bipolar blameThe National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has a Stages of Emotional Responses chart that traces the emotional path people generally travel in coming to terms with their loved one’s mental illness. I’m pretty much at the final stage, Stage III: Moving into Advocacy, but I’m still sort of stuck at Stage II: Learning to Cope, which is characterized by Anger/Guilt/Resentment, Recognition and Grief.

Yes, we’ve been living with bipolar disorder for about 12 years now, and I’m still angry and resentful. Now, though, I’m not angry at my wife who has bipolar disorder. I blame bipolar disorder. It accosted my wife, tried to ruin our marriage, emotionally traumatized our children, ruined my wife’s career, and stole tens of thousands of dollars.

I also carry some of that Stage II guilt. I wonder why I didn’t give the love of my life the benefit of the doubt. Why did I assume she had turned on me of her own volition? Why didn’t I question what was going on to make her act and speak that way?

I blame that on bipolar disorder, too. Bipolar tends to sneak up on you. When it finally reveals itself, it’s dramatic, but its progression can be subtle. It tends to lead you to falsely believe that you’re just having normal relationship issues – nothing that a little marriage or family counseling can’t clear up.

The take-away lesson is this: Blame the illness, not the person. Furthermore: Blame the problem, not the person.

Certainly, that’s easier said than done. When a loved one is in attack mode, we naturally tend to see that person as the attacker. It’s tough to view her as merely the instrument of the real, unseen force. We need to look beyond the surface reality we’re dealing with to see that it’s the bipolar talking, the bipolar acting out.

When we can see the illness as the underlying problem, we can start doing two things to turn the situation around:

  • Stop making it worse. Blaming the person leads to confrontation, which only worsens the situation. We pour emotional fuel on a fire that’s already blazing. When we blame the illness, we take some of the negative emotion out of the equation.
  • Start making it better. When we recognize that bipolar disorder is an illness, we immediately know the solution – medical intervention. Obtaining that intervention when the disorder resists it and finding effective medications that have tolerable side effects are often very difficult challenges, but at least we know what we’re up against.

Photo by Cyberslayer, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.