Bipolar disorder, a mental illness involving extreme mood swings between mania and depression, may affect up to 8 million people in the United States. The disease is both difficult to diagnose and difficult to treat, and many bipolar patients spend years trying to find the combination of medication and therapy that allows them to lead a normal life.
But the support of loved ones is just as important as medication and psychotherapy when it comes to treating the disease. For the first time, Entourage actress and Dancing With the Stars veteran Debi Mazar talks about her experience coping with a close family member with bipolar disorder.
She's teaming up with the Speak and Be Heard: Living With Bipolar Depression campaign, to help others who may have friends or family members with bipolar disorder.
What were the early symptoms of bipolar disorder?
He* started exhibiting signs of acting odd when he was about 14 or 15. He was a straight-A student, was vibrant, had a part-time job, and had a wonderful relationship with a girl. He was the pride and joy of the family.
He started acting sad all of the sudden and became very reclusive. It hit us like a truck, and we thought it might be something at school or with his girlfriend. Then he got darker. He started chain smoking heavily and having to suppress his tension with a lot of pot or alcohol. We couldn't figure out what was going on and the whole family felt helpless. Is he depressed? Was it the social scene or the school?
No matter how much we supported him, he kept getting worse and worse. It got to the point where he would lose weight, gain weight, lose weight, gain weight. He got pale and had secondary infections because he wasn't taking care of his body.
Did medication help?
He became jittery and developed weird habits. Again, we couldn't figure it out. Is it too much coffee? What is it? He had several visits to multiple doctors, had different diagnoses, and took different medication. He tried one antidepressant, and it sent him into a tailspin. He would take something else, and it would lift him up and then he'd crash again a few weeks later. We'd see some sort of rise like he was getting better and then he didn't. It got so very bad, and there were several suicide attempts.
Your life is forever changed, from the moment he or she gets sick until the point when he or she recovers. A lot of the family was in denial about it. They'd say "Oh no, he didn't drive that car into the tree. He just lost control." The family covered it up, kind of a hush-hush thing. It put a lot of pressure on us.
*Mazar declined to identify her relative in order to protect his privacy.
What did you do to help him?
He did come to visit with me, and I spent time with him. I tried to treat him the same as always. There's no reason why people should be treated any differently because something's going on. I would meet a doctor, latch on, and ask a million questions, trying to get an answer out of anyone. What can we do? I'd go online and look things up all the time.
We tried to keep the family functioning as normal as possiblethe diet, the dinners, the support. People with bipolar disorder tend to be reclusive, so we'd try to keep a normal lifestyle around him. With people with bipolar disorder, you have to give them the choice to be social. If they're going to be in their room, infiltrate them with an activity they can do in their room. Don't let them in there to be alone and to suffer.
You can offer things that are calming, like baths or maybe music. A lot of times bipolar patients don't want to go outside, so when that person is ready to come out, be very gentle. You don't want to make them feel like an outcast, because they already feel that way in their own mind.
With our relative, we didn't know it was bipolar, and when we finally got a diagnosis, it was after we thought we'd lost him for 10 years. We thought that maybe he'll have to stay home his whole life and wouldn't be able to function again.
How did your family cope?
For the family, especially his mom, it was hard. The caregivers feel guilty and often don't take care of themselves. The whole family got into a real emotional mess, and it ended up being physically draining. It was a difficult thing to watch because we all felt helpless.
Then one day he went to a doctor dealing specifically with mental health, and he came up with a program of medications. Each person has a different genetic makeup and will handle medications differently, and we magically found the right combination. Through medication and diet, through love and support and reaching out to community and friends, we were blessed with the fact that he recovered.
But recovery was a slow progress. There were good days and bad days, but the smiles came back, the integration into society came back. He wanted to learn, to feel good, and began keeping up his appearance. But some days just aren't easy, and he was fortunate to have people who cared, were patient, and never gave up.