Author: Melinda Goedeke
Chaos is what I know; it is where I excel. Keeping on the move ironically slows my racing thoughts and brings a loud silence to my brain. Right now it seems chaos is the norm for many amidst this unpredictable pandemic that is careening down the freeway taking no notice to who’s on the road. The truth is, however, some of us won’t feel the physical effects of the pandemic, but we still live in fear wondering if we are infecting others, wondering if we are taking the right precautions, wondering how to help when the answers are fraught with conflicting opinions scientifically, morally and personally. And as soon as we decide what action to take, what direction to move, what mask to wear, the virus mutates. The CDC guides us, and the guidance seems right, but it isn’t always followed because we seem okay. We don’t show any signs of the illness, yet in many ways we are still suffering.
The same is true about those in relationships with people diagnosed with bipolar. Our pain is not seen – our fear, our sleeplessness, our excessive worry. We wear a mask too. I currently don’t have Covid 19 and don’t even personally know anyone who does. So what pain could I possibly have? What suffering am I doing? I also don’t have bipolar, so I am fine, just fine. In fact, I am strong. No. I just wore a brilliant mask. I wasn’t on the roller coaster with my daughter, but I was watching it twisting and turning causing my head to spin while I tried to maintain some balance so I could stand tall and on solid ground when the ride stopped. I watched the ride every time because I loved her. I refused to leave and let her ride alone. Caregivers love big but control little. We keep it together somehow out of fierce love and maybe even a wish or idealized belief that we can change things. In keeping it together, we get lost. We become invisible.
Why does this matter? It matters because those in close relationships with people suffering from severe bipolar disorder are trying to hold on – gripping with raw fingers and callused hands on to whatever they can grab because letting go is not an option. And they will do this as long and as often as needed but not without consequence; unfortunately, those consequences are invisible to others. They seem fine, yet they are spinning and fighting for balance as they watch their loved one whiz by on a wooden, rickety roller coaster ride over and over again.
School is just starting, and regardless of how that looks, there will be students who are invisible. Kids living in homes with parents or siblings who have bipolar watch those rides often feeling helpless and invisible. I know this. I know this from teaching for 34 years, and I know this from raising two children, one of whom had bipolar. Caregivers and family members can easily get lost as they silently live in fear wondering what are the right words to say during the click, click, click of the climb or the stomach dropping fall. What are the right actions to take (if any) to slow the ride down or even stop it? Does anyone care about my day or is there just not enough emotional energy left to even ask? Just like Covid 19, the answers aren’t clear and the strategies are in flux. So it seems the only thing to do is stay quiet. Wait. Be good. Do right. Don’t draw attention. In a classroom, these might be the A+ students who say nothing unkind, who don’t ask a lot of questions, who do all of their work and then go home to a sibling or parent who may be in a depressive or manic cycle. They don’t know until they get home from school if the ride has started. Will they be able to study? Will they need to be the caretaker? Will anyone see that they came home? There isn’t a simple solution, but there is a simple starting action. “How are you?” Don’t assume that what you see on the outside tells the whole story. Help the invisible be seen by actually looking for them. Ask the hard questions. Ask the easy questions. Ask. You might be surprised. They might just answer.
As a side note, people with bipolar are not bipolar people. That illness is one single attribute that makes up the beauty that is them. And remember we all love a good roller coaster ride once in a while.