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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