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.
If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at firstname.lastname@example.org.