The wife of one of the people I work with sent me a short note saying that her husband was energized (not quite hypomanic), and she was finding it hard to cope with his constant animation and enthusiasm.
It got me thinking about scale and how we constantly change the way we talk based on our audience.
I am in a good mood today, but if one of the people I will see today is feeling sad, I will have to quickly shift gears to match their energy.
The self-monitoring that is required to scale back from a very animated state to one that is more subdued is something that is harder for someone who is in an energized or hypomanic state. I have talked about this as a loss of the awareness of “risk” in the choices we make, but it is more than that, it is also the loss of awareness of potential irritation or upset feelings in another person.
The good aspect of this loss of awareness is that too much awareness of potential irritation or upset can make us immobile.
The difficulty that her husband faces with email when he is depressed is a pretty good example of that. His inbox gets filled with messages, and he feels helpless to keep up.
I suspect that he gets caught up in thinking about all of the potential misunderstandings that could emerge out of an email answer. Will this person understand what I am saying, will it be helpful, should I write it at all…these are all examples of thoughts that get in the way of taking action and expressing oneself when one is depressed.
This is why hypomania is often associated with periods of great productivity. Who cares what the world thinks, I have a great idea to share….
This is not just a problem of dealing with someone who is bipolar. A lot of what happens in a family or in friendships can be seen as a problem of scale.
My son comes roaring into the house after an exciting game and I am sitting in my office reflecting about a troubling conversation with a patient, there is a huge mismatch between my ideal level of energy and his. Sometimes I will be so caught up in what I am doing that I have to set a firm barrier to avoid what almost feels like a physical pain to me.
Or I wake up in the morning filled with energy and enthusiasm, but my wife is feeling a bit sad about some news that she heard about her beloved aunt.
There isn’t necessarily a “right” level of energy, although generally intimate conversations more often have a small scale and conversations with more people usually need larger volumes and levels of energy.
But there does need to be a way of talking about mismatches in energy… and a way of dealing with patterns of mismatch.
As my son has entered adolescence and as I have gotten older I find that we more often are in different places in terms of level of energy. I have responded by trying to schedule activities that I can “psych up” for which are loud and boisterous (to meet his needs) and I have been similarly looking for quieter activities that I can get him interested in.
When there are mismatches it may be necessary to put more time and energy into planning activities, whereas when two people have the same level of energy things can be more “spontaneous.”
And it may be necessary to spend more time apart.
This is sad for me. But I don’t see a way around it. When I am doing something that requires quietude I can’t have my son racing around the room or playing loud music.
The challenge that this woman faces is that her husband’s level of energy varies much more than most people’s. This sets them up for more frequent disappointment.
Her husband may be filled with enthusiasm. He wants a companion who can match his excitement, but his wife is not feeling that way. She may be wanting some intimacy and gentle conversation and he is not able or willing to scale down his energy to match that need.
In this kind of situation it is easy for most of us to fall into the trap of feeling that we have lost a special quality of the relationship forever. “My husband is never going to be the wonderful and sensitive person that I married….”
That isn’t true, he regularly shifts mood from hypomania to mild depression. And when he is depressed he is much more attuned to her needs. But in the moment it can feel that way.
I suggested to the wife that she pay some attention to how she can support herself psychologically in order to avoid getting caught up in the sense of overwhelming sadness that comes from feeling that the two of them won’t ever experience the magic of a quite moment of intimacy again.
One of the values of journaling is that it allows us to more easily remember recent times when things were different.
At the same time, there needs to be a way of expressing the feeling that something is missing from one’s life when one’s partner has been filled with energy and enthusiasm for weeks in a row.
It might make sense to try to find some time to review the previous week… Begin by recognizing things that are positive, but also talk about what is not working as well. How else can your partner see the whole picture of how moods work and what their effects are? Most people with bipolar welcome a chance to “debrief” because they very much want to preserve their intimate relationships.