Thursday, January 22, 2009
"My husband gets angry," Abigail writes on BipolarConnect. "It makes no sense when I'm in crisis ... I can't help it when I'm crashing or in a panic. He cannot understand ..."
A loved one who doesn't get it - a good many of us have been there. Back in the old days, my response would have been along the lines of a suggested reading list for her husband. Then, perhaps, a dialogue could start.
But my thinking has come a long way since then. I am a patient, but I have also experienced first-hand the frustration of a loved one.
First I acknowledged Abigail's concerns, but then I suggested it would be more constructive to view matters from her husband's perspective:
"When YOU act up or act out," I wrote, "HE is the one who suffers." Even the most compassionate person in the world can only put up with this for so long.
Loved one's hate the "can't" word, I continued. "You may think you are asking for sympathy and understanding. A loved one interprets this as a complete lack of sympathy and understanding from you."
They need to be hearing that you are taking responsibility, even if you are having difficulty managing. Something along the lines of: "I really appreciate this makes life hard on you. It's not easy for me to control my behavior at times, but I'm working on it, and I could really use your help on this."
Now, instead of an adversary, you may have an ally. You've owned up to the problem. You've accepted responsibility. You've acknowledged your loved one's feelings. You've given him a reason to hope.
Believe me, this is music to a loved one's ears.
"If your husband is to understand you," I wrote, "first you need him on your side. You need his good will and support. For that to happen, you need to be the initiator, you need to set the good example. If he's smart, he will start to respond positively."
Coupled with this is the reality that loved ones need to see tangible signs of change. Talking a good game is not enough. If your loved one strongly hints at something, then you need to be acting on it. If this means putting the top back on the toothpaste, then put the top on the toothpaste.
You can also score brownie points by taking your own small initiatives, say by getting out of bed in the morning 10 minutes earlier.
Naturally none of this is easy when you are the one who is ill, but the stakes are enormous. There are no guarantees, but we are talking the difference between a sympathetic loved one who represents by far the best thing going for you and a stranger in your home and in your bed. Believe me, from one who has lived both sides of this equation, the effort is worth it.
As I concluded to Abigail: "Your old approach hasn't worked. Time to try something new."
I answer questions as an "expert patient" on BipolarConnect, part of HealthCentral. By far, the vast bulk of the questions involve living in personal relationships. Much more on the topic in blogs to come.
Also, please share your own wisdom and insight by clicking the "Comment" link.