How to Be Understanding With People With Bipolar Disorder

Updated on February 17, 2018
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Nicole is a registered nurse. She uses what she has learned on the job to inspire and encourage others to take control of their health.

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My Experience With Someone Close Who Has Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder is more than difficult for the person diagnosed with the disorder, but it is often not discussed that it may be even harder on their family and friends. Growing up, I always knew that my mother wasn't like most people—in more ways than one. She would have months of depression, and then, the next month—as if with a flip of a giant light-switch—she would turn 180 degrees and act the exact opposite.

If you know anything about bipolar disorder, you will know that "bipolar" means "two poles." These poles represent the two episodes a bipolar person can experience: depressive episodes and manic episodes. Sometimes, they can experience more than two episodes within a given year. There are different types of bipolar disorder and various signs and symptoms that I will discuss in this article; however, my main objective is to assist—even in a tiny way—the loved ones of bipolar people with the coping skills and empathy needed in situations involving bipolar people.

Her Manic Episodes

I will begin with the first emotional polar extreme—mania. Amongst the many experiences with my mom's manic episodes, one particular experience sticks out in my mind.

When I was about the age of ten, my mom spilled a pot of chili on the white kitchen floor. She threw an uncountable number of curses around, and she literally scrubbed the floor on her hands and knees for close to an hour, or maybe longer—even long after the chili was entirely cleaned off the floor. She was extremely irritable during these episodes, snapping at people around her for minor reasons. I never quite understood why she was so annoyed by normal, everyday occurrences—and I came to think that that was just a normal way to act.

Now, the more I read and educate myself on bipolar disorder symptoms, I begin to realize that many people diagnosed with bipolar disorder act the same way that my mother had acted all of these years, including the tendency to make spontaneous and sometimes dangerously over-the-edge decisions. There are other symptoms that are exacerbated by a state of mania or depression, which I will discuss in detail later.

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Her Depressive Episodes

During my adolescence, my mom went through a depressive state that felt like it lasted for years. I am sure she had manic episodes during this depressive period, but all I can recollect was the hopelessness and grief radiating from her every pore. In the midst of her depression, and possibly what triggered so many bouts of depression, came a menace to her health: addiction. I believe that addiction is something that she has struggled with her entire life; however, it seemed to escalate during this particular period of time.

Symptoms of her depressive state of mind included constant crying, a hopeless outlook on life, lack of motivation to perform at her job, lack of energy, and constant physical illnesses. One of the worst symptoms that rears its ugly head during depression is suicidal thoughts. There were many times when I had the feeling that she was going to try to take her own life—because she thought her life was that horrible.

I Learned to Empathize and Be More Understanding

I am not trying to discredit my loved one or shed a negative light on her by any means; however, people with bipolar disorder tend not to think of anyone but themselves because of the chemical imbalances in their brain. Because of this lack of awareness, other people around them tend to suffer just as much as they do.

Remember, there are ways to cope with and understand the bipolar person. As difficult as it is to empathize with a person who you feel is just so selfish, it is possible! You have to be willing to open your mind and realize that, for the bipolar person, this disorder cannot be easily overcome by sheer willpower. A regimen of the proper medications, self-awareness, and personal spirituality can help the bipolar person come out of the holes of depression and mania.

For the family members and friends of the bipolar person: you have to learn empathy and patience and realize that they do not want to seem so "selfish." These feelings and actions are not always controllable.

Different Types of Bipolar Disorder

There are variants of bipolar disorder: bipolar I, bipolar II, mixed, and rapid-cycling. Each of these types is defined by specific symptomatic characteristics.

  • Bipolar I is the first to be used as a diagnosis. It involves heavy mood swings, including severe phases of mania and depression.
  • Bipolar II involves more depression with less severe bouts of mania. It is also called hypomania.
  • Mixed bipolar disorder is when mania and depression occur at the same time. As you can probably imagine, this is quite dangerous if left untreated.
  • Rapid cyclers are known to have a minimum of four bouts of mania and depression alternating throughout a given year. Sometimes, they can have more than ten. This is exceedingly difficult for the people around the bipolar person since you never really know what to expect. It's kind of like you are walking on thin ice—24/7! I believe my mom is a rapid cycler because she has had more than four bouts of depression and mania in the period of a year.

