Bipolar Disorder in the Family

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Bipolar disorder in one family member can disrupt life for everyone, but getting outside support and working together to meet challenges as a family can help.

Sheila Rosmarin*, 57, a New Jersey mom, wasn’t totally surprised when her son Brandon* was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 24. “He’d had temper tantrums as a toddler and bouts of adolescent anger that were way more intense than normal,” Rosmarin says. “He was diagnosed with ADD [attention deficit disorder] just before he went to college, and struggled so much living away from home.”

At the time the diagnosis was made — as it so frequently is, in young adulthood — the medication Brandon began taking was helpful. Soon, although he hadn’t completed his degree, Brandon decided to move to Florida, get a job, and re-establish his independence. For a while, Brandon seemed to thrive. “Then in April 2007, he wouldn’t answer our calls, and his friends let us know he wasn’t doing well,” Rosmarin recounts. “So I left my job temporarily and we went down to Florida to find him. I was making deals with God the whole way.”

His parents did find Brandon, and after a two-hour screaming match, “he finally admitted that he wasn’t taking his medication,” Rosmarin says. “That day, if you’d said eighteen months later I’d been telling you this as a success story, I never would have believed you.”

Brandon agreed to move back home, began working in the family business, and with the help of his parents, psychiatrist, therapist, and support groups, “is doing so well that as often as I ask him if he’s taken his medication — which he does, unfailingly — he asks me if I’ve taken my high blood pressure medication,” says Rosmarin. She adds wryly, “It’s no coincidence that I’ve had to begin taking [that medication] in the last year.”

Bipolar Disorder and Families: The Bipolar Parent

It’s also difficult to be the child of a bipolar parent — even in adulthood. Bill DiSalvo* of Long Island, New York, knows this well. He says that he is one of four adult children of a mother who developed full-blown bipolar disorder 23 years ago at age 64, although Bill recalls that she did show signs of milder mood swingsearlier in life.

DiSalvo’s mother will sometimes throw away her medication, and her disorder is not well-controlled. Her manic states (when, DiSalvo says, “she gives money away and is very abrasive and obnoxious”) and severe depressions are a constant topic of family discussion.

Bipolar Disorder and Families: Finding Support

For a family, having a member with bipolar disorder can be truly traumatic, says Joyce Burland, Ph.D., national director of the Education, Training, and Peer Support Center of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). To best cope with the impact on the family, Burland suggests these strategies:

  • Realize that a first response of denial is natural. “It’s protective,” says Burland, “but you can’t let it inhibit proactive planning.”
  • Put together a team. “Imagine that your family member had cancer or diabetes instead of bipolar disorder,” Burland states, “and do what you’d do in that case: Get as much education as you can, as quickly as you can. Find a doctor you and the person with bipolar disorder can trust.”
  • Discard the myths. “We all absorb some misconceptions about mental illness, that if the person just tried a little harder, he could beat it. You wouldn’t say that if he had, say, leukemia,” Burland points out. In addition, “family members must realize it’s common for people with mental illness to suffer from anosognosia — not recognizing their own illness.”
  • Enter family therapy, as long as “the therapist understands the family is not to be blamed in any way,” Burland says.
  • Parents often don’t want to feel controlled by their kids, just as, “young-adult bipolar children often don’t trust their parents,” Burland points out. In a marriage, however, when there is one bipolar spouse, “hopefully the trust is there,” Burland says. “You can say to your partner, ‘I know you don’t want to get into treatment, but do it for your job, our financial security, the kids. And the sooner you start, the better.'”

Talking to other people who also have family members with bipolar disorder and are already familiar with the ups and downs can be invaluable, Burland says. On the other hand, “my two dearest friends in the world don’t know 90 percent of what’s gone on with Brandon,” Rosmarin confesses.” You just never know how other people are going to react.”

* Names have been changed.

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