Mood Disorders and Emotions: WTF Is My Loved One Thinking!?

Many of the emails and messages I receive are from loved ones trying to figure out WTF their loved one is thinking or actually feeling. Today, I’m going to share with you the process I use to try and decipher these thoughts and feelings so perhaps you can apply it in your life. Before I dive into this, I would like to remind you that there are no absolutes when it comes to mental illness and the human mind. These are just the things I’ve come to understand through my own studies and observations in dealing with people and myself. Your mileage (or kilometerage) will vary.

So let’s get into this…

1. Identify the potential trigger or stressor.
The first step I take is to identify the potential trigger point for that person that launched their instability. This is normally something that will stand out starkly- a loved one’s death, moving, losing a job, heated arguments, major frustration. The point of ignition will often be something that would be stressful to a normal person. A mood disorder will take a stress like that and rocket them into unwellness.

I’m not going further into triggers in this post because I’ve already written about them in-depth. You can find more information on mood disorder triggers from my point of view via the link.

2. Identify what they thought and felt about the subject BEFORE the triggering event.
My next step is to ascertain how the person felt and thought about a particular subject before the triggering event; even if it is just the day before their unwell cycle started. That is the truest measure of their emotional state and thoughts on the subject, assuming they don’t have other factors relating to mental illness in play. I aim to get a large segment of information from the person I’m talking to so I can see their overall perspective.

I feel like many couples and loved ones are at a disadvantage in this. I have met so many “happy” and “unhappy” couples who have secrets hidden away from one another. Their genuine thoughts and feelings aren’t explored with their loved one and it puts them at an automatic disadvantage because they do not have the entire truth of the matter.

3. Throw out everything that’s happened from that triggering event to present.
That triggering event unleashed a flood of warped thoughts, negative emotions, and you know.. mental illness. You can’t put absolute faith in anything that person thought or felt since the start of their unwell cycle. Now, there are plenty of people who retain lucidity and somewhat accurate thought. It depends on the person, the severity of the illness, the severity of their cycle, their real life stresses; and probably a hundred other things.

What you are looking to eliminate is extremely unusual or uncharacteristic behavior from the equation. Let me give you an example we will work with. (And this is not based on anyone, this is just one of the things I see on a regular basis. If it seems familiar to you, it’s because it happens to a lot of people.)

James is a Bipolar, devoted family man. The couple has been married 8 years, with typical relationship bumps, but nothing too drastic has occurred between the two. Then James is laid off from career. Now he has the anger and sadness of losing his career, the anxiety of how he’s going to help support his family, and the realization that he is essentially back to square one in his life.

James’s mind escalates as he lays awake at night, staring at the ceiling, trying to figure out how he’s going to pay bills and the rent. The lack of sleep fuels the mania and his mental shift gets worse. He picks fights for any reason over anything, is behaving erratically, and sometimes frighteningly.

Then he gets a call from an ex-gf from years passed that things were unresolved with. He looks at his wife, his life, and his current misery and decides that he is entirely unhappy with it; not realizing that his unhappiness is blown out of portion by the mania. James’s decision making is entirely impaired, fueled by the erratic nature of manic thinking, overwhelming emotions, and general instability.

His unwell mind jumps to the conclusion that losing his career and hearing back from this ex must have been a sign. James feels good when he’s talking to the ex because he’s not being constantly reminded of his job loss and the anxiety surrounding it. In looking at his wife, he sees her concern and worry; not only over their living situation, but in the erratic way that he’s been behaving. She starts to pull away because she doesn’t know what to make of the situation or understand how to help her husband.

Just the sight of his wife becomes a visual trigger; a reminder of his failures as a husband, in his career, to his children. Being around her makes him worse, but he’s around her all the time because he’s now unemployed.

James interprets this as a sign of the relationship breakdown, he decides that he must not love her anymore since his “feelings” for his ex are still so strong; again, not realizing that those feelings are just a figment of his unwell cycle. He feels guilty, and throws himself into lavishing attention and love on her in the hopes of revitalizing whatever spark got them started in the first place.

