Am I still crazy if at least some part of my dysfunction is potentially curable? Yes, probably so.
Birdwatchers: DeeDee and I wouldn’t ordinarily let you read our correspondence, but we agreed that this letter offers insight into loving someone with mental health issues. In summary, it isn’t easy, but love isn’t about what’s easy.
Sometimes you make me crazy. Not just crazy about you–which I am, have been, and always will be–but “what on Earth is she thinking”, “that’s just nuts”, pulling my hair out to keep my head from exploding crazy.
I understand your brain doesn’t work like mine and you can’t always control how you feel or what you think, but knowing that doesn’t make living with some of these things any easier. So I want to let you know how it makes me feel–I want you to understand that sometimes, your problems are problems for me, too. Even more, though, I want you to understand that I love you–love you in spite of (maybe even a little because of) what makes you different.
The biggest problem for me is making plans. Bipolar means I can never be sure which DeeDee to expect today, so any plan is subject to change without notice because it won’t fit your mood. That eventually makes it seem, well, pointless to plan anything. And it effects both short and long-term planning, since I can’t know how you’ll be in the future, either. Lucky for us, then, I’m not so big on making plans, and I know better than to expect that you’ll be on time.
This is different from, but related to, your need for structure. I understand; ADD means that laying out step-by-step details for accomplishing goals is necessary for completing projects, but it doesn’t leave much room for spontaneity–that isn’t really a problem. It’s more a problem when those plans go awry, leading to panic as they spiral off-course, instead of improvising solutions.
The mood swings themselves are less problematic for me. I can’t keep up with your hypomania, of course–I need to sleep sometimes, even if you don’t, and I hate the social butterfly who emerges with the mania. I don’t like social settings to begin with, but they trigger mania for you–so we go to a party, you get excited, and I just get disgusted. When you’re like this, you refuse to listen to me–that’s both insulting and stupid, since I know what’s happening better than you do at that point. Ignoring my advice, and/or my needs, in these situations really is a problem, but I know you’re aware of it and that you do try to overcome what the mania wants. Plus, the manic sex is fantastic!
Depression, on the other hand, well, that’s just depressing. I get blue sometimes, too; I know it feels awful, even though I can’t appreciate the depths you experience. But damn, is it hard to accept. I love you, and I want you to be happy. I feel like I should be able to help when you’re down, but I can’t really, and that just compounds my own unhappiness from being around someone who is depressed. Which of course makes you feel worse. I’m sorry about that. But these mood swings, I know they’re bound to happen and we’ve taken steps to address their impact on everyday living. I can work around them, because I understand what’s happening.
And I can’t express how lucky I am to have such a beautiful, intelligent, accomplished, ambitious, and caring companion. You take good care of me, even when you don’t feel well–I appreciate it very much and try to reciprocate. Everything I’ve described above is a challenge, yes, but the challenge of fully knowing and loving you is part of what keeps the relationship fresh and interesting, even after years together.
Most of all, you push me to grow and improve as a husband and a human. You have made me become more compassionate, more conscious of my world, and more passionate about what matters to me; you see things others don’t, and share them with me. I’ve also become more careful of how I express myself, both in weighing the effect of what I say and do before it can cause unintentional pain, and in making the effort to express my love for you often, enthusiastically, and in a variety of ways, because I know hearing it often helps you remember that it’s true.
Thing is, it’s kind of impossible to separate the idea of DeeDee from the illness–the illness is part of who you are, part of what makes you the woman I love, and I’m willing to accept what the illness brings because it comes with you. I love you, as you are, even when you make me crazy.
Love is a beautiful thing, regardless of the illnesses and gifts of each person.
Photo taken by a woman in New Jersey who battles the ups and downs of bipolar disorder. She is a wife and mother who enjoys taking photos and helping other people, even when times are tough.
About this photo: “I shot this photograph of a friend of mine who recently got engaged. They are the sweetest couple and I know they will be so happy together. As someone who suffers from mental illness, love is hard for me. I am married and have a child who I adore, and yet I often feel unlovable and at times incapable of even experiencing love. To me, love is not all about hearts and roses, it’s about being there for each other through the difficult times. I am so lucky that I have someone who stands by me, even when I get agitated and angry, and yell at him for no reason…
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A couple comments that Hippie Dude (my therapist) made during recent therapy sessions keep rolling around in my brain. Like those Chinese balls with chimes inside them, softly making noises every time I turn my head. They just won’t get out, and I’m not entirely sure what, if anything, to make of them. Not everything that therapists say is loaded with meaning.
