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Bipolar Disorder: Taking Care of Yourself or Someone Else

During a recent play session with my 3-year-old son, we tried to build the tallest tower possible using all 80 blocks in his block set. His strategy was to stack the blocks on top of each other in a straight line because of course that’s the best way to make it as tall as possible. After our tower came crashing down several times, though, I tried to demonstrate that the tower would only be tall and sturdy if we started with a strong foundation. Yes, this meant we would have fewer blocks to add to the top (and the tower wouldn’t be quite as tall), but it’s the only way our tower had any hope of standing more than three seconds without toppling over. We couldn’t add more weight to the structure without making sure the base was strong. After a few more rounds of trial and error, he understood the concept, and we successfully built a tall and sturdy tower.

When I think about those of us who help care for someone with a severe mental illness such as Bipolar Disorder, I know for certain that making sure you have a strong foundation in place when you’re adding more weight in the form of responsibilities and worries – even when it comes to the people you love most – is the only way to maintain a sturdy sense of self. 

If you love someone who suffers from Bipolar Disorder, you know all too well that the journey is bumpy. The characteristic highs and lows, known formally as periods of mania and depression, can be intense and complicated. The path toward finding a way to manage the intense symptoms can be winding, with many going through trials of multiple medications (and the inevitable side effects) before finding a regimen that helps. 

Approximately 4% of American adults experience Bipolar Disorder during their lifetime, so the necessity of being there for our partners, sisters, brothers, and children who face this challenge is real. At the same time, self-care is an important buzzword of our times, and we must keep our own health and wellness in check. 

How do you reconcile these two priorities? 

How do you keep your foundation strong so you don’t topple over from the weight of giving, supporting, and caring?

Here are four pointers to help guide your journey:

Learning to separate the person from the illness can help reduce overwhelm and conflict when you love someone with Bipolar Disorder. There are various types of Bipolar Disorder, each with its own characteristics. For example, some people have clear periods of mania (the intense euphoria or irritability associated with Bipolar Disorder), and some have less intense experiences of this mood. Some alternate between the mania and depression states of Bipolar Disorder several times over the course of a year, and others have longer stretches of time between these mood states. Some experience symptoms of psychosis and others do not. 

The thing to know here is that although people often reduce the description of Bipolar Disorder to “intense mood swings,” it’s very complex. Understanding your loved one’s specific experience can help you view the difficult emotions and behavior that come up during rough times as part of the illness instead of emotions and behavior that are intentionally and personally directed toward you. Research has shown that stress and family conflict can trigger symptoms of Bipolar Disorder, so it’s helpful to use strategies that help minimize these problems as much as possible. 

Make self-care a key part of your routine and not a special occasion project. Bipolar Disorder is a chronic condition for which there is no cure. Many people are able to live a good life with Bipolar Disorder, but managing the symptoms is typically a long road with ups and downs. I mentioned the common difficulties with finding an effective treatment regimen, but there are also factors such as difficulty accessing quality care and the fact that Black people with Bipolar Disorder are often misdiagnosed. Given these realities, think about your self-care as a practice to implement for the long haul. Instead of saving your ‘good bubble bath’ for an extra stressful day, think about a daily or weekly bubble bath as a routine way to unwind. 

Create a personal wellness ‘toolbox’ and select tools to fit the moment. There is no one-size-fits-all plan for treating Bipolar Disorder, and the same is true for self-care. You have to look within to figure out what works best for you. Eating well, moving your body, and getting enough sleep are self-care practices that can provide a great start. But, beyond those, you may benefit from having your own therapist if needed or participating in a caretaker support group that allows you to process the emotional load of being in a caretaking role. Self-care might also look like having a crisis plan in place with important phone numbers and addresses if things get particularly difficult. And then there are the tried and true self-care activities like going outside for fresh air, having a private dance party to lighten the mood, journaling, and calling a friend. 

The blocks my son and I used to build our tower were all different shapes, colors, and sizes, and each one helped to create our tall and sturdy tower. You want your toolbox of self-care practices to be thorough and diverse so you can use whatever works best for a given time and need.

Understand that this is an especially hard time to be there for others. Being a caretaker can be isolating and overwhelming on a normal day, and doing so now, during a global pandemic, has probably been heavy. It’s possible you’ve felt overextended and stretched thin at times. Showing yourself grace is critical. This is hard. 

If you feel overwhelmed and lost for ways to clear your head and get relief, this online self-assessment will guide you through a series of questions and provide feedback and ideas that might help you move through difficult moments.

If there were ever a time to make yourself a priority and be intentional about self-care, it’s now. 

So, go ahead. Do what you can to better understand your loved one’s Bipolar Disorder, create a thorough and diverse set of self-care practices that you regularly use to fit different situations, and know that you’re not alone in feeling that the current time is uniquely challenging. If you want to stand ‘tall’ in a way that allows you to give, help, support, and be there for the people you love, do what you can to build a strong foundation.