A few days later, he wakes up and realizes that it’s all for naught. He “loves” his ex-gf and leaves his wife, stating that she brings him nothing but misery and anguish. James doesn’t understand that he needs to be the one to manage how he feels about what he’s seeing in his wife. She’s scared, concerned, withdrawn; instead of exploring why, he jumps to the conclusion that she must be getting ready to leave him first. So fuck that bitch. James leaves his family and moves in with the ex.

This goes on for awhile. James comes in and out of his family’s life as he tries to spend time with his kids. His kids are pulling away and withdrawing because they have no idea what the fuck is going on in their father’s head. So they’re scared and concerned as well. James decides that his wife MUST be turning them against him, further fueling the mania and spinning him out further. His hatred for his wife grows. He screams at her, calls her cunt, maybe even harasses her at her work place to try and hurt her the same way she’s been hurting him. And attacking him through the kids? That’s just fucking unacceptable.

This transpires over the course of months. Almost a year later, James may have finally been hospitalized or maybe his brain just couldn’t keep up with the mania anymore. His unwell brain crashes hard.

So how does James actually feel? James spent 8 years building a life with his wife with mutual love and respect. The trigger, the ignition point, was when the severe unwell thinking started. The unwell thinking is twisted reality and flat out lies that your brain tells you is absolutely true. And if you trust your brain, you’ll follow through on it. Bipolars that don’t understand their mental illness or are undiagnosed do not have the perspective they need to KNOW that they CAN NOT trust their brain after they trigger.

James looks around this ex-gf’s place that he’s now shacked up with; and it all hits him like a tidal wave. His emotions drop back to a similar state as they were before the unwell cycle. In love with his wife, happy with his kids; even though things weren’t always perfect. But now, James is in the darkest part of the Disorder. The part where I suspect most of us end up losing their battle.

What goes up, must come down. And when you’re that high up, you come down HARD into a deep, black, murky abyss of depression where there is no light, no hope, no love. Nothingness. Just the void. And in that weak moment when James is looking back on what he destroyed? He can’t live with what he did to his wife, kids, and to himself. So he picks up a steak knife and slits his wrist.

Maybe James is lucky and gets found before he is too far gone to save. Maybe he’s successful. Or maybe he makes it through the dark spot without the suicide attempt. Perhaps he tries to go back to his wife, apologizing profusely with no idea how to explain what was going through his head or why. But all she can do is cry because she has no idea who the man is she is now looking at. Is it the monster or is it the loving husband?

Can she trust him? What’s he thinking? What’s he feeling? Who is he, even? Will this happen again? What can she do about it? What can he do about it? Can the relationship be recovered? Is the trust completely destroyed? Is the marriage gone?

So many questions, so many stresses; so much potential for another unwell cycle.

Author’s Note: So much for a short post, that James story really started pouring out of my subconscious. Like he was sitting in the back of my brain, telling it to me. Anyway…

4. So what is my Bipolar loved one actually thinking when they’re unwell?
The short answer is that it doesn’t matter. You cannot trust your unwell loved one’s thoughts while they are unwell. Period. At all. That doesn’t mean to accuse them of lying or think they are always trying to manipulate you; but if things don’t add up logically in your mind or appear extremely erratic, chances are pretty good that they are the product of unwell thought processes.

Does that make the actions the person takes while unwell acceptable? No. It doesn’t. No one should just put up with an abusive environment. Unwell people can do awful things that are completely out of character for them across the spectrum of abuse.

As a third party, your being able to identify those thought processes can be extremely helpful to a Bipolar person who understands the way the Disorder affects their thinking. And most importantly for the third party, it can let them know when not to take the Bipolar person’s words and actions to heart.

James’s wife would be perfectly justified in leaving him for his actions; for hating him for what he did to their family. And that’s the way it goes for quite a number of people because normals just can’t wrap their heads around how a person can completely turn around on their emotions, thoughts, and beliefs like that. That’s because it’s not normal; it is a product of mental illness.

Is it right? Is it wrong? It doesn’t matter. It’s mental illness. It is what it is.

