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What It Was Like To Date Someone With Bipolar Disorder

I didn't know my ex-boyfriend was suffering from manic depression until about a year into our relationship. I had largely attributed his erratic behaviour to moments of drunkenness, stress and tiredness and at times I felt like my own behaviour (being late, disorganised, and sometimes disengaged) might be to blame for his apparent moodiness and crushing anxieties.

I won't lay out his odd behavioural patterns here on such a public platform; he'll probably never read this, but even so, I don't wish to document the highs and lows of our relationships apart from to say that there were lots of lows. His manic depression would be bookended by bursts of euphoria during which he would shower me with compliments, leave me notes in my underwear drawer, pick me flowers, put books under my pillow and carry me home from work.

Then there were the tears. He cried a lot (which at first, before I understood the severity, I found endearing.) Then the anger, which I never found endearing. Then the silences; they were the worst. Whole days where he would be uncommunicative before blaming his moods on me. Despite himself being racked by irrational feelings of guilt, shame and anxiety, he usually managed to hold it together in public and amongst friends. It was when we'd arrive home from the pub that he'd occasionally cry uncontrollably, before putting on some Ian Dury and asking me to dance around his bedroom with him.

Eventually, I drove him to his GP. Shortly afterwards he was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and began taking medication, but it was too late for "us".

After we split up, I would lie awake feeling guilty and worried. I know that he continued receiving professional help and taking his medication, and from what I can see now, on Facebook and from the odd bits of conversation with the friends we still have in common, he looks well and happy, and that makes me happy. I just wish at the time I'd had a better sense of what was going on. I wish I hadn't blamed either one of us so much.

I spoke to Dr. Sheri Jacobson, Clinical Director of Harley Therapy, who specialises in short and long-term counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy and psychotherapy for a range of issues including depression and manic depression, about how to help your partner if they are suffering from bipolar disorder, and how to ensure that you too, remain happy.

Be tactful

"Suggest your partner seeks help or advice if you suspect they have bipolar but they have not sought a diagnosis (try to do this tactfully and in a positive, supportive way, for example, not in the middle of a fight or as a criticism). If they are on medication but their moods are wildly swinging, ask them gently (remember they are bipolar, not a child, their life is still their choice and you are not their parent) if they've remembered to take their medication and if they have decided not to, why that is. Always, always remember that they are a person, and someone you love – with many strengths. They are not a diagnosis or a label or an illness."

Make a plan of action

"If your partner is open about having bipolar disorder, it's a good idea to decide between you the strategy, structure, and support you will use should he or she go through a manic or depressive episode. Do not wait until it's already started. And keep your management plan current. If some of these strategies stop working, sit down and decide on new ones."
Discern what their "triggers" are

"Also keep on top of triggers – what sets off episodes for your partner. Notice and discuss any new ones and work together to find ways to avoid them. And be wary of encouraging triggers. Yes, you might love getting drunk with your partner, but if you know alcohol triggers them (it can encourage depression) then is it really worth it? Maybe keep your cocktail drinking for nights out with your mates, and make the activities you share healthier. Exercise, for example, is considered helpful for those with bipolar disorder."
Avoid stress

"Stress is hard on someone with bipolar and can often be a trigger. Another thing that can be helpful is to let them do the things in the relationship that don't stress them out and help with things that do (as long as they don't stress you, too!). For example, if you are both good at organising weekends away but doing budgets causes your partner anxiety, maybe let them organise the weekend and you do the budget."

Look after yourself

"Don't forget to take care of yourself, too. We all need good boundaries and self-care, otherwise we are supporting other people from a place of not really wanting to, and it will just bring bitterness to the relationship. You can support someone, but you can't make their choices for them and their illness is still theirs, not yours. You can ask them how they feel and what they need, but avoid telling them what to do. "

This is of course general, emotional supportive advice, but seeking a medical professional's help is always the best course of action.