Living with bipolar disorder is not easy. You have to struggle daily to regulate your mood and emotions. It’s a challenge in itself. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, bipolar disorder is defined as a “mental disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, concentration, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks.” Your energy, mood, and productivity shift a lot throughout the day. It can range from elated, energetic, self-confident and to feeling hopeless, indifferent, and a lack of interest in activities (even those that bring joy). These episodes or mood shifts are categorised into mania and depression. A person with a bipolar brain often struggles to do daily tasks while experiencing mood shifts. And, lack of support system, therapy or bipolar medication can severely impact their condition, making it worse.
During my masters, my bipolar became worse. Prior to that, I was managing it somehow, but with a change in environment and pressure of academia, it came to breaking point. I would have bouts of crying during classes and developed a fear of writing. I was earlier very hesitant due to misconceptions around taking medication because I was told they are addictive and it’s all about inner strength. Yes, inner strength matters but medication really became my saving grace. My condition improved drastically once I had the right medication and therapy. I was able to go back to my routine and studies.
Living with Bipolar Disorder
But, all is not lost and hopeless. As a person with bipolar disorder, I have lived experiences of these mood shifts and their impact on my day-to-day life. Thankfully, I am on bipolar medication, I attend therapy and I have an understanding support system, which allows me to navigate any challenges I might face. However, I am amongst the few people with bipolar disorder who have access to the right treatment and doctors. Many people don’t have access to quality healthcare they need. Even if they have, there is discrimination and stigma attached. A good support system which can be your friends, spouse, community, and non-judgemental doctors can help in leading a good life.
For me, one important aspect of my life is my relationship with my partner and the supportive partnership we share. Having a good and healthy relationship makes things smooth, but doesn’t take away the challenges. Neither of yours nor your partner. In some cases, it can add more challenges as your partner can’t always understand your needs and condition. It’s not like fairy tales where having a partner solves life issues. It’s a constant effort, honest communication and being able to stay true to oneself that makes relationships strong.
A bipolar brain, even in healthy relationships, struggles with constant anxiety. The constant riff between love and hate, flight or fight, questioning if I am a burden on my partner: this always plays in my bipolar brain. These emotions are sometimes so strong, and I can get completely swayed away, willingly or unwilling. Whilst it may sound scary, it is in these times that a support system can do wonders. For me it is my partner; for you it might be a friend, or colleague.
Those around us often do not have lived experience with bipolar disorder or mental health issues, and this can result in feelings of helplessness when trying to provide support. I have witnessed this with my partner. Early on, there were just misunderstandings as I felt he couldn’t understand me. But he was also stuck in trying to understand and make sense of things himself. In order to understand me and help me better, my partner started attending therapy too, joined a support group and read mental health quotes, papers, and books to become more mental health aware. He made himself aware of my condition and his role in helping me get better. It wasn’t an easy journey but it was all worth it. During my master’s, I was dealing with performance anxiety which meant that I couldn’t type out my academic papers on my laptop. I knew what I had to write, I have prepared well my readings but I would just freeze or have a breakdown when it came to writing it down on my laptop. Thankfully my partner was there to help me. I would dictate him the contents of the paper and he would type it out for me. This helped me in submitting my papers within deadlines.
How to Provide Support
Sadly, many of us live in countries where not everyone can afford and access health care. Further, support groups for caregivers of bipolar people are not always easily accessible. In my experience, here are ways that how you can support a loved one navigating this condition:
1. Active listening
When someone close to you says something, just listen. Sometimes all we need is a caring ear. We all know what to do but we are just struggling and taking our own time. We are in our process which may be aloof to others. Hence, listening to what your partner needs and wants is crucial. Make a note of it or if your memory is sharp, just remember what they said.
2. Ask directly about their needs
Don’t make assumptions! Neither you nor your partner can read each other’s minds. So it’s best to always ask what they need at the moment. Many times, your partner will tell you, but at other times they won’t know. But that’s okay. A hug, a kiss or even a cute little dessert can help someone feel better, at least momentarily.
3. Read, read, read!
In my opinion, the best way to gain knowledge about bipolar disorder is to read. I am a strong supporter of reading and making yourself aware of mental illness. You can read on honest platforms like The Mighty, NIMH etc. about mental illness, your role, their experiences etc. It will help you gain insight into your partner’s mind.
4. Support groups
Due to COVID, physical support groups can be difficult to access, but there are a lot of platforms online offering support systems. As a caregiver, you equally need support and there is no shame in asking for help. A support system can be therapeutic, make you feel less alone and help you cope with challenges in caregiving and your relationship.
5. Prepare a crisis plan
Consider storing contact information of your loved ones friends and doctor. Know your loved ones’ treatment plan and their support system outside and reach out to them when needed. During an episode, your partner may not listen to you. You may try your best but some days it may be challenging. It doesn’t mean you are failing. Sometimes people with bipolar disorder listen and relate to a like-minded bipolar brain. Hence, in the case of breakdowns or severe episodes, it may be necessary to contact your loved ones’ trustworthy friends and their doctor to determine if they need additional support.
While your loved one is fighting their battles, it’s not easy for you either. Remember, you are not alone or helpless. There are millions of others in the same boat. If you need professional help, please don’t shy away from it. Be compassionate towards yourself. You are doing the best you can do.
Yes, the old saying is true. Patience is vital in any kind of relationship. Give yourself and your loved one time to understand mental health, their experiences, challenges and how you both can deal with it together. Give each other time and space to absorb new knowledge and skills.
I have learned from my experiences that prioritising mental health is not just crucial but the best way to move forward in life. When I entered my master’s, my main focus was getting good grades and securing a spot in the best college for my PhD. But it came at cost of my self-worth, a constant struggle to prove my competency and a complete lack of academic and personal boundaries. I had help from friends and my partner when I was completely broken to get through it somehow and complete my degree. I hope that doesn’t happen to anyone, but please remember your worth is way more than a degree.
Jahanvi is a mental health advocate, journalist and a researcher. She has completed her master’s in public health with focus on gender and mental health. Through her work and efforts, she aims to destigmatise mental illness and bring more awareness on the same. Apart from this, you will find her busy travelling and looking for her next mouth-licking dish.