probably the time when I need you the most."
"Accept when I say I can't, even if I could the day before."
"I will joke about my disorder. I will make wisecracks about being fruit loops or taking vacations at the mental hospital. Please don't do so yourself. This is my right, my defense mechanism, that I will allow you to share in time, but only you. Do not joke about it to your friends."
"Know that this isn't your fault. This isn't my fault either. I didn't ask for this and can't just will it away with happy thoughts. Be there anyway."
"I want to be treated the same as ever - whether you like me or not. I don't want anyone to be afraid of me because of my bipolar disorder. I don't want to be handled with kid gloves. I don't want to be any better or worse than anyone else."
"The most important thing that anyone can do, as a family member of someone with bipolar disorder is to inform themselves about it and ask questions. I don't mind at all if someone asks me about it, about my moods, my meds, anything, so long as they honestly want to know versus simply meddling in my business or searching for gossip. I think that the more someone knows, the less likely they are to do the things that offend me most. A lot of stress in my life could be eliminated if the curious would simply ask. I'm not ashamed, and I try to make myself as approachable as I can be."
"I did not ask to be born with this. Treat me the same way that you would treat someone with a chronic illness."
"Educate yourself about my illness. There but for the grace of God go I - should be a thought that you carry with you. If you don't know about the disease, ask me. I will tell you. Don't assume and don't believe every movie that you watch on television. I am no more prone to take you and your kids hostage as your minister would be. Treat me with respect and love me for who I am. I will probably be on medication for the rest of my life. Don't make fun of me. Just understand that at times I don't understand myself - so you need to understand and respect that."
Bipolar Disorder Support: How I Want to Be Treated
For those offering bipolar disorder support, it's sometimes easy to confuse the illness with the person. "Oh, he's bipolar." No, he's not bipolar. He's a person with bipolar disorder.
"Do not blame my bipolar for every argument that we have - spouses do have faults too and we're not always to blame, although our moods do contribute to our share."
"Please do not tell me how I feel. You aren't in my head and have no concept of the craziness that sometimes goes on. Own your feelings and I'll own mine."
"Please forgive me when I verbally attack you because the guilt that is felt afterward is absolutely horrible and we never really intend to hurt you in any way. The guilt is sometimes punishment itself."
"Be patient with us and know that most of us do what we can to take care of ourselves and take the responsibility of keeping the effects of our illness to a minimum. We need your love even when we act like we don't and we need you to care about us as individuals. Do not give up on us if we have not given up on ourselves.
"Please think of my bipolar illness the same as you would heart disease, cancer or high blood pressure. It is a real illness with complications just as any other. "Don't be offended if I am mean or act out of character when manic or clam up and avoid you when I'm depressed. If I'm active and able to accomplish things one day, don't assume I'm lazy and worthless if I can't function the next day. Treat me with respect and let me be as responsible as I can be. Encourage me but don't push me. Even though I have this illness I am still a person in my own right and I have self-esteem. Be there when I need you. Help me when I'm sick and please know that I love you."
"Spouses and loved ones need to take care of themselves to prevent depression from becoming 'contagious.' Not literally, of course, but it will bring others down."
"Be supportive and listen. Don't criticize or tell them what they should do. They'd probably rebel. They probably know what they should be doing, but depression makes you powerless to get control. It is frustrating for people who have depression because of that."
"Don't take anything personally. It is not because of you. People seem to take things out on the people they care most for. I don't think on purpose. They just feel more comfortable with the people who are close to them."
"Help them with the daily tasks that they find difficult to do."
"Being supportive would be taking the interest, care and time to educate oneself about the illness, helping the person in their various moods rather than blaming them, forgiving them for actions or words they may do when high and the little they may do when low, and taking an interest in their every day lives like any normal family member or carer."
"Don't ask me if I took my medications just because you don't like how I am acting."
"Treat me with the respect that I deserve. When I say something is bothering me, don't make light of it and tell me that it is petty and to move on. When I say that your joking around is not funny to me, even though I may have thought it was the day before, please do not continue - it only adds to my agitation. Take me for my word - there are days that I just do not feel like doing anything. Please do not try to force them upon me."
"Let me have the space I need so that I can come to grips with my life without feeling pressured to be/act 'normal' because it will make YOU feel better."
"Most importantly, love me for me. I cannot help it that I am the way I am. I am trying everything I possibly can to make myself feel better. Please do not think less of me because I may not act like the loving family member that I am supposed to be. I do love you dearly even though, at times, I may not be able to show you or make you understand that I truly do feel that way."
"Do not tell me that I'm okay when I'm not feeling that I am."
"Do not tell me that I can handle a situation when I don't feel that I can. These thoughts may help you believe I'm okay, but they can make me feel worse. Instead, listen to me, let me express my fears."
"Know that I may be trying to tell you that I'm not feeling like my 'normal' self and that I need someone to listen and be supportive."
"Don't tell me my chemistry is off. I may be in a state where I don't know what to do about that, so your statement may seem like a simple solution to you and feel like another burden for me."
"You can help me remember my meds by bringing them to me with a glass of water. I may be too depressed to remember or too hyper to realize the time for my med is long overdue. A pill box for different times of the day can help us both know if it is time for the next pill(s)."
Last Updated: 28 March 2017
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD