Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

“My Sister Won’t Get Help for Her Bipolar Disorder”

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For years I have pleaded with my sister (I’ll call her Sally) to get help, to be assessed by a psychiatrist and get on meds for bipolar disorder. Several years ago my brother (I’ll call him George) went and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and I went a couple of years later and was diagnosed as well. Looking back at the behavior of my now deceased father, I believe he was bipolar as well, since it’s genetic.

Like many people suffering from bipolar [who aren’t medicated], Sally is very irrational. She doesn’t speak with our other sister (I’ll call her Nancy) because Nancy “took” Sally’s mother’s attention away from her when she was born. Just by being born. As an adult, Sally still believes this to be true. Another example: After her divorce, she had a third child with her ex-husband because she was afraid her second child, who is a bit of a daredevil, would somehow get himself killed and leave her older son an only child. And Sally strongly disagrees with having an only child. So she had another kid. Just in case.

My relationship with her blew up over the holidays. Since the beginning of December, I had been asking about her coming over to see my family for dinner on Christmas or Christmas Eve (She lives 30 minutes away). I was going to do all the cooking — she just needed to show up with her kids. They’re not toddlers either — two of them are in high school. We didn’t get together for Thanksgiving because she wouldn’t answer my email asking if she wanted to make plans. She finally decided to come on Christmas Eve. Then, less than a week before, she said she wasn’t sure again. Her son was trying to make plans with his friends and she was waiting for a decision. So, again we were in limbo, and I needed to also coordinate plans with my MIL for whichever day Sally wasn’t coming, which Sally was aware of. (Neither my MIL or Sally really wanted to see the other, and I was fine with that. I just needed to confirm a date so I could get back to my MIL).

When the Sunday evening before Christmas came and Sally still hadn’t responded to my text or emails from earlier that day asking her to confirm, I finally texted her and said, “I guess you’re not coming then. When do you want to pick up the (kids’) gifts?” She texted me back and said to return them. I had gotten winter clothes that Sally had requested for one child and was going to give my sister cash for the clothes she had gotten for the others. She said she was going to return the clothes. Instead of coming to my house to pick them up. These were not frivolous items — these were things the kids actually needed. So, she was willing to put aside her kids’ needs because she was angry that I was angry she couldn’t decide on a date three days before we were supposed to get together. When I pointed out the lack of logic in her decision-making, whom she was hurting, and her lack of consideration towards me, she told me to stay out of her life because she had enough problems. (She has been unemployed for several years after being laid off of a 6-figure corporate job, with only a few consulting jobs here and there. At the same time, she has a house worth more than $600K and an additional rental property she can liquidate).

At face value, this doesn’t sound like that much to get upset over, but, to me, this was the last straw in years of inconsiderate behavior. So fine, I decided to stay out of her life. I was not going to stay out of her kids’ lives though because they need some stability in their lives (more on that below).

So, I emailed her ex-husband and asked for his mailing address so I could send the gifts (and money) to the kids at his house. (I have no trust in my sister giving the kids the gifts at this point if I sent them to her. I don’t think she would have any issues pocketing any money sent to her address and returning the clothes I sent for her daughter). My ex-BIL asked if I wanted to get together instead of mailing the gifts, so I met up with him. I have no issues with my ex-BIL — we’ve known each other for a long time and have always been very friendly. He and Sally, however, have a very combative relationship co-parenting the kids. I’m talking constantly having lawyers at each other, getting the courts involved, calling Child Services on each other, leading to court-mandated counseling for the kids. Like I said, those kids need some stability in their lives.

