Living with Bipolar Disorder

Why family support is essential in coping with mental illness.

Just two weeks ago, Candace Watson came crashing back into reality – that is, she came down from a four-week-long manic episode.

“It’s exhausting, it’s almost painful, is how I would describe it,” explains Watson. “This recent episode felt like I had one foot in reality and one foot out of reality. And it was this constant battle in my head of thoughts as to what was real, what was not real. If it was real, then (I’d wonder) what does that mean for decisions for me in the future.”

Bipolar I Disorder is characterized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) as the occurrence of one or more manic episodes. A manic episode for Watson is predominantly paranoia and grandiose thoughts, where her thoughts lead to thinking she would soon become the CEO of Alberta Health Services or that she would save the world.

“When I get so sick that I don’t have that foot in reality anymore – where I can still respond normally and not act out on my delusions – that’s when I get hospitalized. This time I didn’t have to because I was able to battle those thoughts and, as I said, live a little bit in the real world.”

Diagnosed at the age of 23, Watson’s mental illness has posed a long-running battle since her first manic episode and official diagnosis in 1995.

Watson, who recently turned 40, was in her third year of nursing school at the time. Quite common for people experiencing mental illness, her family was just as confused as she was about what was happening and how to handle it. In fact, it was getting close to tearing the family a part.

“My first episode was a lot of fighting – nobody knew how to be around me,” explains Candace.

“It was kind of walking on eggshells – nobody knew what to say, and it was never the right thing. We had to get back to a place where we were all acting normally around each other again. ‘I’m still Candace and you’re still mom and dad.’ Everybody had to figure out that they just had to be themselves.”

Her mother, Mona Cooley, reflects how far her family has come since her daughter’s initial manic episode and diagnosis. She recalls how important reaching out for immediate family support became a life-saving formula.

“When she was diagnosed, we didn’t understand mental illness,” says Cooley. “I didn’t know what mental illness was – we didn’t know the symptoms, we didn’t know the problems until we read about it. And at that time we were back and forth with our conflicts. She and I had the most challenges at that time.”

Cooley says she felt lost and uncertain of her own life as a result. She also feared she’d never have a relationship with her daughter.

“First of all, I was needing the help, our family was needing the help,” Cooley explains.

At the time, there were no programs available specifically for families. However, Cooley learned the importance of self care and looking introspectively, rather than just focusing on her daughter’s illness as the problem.

“I had stuff to deal with in my own personal life and I had to deal with that first. She worked on her stuff, I worked on my stuff and other family members worked on themselves. You’re walking side by side – it isn’t just her.”

Her daughter says her family’s choice to work on themselves made a huge difference in her own progress. As a result, her family was better equipped to support her.

“If we ever need anything, that’s how my mom, my dad, my in-laws, kind of kick in and help, such as driving the kids or being with Candace because I can’t be alone when I’m in a manic episode,” explains Watson. “My husband plays a different role in that he’s here daily, talking to me, supporting me through the difficulties of my thoughts and what’s going through my head.”

After Cooley worked through a lot of her own personal struggles, she initialized the idea for a Family Support program at CMHA – Calgary Region. The program now includes an eight-week support workshop, an informal drop-in group, and one-on-one counselling for family members or friends who support someone with a mental illness.

Cooley eventually launched her own business, Cool Family Solutions, which also offers support for the entire family, including the individual they are supporting.

“That’s what families connect with – somebody who’s walked through it and been there and understands it,” explains Cooley, who continues to facilitate groups for CMHA – Calgary Region. Family Support group facilitators continue to be individuals with lived experience.

“Family is key in that it helps her to move forward with her illness, knowing that she’s got a strong support system and things aren’t going to collapse underneath her when things do not go well. That foundation is so solid and it gives her the confidence knowing that she’s not fighting this by herself. She has a family who knows what skills to use and when to use them, how to step in and what works best – we just do it automatically. And that to me is huge.”

With a recent manic episode now behind her, Watson continues to heal, taking time off work as a nurse at Health Link to recover – a grace period she’s given herself for the first time. After the delusions end, it takes time for her body and mind to heal.

“I’ve thought all these years, `I can do this, I fought this illness – I battled it – and you kind of come full circle again because now I come back to this after so recently having another episode. It’s kind of like, `Can I do this again? Am I a disabled person?”

However, through continued support, most importantly from her husband, Collin, as well as the rest of her family, Watson continues to move forward and inspire others to do so along the way through sharing her own journey, sitting on CMHA – Calgary Region Board of Directors and continuing to live as much as she can as an outdoor enthusiast and supportive mom to her children.

“I was such a fighter as a kid. That is the fight in me that’s kept me going. But I also have a strong spiritual faith in God. So it’s three things, I think: It’s my faith, it’s my personality and it’s my family that I have… Life goes on and I have to go on.I have to pick myself up. I have a family that loves me and who I love. Family is a big piece of why you keep going.”