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When Someone You Love is Diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder

The book When Someone You Love is Bipolar: Help and Support for You and Your Partner by Cynthia G. Last, PhD. is unique not just because it focuses on the needs of concerned spouses, but because she herself suffers from a mild form of the disorder. Dr. Last and her husband talk about their experiences.

While bipolar disorder is a profoundly challenging and painful mental illness, Dr. Last, you believe it has some benefits. What are some of the positive effects of being bipolar?

An inordinately high percentage of writers, artists, and musicians have had the disorder. Some characteristics of manic and hypomanic states—such as increased drive and productivity, the ability to take risks, and a heightened sense of self-confidence—may help the creative process. Some bipolar people worry that medication will stifle their creative energy, but in my professional experience, while this is true for some, many find just the opposite—their work is even better once their mood has been stabilized.

Supporting a bipolar partner is hard work. How can spouses take care of themselves? What are some good coping strategies?

First and foremost, it’s crucial that spouses take time for their own needs (and not feel guilty about doing so!). If they don’t, they often become so consumed with their partner’s illness that they “lose” themselves. Devoting time to individual hobbies and interests allows well-needed breaks and prevents physical and emotional depletion. I also recommend that stressed spouses consider joining one of the many support groups that exist for people who have bipolar partners to get the help and support they need.

Barry, you wrote that you firmly believe Dr. Last’s illness has made you “much closer and stronger than other couples.” Can you give some examples?

Cynthia and I are very appreciative of our relationship and, therefore, we virtually never take each other for granted. We also work hard to support each other’s individual, personal and professional goals. Although bipolar disorder is a fact of our life together, it doesn’t define our lives or our relationship. My wife and I firmly believe that other “bipolar couples” can achieve this as well.

Surviving the aftermath of a mood episode presents its own challenges. What are some things couples can do to preserve trust, rebuild intimacy, and move forward together?

Seeing your partner beginning to stabilize after an episode of mania or depression is an enormous relief. Still, mood episodes can have serious repercussions (financial, legal, social, to name just a few) that linger long after they are over. Couples need to find ways to deal with the emotions they are feeling so they can put the past behind them. Support groups and therapy can be useful in this process. Also, instituting measures designed to prevent similar, adverse circumstances from occurring again can help create a greater sense of security going forward.

When Someone You Love is Bipolar: Help and Support for You and Your Partner by Cynthia G. Last, PhD, is published by Guilford Press (June 2009, $15.95).

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