How Can My Bipolar Loved One Be So Awful To Me…

…and appear relatively functional and civil to others?

Alright, let’s get a couple of points out of the way before I dive into this. This post will include a lot of theorycraft and rationalization based on the way I understand the Disorder and my social dysfunction as a High-Functioning Autistic. As an HFA, I’ve spent a lot of time observing people in social situations to learn how to function “correctly”. Read “correctly” as- in a way that won’t be upsetting or alienating in social circumstances. This post will also assume the person is generally a decent person, but becomes awful when they get unwell. Then there are plenty of people who are abusive jerks who also happen to be mentally ill. That’s a whole different ballgame really.

So let’s start with a fictitious, example scenario…

Jenny is an undiagnosed Bipolar with a mildly chaotic history, one that she has taken pains to keep secret out of shame and fear of being stigmatized. Jenny was lucky enough to complete college and secured a management position with a corporation. She’s married to James and they have two children together. The unwell swings Jenny experiences during her life have largely been manageable, but what she doesn’t realize is that the Disorder gets worse with age when left untreated.

What started off as mostly manageable unwellness has steadily degenerated to the point where the kids are afraid of Jenny and James has no idea who this woman is that he married. When she’s well? She’s loving, happy, and wonderful. When she’s unwell? Everyone is on pins and needles to avoid setting her off. As she escalates she becomes verbally abusive, raging, and intimidating.

Jenny is slowly coming apart and the people that catch the worst of it are her friends and family members. At work and socially, she seems to maintain fairly well. She still makes snide comments or picks at people in an aggressive way, but one would not really peg it as symptoms of “unwellness” unless they understood the entirety of Jenny’s life and history.

A Matter of Familiarity

Why do Jenny’s loved ones, friends, and family get the worst of her? The simple answer is familiarity. People do not act the same way in front of strangers or in the workplace as they do with those they know. Each of us has masks we wear when we are talking to certain groups of people.

When she’s at work, Jenny knows she has a professional demeanor to try and maintain. She may be coming across as short, moody, irritable, and impatient. I feel like this has a lot to do with maintaining that work veneer. Let’s face it; most of us would get tossed out on our ass if we acted out what was in our heads while in the work place. Jenny is actively working to maintain the facade, not realizing how much more difficult it actually is because it just seems like a normal part of her day. Her coworkers and general friends are more likely to shrug and go about their day, thinking she’s just moody.

But when she gets home? She’s coming back to her place of security and unwinding. A place where she is not expected to keep up masks. So the Disorder pours out. Being undiagnosed and dealing with the Disorder for so long, she may not be able to recognize that her responses and reactions are irrational. An undiagnosed or uninformed Bipolar doesn’t have the knowledge base to actually identify which of their actions may indicate unwellness and which are them just being angry or short.

It takes a lot of work and energy to actively manage instability. Jenny may be seething at work, wanting to tear off her coworker’s head for some slight- real or imagined. But she doesn’t, because she’s not so far gone that she is still able to realize that she can’t just do that in the work place. And then of course comes the problems with being too far along. Maybe she verbally lays into him and winds up fired or written up for it because the unwellness slipped past her mask.

At home is an entirely different story. There are still things that we keep under wraps even with friends and family members; but after spending all day trying to maintain that facade at work, it comes off because it is so much energy and work. So if Jenny, Jr. spills some milk; the rational response of “Clean up after yourself” instead pours out of her mouth with hate. “What the fuck is wrong with you? You can’t do anything right. If you can’t fucking pour milk right then you don’t deserve it.” And throws the open milk against the wall.

Does escalation make this behavior acceptable? No. But if the person is undiagnosed, how are they supposed to realize how awful they are acting? Or that there is even an option to act differently? A person who lives with this as their “normal” doesn’t necessarily have the context to understand just how awful they are acting until they balance off enough to see clearly.

A Question Of Perception

I have touched on perception a bit previously. Perception is at the heart of Bipolar Disorder and managing it. We nutbags have to understand how the Disorder warps and distorts the way we perceive life. To function through unwell cycles while you are around friends and family members, the Bipolar needs to try and keep some of their masks up so they are actively thinking about what they are saying and doing while unstable.

As someone who has been diagnosed for about six years, gone through cognitive behavioral therapy, and regularly monitors my mental state- I would look at the above situation very differently. My brain may be screaming at me to tell the little fuck to get the hell out of my way- but all that’s coming out of my mouth is “Clean up your mess.” with me walking away. Why do I know I’m hypomanic? Because I identified it days ago through my physical symptoms of not being able to sleep with no tiredness, arrogance, and irrational irritation. So I know that I need to have my mask on and my defenses up so I don’t tear down the people around me.

Someone that is not diagnosed does not have that benefit. Even if they are, they may still not get it exactly right. It’s a tough mask to try and keep on constantly because it does require a ton of mental and emotional energy. Wearing a version of the mask we wear in public, dealing with coworkers or strangers, can help prevent serious damage to personal relationships.

Understanding that we need to don that mask to minimize the damage to our loved ones comes from education and introspection. If you are mentally ill; continue to build your knowledge base about your mental illness. If you are a loved one; encourage your loved one to research and continue to build their knowledge so they can develop this understanding.

