This past week, I’ve been struggling through mixed states. Mixed states are where the worst of mania and the worst of depression collide to create one monstrous emotional mess (see “Mixed States: Maniacal Despair“). Mixed states are often the most damaging periods in the life of someone with bipolar disorder. Unlike the crippling low of depression where you have no energy to do harm or the ecstatic high of mania where you feel do whatever you can to maintain a wonderful life, someone having mixed states sees no hope and has the energy to do harm. This can destroy our physical and spiritual health and ruin our relationships.
Wednesday was my worst day last week. I was just coming out of a major depressive period and I had to gear up for a trip to see my children. I had many calls to make to tie up loose ends and it seemed everyone I needed information from was avoiding me. I called one person 6 times in 7 days and received no return call. I called another time and was put on hold for 28 minutes before hanging up and calling back. I was steamed, and unfortunately vented at receptionists who could not do anything about it.
I was also short with family members. They had to walk on eggshells, so as not to set me off. Often, when I go through these periods, I will go to bed and brood until I come out of it. But there was too much to do. I had to push through and the harder I pushed, the worse it got. Fortunately, I am not physically aggressive or emotionally abusive, but sometimes I am bitter and mean. And this is one of those times.
By the grace of God, this mixed state lasted only about 36 hours. By the time we set off on our journey, I was able to talk things over with my wife Susan. She expressed her frustration of not knowing how to respond, of not wanting to say or do anything that would set me off. I thought through what she said and have prayed about it. Here are 3 words of advice I can give:
1) Be there, but not too close.
Susan had a co-worker who called this “Mama Cow Syndrome.” Calves want space to roam, but would be desperate if their mamas were to let them out of sight. Singer-writer Lucinda Williams puts it this way in “Side of the Road.”
Let me go and stand awhile / I want to know you’re there, but I want to be alone.
When I am in a mixed state, I need at least triple the amount of psychic space as I normally do. I am fine to be in the same room with others, but I do much better if I can be absorbed in a writing project, working on my finances, or listening to a podcast. If someone tries to engage me, I become agitated, irritable, even abrasive. It’s nothing personal, it’s just the mood I’m in. Stronger than this, though, it’s a mood state I’m trapped in.
2) Express concern, but not fear.
It is natural to be scared when someone is emotional intense with you. You need to do what you need to do to stay safe. Sometimes this means cutting off contact until things settle down. For far too long, women have endured abusive relationships in part because they are afraid their husbands will do harm to themselves or others. They count themselves responsible to carry the emotional weight of the relationship. This does damage not only to them, but to their partners whose emotions are out of control.
When I am in a mixed state, one thing that makes me more anxious and can elevate my mixed state is when people act afraid to be around me. The thing that most settles me down is when someone points out that my behavior is extreme and that they will not put up with it, that they won’t let me bring them down. Something like:
I’m here for you, but I don’t deserve how you are treating me right now.
3. Help them float beside you, not desperately drown you.
When you are trying to save a person who is drowning, don’t let them drown you in the process. If they pull you under in their desperation, you must let them go for a while, essentially let them continue to drown until they will stop fighting and let you save them. The same is true for someone who is drowning emotionally. When their desperation becomes destructive to your saving efforts, let them go until they are ready to receive help.
I am so grateful for persons who have saved me from drowning in despair as well as left me alone when I was insistent on damaging myself and others. With God’s help, I have always come to the point where I have been able to swim. Said better, I have come to hold onto the hand of Christ’s who leads me to safely to shore.