I awoke the next day after seeing my ex-BIL to an angry text from my sister who was pissed I got together with her ex. I responded that I had gifts for the kids as she well knew, her ex was willing to pick them up since she wasn’t, and, since she didn’t want me in her life, she had no say in mine. A flurry of angry texts from both sides ensued. Again, I pointed out that her actions were completely irrational. And then I added that she had a genetic mental illness and, if she only saw a doctor and got on meds, she would be able to see just how irrational her behavior was. I reminded her that we ended up hating our father and estranging ourselves from him for the abusive way he treated us, so why was she putting her own kids through the same thing? Well, that set her off even more, and she attacked me about how weak I am that I need meds to survive in my cushy world with my one child and supportive husband.

I know I shouldn’t have antagonized her, but years of trying to talk to her rationally has done nothing and I just lost it. On a logical level, I know she needs more compassion and more understanding as her life is really in the toilet right now, but on an emotional level, I don’t think I have any more patience. The stress of dealing with her interferes with my own stability. So, Wendy, I don’t know if you have any words of wisdom to share here about how to deal with this and how to help her kids. And I do wonder if any of your readers have had to deal with bipolar family members and if any were able to successfully get them help. She’s not in bad enough shape to be locked away. — Worried About Bipolar Sister

I understand that you’re concerned for your sister and especially for her kids, but you can’t be their savior. It’s not your responsibility to care for all of them, especially when your sister clearly does not want your help and her ex-husband is a parental figure in the kids’ lives who can care for them in a way you, as an aunt with limited interaction with them, cannot. I know it’s incredibly difficult watching someone you love wallow in a kind of helpless despair when you believe there is help available to that person that will change her life, if she would only seek it. But your sister has to believe she needs help and that the help you think will benefit her WOULD help her. She doesn’t seem to believe that, and your pushing her isn’t going to get her there. It will only continue to drive a wedge between you two and, in fact, push her away from the very thing you wish she would embrace.

You need to back off and let go. Continue touching base with your former BIL so that you can remain in the kids’ lives, but shift your focus to your own mental health and emotional well-being. Getting so wrapped up in your sister, her life, and her well-being isn’t good for you. You say yourself that you’ve devoted years to trying to persuade her to get help and it’s accomplished nothing. To continue pushing, pushing, pushing when the results haven’t changed — or when they, in fact, have only gotten worse, as there’s now a strain on your relationship with your sister — is super unhealthy. And, frankly, considering that you yourself have a mental illness, one would think that monitoring your own well-being (not to mention taking care of your own family) is enough of a job.


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13 comments… add one
  • Norabb February 2, 2015, 9:11 am

    my only thing is….why should she listen to you when you tell her to get on meds when you’re both in a horrible fight? If I put myself in her shoes, she felt you were attacking her and then insulting her by saying that she’s an awful mother and needs medication. That sounds pretty rude via text. Maybe something more compassionate, another family member sitting her down and calmly, lovingly, asking her to get help, would be seen from a better perspective

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  • Breezy AM February 2, 2015, 10:57 am

    WWS. You really need to learn to smile and nod. If she doesn’t reply to dates don’t give her a choice, say “we’re serving at X time on Y date; hope you make it!” and then if she does great, if not, her problem. Don’t give her opportunity to have control (such as by suggesting she choose dates or asking which are best for her). Don’t be bitchy about it, just say “We’re doing ABC on 123 date, hope you can come!” and leave it at that.
    At this point, because I do know how irrational BP is, I would just text or email once and say “listen I was really up in your business lately and acting like a nagging mom” (you were, own that). “I’m sorry, that had to be annoying” (because let’s face it, it IS even if the nag is right! It still doesn’t solve anything!) “I won’t do it again. I love you and your kids, and I want nothing but the best for you. I’m sorry.” I only suggest this to smooth the waters so she no longer has you as the enemy to focus her anger on.
    And then stop wrapping up in her stuff. “That has to be hard” and “wow, that’s rough” should be your responses to any dramas. If she wants advice? “what would you do?” kind of crap? “OMG I can’t even imagine honestly, because there’s so many factors. I support you in finding the right choice. Usually, I talk with my counsellor about rough issues. I don’t always trust my own judgement.” Something like that. Don’t commit to anything. Then she can’t blame you.
    Keeping her calm = helping her kids. It’s sick but true. She sounds functional enough that there’s not much chance of helping her in other ways, like intervention or commitment.