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6 Responses to How Can My Bipolar Loved One Be So Awful To Me…

  1. A. J. says:

    Thanks for your great articles. This one meant a lot to me because a bp friend of 10+ years must have hit that “familiarity” level with me and my husband and about 2 yrs ago started to lose the ability to mask the rage. We always knew there were signs of some mental illness over the years, but for the most part, she had kept it hidden until a period about 3 or 4 years ago of what appeared to us to be a lengthy period of depression and then she was a little more open about her longtime diagnosis of BP. But beyond that mention, she did not discuss or educate us.
    After that time, we started to notice little comments that were seemingly intended to be embarrassing or hurtful popping out during social gatherings. Then came periods of arrogance and outright inconsistent stories. Then we didn’t, in sharp contrast to other times, she was so needy for reassurances it was a strain to try to comfort her.
    Finally, it seemed like we were somehow triggering her inner rage just by being around her. She started to blurt pointedly hurtful and embarrassing types of comments towards us at our parties to which she was invited (and had previously been such a part of). When asked if she could help us understand what was causing this to happen, she never could inform us with anything more than “just accept me”. It just was too painful after a while. We are human and the comments HURT! We also became fearful, especially after this very cultured, highly intelligent and socially adept woman left a discomforting death wish on our phone message machine.
    We have decided to have some distance from her now. We still feel very hurt and sad about the direction the relationship took. As I said, your articles have given us a lot of insight. I just wish we could shrug off the hurtful stuff she said and did, but we don’t feel that we should be a psychological doormats either. The Trust that this friendship had is lost, but we do appreciate how much effort it must take for her to keep her sense of equilibrium every day.
    Thank you what you do, Dennis. We wish you wellness.

    • Dennis says:

      Hello, AJ. Thanks for taking the time to comment. I have a couple of suggestions for you. First, not every Bipolar is adept at articulating what exactly is going on in their mind or why they may think that may be the case. I have spent years thinking about my own brain, my actions, why I did them, how I think it plays into the overall scope of my personality; and on and on and on and on. But there are some things you can do both to protect yourself and encourage her to help herself.

      “Just accept me.” I accept you. I do not accept your actions because they are unacceptable. If I did not, we would not have been friends for over a decade.

      The fact that she was “blurting out” inappropriate comments suggests the escalated symptom where the filter between the Bipolar’s mind and mouth disappears. Your brain just throws things out of your mouth before you really have a chance to think about them. Depending on how unwell the person may be, they may or may not recognize this after the fact. For example, my family is one where we exchange barbed comments constantly, but in a friendly way. “Good going, dumbass” with a laugh. That sort of thing. Anyway, generally when playing around like that or with others, I stay away from deeply personal attacks because it is not intention to actually harm the person. Well, my mother made some comment to me. Knowing that she was adopted, what came out of my mouth was, “At least my parents loved me enough to keep me.” Which was then followed by “What the fuck brain? I’m really sorry, mom. I didn’t mean to say that.”

      And I didn’t. It’s just that when a person is escalated, things will come straight out of their mouth instead of staying in their brain where they should be. And since you’re unwell, those thoughts coming out of your mouth are typically not pleasant or disturbing.

      The death threat is a whole different story. You should most definitely keep a copy of that and even talk to authorities about it. If she has been adept at keeping things under a tight lid for this long, then she is probably pretty adept at masking her unwellness. So who knows how deep that well could be?

      But given your comments statements and the previously good history that you all have had; it sounds like she is or was extremely unwell. If that’s what’s coming out, there is going to be a hell of a lot more churning in her brain. She needs professional help if she is not receiving it. If she’s on meds, she needs to talk to her doctor about this unwellness; it means the medication is not working as it is supposed to be and probably needs an adjustment.

      In the event that you do cross paths with her again, tell her that you care very much for her but she is very well right now, encourage her to seek help because you can tell something is very wrong based on the long friendship you’ve had. A medication tweak (assuming she’s on meds) may be all that’s needed to get your friend back as you knew her. But otherwise, she really needs professional help. The Disorder does not get better on its own, only worse as we get older, because it causes physical degeneration of the parts of the brain it affects.

      If you do cross paths again, try to avoid getting angry or engaging in her unwell arguments. You can meet them with silence. And plant the seed that “You’re really unwell right now. When you balance off more and want to talk to me, call me.”

      Bipolar escalations are followed by a deep, deep low; the kind that can spur a suicide attempt when you’re looking around at the friendships you’ve trashed, relationships and opportunities you’ve destroyed, and the general chaos that goes along with being Bipolar. That “call me” will probably mean nothing to her in her unwell state, it’s just a seed planted for when she eventually crashes; so hopefully she will pick up a phone and reach out instead of falling into the severe “i’m completely alone” void where suicide looks like the best option.

      Don’t get me wrong, you have every right to be wary, insulate yourself, and put some distance between you. A death threat should be taken very seriously and taken to authorities before she has an opportunity to hurt herself or someone else. But at the same time, your friend of several years is still in there, smothered under her unwell cycle.

  2. marya says:

    Well I’m sick and tired of bipolar people expecting everyone to deal with the . I’m done with the highs and lows of a family member that won’t get treated firvfear she is viewed as imperfect. Stop the madness towards the ones that are not bipolar!!!

    • Dennis says:

      Everyone has their limits, you are certainly entitled to yours. I’m sorry for the pain and suffering you’ve gone through because of your loved one’s inability to comprehend how her actions reflect on others. Unfortunately, mental illness makes it extremely difficult to see things clearly.

      The only way to “stop madness” against people who are not Bipolar is for those people to have clear boundaries and follow through on them. Expecting a mentally ill person to make good, healthy decisions will only end in heartache.

      Be well.

  3. nong andy says:

    thank you so much Dennis for all the info. its was sad to think that there is no way out for them. when you have it you can’t run away from it. I really wish there is easy way to deal with bipolar person but reading the info and comment gave me clear pictures about bipolar. thank again

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