Lesser-Known Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder

To fully understand this mental disorder you have to be able to notice and be patient with all of its symptoms—even the less obvious ones. Besides the two major symptoms of bipolar disorder, mania and depression, there are other, lesser-known symptoms that seem to be present in the vast majority of people living with bipolar disorder. In fact, it is these secondary symptoms that can sometimes lead a psychologist to the correct diagnosis.

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Addiction

As much as 60% of people diagnosed with bipolar disorder also struggle with some sort of addiction during at least one period of their lives. These addictions can include sexual addictions, drug and/or alcohol abuse, and gambling addictions.

  • Sexual addiction usually stems from a state of mania. Overheightened senses and an overabundance of certain hormones feed the bipolar person's need to find sexual gratification.
  • Gambling addictions also originate from of manic episodes; it goes along with the split-second decision-making and wreckless spontaneity typically associated with bouts of mania.
  • Research has shown that drug and alcohol abuse in bipolar persons seems to relate to a need to self-medicate in times of mania and depression. Cocaine and methamphetamines are the common choices to elevate their mood. Alcohol and pain meds tend to be used to calm the manic episodes. Unfortunately, addiction to any of these substances is unhealthy to the body, and in this case, actually makes their mental state even worse.

Hallucinations

A more frightening symptom of bipolar disorder is hallucinations. These hallucinations can be either visual or auditory or both. Not only are they terrifying for the person experiencing them, but they are also terrifying for those around them who may not understand what is going on. Studies have shown that these hallucinations usually arise during manic episodes or when taking an overabundance of medications that do not fit their illness, including pain pill cocktails.

When I was about sixteen years old, my mom was going through one of her manic episodes, but at the same time, she was also taking too many medications. I believe her psychologist and doctor had her on a total of about twelve different medications, all at once. Anyone in their right mind can see how this overload of medicine would give hallucinations to even a totally stable-minded person. There is no doubt this plethora of pills messed with her mind the way it did. She experienced visual and auditory hallucinations during this period. I was worried about her physical and mental safety, so my stepfather and I committed her to the hospital to ween her off of the medications she was taking. After she was off this wave of pills, the manic episode leveled out, and she did not show any signs of hallucinations after that.

Delusions

Last but surely not least of these lesser-known bipolar symptoms is delusions. For my mom, they seemed to be more delusions of grandeur during the manic episodes, but during the depressive episodes, they could be dark delusions of misery. My heart aches to think of the torture that her mind has been through—between the addictions, manic and depressive states, hallucinations, and delusions. I am sure that it is difficult for a bipolar person in these mental states to determine what is reality and what is not.

Delusions of grandeur are evident when a bipolar person feels like they are unstoppable or almost superhuman-like. An example would be Napoleon Bonaparte. Look into his life and you will see the many times where he seemed to exhibit the signs of ever-increasing delusions of grandeur (Ever heard of the Napoleon complex?) Case in point. Delusions, in this case, are thoughts about yourself that are far-fetched, and to the sane person, are obviously untrue. I am sure that all of us have some degree of delusion in our lives, at one point or another, but bipolar people tend to have more than one in a lifetime—and their delusions are much more severe.

Life Doesn't Stop With the Diagnosis

Famous People With Bipolar Disorder

The musician Sting, the actor Jim Carey, the composer Beethoven, the inventive guitarist and musician Jimi Hendrix, the comedian Ben Stiller, and the film-maker Tim Burton are among the famous and highly talented people who are living (or have lived) with bipolar disorder. If you have ever learned about the author Virginia Woolf in school, you would know that she suffered from depression and mood swings—most likely bipolar disorder—and she was unable to cope with her depressive episodes in the end.

Coping With Bipolar Disorder Is Possible

But there are ways to cope, and as a society, we are becoming more and more educated about psychological disorders and how they work. This, in turn, helps save those who battle these disorders. Lately, I'm beginning to wonder if Charlie Sheen isn't bipolar—I know he says he's "bi-winning"—but he seems to have all the classic traits of bipolar disorder. At the same time, I can't help but like the man!