Setting proper context for this would take more patience than you or I have, but the gist of it is that we were discussing what triggers my mood episodes. Everything is good at home; I have a good job; I have an amazing husband and we have none of the usual risk factors for relationship problems; and so on, and so on.
My thinking immediately jumped to shame: I have a good life and no real reason to feel bad, so I’m bad for feeling bad. It’s completely automatic, even though I know it’s dysfunctional thinking, and then I feel bad for dysfunctional thinking, and so on, and so on in the usual ruminant spiral. But Hippie Dude caught my attention with what he said next:
It’s all internal with you, isn’t it?
Yes, I guess it is. There aren’t very many external triggers in my day-to-day life and the only person being cruel to me is myself. The biochemical stuff is internal too; I don’t control it, although I can influence it with lifestyle choices.
A couple weeks later, we were discussing my issues with perfectionism and somehow that segued into a recap of therapy-so-far. It’s been just over a year, and I’ve finally gotten (mostly) comfortable with Hippie Dude and actually being in therapy. I asked the unfair question of how well I was doing, and his answer – to paraphrase – was this:
Not to trivialize the problems of anyone else I see, but you’re complicated.
He made the motion of a sine curve with his hand. I’m not affectively flat; I’m not always depressed; I’m not always manic. Yep, that’s about right. It’s complicated, and it’s all internal.
This all ties together, and with other things. I can’t begin to draw a picture of it yet. It’s like mental vertigo – I just can’t get a grip on what’s going on because so many things have bubbled up at once. What I do realize and am now starting to admit is that there’s a whole crate of creepy crawlies in my cranium, and they’re figuring out how to escape, so I can’t ignore them anymore.
The cozy blankets of denial are all being brutally ripped off at once, and I’m afraid of what will happen when everyone sees me naked and vulnerable. If I’m going to find any peace of mind, however, it seems to be unavoidable.
Disclosing mental illness is complicated. So much depends on context that the only guides on how to go about disclosure are vague and full of mysterious caveats.
Well, I finally did it. I told my supervisor.
I had been thinking about it for awhile. Last month I hit a particularly bad patch for a week or so. My therapist actually asked if we should think about hospital admission or a leave of absence. He genuinely seemed to be at a loss for what to do with me and I couldn’t reason or decide for myself, so I’ve started working in earnest on a safety plan against future incapacitation.
But what if? I wouldn’t want a call from Mr. Chickadee saying that I’m in the psych ward to be the way that my supervisors found out about my mental illness. It would be better to get up the gumption to let them know sooner rather than later. I don’t want them to think I’m slacking when in reality, I’m unwell and I simply can’t work effectively.
I decided to tell my supervisor – let’s call him Mr. Flycatcher (he picked it, though he doesn’t know it) – just one day before our meeting. It’s the crazy person’s equivalent to coming out, and probably just about as stressful and stigma-laden. I decided I’d tell him the next day, without any real preparation, which would have just made me even more worked up about the whole thing.
The panic started hitting me on the commute Wednesday morning. Worse and worse. Although I felt sure that he would be understanding, I was freaked out. I could hardly work all morning and was grateful to have Ativan on hand before the 1 PM meeting.
We started with the usual pleasantries, he mentioned something about his daughter’s health. That provided a good segue; I said I need to discuss something that’s very hard for me to talk about – and held out my hands to show that they were shaking. He raised an eyebrow, leaned back, and listened.
I’d quickly scratched out a few things to mention, so I started by explaining that although he might not have noticed, my work can be uneven at times, and there’s a reason for it. He said no, he hadn’t noticed, but go ahead. So I launched into my points – starting with my diagnoses, and that I’m in comprehensive treatment and doing fairly well.
I explained that sometimes I’m unable to work at all and other times I’m hyperproductive, with unpredictable rapid cycles as well as seasonal cycles that predictably slow me down. The implications, I explained, include lots of insurance paperwork; 1-4 medical appointments every week; taking a lot of drugs – 5 at the time – and every time they get changed ( about 30 times in the last 2 years) it’s a kick to the brain. I said that I’m working really hard on wellness management, and minimizing stress is critical, but I never really know what to expect.