5. How can I use this information?
One of the most spoken pieces of advice I give to loved ones of mentally ill people is to learn to control your emotions. It is an essential skill to not only keeping your stress levels low, but in being able to keep a clear enough head to try and navigate your way through the other person’s unwell thoughts to try and anchor them back to the ground. It also helps a shitload in every day life to deal with difficult customers, clients, or coworkers.

If you’re calm and collected, not wondering “what the fuck?”; you can calmly point out that… “Hey, you remember you’re Bipolar right? So maybe it’s an unwell thought process want to sell your car to fund a vacation to England while you’re unemployed?”

A supporter shouldn’t be surprised if the person waffles back and forth between “I love you, let’s get married” and “I hate you, I can’t ever speak to you again” in the span of a week. That is stereotypical Bipolar emotions and thoughts.

How does that person really feel? Well, you look back before the triggering point. That is likely the closest point to their genuine thoughts and feelings you’re going to get. While they are in the midst of their unwell cycle, you should be nudging them to seek professional help or keep up on their meds if they decided they didn’t need them. (Which again, happens all the time.)

Do not get caught up in what their emotions are at this moment. Think big picture. These kinds of erratic fluctuations are just par for the course for an unwell mind.

6. But what if I can’t find a triggering point?
In my experience, a majority of triggering points are fairly blatant. That doesn’t mean they all are. A great example of this is your sense of smell. Smell can kick up powerful changes in the body. Consider the way fresh popcorn makes you hungry or perhaps catching a whiff of a scent that is associated with something specific in your history that floods back memories. See where this is going?

My second ex-Fiancee loved lavender. Lavender body wash, shampoo and conditioner; lavender everywhere. After we parted ways, if I’d catch a whiff of lavender, all of those memories would just come flooding back and slam me like a tidal wave; trying to throw me into a deeper depression. Bipolar Disorder just latched onto that and tried to go running with it. And it sucked worst of all because it was typically in a public place, like a store. So now, I’m standing in the middle of a grocery store fighting back this depressive wave, using activate management mental skills while moving hastily away from where I caught a whiff; or simply leaving my cart and walking out.

And like so many people, I coped with rum. Lots and lots of rum.

The Bipolar person may not have any idea why they triggered. Maybe it was catching a glimpse of someone who looked like their mother who passed away a few months ago, maybe it was the scent of cologne their sexual abuser wore, maybe it was something as innocent as lavender. ANYTHING that has a deep emotional tie can potentially kick off an unwell cycle.

Should that happen, you just have to look back to a point when they were functioning normally for them to try and find their baseline.

7. How do I use this knowledge to my benefit?
– Mentally Ill – You HAVE to learn how your mental illness affects YOU. That means learning everything you possibly can about it and figuring out what applies to you. No one can do that but you; not doctors, therapists, loved ones, kids, parents, whatever. YOU have to do it for YOU; because you’re the only one that knows your innermost vulnerabilities. And you can do it. If I could do it through years of serious to suicidal depression; you can do it too.

You need someone you can trust to bounce things off of for a clear perspective. If you don’t have anyone around you that you can trust like that, look into a support group. And yes, I know, “I don’t like talking about my problems”. Yeah, I’ve heard it a thousand times. Would you like to deal with a few minutes of social discomfort (not anxiety, keep reading) or would you like to deal with sweeping up the ashes of a six month long manic bender? I fully believe that peer support groups are one of the best ways to have balance and not feel like you’re burdening the people that care about you. You’re dealing with other people just like you; and you’re providing your insight, experience, and help in a meaningful way to those people too.

For those of you with social anxiety (yeah I didn’t forget about you), look for a decent community forum. The best one I’ve found is the one at www.dbsalliance.org . You can anonymously post your thoughts and get feedback from multiple people. Or, you can always email me.

Always remember- just because your brain is screaming at you that this is the best idea you’ve ever had; it doesn’t mean that it is or that you have to follow through with it.

– Supporters – You have to learn to not dwell in the moment. Yes, your unwell loved one is going to say and do some shitty things probably. That’s why it’s a mental illness and not mental super happy fun time. If you can retain your perspective and keep your emotions calm, you can work to minimize the collateral damage that will occur from the unwell cycle.