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  • bostonpupgal February 2, 2015, 12:16 pm

    I agree with Wendy. And I say that as someone who has a lot of first hand experience watching a loved one act out because of mental illness, knowing exactly what that mental illness is, and wishing they’d get help for it. You said it yourself that this is interfering with your own stability, and that should be a big red flag telling you to step way back.

    Start by accepting the limitations your sister has. Breezys suggestion to stop letting her choose the time to come over, and just telling her a time and place will help take some of the stress off. Remembering that she isn’t rational, and therefore cannot act rationally, should help you depersonalize her behaviors. It’s clear she’s lashing out at because she isn’t ready to deal with her own problems, so stop poking that bear. Limit contact with her, reach out to her children through your ex bil or directly. And most especially, stop engaging in angry or heated arguments with her. If she texts you pissed off about something, simply reply “I’m sorry to hear that”. Learn to master the phrases “I’m sorry you feel that way”, “I want to talk to you but I can’t do that until you can speak to me with respect, so I’m going to step away”, and “that must be difficult”. Talk over strategies with your therapist and enlist your husband to help redirect you when you get caught up in her drama

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  • Eve February 2, 2015, 2:29 pm

    Sorry but it seems to me that the LW has already tried what you’re suggesting (sort of), it seems like this large argument really was a one-off thing resulting from a huge amount of bottled-up feelings throughout the years. She does say she has tried to reason with her rationally all her life so it’s not like she’s been responding like this all the time. Everyone has a breaking point, don’t tell me none of you have never EVER blown the fuse after a prolonged time of stress/pressure/bottled up feelings/ etc. I think we should be a bit more understanding since she says she’s tried to deal with it peacefully before.
    Having said this, yeah, exactly what Wendy said. With people having such mental issues, you either need to truly learn how to accept and tolerate them and try to switch to “I don’t care” mode (basically what the others before me have suggested) or you need to, sadly, cut them off your life so you can spare your own sanity. The first one is so much more difficult than it sounds and it seems to me that you’re way past this point, it does seem like you’ve tried hard to be rational and reasonable with her. I guess all you can do is be honest with yourself whether or not you can indeed accept her for who she is and don’t let her get to you. But only if she TRULY doesn’t get to you, doesn’t make you angry, doesn’t make you want to yell and scream etc.
    Either way, sabotaging your own health and well being is not an option. It is very painful that sometimes in life you have to be selfish even towards your closest people for your own good, it sounds counter intuitive, but this is how it is.
    Whatever you do, I guess you know by now there’s no point trying to change your sister or help her, she can only help herself and you can be there to support her if she wishes to do so. However, as of now it seems that nothing you tell her will truly have any positive effect on her. That’s because, again, she doesn’t want the help, she doesn’t want to listen, she doesn’t want to understand what her actions are and how they affect people around her, she will just throw everything back at your face in as painful and mean way as she can.

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  • Schwinny February 2, 2015, 2:36 pm

    Lots of great things have been said already. Just wanted to add something important: Stop trying to win. Seriously, you cannot win an argument with your sister. She is not well and untreated, her illness prevents her from hearing what you are trying to say to her or interpreting anything you try to do for her kids as anything other than acts of aggression. The best thing you can do for both of you is stop arguing with her. It winds you up and does nothing to convince your sister of anything. Keep replies such as, “I will not have this conversation with you” at the ready. If you stop engaging her, you can stop arguing with her. It will not be easy. The kids have their dad in their lives and you have already found that you can continue to support them through him.