I started to explain executive dysfunction, and he cut me off – his son has it and really struggles with organization and planning. I was totally taken by surprise, because no one ever knows that. For me, it means that no matter how hard I try, I will always struggle with organization, prioritization, and breaking down tasks into achievable chunks. These were things I’d already told him were hard for me. Now I’ve said why.
Then I awkwardly went into my short list of what he can do to be supportive. Starting with, know that sometimes my performance is not entirely under my control but I’m doing the best I can. Plus things like understanding I may have to leave abruptly, being flexible with expectations, helping me keep the number of projects I’m juggling to a minimum, and assisting with prioritization of projects. That it’s unlikely but possible that my doctor or husband might call in sick for me. Finally, I told him it’s OK to ask me directly if I’m having problems, because asking how I’m doing is not the right question and will get a noncommittal socially acceptable response, no matter how I feel.
I’d exhausted my list of things to say. My face was flushed, hands were still shaking, and stomach was roiling furiously. But Mr. Flycatcher said all of the right things.
He said he completely understands ADD issues due to affected family members. He also said that the President of the Board for our organization is openly ADD and bipolar; apparently he’s had to miss board meetings because he was in hospital at the time. All of the Directors in the organization (which includes Mr. Flycatcher) therefore understand that having mental illnesses doesn’t mean a person can’t be highly intelligent and extremely successful professionally – both prerequisites for board membership.
Having mental illnesses doesn’t mean a person can’t be highly intelligent and extremely successful professionally.
That put me more at ease. Mr. Flycatcher said that he’d never have guessed, although now that I mention it, a lot of details retrospectively make sense (almost everyone says that.) I admitted that I work really hard to make sure people don’t suspect anything, but it’s very difficult and I’m constantly frustrated by ordinary tasks that are a struggle for me.
Then he smiled his kindly smile and said, thanks for telling me, I really appreciate the honesty, and I’ll do my best to be supportive. Only one question – why now? I kind of stumbled over myself, and he said, you feel like you haven’t been keeping up on your work? Yep, that’s it – October and November are hard, so I get behind and have to work even harder to catch up, even though I’m not quite fully functional yet.
And then we moved on to discuss my work progress and what to prioritize for the next week.
In January, I’ll tell my other supervisor when I go out to the Southwest for a workshop. He’s picking me up from the airport and we have around 90 minutes’ drive – plenty of time for discussion. I doubt I’ll be quite as nervous and awkward about it, but still plan on medicating to reduce the inevitable jitters.
After telling Mr. Flycatcher my big ugly secret, I felt so relieved. I hate hiding this from people I care about or work with closely. The experience made me think momentarily about being more open. Maybe putting my real nickname on this blog. Food for thought, but not action – at least not yet – feeling a little too self-conscious, paranoid, and anxious lately.
So I survived Round 1 of disclosure at work, but I know there are many more to come. I hope that as I slowly tell people who matter to me, they will see how much trust and vulnerability it signifies. For a perfectionist like me, it’s excruciating to reveal something so flawed behind the curtains.
What do you give the bipolar person who has everything? Well, it depends on your relationship and their sense of humor, of course. Maybe you just want to drop a gift card in the mail, but maybe you can do something a little more thoughtful – isn’t that the idea behind the whole holiday gift-giving rigamarole? To demonstrate that you think of and care about someone?
Well, then, I’m glad we agree on that.
In the spirit of helping all you folks who love someone nutty, I’ve compiled not one, but two lists of gift suggestions! The first list is stuff that costs a few bucks; the second is a list of stuff that is free or low cost.
Buy-It Bipolar Gift List
- DIY Therapy book: who needs a professional, anyway? OK, so most of us really do need a proper therapist, but this is a damn funny book.
- Neurodiversity T-shirt: heck, get a matching set! Nothing says “I love you as you are” like supporting neurodiversity. Which is completely natural, when you think about it from an evolutionary perspective.
- Moodscope Plus subscription: $10/month gives access to extra analysis tools and the ability to see more of your data. I find it a worthwhile service and it has given me a lot of insight.
- MedicAlert subscription: emergency identification is a really good idea, and there are a number of options.
- Sassy, funny pill cases are all over Etsy, and to do one better, lovingly hand customize the pill case by lining it with sticky-backed felt (or other slightly heavy material) to reduce the noise of pills rattling about.
- Martian Popping Thing stress toy: a classic. I was devastated when mine died of old age. Well, maybe devastated isn’t the right word – sorely disappointed?