Encourage the person to get in to see their medical professional or seek help in the first place, if they have not.

You can also utilize an active management technique of distraction. The more the Bipolar person dwells on unwell thoughts, the more fuel they are throwing into the fires. Work to keep them distracted off of those thought processes so they don’t have a chance to really take hold and launch. That can be as simple as “hey let’s go to lunch” or throw in a funny movie to take their mind off of whatever they are dwelling on.

The important thing is- do not get wrapped up in the here and now. They will probably have fifty different opinions by the time the cycle actually ends.

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9 Responses to Mood Disorders and Emotions: WTF Is My Loved One Thinking!?

  1. avatar GabsJL says:

    Hi Dennis and Happy New Year! I hope you had a good holiday.

    I have just returned from my holiday trip from Chicago. It was quite stressful, especially with my mother and her open-heart surgery at last scheduled for February.

    My ex bf was sending texts before my flight. He seemed to be “warming” up a bit, but as soon as I asked again if I could at least see him when I got back, I got another “we don’t work because were always fighting, but I want to stay in contact because I get along so well with you…” WTF that makes absolutely no sense, talk about a contradictory sentence!! It’s just so maddening, just makes me want to scream.

    So, he’s not feeling any better at all I guess. I know, I don’t know what I was hoping for, but I guess I haven’t completely given up on him.

    I read this article at least 10 times, and even made me cry a bit. But it was such a good read. You say that what goes up, must come down, but since he’s been manic for so long becaus of the antidepressants, does that mean he will never come down?? How long can he continue in this state, won’t his brain ever burn out?? The mania, even though caused by th ADs, can’t continue indefinitely can it? Of course, as you say in your article, what comes afterwards, is the dark abyss of depression, but at least that means that there’s been a change. Or is there just no way of knowing how long it can last?

    He was texting on Christmas (I started it after a 4-day silence), and he seemed glad to hear from me, although I could tell he was drinking, and same for New Year’s Eve and even yesterday, New Year’s Day, he wished me a good flight, etc.

    Now today since I’m back, nothing…not even a couple words to see if I made it back. This makes me worried. ..I hope he’s OK. I didn”t contact him either, I’m exhausted from the long flight and don’t want to get another cold message, but I can’t help but be worried.

    Sorry to keep asking the same questions Dennis, and thanks again for your patience, but I can’t be at peace until I know he’s OK. But I guess only being able to see him would calm me down.

  2. avatar Gecka says:

    Thanks for a million for this, it feels good to read about what I’m experiencing with my husband… soon to be ex I guess. I’ve no idea if he will eventually “wake up” from this nightmare in a few months like James in your story and realize his loss, the mountain of destruction and the sadness of it all. I’ll keep hoping, I can’t help it, although everyone including my therapist has advised me to turn away from him. But how can I just “forget” about our little family (we have a baby who’s not even 1 year old yet), our life together, our dreams and so forth? I’m not bipolar, I can’t just clap my fingers and woooosh he’s gone from my heart and my mind.

    • avatar Dennis says:

      You’ll never forget, nor should you forget. And you’re likely not gone from his heart and mind either. It’s buried somewhere under the mental illness. Unfortunately, our unwell brains feed us lies and unless we have a really good handle on our mental illness, it is very easy to fall prey to those lies because.. well.. why would you not trust your own brain? It’s exceptionally difficult to deal with. And sometimes an unwell cycle can sneak up on you stealthily you never even know you’re there until you’re left looking around at the pile of ashes that was once your life.

      You won’t forget. And you shouldn’t forget. But you should absolutely take care of you and your baby first. Because if he’s so unwell and out of it that even your therapist is telling you to step back; then he’s not going to be able to contribute meaningfully either way.

      It’s a shit road and a shit circumstance. But that’s what mental illness is; raw, painful, and awful.

      Hopefully he’ll find some point of rationality and clarity sooner rather than later.

      Thank you for taking the time to read my work and comment.

