My husband, aka Bipolar Bear or “BBear,” and I recently celebrated a milestone: he is well again after nearly three years of hypomania and depression (which also happened to coincide with the first three years of our marriage). To celebrate, we released petals into the ocean, representing the gratitude we feel for the transformative influences this difficult time brought us. Compare that moment to two years ago, when BBear was close to fading away. Over these years, we have learned a bunch about ourselves as individuals and as a couple. Here are some of the strategies that help us thrive as a couple in the light of BBear’s bipolar diagnosis.
BBear and I acknowledge our privilege in having a trusted psychiatrist; education that assists our financial stability; and supportive family and friends. We hope that no matter your situation, below you will find at least one helpful tip to enhance your relationship with your bipolar bear.
1. Start with you
Taking care of your own health is essential to supporting your BBear.
“By ‘walking the walk,’ not only can we be more present and responsive, but we model healthy behaviour, reduce stigma and support helpful lifestyle choices for our BBears.”
When BBear took a medical leave from work, it forced me to take his – and my own – health seriously. With the help of a counsellor, I became more aware of the influences in my story that impact my relationship with BBear and his diagnosis. I made lifestyle changes that allowed me to exercise, eat and sleep well so that I could show up better with him.
Understanding and respecting my own needs and values (non-judgmentally) allows me to set and maintain boundaries that support us both for the long-term. For example, I value authenticity, and I need honesty in my relationships. BBear and I collaborated to balance this with his need for independence and agreed on practical guidelines that suit us both (for example, we discuss and agree with each other before making a purchase over a certain dollar amount; if we cannot do that on our own, we seek advice from a professional).
Families have a potent influence on our BBears. By “walking the walk,” not only can we be more present and responsive, but we model healthy behaviour, reduce stigma and support helpful lifestyle choices for our BBears. It is much easier to stick to healthy habits when your fam is doing the same. It also helps me relate to better his journey – training your brain is hard work!
2. You can’t love your BBear back to health
Accepting the reality of your BBear’s diagnosis helps you enjoy the present and the future.
After BBear fell into a deep depression, I went into overdrive trying to inspire, work, and drag him back to health – or more accurately, to a life we did not have. I told myself that if I could just _______ (insert behaviour here – get him to the gym; find the right naturopath; research new medications, etc.), everything would be okay. I was exhausted – and he resented me.
“Education and treatment can be helpful; obsessing over his wellness and trying to force an outcome is not.”
Eventually, I saw that all of these efforts were my distorted way of resisting the truth – that bipolar is a lifelong illness that will necessarily impact our plans. Education and treatment can be helpful; obsessing over his wellness and trying to force an outcome is not. We can manage his symptoms but they will never disappear. As a result, our lives might look a bit different than some of our friends’ – and that is okay. We adapt and carve our own unique path together.
Understanding the realistic impacts of the condition also enabled us to make and execute a solid safety plan. For example, knowing that travel is a trigger, we carefully plan around it to minimize the risks. We also discussed BBear’s wishes if he becomes unable to make decisions for himself in the future, and with legal assistance executed a Representation Agreement for health care decisions, and a Power of Attorney for financial decisions. This gives us confidence that if another episode happens (which is statistically likely), it will be a speed bump rather than a cliff.
3. Try a little tenderness
Compassion for yourself and others makes for a rock-solid relationship.
Practicing compassion means offering understanding and kindness to others when they fail or make mistakes, rather than judging or pitying them. It recognizes that suffering is part of the shared human experience that connects us all together. By practicing self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness, we are best able to help our loved ones enjoy their experiences.
For me, self-compassion teaches that you cannot love someone more than you love yourself; put another way, we treat the world as we treat ourselves. For many years, I thought being kind to myself would make me “soft” and therefore less “successful” in life. However, self-compassion is not pitying or indulging yourself; rather, it helps you hold yourself accountable. As reported by the Harvard Business Review, studies have shown that self-compassion actually improves outcomes by increasing motivation and happiness, fostering resilience, enhancing integrity and authenticity, and improving leadership. Simple as it seems, this approach has been a total game-changer for me and my relationships.
“By practicing self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness, we are best able to help our loved ones enjoy their experiences.”
The practice of self-compassion focuses on the language we use to talk to ourselves. When we tune into this self-talk for the first time, we are often surprised at how mean we are to ourselves. However, with this practice I have changed this script, which makes it a lot easier for me to blow past defensiveness and say “I need help” when I am in my own compulsive cycle. This approach is contagious: as a result, BBear is more willing to ask for and accept help too.
