Self-care is having its long-overdue time in the spotlight, but it is still an often-misunderstood concept. Skeptics conflate the idea of self-care with the negative stereotypes of lazy Millennials and ‘snowflake’ Gen Z’s, while many others have a narrowed understanding of self-care based on its social media portrayal by lifestyle influencers (which is often more focused on selling a product than providing real help). In reality, self-care is the process of establishing behaviours to ensure our holistic well-being. Exercise and spa days are part of the equation, but setting boundaries, asking for help, and putting yourself first are at least equally important. For loved ones and caregivers of people living with mental health disorders, it’s the more nebulous actions like those latter examples that are nearly impossible but critically important for our own wellbeing.

As a caregiver, the needs of the person receiving care often trump your own. Their need to not be alone outweighs your need for social interaction. The boost to their mental state if you order their go-to comfort food on a particularly bad day wins over your budget and diet boundaries every time. And when a panic attack grips them so hard that they’re unable to breathe, you miss all previous commitments with no time to send a polite cancellation notice.

I am the partner and occasional caregiver to a wonderful man who struggles with bipolar II disorder (if you’re reading this blog, then you probably know about him). Over the 4 years that we’ve been together, there have been times when my needs have been less important than his; the self-care practices that make me happy and productive can be overshadowed by the things he needs just to function. And I say this without anger or resentment because I have seen firsthand how tortured he is when he knows that he’s putting too much on me but has no other option. Now, having turned a corner in Sanat’s mental health journey, I can reflect on the self-care practices and strategies that got me through some of our worst times.


Knowledge has been my strongest ally since his diagnosis 2 years ago. I’m a researcher by nature and learning about bipolar disorder has been incredibly helpful in understanding the disorder, the options available to manage it, and his everyday experience. Sometimes I find things that scare me like divorce rates of those with mental health disorders or the average number of years it takes to find a treatment plan that works. But other times I find hope in medical advancements, reassurances on the treatability of the disorder, or stories of people living with bipolar disorder who lead full and happy lives. In either case, research helps me better understand his disorder and gives us the opportunity to learn about it together.

In the beginning I dove deep into the research, bookmarking dozens of articles about the disorder. But as I learned more, I had less of a need for the intense information gathering and found more passive ways of boosting my understanding about the disorder and mental health more broadly. I started to read novels featuring bipolar characters (preferably written by bipolar authors) to see how the disorder is represented in a broader story with other people and stressful events. I began following relevant Instagram accounts, including reliable organizations like the International Bipolar Foundation, as well as individuals with lived experience like bipolarexplained and realitybipolardisorder. Now, years into my learning journey, I’m truly amazed at how much I am still learning about this disorder on a daily basis.

Finding the Right Cheerleaders

I know that all my family and friends love and support me, but when it comes to talking about Sanat’s mental health, I’ve learned to separate the people who are helpful from the ones who make me feel worse (despite their best intentions). The right cheerleaders are the ones who are behind him because I’m behind him. They’re the people who I can vent to about one of his bad episodes without treating him with any less warmth or love the next time they see him. They are the ones who understand the monumental significance of a baby step forward and celebrate it as its own achievement, rather than considering it as some small amount of progress towards a bigger goal. 

They never ask me how long I can keep doing this or if I’m sure this is the life I want (questions that others ask out of genuine care and concern but that are ultimately unhelpful). They’re infinitely flexible with plans because they know I might need to cancel them at the last minute, and they never stop reaching out no matter how many times I flake. They ask how he’s doing first because they know it usually dictates how I’m doing. I’ve learned that the cheerleaders I need to surround myself with are the ones who are cheering for him too. And I don’t need many – just a few people who are as invested in him as they are in me. I’m particularly lucky to have a one-woman cheer squad on my side (she knows who she is) who puts all the other well-intentioned but discouraging support into perspective.

Voicing My Needs

Being able to voice my needs in relation to his mental health is a concept that has taken much longer for me to learn, and one that at times still makes me uncomfortable. The disorder is his, but the mental health journey is ours. I may not be the one taking the medications, for example, but their impact on me is just as significant. I never force him to do anything, but my opinion holds weight – we make decisions related to his mental health together.

Soon after he was diagnosed, in the midst of my heavy research phase, I told Sanat that I needed medication to be part of his treatment plan. I knew he wasn’t ready at the time and I accepted that things wouldn’t happen with the immediacy I wanted, but I made sure he knew that it was something I needed for us to be together long-term. I told him about a statistic I had found: that 90% of marriages involving a partner with untreated bipolar disorder end in divorce. He listened openly and told me he hadn’t realized how big of an impact taking the right medication actually had. This was a wakeup call for him, and he ultimately started taking the medication because he knew how important it was, not just for me, but for his own wellbeing and for the future of our relationship. Just like we have shared goals and dreams, we adopt each other’s priorities, and medication became his priority because it was already mine. Since starting the medication, he’s been as diligent about taking it as I’ve been about making sure the prescriptions are filled and his pillbox is set at the beginning of each week. 

Knowing His Core

Perhaps the most significant thing that has carried me through our worst times is how well I know him at his core. I can’t say I knew him before his disorder because there really was no “before”, but we met at a time when he was relatively stable. His energy – not his hypomania – lit up every room he walked into. He wasn’t just popular; he was beloved by just about everyone who met him. He believed in people and saw a level of potential that they couldn’t see in themselves. He cared for others with a depth that was unmatched by anyone else I knew. And all of those things are just as true today as they were then, they’re just beginning to become visible again now that he’s in such a solid and positive place.

Those parts of himself have peeked through even in bad times. The first time I got COVID was 5 months into one of his lowest depressions. While he couldn’t just turn off the depression, he forced himself to be the person I needed and to take care of me when he could barely function. He has done his best every single day to be the beautiful person that so many of us adore, but some days he couldn’t beat the brain chemistry. It’s knowing all of those incredible parts of him that has allowed me to see past some of the worst times and to remember the unparalleled person that has alway been inside. His untreated disorder often hid the parts of him that I fell in love with, but I never forgot that they were there. 

As a caregiver to someone with a mental health disorder, my needs and self-care strategies are unique, and learning about those needs and how to take care of them has been an unexpected challenge in our mental health journey. But we have found our rhythm now – we take care of each other, we continue to learn about our own needs, and we communicate openly about them. Ultimately, taking care of a person with a mental health disorder is an exercise in patience, but it’s made much easier when you have a source of hope – whether that comes from research, support, a promise for the future, or the memory of who they still are inside.

Image credit: Fabian Møller on Unsplash

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