I’ve been living with bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder for about 7 years. My family tries to be understanding, but they really don’t want to hear about what’s going on with me. I’ve given them books to read with things underlined, but they just toss them aside. What can I do to make them understand that I need them and their support?
Families can be a critical part of our support team: comprised of friends, sometimes group therapy members, our therapists and psychiatrists. These are the people we go to when we are feeling down, or need reassurances that what we feel is real, can be validated, and help us by talking us “off the ledge.” It’s always a shock, although not uncommon, when family members are reluctant to become part of our support team.
Why are some family members reluctant to understand and support our mental illness? Marybeth Smith, Ask A Bipolar founder, describes family members as four types:
The Sympathetic: I understand your illness. Call me anytime for support.
The Empathetic: I’m sorry you feel this way. I don’t really understand, but I feel badly for you.
The Meh: I don’t really care and it doesn’t really affect me.
The Ignorant: I know nothing about your illness and I probably won’t make any effort to understand. And, by the way, you didn’t get it from me.
My mother, for example, feels ashamed of my mental illness and falls under The Ignorant. She is skeptical that mental illness may be genetic and is constantly claiming, “Its not on my side of the family.” For this reason, she does not hold a seat on my team.
Sometimes siblings have lives of their own and are too self-involved to go out of their way for you. I am fortunate that my two brothers check in with me on a regular basis, and I can call them for support when things are not going well in my life.
So, how can you try to get them more involved?
Giving them books was a great idea. With some, this works. Like you, with my mother, it did not. Let me share with you some of my efforts that HAVE worked. I focused my efforts on The Sympathetic and The Empathetic, figuring the odds were better. After all, they ARE my family. I need them on my team.
1. I invited my brother Danny, an Empathetic, to Family Day at an Intensive Outpatient Program I attended one summer to learn life and coping skills. He got to sit through a morning therapy session and see other patients and families. He also had time alone with the group therapist to ask any questions he had. Knowing my brother, it was likely along the lines of, “Just how crazy is she?” But that’s okay. Sometimes it’s easier for family to hear from professionals than us.
2. I brought my then husband, another Empathetic, with me to therapy visits. With my permission, he was allowed to ask her any questions he wished. After several visits, enough trust was built that I allowed him to spend a portion of the hour alone with her. It worked wonders towards him understanding my illness.
3. After throwing too much money away on books, I finally tried a different approach with my mother. Occasionally, when we spend time together, I throw out anecdotal stories about bipolar disorder. For example, I start out with, “My therapist says, bipolars do best in a conflict free environment.” Or, “Seroquel is what’s called an anti-psychotic med. My psychiatrist says that taking it will keep me from mania and depression.” I also emailed her a short list of ” Things That Will Trigger Bipolar” that I had came across. Just simple, small bits of information for her to think about and digest without having to read a long book. Sometimes I’ll say, “Did you know Robin Williams has bipolar?” I try to pick people she knows and admires. It works!
I’ll admit, there are times after family gatherings when I wonder why I even try. But then comes another opportunity. Social gatherings bring on high anxiety for me. I go on overload. I’ve explained to my family that the reason I’m in the kitchen doing dishes while they’re out watching football or playing cards is that I need this time alone. Another subliminal message I send to them about my bipolar disorder. It’s now become an acceptable activity and they are fine with me having some alone time.
Bit by bit. Word by word. We find the opportunity and chances to let our families–allegedly our frontline defense–know who we are, give them information about our sometimes debilitating illness, and most importantly, bring them into our support team and teach them how we can best be coached back to our safe place.
Wishing you the very best of mental health wellness!