When BBear was emerging from a deep depression, I asked him, “what’s one thing you would want to take with us from this chapter to the next?” He replied, “be tender.” This depressive episode made us connect deeply with our humanity, vulnerability, and each other. Now, even in his wellness, we try to practice compassion by acknowledging our own struggles and efforts, seeing how we are working towards the same goal, and asking, “how can I support you?”
4. Harness the power of your circadian rhythm
Designing your life around good-quality sleep sets you both up for health and happiness.
During his recovery, BBear and I were stunned to learn how influential certain all-too-common substances and habits are on your sleep and your quality of life. In response, we have made substantial lifestyle changes: we eat dinner, go to sleep and rise at the same time every day – even on weekends; we avoid caffeine after noon; and we limit alcohol (especially near bedtime). Yes, this has impacted our social life – but we think for the better, since we are more present when we do go out (plus, saving money – brunch out is cheaper than dinner!). Overall, it has improved our functionality and enjoyment of every aspect of our lives.
Our bodies and brains love routine and habit, and we try to use these powers for good, not evil. Our schedule includes daily mood monitoring, weekly financial check-ins, and monthly “big picture” meetings. This may seem like a lot of work, but as with the other strategies here, it ends up saving us a lot of time and strife. Too much structure can restrict a healthy flow, but in our experience a realistic framework frees us up to be creative in sustainable and productive ways. Being intentional with our time ensures a nourishing balance of family, work and play time.
“Our bodies and brains love routine and habit, and we try to use these powers for good, not evil.”
Our rule of thumb is, “six days on, one day off”: breaking routinely from the routine helps keep us refreshed and engaged. The most critical day in the cycle is the first day back from the break; getting back on the horse then makes keeping your commitment for the balance much easier.
5. Work your benefits (or whatever resources you have)
Extending your resources (especially your insurance benefits) lets you focus better on recovery.
Many employers offer extended health care and other benefits; the key is knowing your entitlements and how to access them. If you and your BBear both have extended health care plans, you can coordinate your plans to double the resources (one of my favourite life hacks!). This means that one insurance provider will pay a portion of the claim, and the other will pay the balance. We try to take advantage of everything our plans offer, from counselling, to nutritionists, to naturopaths. We can even get couples’ massages covered! This requires some organization on your end – I keep an elaborate spreadsheet to track our appointments and claims – but well worth it for the access to excellent treatment providers and outcomes.
“Educating yourself, being proactive, and seeking advice and assistance is essential as the claims’ process can be tricky, but the upshot is huge.”
We also received disability insurance (aka income replacement) benefits through BBear’s employer when he was unable to work due to his symptoms. The financial support was incredibly relieving for us during an already extremely difficult time. Again, educating yourself, being proactive, and seeking advice and assistance is essential as the claims’ process can be tricky, but the upshot is huge. If you are not sure what disability insurance is or how it works (most people do not), please ask – leave a comment below, Google it, or ask a financial advisor. If you and your BBear do not have disability insurance benefits, I highly recommend you get on a policy as soon as you can. Many employers offer a group policy, and you can buy individual policies while you are working and after a period of demonstrated stability (which can be tough with bipolar, so please do it as soon as you can!).
If insurance benefits are not available to you (and even if they are), seek out and take advantage of any other resources you can. There are free or low-cost counselling options (for example, through an employee-assistance program), apps for your mobile phone (CREST.BD is currently working to create an app for bipolar disorder), online resources such as CREST.BD’s Bipolar Wellness Centre and Quality of Life Tool, support groups, etc. Ask for and take all the help you can get! You may be surprised to learn what is available to you.
All of this is a work in progress and BBear and I by no means have it all figured out. But our family motto is “no mud, no lotus”: just as the beauty of the lotus flower is borne from the muck that nourishes its roots, the challenges presented by BBear’s bipolar symptoms nurse our growth as individuals and as a couple.
Addressing BBear’s condition together has brought us closer and more connected than I ever thought possible. We have developed powerful coping skills, shared the fruits of our experiences with our community (and hence reduced stigma in our circle), and celebrated our successes with the deep joy and satisfaction that comes from overcoming adversity. I feel privileged and honoured every day to participate in his recovery and wellness. BBear’s bipolar diagnosis was not exactly on our wedding registry – but it has brought many unexpected gifts to our relationship, and for that, we are grateful.