The purpose of this article is to try and help the many bewildered significant others of those who have bipolar disorder understand a little bit more about what their partner is going through.
I'm twenty five years old, and within the last few years have had two different relationships with people who happen to have bipolar disorder. I also have several friends with bipolar 1, bipolar 2 and cyclothymia and know many, many people living with depression. Especially with my last partner with bipolar disorder, I experienced many different emotions and a lot of the time was afraid and confused. This is based off my personal experience and hopefully it'll help someone.TW: Discusses mental illness and relationship trauma.
1. Our relationship was fine. Sure, we may have had a fight here and there, but who doesn't. So why did he/she break up with me out of the blue?
This is a very difficult question to answer without meeting your 'ex.' To put it in a different perspective, let's pretend your 'ex' had a different condition instead - say, Asperger's or Epilepsy. Would it make the breakup any less real just because they had the condition? Hopefully, your answer is no. Even people with disabilities have a right to withdraw consent and end relationships at any point in time. However: If someone with bipolar disorder is in the middle of an episode, whether it be manic, hypomanic, mixed, psychotic or depressive, their thinking will change from when they were stable.
I do know that it is ridiculously common for someone with bipolar disorder to fall in love with someone during an episode - and those feelings are very real for them during the episode, but then they evaporate once the episode phases out. Alternatively, they may fall in love with someone when they are stable, and may love this person very much when stable, but when mania or depression takes over, they gain a different perspective and their feelings may change (either temporarily or permanently), or if they are depressed may simply feel like they just can't even face the prospect of having a functional relationship - so it's easier just to end it.
2. Will they come back to me?
I certainly think it's possible. They will eventually come out of the episode, and if their perspective changes back to what it originally was, they may feel embarrassment, remorse, horror at their actions, etc and try their best to make amends. However, I learned the (very) hard way that there are no guarantees of this happening, no matter how much he/she loved you previously - it is very possible that after the episode, their perspective may not change back or they may gain a whole new perspective.
This cycle has happened to me a few times now. I'm at a loss, and feel like a yo-yo. What do I owe to my SO, and what do I owe to myself?
To your SO, you owe the respect of being believed. They have their reasons, and even if they seem crazy or illogical to you, they are very, very real to them. If you give a shit about your partner at all, please respect their emotional safety. You do owe it to your partner to make sure they have support. If you don't have the strength to support them yourself or if they don't want you to, make sure a family member or close friend is aware of what may be going on and can look out for them. If they are in psychosis or suicidal and you are absolutely sure of it, call 911. They may be very angry with you for doing this, but if it is a real emergency, you gotta do what you gotta do.
To yourself, you owe priority. There is nothing wrong with putting yourself first, and if you fail to look after yourself, you will NOT be able to look after your partner - you would be a blind person leading the blind. Just doesn't work out. There is nothing wrong with asking for help if you can't manage, and there is nothing wrong with taking time for yourself to do something you enjoy, like getting your nails done, talking to other friends, practising an instrument or playing a sport.
Should I go visit them/write to them?
I asked my friend with bipolar disorder about it, and he said there is a risk that it may simply drive them away even more if their perspective has changed. Some others have expressed concerns around stalking. If you think they would be receptive to you being there and would feel safe with it, sure, go visit and even if they don't speak to you much, your presence will be enough. If it would stress them out and/or cause a panic attack, it'd probably be counterproductive and I'd get a trusted mutual friend to look out for them instead.
If you're worried they'll forget you: Have you forgotten any of your exes? Do you have friends you don't talk to often, yet on the rare occasions you meet up, talk as though you only saw each other yesterday? If yes, then if there was ever anything there, they won't forget you.
What if they're ghosting me?
I've had this happen to me, and it's one of the most painful things I've ever experienced a loved one doing - including domestic violence. A part of you wants to hold on to a thread, try keep in contact and hope for the best. But if you do that and are being ghosted constantly, you'll destroy yourself. If someone is ghosting you constantly, a few things are possible:
- They don't currently give a shit.
- They are too scared to tell you they don't think it's working out.
- Their psyche simply can't handle a relationship.
