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Understand Me, Hold Me, Forgive Me

Speaking From Experience

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Updated August 15, 2011

Forum member llb's answer to "how can family help people with bipolar disorder?" is directed to a spouse:
  • Do not blame my BP for every argument that we have -- spouses do have faults, too, and I'm not always to blame, although my moods do contribute to my 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 hold me when I'm scared but don't know why. Don't ask questions -- just be emotionally available to listen.

  • Please forgive me when I verbally attack you, because the guilt that is felt afterward is absolutely horrible and I never really intend to hurt you in any way. The guilt is sometimes punishment itself.

  • Please don't expect me to do well every day if I happen to have one or two good days. This is a blessing in itself.

  • Please know that if I mention suicide, many times it is because I don't want to be a burden to you. I don't really want to die but want to end the pain. Just let me vent and that can help. If it doesn't stop, please take me to the hospital.
--by llb, About.com Bipolar forum member

The Take-Home Message

"Please do not tell me how I feel," llb says. Sometimes, though, you're saying that because you want to know if you're right, if you are understanding how your spouse feels. Try asking a question rather than making a statement. Let your spouse know you want to understand. Ask how your spouse feels, then repeat what he or she says in your own words, then say, "Is that right?" Such reflecting skills not only will make your spouse feel that you really do want to understand, but also give you a better chance of achieving understanding.

One of the hardest things the spouse of someone with bipolar disorder has to live with is inappropriate anger. Out of the blue your husband or wife may verbally attack you, saying things that wound you or sting you to anger in return. How do you know when the attack is bipolar disorder speaking and when it is not? Generally, if what is said has little basis in fact ("You always argue for half an hour when I ask you to put the trash out!" when you don't argue at all), look to the illness and forgive the words and the anger. Responding with anger will only make things worse. Of course, it's not that simple. Time and experience will help you tell the difference. And if such incidents are happening too frequently, your BP spouse should see his or her psychiatrist or therapist.

What llb says about mentioning suicide is important. The attempted suicide rate among persons with bipolar disorder is much higher than for any other mental illness, and you need to know what to watch for. Read Red Flags: Warning Signs of Suicide for this information. References:

"Active Listening." Young Professionals International. Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada. 14 Oct 2007. (PDF)

Citrome, L., and Goldberg, J.F. "Bipolar Disorder is a Potentially Fatal Disease." Postgraduate Medicine Online, Vol 117, No 2. February 2005. 10 October 2007.

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