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  • Sue Jones February 2, 2015, 2:59 pm

    My stepson is BP. When he is unmedicated he gets Schizoaffective as well. It has been a long journey of trying to persuade him that he needed medication and treatment. At the moment he is on meds, He likes to go off in the spring so that he can feel a bit manic (which is fun for him until it spirals out too much). He is a young adult(23) now and so legally we can’t do anything unless he is at risk of harming himself or others. So now I stay out of it. But there is enough history and he has a counselor and a psychiatrist and he is in college and doing fair (not great because he is undermedicated.) You cannot make your sister take meds or get her to change (unless she is at risk of harming herself or others, then you can call 911). I think staying connected to your nieces and nephews through the BIL is a smart idea. If Sally spirals down there really is nothing you can do. Let it go.

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    possumgirl February 2, 2015, 4:00 pm

    I feel your pain. I am bipolar, and my middle sibling is borderline and ADD. She’s much better on meds but often “can’t afford them” (funny how the iPhone was affordable though). Her kids have also suffered at her instability, but thankfully had a large and supportive extended family (her oldest was pretty much raised by my mother and our younger sister).

    Your sister isn’t going to change. Even if she saw the light and suddenly started her meds, she has had years of bad behavior that she has honed to an art, including her impression at being dealt the unfair hand at life. She will never be the sister, the mother, the daughter, you want her be or the one she should be. Ever.

    But she is a grown woman who has made her own choices. . You are not responsible for her bad decisions, and you do not have ownership over them. You are a grown woman who has made your choices, and you should not feel guilt over the success of them.

    Stay involved with your brother in law and the nieces and nephews. Avoid contact with your sister as much as you can.

    But mostly: PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR OWN STABILITY FIRST. Remission isn’t permanent and destabilizing is a b!#[email protected] Don’t put your health in her hands.

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  • LW February 3, 2015, 12:17 pm

    Hi, this is the LW. I want to thank Wendy and everyone who has responded, especially those who have had to deal with family members who are in a similar situation. There was a lot of good advice given. You’re right, there’s no way to convince Sally she needs help. So, I will let her be.

    I want to be there for her kids mainly b/c my own relatives did nothing to help us when we were growing up and dealing with my father’s abusive behavior. Or maybe they did and I wasn’t aware of it. I just don’t want those kids to feel as alone in this as I did during my childhood (even with my 3 other siblings). I can’t even imagine what it’s like having CS being called on both parents by the other on a semi-regular basis. I do plan to keep in touch with the kids via their father. However, I know that every time I do, my sister will hear of it from her kids and attack me. So no matter how much I want to stay out of her life, I don’t think she’s going to make it easy for me.

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  • MsMisery February 3, 2015, 1:07 pm

    If you know how irrational a BP person is when they aren’t being treated, then why do you think constantly arguing with her or trying to present anything in a logical fashion will help? She’s only going to see it through the lens of her disease UNTIL she decides she wants to change it. And for now it is enough to spite you (and her ex) that she doesn’t want that and would rather just live in constant mania. Foster your relationship with the kids via their father, even if it does continue to piss her off. Maybe she’ll come unglued during a court appearance and be forced into treatment.

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    possumgirl February 4, 2015, 12:26 am

    Hey LW, I really do feel your pain about your sister not staying out of your life and causing issues; so here’s a virtual hug. But a couple of things.

    As my therapist told me: Protecting your nieces and nephews from their mother is not a good idea. They need to learn exactly how she is, and subsequently learn how to deal with her. They need to know what her disorder is to protect themselves. They have other good people around them; they are not alone.

    Do you have a therapist? As a bipolar, you should definitely have a therapist that can work with you on methods to deal with this. You seem like you have not worked through the victimization at the hands of your father, either. That needs to happen STAT.

    Life happens, and often it’s ugly. Put the past into a bag and set it behind you.