The mere fact that there are so many brilliant people in the world that live somewhat normally with bipolar disorder today demonstrates that it is possible to get on with your life, whether you are the person with bipolar disorder or the family member or friend of the diagnosed person. It is also possible to take those experiences and teach others through any kind of medium. Let your experiences inspire you to help others.

Knowledge Is the Key to Understanding

I think the main problem stems from a lack of knowledge about bipolar disorder. I have been reading and studying bipolar disorder for a few months now and feel like I more thoroughly understand the symptoms of this disease. This has helped me feel less angry towards my mom for some of the occurrences when I was a child. As much as I always felt that she could help herself with these problems, I know now that she can only help herself to a certain degree. She cannot overpower a chemical imbalance in her brain—it just does not work like that!

I know some people believe that through spirituality and self-empowerment, it is possible to overcome depression and mania. Although this may be true for some people, for others—especially those who aren't religious—this theory does not fully pan out. It would take a very strong mind and a lot of willpower to overcome a mental disorder without medications and proper psychological treatment (it is almost never seen). Nonetheless, we must encourage our loved ones—and ourselves—to do their best to understand their disorder.

If you feel alone and do not know anyone who is in the same position as you, there are support groups all over the internet. You can get online and chat with someone who may be dealing with the same problems as yourself, or send emails with encouraging words. Read about bipolar disorder and the different symptoms that can occur. Whether you are bipolar or you are close to someone who is bipolar, you are not alone in this journey.

Questions & Answers

    © 2011 Nicole Canfield

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      Mystical Avenger 18 months ago

      I live with someone that has bipolar/ mental problems and let me just say it's not easy at all. Dealing with the bipolar part is hard enough. Like you mentioned there's highs/lows and it's good knowledge to learn when trying to deal/ process it all. For a long time, about 10 years or so it took me to figure out how to "deal" and let me just say you have to take it day by day. God bless.

    • Anndrea Baily profile image

      Andrea 24 months ago from South Africa

      Reading your hub and being bipolar and depressed my self is though. Im living with my mom that is also bipolar. Its though. We both deal with it different but your story opened my eyes in a different way. Would like more of your stories.

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      Lori Colbo 3 years ago from Pacific Northwest

      Very good hub and I appreciate your efforts to inform people. Psychosis (delusions and hallucinations) can also be caused by lack of sleep, which is another symptom of both depression and mania.

      Although I get what you mean, I think referring to people other than those with bipolar as normal can be hurtful and demeaning. I know you didn't mean to be so, but as one who struggles with bipolar, it makes me feel less than other people. A person with diabetes, or cancer are considered normal, they just have a disease. It's the same with anyone else who has a biochemical disease. Besides, what is normal anyway?

      Also, identifying someone by their diagnosis (he's a bipolar, or bipolars are...) is wrong I feel. They are a person with bipolar. One might think this is just semantics or splitting hairs, but it does not feel that way for the person with the condition. Insert your name into that sentence and try to see how it feels. The stigma of bipolar, and mental illness in general, is astounding. If you look in a dictionary, one meaning of stigma is a mark of disgrace. I have felt that attitude from a few. One wouldn't say, "Oh Susan is a cancer," or "Cancer's are not normal." Can you see the difference? Susan is Susan, a person, who has a disease called cancer. Your loved one is just a person who has a disease. It is true, that because bipolar symptoms affect how one behaves, abnormal behavior, people tend to see things differently. At the end of the day, it is about giving someone with bipolar the dignity that everyone deserves.

      Nonetheless, I hear a very strong love and compassion from you about your loved one and other's who have bipolar. I can see where it was very frightening and confusing to you growing up. So the fact that you wrote this hub to help others understand and deal with it is very moving to me. I thank you for it. God bless you on your journey with your loved one. You are a good, supportive woman and family membern.

    • Jennifer Bart profile image

      Jennifer Bart 5 years ago from Texas

      Very informative and well organized hub! I appreciate this because I myself struggle with Bipolar.

    • kittythedreamer profile image
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      Nicole Canfield 5 years ago from the Ether

      broken-angel: That's wonderful and encouraging to hear. Thank you for sharing and for being open-minded. You are very strong. Blessings.