- They're scared or embarrassed for some reason.
- They're in an episode and it's part of the episode that will pass.
- They intend to contact you later, but simply need to be alone.
Although ghosting is an extremely terrible thing to do, not all ghosters are assholes. Some do it simply because they don't know how else to handle an impossible situation, which is extremely sad. When I was being ghosted by Finlay*, my second bipolar ex, I thought he was an asshole who was intentionally doing it to hurt me. Looking back, I don't think that was his goal at all, but I do think he was trying to hold onto his own sanity in any way possible. Regardless, whatever the reason you are being ghosted, it is not your job to babysit them. Besides reminding them you care, letting them know where you are and how to reach you and alerting other support people, there's nothing you can really do without destroying yourself.
*Not his real name
Is domestic violence or adultery common in episodes?
It depends on the person - with some people, yes. However: you are obligated to put up with neither, especially if your own mental health is suffering because of it. Like I said, if someone had Asperger's or Epilepsy, would you put up with this behaviour? No? So why is bipolar disorder different?
What other behavior is common in episodes?
Mania: Erratic spending habits, excessive partying, can go without sleep for sometimes days on end without it affecting them, suddenly religious, has lots of energy to get projects done, grandiose thoughts about self.Hypomania: Same symptoms as mania but less severe.
Depression: Sleeps too little or too much, low self esteem, feeling useless, can't concentrate, far less energy to care for self or go to work, not up to seeing friends.
Psychosis: Has false beliefs and false memories. Sees things that aren't there. Hallucinations such as hearing voices or sounds that aren't real or seeing things that aren't there. Strange, irrational thinking or activity that doesn't make sense.Mixed: Has all the excessive energy and drive that goes with mania, combined with the dark thoughts that go with depression. May get very angry easily or act impulsively.
How can I help my partner in an episode?
- Work out a plan with them while stable, and follow it - for example, where will they go? Who will you call? Will you cut up their credit cards? When is it time to call 911?
- Care for them, even if it's something small like cooking for them.
- Reassure them that you love them.
- Ask other friends or family members for help.
- Keep your distance and support from afar if they are getting distressed by you being there. They know you love them, even if the illness is telling them something else.
Is addiction common with bipolar patients?
It's not universal, but it absolutely is common. Bipolar patients go into battle with their own minds. The only thing that stops this is medication, which is effective but almost always has some kind of bad side effect - for example, with lithium, a very common drug used to combat mania, there is a risk of kidney failure. So with all of this in mind, it's not hard to see why some patients get so frustrated on medication that they decide they'd rather deal with the episodes and turn to alcohol, MDMA, weed, meth, etc. to self medicate. If you know someone who's doing this, be extremely careful and think about whether you really want to invest your emotional stability in them. Alcohol interferes with a lot of bipolar meds, and drugs such as crystal meth easily trigger mania. At the first sign of trouble, call 911.
Are people with bipolar disorder talented?
In my experience, incredibly talented. Finlay, for example, was an exceptional snowboarder and could easily speed down any double black run at Whistler - I know many other experienced skiers and snowboarders who wouldn't go near them. He's also a very, very talented singer-songwriter who writes haunting, beautiful songs about his struggle with mental illness. My first ex with bipolar was an incredible salesman, and could sell anything to anyone, including ice to Eskimos. He was once a high-performing car dealer. Nowadays, he does body piercing and tattooing, which he's also very good at. I also think he's very intelligent and while he didn't finish high school, would do very well pursuing an English literature degree. I have another friend who is an exceptional mechanic and autobody repairman, and another who is a talented writer. My friend's ex is a remarkable artist. I have come across many other creative, talented individuals with bipolar disorder on r/bipolar and r/bipolarreddit.
My partner broke up with me in an episode, and is now stable again. They're claiming they can't remember what happened during the episode. Is this possible?
Yes. Sometimes patients have blackouts or brownouts.
At what point is it time to let go?
