There is a tremendous challenge for Bipolars and their loved ones to identify unwell thinking. After awhile, it’s pretty easy to separate unwell thinking once you understand what you are looking for. Today, I’m going to share with you how I identify unwell thinking in myself and others. The approach I use relies on two simple points- fact and rationality. It is extremely difficult for folks to look past all of the emotion and turmoil to identify these two things. I’m not suggesting it is easy to remain rational when a loved one tells you they hate you out of the blue one day and they’ve decided to leave. It is a necessary skill to develop if one wants to function and survive a relationship with a Bipolar person.
What makes fact and rationality so powerful? Fact doesn’t care how you feel about it. It’s not subject to interpretation at the core. We humans tend to look at a fact and apply our own beliefs to it as we interpret it. Nowhere is this more apparent than the news. You can watch five different news broadcasts about the same story and wind up with five different approaches on it. Why? The caster is looking at the facts, interpreting them, and relating what they feel makes the story important to the viewer. The end result is a different recollection of each event. At the core of those recollection is one event that happened in a very specific way- the fact of the matter.
Bipolar Disorder is similar in that the illness warps what we are perceiving and twists it into our own reality. That reality is typically pretty far removed from the actual facts of the situation. So when a Bipolar person comes at you with something wildly different than the factual normal- you know something is awry in their mind. Let’s look at an example.
*John and Mary have had a mostly loving, healthy relationship for four years. Mary is Bipolar. John proposes and Mary accepts. A week later; she doesn’t want to marry John, tells him she hates him, and gives him the ring back. John is understandably hurt and upset. It is possible Mary’s actions are rational if she had not been sharing her genuine feelings all along. Assuming she has been, then they are completely irrational. It is not rational or normal to 180 from “I love you” to “I hate you” in the span of a week. What facts can we look at? An engagement is a pretty big step in a person’s life- it is reasonable to think it could act as a Bipolar trigger. Next, John should look at the week between the day of the engagement and the day of the break. What all occurred? How was Mary acting during that time frame? Was she her “normal” or was she demonstrating the symptoms that indicate a manic cycle?
You’ll note that during this process, feelings are not relevant. John is undoubtedly going to be hurt and confused. If you want to hack your way through the tornado of emotions that Bipolars typically have, one cannot get too wrapped up in their own emotional state at that point in time. I’m not suggesting it be ignored entirely. But if John wants to attempt to preserve his relationship he’s going to need to set his own feelings aside until Mary rebalances. Then the two of them can tackle his emotional turmoil.
Now there are a couple of different ways I use this approach to get into the person’s train of thought.
*If the person knows they are Bipolar and understands their mental illness…
I will relate the facts of the situation to them and ask them if they think this is a healthy thought process or one driven by the Disorder. “Mary, you know you’re Bipolar and your mind can take unhealthy directions. Are your feelings something that have been going on for awhile? Or are they fresh and relatively recent? You got engaged a week ago; is there any reason why you would not have agreed to marry John a month ago before that circumstance? If this newly found hatred is fresh…do you think it could be the result of an unwell cycle kicked off by the excitement of the situation?”
*If the person doesn’t necessarily know they are Bipolar or understand what’s going on in their head…
I will focus on facts and rationality. “So you hate John now? Why?” Assuming there is no rational reason, “That doesn’t seem rational to me. You were ready to marry him a week ago and now you hate him? Why do you think you had such a drastic change of heart in a matter of only a week? Perhaps you should take some time to think about the situation and find the root of the problem before breaking things off for good?”
Facts and rationality. If the two do not align, then there is likely an unwell thought process there. Now, for the folks that have a Bipolar in their lives who understands their Disorder, it is a much easier process. Talk to the person ahead of time and ask them if they will be okay with you asking them to look at their own thoughts and feelings to see if they are getting unbalanced when you suspect they may be.
I know I’m Bipolar. I know I’m periodically nuts. And I know that I don’t always pick up on it immediately even though I’m vigilant in trying to detect it. If someone I know and trust says “Hey Dennis, I think you’re getting unwell”, I will stop and look at my own thought processes and recent actions to see if I am or not.
Even though Bipolar Disorder causes one to make seemingly irrational choices, there is rationality in how unwell cycles develop and the Disorder functions.
The goal is to get the person to identify whether or not they are unwell. If they can, then you can take the next step of asking them not to make major decisions until they are rebalanced. If Mary still wants to break off the engagement, it can surely wait another month or so to give her time to rebalance and figure out her real feelings. Chances are pretty good that she will go back to being in love once her mind levels back off. That period of warped thinking is what destroys relationships, loses jobs, squanders savings, and all the other pleasant bullshit that goes along with being Bipolar.
The well party in the relationship can minimize their own pain and hurt by really learning their loved one’s Disorder and their symptoms. If my partner was Bipolar and she decides to bake until 3 in the morning for no reason other than “she wants to”; I’m pretty sure she’s either in or starting an escalated cycle. It’s not rational to stay up all night baking without a reason for it. So I would point that out to her and not to take her actions or words personally until I’m sure she had either rebalanced or ruled it out.
Rationality and fact are two principles that can be applied to anyone’s situation. You can use them to hack your way through the confusion that the Disorder sows in your life; whether you are a supporter or you’re Bipolar yourself.
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