If you take care of someone with bipolar illness you know it affects you nearly as badly as them. It can be devastating to witness someone you care about suffer from bipolar and figuring out how to help them is usually overwhelming. While no two situations between bipolar and caregiver are the same, it is safe to state that relationships are changed forever by this illness.
Also, caregivers may carry as many problems as the people with the illness; they lose work hours or lose their jobs, they often do not care for themselves and do not tend to their own medical problems, they drop their self-care routines, they can become sick, and they often develop depression and anxiety.
Additionally and beyond all that, people who care for people with bipolar or depression may experience complicated emotions. Some of these are very intense and difficult to think about. Know that if you or anyone you know has had one or more of the thoughts below, you are not alone.
1-Do I still love this person? Sometimes it is difficult to love a person who has the illness even if they are your child, spouse, sibling or parent. This is not uncommon. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging these feelings. In fact, it is natural to feel things like exasperation, hatred, impatience, hurt, and sadness, when someone you love is being irritable, angry, insulting or grandiose toward you. Having negative feelings about that person does not necessarily mean you do not love them anymore. It may still be important to review the relationship due to the occurrence of the illness, but negative feelings in and of itself, does not define loss of love. We often will and should feel negative feelings toward someone with the illness, but it does not mean we do not love them. Incidentally, this fact holds true for any relationship.
2-Was this my fault? This is a very common thought for parents (but siblings, friends and partners may think it, too). The answer is never clear. It is important to understand that fault and blame are rarely valuable ideas. Life is full of stresses, sometimes thought of as “triggers,” and people react in myriad ways. Some people endure large amounts of stress and trauma in their lives and never develop an illness like bipolar or depression. Some people become ill even when it appears they have lived full and happy lives before that. A definitive cause of the illness is not known so when cause is not clear, fault also, cannot be clear.
3-Was I a bad parent? On the topic of fault, parents, in particular, often wonder if their parenting may have something to do with the development of bipolar or depression in their child. The reason parents worry is parenting has plenty to do with how people turn out. It is difficult to know how your parenting has affected your child. It is best to take the judgment out of your parenting (unless you are abusive) and know that in all honesty, you have had both positive and negative effects on your child. That’s life as parent. It is always important to review repeatedly how we parent and change things as the needs arise. Bad parenting, alone, does not cause bipolar illness or depression, and neither do genes alone. Likewise, good parenting does not guarantee no illness will crop up. The best suggestion, just in case, is to periodically review your parenting approach and how things are handled. Not doing this may cause extra stress on your child and family. All parents should be doing this anyway.
4-Will my loved one ever get their life back? Since every person’s situation and illness is different, it is impossible to answer this question definitively in a blog post. However, the illness usually changes people forever. It is important for caregivers to change their expectations for their loved one/s with the illness. For example, some people may never fulfill the career they thought they would have before they got sick. Other people will have that career and some may be successful in an entirely different area. Caregivers’ expectations should not be set in stone. This will help both caregivers and the person with the illness to reach their best potential. You can change your expectations over and over again. For example, if someone becomes very sick and hospitalized, it is probably unrealistic to expect them to return to school or work full time. Just making it out of bed each day is the best expectation, at first. As they get better, your expectations and goals for them may change--they may graduate, they may live independently and have a career. So will they get their life back? We should hope so, but it may not be the same life we thought before the illness came. And it could be a better one.
So what do you do about it?
The four challenges listed above are only some of the complicated emotions related to caring for someone with bipolar illness. In general, caregiver issues are often not addressed enough. If you are caring for someone with bipolar illness, caring for yourself is the best way to be a happier, healthier and more effective person for your loved one with the illness. Some ways to get help are:
1- Get to a support group for family and friends of those with bipolar illness. (See www.mdsg.org in the NY area or www.dbsalliance.org for a national listing).
2- Going to your own psychotherapy-this helps you examine how the illness has affected you, how to care for yourself further, get more information
3- Consult with a mental health professional about how you are doing as a caregiver. A trained professional who focuses on mood disorders can have helpful insights to how best help yourself and your loved one.
By Li Faustino PhD