- Wellness Journal supplies and materials: an extra-nice (leatherbound is ideal) journal; pictures of you together, favorite places, and other special moments; pens and colored pencils; glue dots and photo corners; and encouragement.
- Classes in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, T’ai Chi, or Yoga: practicing gentle, mindful movement and developing meditative and relaxation skills is incredibly valuable for people with mood disorders.
- High-end sex toys to stave off hypersexual indiscretions. Go for the good stuff so it will last through at least a couple manic episodes. Hey, I’m just being honest here.
- Something-of-the-month subscription (non-alcoholic), my favorite being Vosges’ 13 Moons. Maybe there’s a sex toy of the month club? (yes, yes there are, and oy, the comment spam and weird search referrals I’m gonna get for this post…) It’s a great tonic for depression to have something enjoyable to look forward, or a pleasant surprise if you forgot it was coming.
Low-Cost Gifts for Bipolar Friends & Family
Say you’re broke (like me) but want to show your love on this overly consumerist holiday. This list suggests some items that you can buy or make on the cheap, but take the time to do it right.
- Remember those corny homemade gift certificates you made for your parents in elementary school? Make a set that includes offers to do tasks that are hard to do when depressed (dishes, groceries, etc.), fun things to do together, an “out of jail free” card for when they just can’t handle a social engagement — be creative! Have fun with construction paper, markers, scissors, glue and heck, even glitter (why not?) while you make a nice set of thoughtful ways to help support wellness.
- Make or buy a cheap starter kit for something wholesome: forcing paperwhites or other bulbs (great for those whose illness comes with “seasonal features”), learning to knit or crochet, making homemade soap or body products, setting up an ant farm or sea monkeys — you get the picture. It doesn’t have to cost much, or anything at all, but it should come with a promise to do/assemble/learn it together. Connectedness is very important for everyone’s wellness.
- Create a visual reminder of positive affirmations, and make them honest genuine statements about the person. An idea board, a collage, a quilt, whatever – just make it with love, and make it something that can be hung in a prominent place and seen every day.
- Write a “love letter.” Write it by hand, in ink, on nice paper, with your best handwriting. Plan what to write before you actually write it so that you can make a pretty, clean copy to give. Your love letter is something the recipient can pull out when feeling poorly and re-read for some comfort. Tell the person how much you love them, how important they are to you, what you love about them, and the positive things you look forward to experiencing together. Make it really heartfelt; it will be treasured. If you cry when you write it, you’re definitely doing it right.
- Soothing bath salts for calming down incipient mania: no, no, not the street drug, the kind you actually put in your bath! Easily made with a little salt and essential oils – look online for recipes. The materials will make huge batches, so why not give everyone on your list a pint jar of your own designer bath salts trimmed with sparkly ribbons?
- Playlists for mood episodes: if you know the recipient’s taste in music, this can be awesome. Thematically, soothing & upbeat are both good choices, as are songs that convey a message of caring and love (without being too gooey). At least 60 minutes is ideal – a soothing playlist is all the better when it can outlast the body’s 45-minute limit on pumping out panic juices. Burning a CD is probably the easiest way to give this gift, but there are other methods if you’re clever with teh Interwebs.
- Commit to a mutual wellness goal, e.g. taking walks together twice a week or competing on daily step counts or being Health Month buddies (free for up to 3 goals!) If you’re both doing it together, you’re both more likely to succeed. Maybe it’s just having a date every so often – socializing is important for wellness.
- Sign up for the free version of Moodscope and share your scores. Agree to contact one another if either has very low or very high scores that might suggest a problem.
- Read up on bipolar disorder. Educating yourself about your loved one’s condition is one of the most thoughtful and meaningful gifts you can give. The library is free.
- Be an advocate. Speak up on mental health issues, volunteer or donate to advocacy organizations, and tell people that it’s inappropriate to call the weather, a girlfriend, or anything else other than a diagnosed sufferer “bipolar” because it’s a serious illness and misusing the term further stigmatizes the condition. Don’t perpetuate the stigma by being flippant about mental illness; help work against it.
Disclaimer: be smart and make gift-giving choices that are appropriate to your relationship with the person or you will almost certainly come across as an ass. For example, bosses should not buy sex toys for employees. EVER. Pill cases might be best given by family members or BFFs. Journal supplies, Martian Popping Things, Sea Monkeys, and mutual wellness goals are appropriate for nearly everyone.