How to talk to someone with mania

One of the hardest skills to learn is how to deal with someone who is manic.

There is plenty of advice around for helping a depressed person. In fact, this seems to come naturally. When someone is down it brings out the nurturer, the carer in us. We don’t need any training or special information to know that it’s good to remind them that they are loved, and to be there to support them and tell them that life is worth living.

Mania is another thing altogether.

Being close to a manic person is rather like standing near a burning building. You want to rescue the person inside but if you go too close you can get burned.

The manic person is often acutely aware that their behavior is unacceptable to you, and may not care at all how you feel. They will also be sensitive to attempts to manipulate them into doing the right thing.

Here are some general principles.

Don’t make threats. Don’t threaten to leave. Don’t threaten to take the kids. Don’t threaten to have them assessed by a doctor. Don’t threaten to call the police. Don’t threaten anything. This will send a manic person bananas. This is number one on the list for a reason: it’s a common mistake and a very bad idea. You might in fact be considering doing any or all of these things. That’s fine.  If you have to do them, do them. If you’re tempted to make threats, it’s because you’re hoping that the threat will make them “see sense.” It won’t. that trick only works with sane people.

Don’t lecture. The manic person is not interested in following conventional rules, and is skeptical that their behaviour is particularly destructive to themselves or others. If you try to lecture them, you will simply be a moralising kill-joy who wants to control them. If you say “you’re behaving very irresponsibly,” They are not going to sit down, wide-eyed, and say “you’re right, I guess I didn’t think of that.” Instead, they will sneer at you and laugh at your stupid, moralistic mindset.

Do stand up for yourself. Don’t be afraid to say “I’m concerned about my own safety” or “I want peace and quiet around here so no more loud music” . It doesn’t come down to what the manic person wants. What they want is not rational.

Don’t go along with crazy ideas. Just because your manic loved one wants to go out and stay up all night doesn’t mean that you have to also. Make sure you don’t get sucked into doing stupid things too, like getting wasted, breaking the law, shouting, getting into fights, and staying up all night. It’s amazing, when you spend time with someone who is mentally ill, how easy it is to start behaving like them. This is a danger for the loved ones of a bipolar person.

You’re not the police. Don’t think that you can protect them from themselves. Ultimately, if they’re going to walk out the door into the night and do crazy things, you can’t stop them. Don’t try. If they want to run out into the street holding firecrackers, then what are you going to do? Sometimes it’s better to let the situation play out. As crazy as they are, they are making decisions for themselves. Some of those are very bad decisions. That’s not your fault.

Do tell them what you think. You can tell them what a bad idea it is (whatever they want to do).Tell them the truth. You’ll feel better later if you’ve at least said it. And I’ve found that sometimes, I’ll actually break through. It will be a shocking moment, as if the sun started shining during a dark thunderstorm, but it can occasionally happen. Mostly this does not happen, but there’s nothing wrong with saying, “honey, you’re babbling” or “you’re not making any sense” or “you spent way too much money at the mall”.

Don’t blame yourself for the manic person’s actions. They’re psychotic. It’s not your fault, and it’s not theirs either.

Do hold them accountable… afterwards. Sure, they were manic. Yes, it’s a mental illness, and so in a sense, the whole thing is not their fault. But a little bit of guilt can motivate them to get treatment, and start making changes. It’s not entirely fair, I know, but it can be a good starting point for discussion. After all, you’re affected by this situation too, and it’s good to let the bipolar person know that. If the bipolar person has to face the horror of the terrible things they did in the cold light of day they may be motivated to change. Of course, again, it’s tempting to berate and moralise. Try not to do that.

Don’t have alcohol or drugs accessible for them to consume. They might be bad now, but if you let them get high on drink or drugs, you haven’t seen bad. They may throw a tantrum or a rage, but just stand firm. Tell the truth! For example “I think you’re out of control and I don’t want you getting any worse.” or “in my opinion you can’t handle it.”

Don’t be afraid to call in the cavalry, whether this be reliable relatives or friends who can help with a dire situation, or even the police. The police should be a last resort as this could damage your relationship, but sometimes it has to be done. (I’ve never done it myself because of the serious consequences that arise, but have been in situations where, arguably, I should have called them).

Do get out of the situation if you can’t handle it. It’s okay to just remove yourself from the manic person. Manic people can be dangerous. Sometimes they can be very dangerous, and it is impossible to reason with them.Sometimes it’s best to just get out.

Some people worry what will happen to the manic person once you’re gone. (I’ve had that worry a few times). But your first responsibility is to yourself and any children involved. If they get into some kind of trouble while you’re gone, such as get injured, get arrested, or even die, it’s not your fault. You did not make them manic. You did not make them do anything.

Let’s go back to the burning building I mentioned at the start of this article. Sometimes you just can’t go into that burning building. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do to stop it burning to the ground.

Do not blame yourself for anything that happens as a result of their actions.

Dealing with rage: mania often leads to rages. You might want to read our advice on dealing with bipolar rage.

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