  3. avatar Gecka says:

    Thanks for your reply.
    What breaks my heart the most is that in the beginning of the depression episode last July, he really tried to seek help, he even mentionned psych ward, but he just didn’t follow up essentially because his parents came in the way to “save him” from his horrible wife (me). Yes, it’s all my fault of course… Since then he’s gone totally paranoid and did a lot of very bad things that could have almost left us homeless and moneyless, the kids and me (I have another child of my own). Now, he’s alone in an appartment his dad found for him, looks angry everytime I see him, and from what I know has big problems at work… and he has no friends, not even one.
    Four months ago, he got a bit better and came back to me for a few days. His insight was impressive, and he told me “Seeing everything I’ve destroyed is living hell”… but the destruction was only starting… I wonder what else will happen before he sees the waste of it all.
    In 6 months time, we ended up separated (when he was talking about marriage 7 months ago), I had to see a lawyer to protect my kid from his crazy and agressive behaviour and he’s lost the home we shared and that he loved. Now his family and I are not talking to each other anymore, and my family will never want to see him again.
    His family believe his crap and in fact encourage his paranoia. They even tell him that he doesn’t need to see a shrink… All this is very, very sad indeed.

    Thanks again for your “manifesto”, it’s important for my own sanity to be able to put words on the chaos.

    • avatar Dennis says:

      It is very unfortunate ebb and flow of the Disorder; particularly when a person latches onto the words of an “unhealthy” family over reality and truth. Given that Bipolar Disorder has a genetic component, it wouldn’t surprise me if there is presence in his parents or grandparents along with some very heavy denial or substance abuse for coping.

      Despite the chaos, destruction, and general shittiness of the overall situation; your statement of his insight while in a lucid moment is a very good thing. It shows that he is at least able to understand that something is very wrong with him. Hopefully, he will be able to seek help when he levels off and gains some lucidity again. I don’t know the legal situation; but if he ever reaches out again in a lucid moment, press him to seek psych help immediately.

      Sometimes the best we can manage is just engaging in damage control until we are able to take a step in and try to shove the person in a better direction.

      Thank you for taking the time to share your story. I know how shitty it is. Have you looked into any local Friends and Family support groups? They may be able to at least provide some emotional support and perhaps can point you at resources to help you in your situation too.

  4. Pingback: Trouble de l’humeur et des émotions : Mais bordel qu’est-ce qu’il/elle a ?!!! | Coborder, Cobipo, Coschizo

  5. avatar Gecka says:

    You’re right about the dysfuntional family, his mother is diagnosed bipolar. He is not diagnosed, but has all the signs of it. I did get some help from a support association for mentally ill people’s relatives, although I ALWAYS hear the “you must step back” piece of advice…
    It’s hard, really hard, and some moments are harder to cope than others. Today, I got a new job in a company he used to work for, and I miss him terribly. He does send messages on special occasions (the first one to wish me happy new year, or wish me luck on my new job), although looking very cold and hostile when I see him. I feel I’ve been surviving, not living my life, for months now…

  6. avatar Trish says:

    I think that this post contains a lot of useful information, the kind of information I wish I had the drive to find out when answering this question was really a problem for me. I can’t emphasize enough that honesty is very important. It can feel one-sided at times, because your loved one might lie to you when they’re unwell, or might be afraid of being completely honest with you back. That’s why it’s so important to be able to recognize unwell cycles and to build a trusting, benefit-of-the-doubt relationship during the well cycles. That’s why it’s so important (but oh so difficult!) not to take personally the things that your loved one does while unwell. But if your partner was sick with the flu, you wouldn’t get angry at them for throwing up on the living room carpet. It’s a lot easier to recognize the flu than an unwell cycle, but they’re both pretty involuntary.

    I would also encourage supporters to make sure they are taking care of their own mental health. This is all harder to do when you’re mired in depression and feeling overwhelmed.

    Anyway, thank you for the very thoughtful post!

    • avatar Dennis says:

      Thank you for taking the time to comment, Trish. I’m happy to see you can understand that perspective, for obvious reasons. Thanks for contributing your experience and point of view.

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