I struggled with this one, as I had seen how Finlay was a beautiful, talented, kind and compassionate man who simply had a severe manic episode. I believed that letting go of him when he was ill was abandoning him. I believed he would come back eventually, as he always had before. I believed it wouldn't last and I'd get the beautiful guy I fell in love with back. I saw glimpses of that beautiful person, but I eventually became so stressed out that I broke down at work one day and even tried to self-harm. I would compare Finlay to another good friend of mine who also has bipolar type 1. They both have had severe manic episodes in the past year. The difference between Finlay and my other friend is that my other friend took responsibility for the embarrassment he caused himself and the hurt he caused others during his episode. Finlay didn't, and when I tried bringing it up, got told to 'drop it'. Someone who refuses to work out a plan for next time, refuses to apologize and refuses to explain or talk about the episode and address the cause is failing to take care of themselves properly, so will not be able to really care for you. If you are experiencing domestic or sexual abuse at the hands of your partner, even when he or she is in an episode, it most likely will not work. If you are experiencing rage or depression (or both) because of your partner's episode, you are not taking care of yourself and should take a step back.
If you are worried about abandoning him/her - Al Anon for Families has a great saying: "Let go and let God." God will use your partner's family and close friends to help them when you can't. It is not your role to try and play God by trying to force things.
I'm confused. Why are there different types of bipolar and what's the difference?
Bipolar 1: Usually less severe depressive episodes, but the mania and psychotic episodes are far more extreme.
Bipolar 2: Usually less severe manic episodes with psychosis less likely to be present, but the depressive episodes are typically far more extreme and can be extremely crippling.Cyclothymia: A milder form of bipolar disorder, with episodes of hypomania (less extreme mania) and less severe depression.Rapid cycling bipolar: A patient experiences at least four separate episodes in one year.Bipolar Not Otherwise Specified: A patient who has bipolar features but doesn't fit the criteria for another diagnosis.
What's the difference between bipolar, depression, borderline personality disorder and schizophrenia?
Bipolar disorder: A mood disorder that causes someone to alternate between periods of mania, stability and depression. Can be controlled with medication.
Depression: A common mental illness that negatively affects your self-esteem, how you feel and how you act.
Borderline personality disorder: A serious mental illness that centers on the inability to manage emotions effectively - occurs in the context of relationships. Sometimes overlaps with bipolar, and often is confused with bipolar.
Schizophrenia: A chronic brain disorder that when active can trigger hallucinations, delusions and psychosis. There is also schizoaffective disorder in which a patient experiences a combination of schizophrenia symptoms and mood disorder symptoms (If a patient has bipolar 1 and the psychotic symptoms only occur during episodes, the diagnoses will be bipolar with psychotic features.)
Any last advice?
Post on r/bipolarSOs for more advice or different perspectives from others who have been through this.
Keep the faith. It is very possible your partner may come back, or you may just meet someone else just as wonderful.
You can never have too many supportive friends.Above all else, remember that your bipolar SO or 'ex' is also a human being who deserves to be loved and respected. This doesn't mean you're obligated to stay with them and endure abuse.
If your relationship does work out, remember that even someone with this illness who is medicated will still have off days and may experience short periods of mania or depression. In addition, it is very possible for a med that once worked very well to stop working. Be there for them, respect them and love them.
If your partner refuses to undertake treatment, decide whether you really have the strength to stick around.
If your partner does break up with you out of the blue, as difficult and painful as it is, you may not get closure. This is why it is exceptionally important that you use this time to focus on and improve yourself, as cliche as this sounds.
What are some other resources?
- r/bipolarSOs - a subreddit for significant others, friends and family to ask questions and gain a better understanding.
- r/bipolar - a good informational subreddit, but the admin do not particularly like questions about relationship break-ups being posted there.
- r/bipolarreddit - another good informational subreddit, which has different admin who are a little less averse to relationship break-up questions.
- Bipolar Manifesto: A link to an informational site set up and maintained by a very lovely, helpful man in his 50s who has bipolar 2.
- Al Anon for Families - if your partner is struggling with addiction, this support group and the 12 step program will help you come to terms and accept your partner's illness and their addiction. It has been a major help to me personally. While it was originally designed for families of alcoholics, they should accept family members of other addicts such as drugs, gambling, etc, especially if the group is in a rural area without a lot of other support.