One of the biggest challenges in dealing with a family member who has a mental health
diagnosis is that no one has all the answers. No one.
Unlike a broken leg, which can be fixed by following a well-known process of setting the leg and
giving the bone time to heal, a mental health diagnosis comes with a lot of question marks.
And once your loved one is properly diagnosed, there is no one-size-fits-all process to follow to
In our family’s case, the bipolar diagnosis my wife Becky received, tends to skew more toward
depression than mania. In other words she has more depressive episodes than manic ones.
That’s not true for everyone. Other people can certainly lean in the opposite direction. And some
people cycle through their episodes slowly, staying in a depressed or manic state for weeks on
end. Others, like my wife, are fast cyclers, which means an episode may last just two or three
days before she “balances out or falls into the opposing mental state.
As a caregiver, all this was foreign to me. I understood the definition of depression, but I wasn’t
even aware of such a thing as bipolar disorder. I had heard of schizophrenia, but didn’t really
know what it was.
That meant a steep educational curve for me as I tried to get up to speed on many of the things
Becky and her parents already understood.
I started going to her doctor’s appointments with her. I listened a lot. And I asked a lot of
questions. I learned about support groups for family members whose loved one had a mental
health diagnosis. I started attending. I went to classes designed for family members who were
caregivers. I learned a lot about what to do and what not to do. I heard a lot of honest-to-God
horror stories from others in the classes and I was thankful that our circumstances were not as
dire as some of those I heard about.
But knew I needed to know more. By the time Becky and I were married, she had changed
doctors and began seeing a psychiatrist in Raleigh. He is an active researcher and, thankfully, he
appreciates an inquisitive mind. He often shares with me some new piece of promising research
that he’s been following.
All that helps me as a caregiver because I feel like I’m abreast of possible new options that may
help my wife one day.
In the meantime, after more than 25 years of marriage, I realize I’m still learning. We’ve
developed our own self-assessment tool that we use to judge Becky’s moods and it’s remarkable
how closely our daily scores match. I still ask questions of Becky, too. After all, she’s the best
resource for understanding what’s going on in her head.
I’m the perfect caregiver by no means. I get frustrated at times. I lose my patience. I say the
wrong thing. But by throwing myself into this lifelong learning process, I’m much better able to
help her when she needs it.
This is part two of a series of personal entries on being a caregiver, titled “Outside Looking In“.
~ Johnny Whitfield is a former newspaper reporter and editor.
For help, caregivers can turn to organizations like Breaking Taboo, www.breaking-taboo.org, to learn more about their role as a caregiver and how best to help someone with a mental health diagnosis.