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Heart-to-Heart with a Therapist #1: Helping a Loved One with Bipolar

by Laura on March 29th, 2013

When a gal gets the opportunity to pick the brain of an insightful, forward-thinking therapist? … Well, the possiblities are endless!

Here’s the 1st installment of “Heart-to-Heart with a Therapist.”** You can see past interviews with Betsy Graziani Fasbinder, at Catholic Shame, Secrets & Lies and Breaking the Cycle of Secrets. Today, we’re discussing manic episodes, and Betsy’s portrayal of bipolar disorder (BPD) in her lyric novel, Fire & Water.

Take a deep, calming breath, everyone. It’s a safe place, we’re relaxed and improving our mental health … (no, I’m not being sarcastic)

Encountering mania

Laura – One of the most confusing things for your heroine, Kate Murphy, in Fire & Water is encountering her boyfriend, Jake Bloom, in an excited, delusional manic state. Beyond what she thought was “mere” creative genius, Jake has an episode and Kate is at a loss to help him.

This was also true for my family, who simply believed me to be hard-working, perhaps not need of a lot of sleep. Even when I believed I had met the head of the Illuminati, Mr. Gray, and later interrogated my mother–accusing her of being an imposter, my family still wanted to give me the benefit-of-the-doubt. My mom even went to the restaurant where I believed I’d met Mr. Gray and tried to corroborate my story.

Betsy – It sounds as though you and your family have struggled in much the way I’ve witnessed, Laura. In my clinical practice (I’ve been a therapist for more than 20 years) I have more often worked with the family members of individuals who have Bipolar Disorder (BPD). The first thing I do with them is empathize with just how baffling and unsettling this particular disorder is when someone you love has BPD.

People feel stupid (particularly the romantic partners of those with BPD). “How did I miss this?” They feel frustrated, “But he was misdiagnosed a dozen times.” They feel exhausted, “I just don’t know if I can take this anymore.”

They feel terrified of what their loved one might do. “Could she kill herself? Or someone else?”

I’m not up on the most recent studies, but from my graduate studies I recall studies about the genetic and environmental components to BPD. Knowing this makes little difference, except to help people be more aware of the possibility of BPD in other family members which can help with accurate diagnosis and treatment.

It must also be said that if you’ve had a relationship with someone for a long time, and they’ve not had a major break in your presence, that their manic delusions can be quite convincing. These don’t immediately sound like delusions at all, and the person who is having them is so passionately convinced that one can’t easily dismiss them. This sounds like what your mom might have gone through, Laura. Or she felt she needed to go as a support to you, though she may have known in her bones it was a delusion. It might be worth talking to her some time and seeing what her motivation was.

Love, tragedy and mental illness

Laura Fire & Water is a tragic love story. An artistic genius, Jake Bloom is fantastically flawed, but loves so deeply and so thoroughly, he inspires those around him to be better. Can you explain a little why you chose to portray bipolar disorder this way?

Betsy – I thought it was really important to portray Jake as a whole person, not just a person with a mental illness. And I also wanted to portray that someone with a mental illness is not necessarily a “bad” person.

He loves his wife with devotion and passion. He’s an attentive, loving father. He’s a beloved and loyal friend. For Jake, the same sensitivities that make him an artist (and indeed a genius, of sorts) also makes him especially tuned into the people he cares about. He sees them, knows them, loves them intensely.

Kate falls too fast and too hard for Jake, but not just because she’s a fool, or he’s a handsome guy, or even that he’s an artist. She falls for him because of his ability to know and understand her deeply; for insatiable curiosity about life and her.

This is an ultimate love potion, isn’t it; to be deeply understood and passionately loved by the one we love?

*  *  *  *  *

About Betsy – In both her works of memoir and fiction, Betsy Graziani Fasbinder explores the unending complications of people living, working, and loving one another. As a practicing therapist for more than twenty years, she has been witness to the heartbreak, healing, and heroism of people from all walks of life. Fire & Water, available on Amazon, is her debut novel published by She Writes Press. Connect with her on Twitter @WriterBGF.

In our next installment, Betsy and I will discuss

  • What advice can you give to family members to help spot when creativity and high energy turn into hypomania and mania
  • Is bipolar disorder all genetic?
  • Are creative people more prone to bipolar, or vice versa?

** None of this conversation constitutes actual therapy. Please consult your very own mental health specialist.

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  1. My dad happens to be a bipolar, which means that your post had a special resonance with me. I will follow your series. Growing up in the shadow of my dad's mental illness was a difficult experience, especially because he hadn't been diagnosed and his mood swings were considered 'acceptable'.

    To this date I am still wondering how on earth I kept sane.

    You are probably right when you say that being in a relationship with a bipolar can be the ultimate love potion. It is probably why my mum didn't see my dad as he was. But let me tell you how it felt as a children: it sucked.

    • Laura permalink

      Oh yes, I could totally imagine. For kids, it totally sucks. That's actually something that Betsy addresses in Fire & Water, just how hard it can be on kids. I am so sorry for this. Yes, everyone tip-toes around the undiagnosed person's "mood swings," unaware of just how bad it can and likely, will, get.


  2. What an important topic. I am very interested in how the brain works and how we cope. I agree 100% with the characterization of the powerful seductiveness of a potion that offers someone who listens and understand us, and loves us passionately. When something like that comes along, it's hard to shake, no matter what comes after.

    • Laura permalink

      I totally agree! It is such a powerful love potion, which is why I love the Jake Bloom character so much in Fire & Water. Understanding bipolar is so important for those touched by it …

  3. It's on my kindle and waiting TBR!

    • Laura permalink

      Cool! Fire & Water is such a beautifully written book … I'm sure you will like it, just as much as I love your existential fable, ORFAN!

  4. Thank you, Betsy, for portraying one with BPD as a whole person and not necissarily bad. That will go a long way to help erase the stigma.

    • Laura permalink

      Yes! I agree — these types of novels DO help eliminate the stigma of mental illness. It's great to see you here, thanks for commenting!

  5. So glad to read this interview with Betsy about bipolar disorder where you mention your delusional belief that you met with the head of the Iluminati. My son has delusions of being an inside informer for the FBI and meets with an agent, being a power broker, internationally influential in high circles, victim of a media giant, a target for assassination, and an asylum seeker in the US. Since he's illegal he can't work. He dreams up schemes and scams and cons people into believing in him until they realize he's not on the level. As his mother I'm the only one who can deal with him, but I'm tired and afraid of what he'll do next.

    • Laura permalink

      Yes, the schemes and ideations of those who seem otherwise sane–but are not–it can be so hard for those "on the outside." I'm so sorry for what you're going through to help your son. Has he been willing to visit any professionals?

  6. My brother had delusions, too. He had a lot of conversations with people we were pretty sure weren't real. He once jumped on our uncle because he thought he was a terrorist of some sort. That was the one and only time he was physically threatening to anyone. He must have realized the dangers maybe?

    It was very difficult for our parents, but eventually everyone grew to accept him as he was.

    • Laura permalink

      Wow–isn't it so interesting how many areas we have in common … how did your brother "get over it"? Was it a phase? Did he go to therapy? What it stress?

  7. This was very interesting to read Laura. I work in the field of mental illness, and in my job we treat many people with acute symptoms of Bipolar Disorder. What many people don't realize is that like any illness, it has fluctuations,and times of stability. I appreciate what you have shared and find it interesting to read another viewpoint.

    • Laura permalink

      Thanks, Cath — yes, BPD does fluctuate, it's stable and then all goes to hell …

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