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  • for_cutie February 4, 2015, 1:03 pm

    I am going to break from the pack here – I think the LW is being utterly insensitive to her sister. She suspects that she has a metal illness that impairs logic and reason, and then continues to demand logic and reason from her sister OVER TEXT. Also, let’s repeat that no one know if this sister has an illness, this is still just an assumption.
    I think the LW’s choice of communication is very immature. Mental illness or not, I would be bothered by a family member nagging me for a response over email and text. Those two mediums can easily have tone mis-interpreted and do not foster a true sense of connectedness. This is is YOUR sister who you think NEEDS help. Call her, physically be there for her, visit her, try to hug her for goodness sake. Show up and get turned away – at least you will know you made the effort.
    Don’t try to share important information over text – especially when it comes to her health and well-being. Text is impersonal, it’s also not designed for long drawn out conversation. And, if you choose to hid behind technology to communicate your emotions, then why not communicate with your nieces and nephews the same way? I am sure they have email if not phones also, and you can send them an uplifting note directly instead of meddling in their tense parental situation.
    I think the LW needs to take some perspective on how her ‘help’ doesn’t really seem like the type of help the sister needs, now or in the past.

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  • LW February 4, 2015, 7:46 pm

    for_cutie, My sister rarely picks up her phone and when she does, she almost always launches into an hour-long plus rant about her kids, boyfriend, ex-husband. Usually the same gripes over and over again, for years now.

    I emailed and texted her the weekend before xmas b/c it didn’t require a lengthy conversation. It’s “What date are you coming?”

    I’ve already expressed that I knew I was antagonizing her in our last exchange. I admit I snapped. Believe me, text was a better way to communicate at that point. I was able to edit myself, or type something and not send it. A phone conversation at that point would have been way uglier. Neither of us were exactly in a loving place.

    Seeing her in person: she’d come hours later than scheduled, with no call, if she showed up at all. And not answer if I called to see where she was. Or when I’ve tried to visit her (as planned by both of us at her invitation) and called her on my way over so she knew I was on my way, she often wouldn’t be home when I got there. Knowing full well I was on my way. And she was home when I called. And then she’d give some flippant excuse (like, “I decided to go for a hike”), if any, if I called her on it. Never her fault and never an apology. She doesn’t apologize and will never admit she’s wrong. Except for marrying her ex. That’s the only mistake she’ll cop to.

    I have been dealing with this for years which is why I see her less and less. There’s only so much I can handle.

    Her kids are not very responsive via email or text. Even when I texted them directly asking what they wanted for xmas. They’ll respond every once in a while but 2 of the kids are teenage boys. I don’t really expect much from them communication-wise. Our in-person interactions are usually more substantial. And I provide them with a good meal (I cook professionally) and they enjoy it it. Plus, they like to see my son and vice versa and they rarely get to do it even though we only live 30 min away. It’s about giving them a sense of normalcy and letting them have a place where they can relax. We can hang out, play games, talk about school and what they’re reading, racial politics, etc. Their father has been understanding of my past reluctance to get together with him (so as to not upset my sister) and he wants to get the kids together as well.

    Sure, it’s possible my sister’s not ill. But I wouldn’t hold my breath. Plus, if that’s how she thinks and acts if she’s not ill, hell, I really don’t need to worry about her or keep her in my life.

    MsMisery, “Maybe she’ll come unglued during a court appearance and be forced into treatment.” If only dreams came true 🙂

    Possumgirl, Yep, I’m scheduled to see my therapist tomorrow. I’ve got PLENTY to tell him. 🙂

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  • BEY February 9, 2015, 2:25 pm

    I lived this with my sister and it is terribly impossible to get another adult to do what you want. My sister was having schizophrenic delusions, her husband felt prayer was the answer, my mom and sister attempted to ask her to seek psychiatric help. We didn’t know her husband very well. She stopped showing up for various occasions and eventually did jump off of a balcony. It was very hard to lose her at first and we felt very guilty. Through a lot of soul searching, I found that we really can’t save people. It’s sad to watch someone close change and go through mental illness. There weren’t many resources or legal actions that I could have taken. It’s been about two years now since we lost her.

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