    • Broken-Angel profile image

      Kikki 5 years ago from Colchester

      Thank you for sharing this, i am bipolar myself it is hard for people around us to deal with us at hard times but i am learning when i have episodes and trying to educate not only myself but loved ones. I have told them if they feel im swinging and i do not see this to just let me know and to be prepared lol. Im getting there slowly and i have found i can actually live a normal life. x

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      Nicole Canfield 5 years ago from the Ether

      marc - Thanks for the compliment!

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      Nicole Canfield 5 years ago from the Ether

      shehzter - I am so happy you found encouragement in this article. I struggled with understanding folks with bipolar disorder my entire life, but I realize that most of them cannot help it. And you're right, with a combination of meds, therapy, and self-entitlement, bipolar people can overcome. Thanks and Blessings to you, sweetie.

    • shehzter profile image

      shehzter 5 years ago from Kandy, Sri Lanka

      Hi, this hub is so well written and so well researched. I have bipolar disorder and I absolutely hate it. You speak about patients being so selfish during an episode. That is so true. My selfishness hurts people and I hurt coz i know i hurt them. And i think for a bipolar patient medicine is essential. No amount of will power ever helped me. In fact the times I have stopped taking pills i have been driven dangerously close to suicide. I wish people would understand us more. So many have told me to just get a life. I try, but its so difficult sometimes.

      Anyway at the end the patient has to fight the illness.No amount of pills or psychotherapy will help if the patient does not fight it. It is so difficult but there is no alternative.

      So Kittythedreamer thanks so much for the hub. Please write more hubs on this. Coz when people like me stumble upon these, we feel more encouraged and we are encouraged that there are people who care and understand. That's exactly what I felt. God's Blessings.

    • kittythedreamer profile image
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      Nicole Canfield 6 years ago from the Ether

      Carolinemd21 - Do you live in MD? I was born and raised there. Glad you liked this hub. It is difficult, but easy to understand if you take the time to understand it. Blessings.

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      Caroline Marie 6 years ago

      I loved this article. It was very useful I also know someone I know with bipolar disorder. It is tough for all of the people who love them.

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      Nicole Canfield 6 years ago from the Ether

      Millenium - That makes sense, sounds like she's very aware of her condition. Many bipolar people aren't so open to hearing about themselves though...it's sort of like someone pointing out our own problems, you know? But that's awesome that she's able to be told when she's close to going over and therefore it helps bring her back to reality.

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      Millenium 6 years ago

      What a helpful lens. I have known people with bipolar disorder and she said to let her know if she was tethering on the edge so to speak. That by doing so, it would help her to at least, be a little more conscious that it was happening.

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      Nicole Canfield 6 years ago from the Ether

      thanks so much, amillar! and to you and yours!

    • amillar profile image

      amillar 6 years ago from Scotland, UK

      This is a well written and useful hub Kitty. All the best to you and your family.

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      Nicole Canfield 7 years ago from the Ether

      hi, marcoujor. my loved one is doing just fine, thank you for asking! it is very important for family members and friends of bipolar people to understand why bipolar people struggle and why their actions aren't necessarily on purpose or their fault...once the understanding comes into effect, life becomes much easier for everyone! :)

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      Maria Jordan 7 years ago from Jeffersonville PA

      kittythedreamer~~ Thank you for writing such a powerful HUB that helps so many understand the importance of family understanding/ support. I hope your loved one is doing OK now.

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      Nicole Canfield 7 years ago from the Ether

      very glad that you all enjoyed this hub. bipolar disorder is a very hard thing to be diagnosed with, and also hard for loved ones to cope with. we have to learn patience and empathy for those that do have bipolar and try not to take some things so personally. people with bipolar have to learn how to determine real emotions from emotions that their brain is telling them to have.

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      juanitallama 7 years ago from Utah

      Hey I like your hub. I am Bipolar and have been trying to teach my family how to handle it and respond to it and it is hard.... I just got married too and my husband's parents are divorced so it is like I have 3 families I have to teach how to deal with it.... it can be rough. My mother's father is really bipolar so she can relate to you. It is a hard thing. I appreciate your comments.

    • L.L. Woodard profile image

      L.L. Woodard 7 years ago from Oklahoma City

      An insightful view into bipolar disorder--not only for those who have the condition but for their loved ones. I can see why so many people with the disorder develop addictions--it has to be their way of trying to cope with the severe range of emotions.

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