Monday, July 7, 2008

HELP! My Brother's Bipolar: A Sibling's Burden

One day during a typical argument between my bipolar son, Tommy, and his younger brother, Will, Will yelled out, in a spiteful tone, "well YOU'RE bipolar!" "Mommmm, Will called me Bipolarrrr," was Tommy's response. Just lovely, I thought. We have had a thousand conversations about this, discussed it in therapy, and had given ourselves the proverbial pat on the back for helping to de-stigmatize the disease in our children's minds. And after all, Will was a champ of a brother. He never once complained about going to school every day for three and half months when Tommy was on "leave". He played with, shared with and loved Tommy in a heartwarming way. But the tyranny was getting to be too much. I recognized that sick feeling I get when I decide I'm a bad parent - those words "what kind of a mother are you - who left you in charge of these rugrats anyway?" echoed in my brain. But, I sucked it up and did what I could.

We've had conversations about how "Bipolar" is not a bad word, just a disease. But I understand why it makes Will mad, because the illness effects Tommy's behavior. And that behavior effects Will. "But he was on a rampage Mom, a serious rampage." Well," I responded, "think of it as Tommy having the stomach flu. If he threw up on you, you would be annoyed and grossed out, but you would not tease him about it." "Yeah, well stomach flues go away," said Will dispiritedly. I knew at that moment he wanted to wish Tommy away, "disparate" him to a far away land, like some scene from Harry Potter.

There is no doubt the burdens these siblings have are unnaturally heavy and complex. I know my 3 other sons have felt resentment, shame, guilt, anger, hurt, helpless, sympathy, pride and confusion. How are they supposed to feel? I guess like us, but less empowered. I have felt these things as well. But I have the power to pick up the phone, to make an appointment with his shrink, to take him to behavior therapy, to chose to medicate him, to keep him out of school if he is on the edge, and to love him unconditionally.

When Tommy reached a certain age, I think he was almost 9, his level of self-awareness and reflection was far above normal. All the therapies he had been in for so long were paying off. We reinforced our conviction that he has nothing to be ashamed of, and that his illness is not his fault. We told him he was in charge of deciding who to tell, and who not to tell, that he was bipolar. It shouldn't matter, but if the situation called for it, he really should be comfortable sharing. He needed to be prepared though that some people may not be educated on the disease and may react negatively. We shared this information with his brothers and told them that it was Tommy's business, and if they wanted to tell someone they should ask Tommy first. Just like Tommy does not have the right to share Sam's grades with anyone else. Tommy seemed empowered by this decision, and his brothers seemed to understand the ground rules.

And then it happened. One afternoon, a few weeks later, we stayed a bit after school so the boys could play on the playground with some friends. Shortly after we started, Tommy ran up to me and and yelled, "Mom, Will told his best friend I am bipolar!" Will ran up behind him trying to intercept the tattle. I turned to Will ready to scold him, until I saw the desperate look on his face, and then he burst into tears, mumbling and gasping that he "didn't mean to, please don't be mad, please don't punish me." My heart bled from a thousand different places at that moment, and my my empathy went to Will. He had for one glorious moment held something over Tommy's head. For once in his life, Tommy was not in charge - Tommy was not calling the shots. Will had knowledge, and knowledge is power, and he used that power, until Tommy had tattled. And once I looked at him, he felt all the guilt, despair and self-hatred you get from betraying someone you love. I had no intention of punishing him; he was punishing himself just fine. I took this little heap into my arms and consoled him. I told him "it's okay, we all make mistakes," I knew he didn't mean to hurt Tommy.

Later that night, when he had calmed down, I talked to him, as we had many times before, about what it meant to be Tommy's brother. But this time I think it resonated a little more poignantly. I acknowledged how hard it is to be a brother, let alone to someone with a mental illness. I told him how proud we are of him and how grateful we are to have him. I try to remind Will and Sam of that as many times as I can remember to, without it sounding like an empty and manufactured compliment.

I hope it sinks into their souls, but they are only children. I am sure many of the negative feelings are still alive and well. Yet, each time something like this happens, we grow, move on, and lighten the burden a bit.


Sallie said...

Your wisdom gives me hope. I have a 9-year-old son with bipolar disorder and it is taking a toll on his 6-year-old brother. My youngest never knows when he is going to... be shunned or accepted, loved or hated, given words of encouragement or cruel insults. He too, has "told" friends that his brother "went to the hospital", "has a brain disorder", etc. It never occurred to me that perhaps it gives little Eli some sense of power that he'll never find within the confines of home with a mentally ill brother. It's 6:30am and I want to go wake my baby and just cry and hold him. And now that I've had an "aha moment" I desperately and suddenly want to be able to somehow turn things around for him and he will feel safe and happy.
The sick feeling that wells up in you when you've decided once again that you're a bad parent is exactly what I feel too. I switch from being somewhat confident to panicky and fearful and my mind goes back in time grasping for what I have done wrong, wishing I could take back every harsh word or every time that I told him to "go find something to do" when he wanted me to play. The guilt is debilitating.
It's devastating when you realize you're a mother raising unhappy children. It's exhausting when find that your efforts to constantly do the right thing prove fruitless.
It's frightening to feel isolated and alone with your pain because no one understands. There's no one to "hear" you cry out for help and to make you feel okay and that you're doing the best that you can. Only reassurances that your kids are not okay from teachers, other children, parents of other children and relatives. The only thing I have is a computer and the internet and the prayer that somebody out in cyberspace will read my words. Someone I will never know and be able to share a glass of wine with and laugh and cry and feel connected to. I know that God hears me but since everything happens on "his time" I never feel His love when I crave it so desperately.
I get up at 5:30 to give myself more "alone time" so that I can prepare for the battles of the day.
I pray that you will find comfort in knowing that I'm living a life paralleled to yours and that although you'll never hear me say out loud that you are a good mom, know that we are doing the best we can with the cards that we have been dealt.
Thanks for having the courage to share your pain.

Self Taught Mom said...

Dear Sallie,

Thank you for sharing your reaction and response to my posting. I have always felt that if I could touch just one person from sharing my pain, it would all be worth it. You have made my wish come true.

I empathize with every word you write, and pray your struggles were conquered today, and every day.

Anonymous said...

my sister is bipolar, and at the risk of sounding immature/evil myself, i hate her & await the day that she dies. i know how horrible and cruel and heartless it is to say that about anyone (let alone your own sister) who is struggling with bipolar. but because of her, our entire family struggles on a constant regular basis -- for years. my friend's gave me their garage code so i can escape my sister when needed. im at their place again right now. our family is just fine whenever my sister is asleep (which thankfully is long periods of time). but when shes awake, she throws things at my face, breaks furniture, screams at us, blows up over any stupid little thing, blames my dad for being a bad father, blames my mom for being a bad mother, blames me for being a bad sister (cuz she's been the PERFECT daughter and sister... uh huh), and worries my parents that neighbors will call the cops on my sister and will get kicked out. she was also on the local news for damaging school property.

i know i sound crazy right now, but we had another "incident" an hour ago which is why i left again. i would have sympathy for her if she'd get help, but she has refused counseling & meds since january -- even against police recommendation. as of now, im sorry to say, i f***ing hate her and cant wait until she dies.

i have empathy for you mothers who try to be fair to the bipolar & nonbipolar child. you wanna be there for both & you wanna be fair to both, but its inevitable that the bipolar one requires more leniency and attention. my mom is so stressed out too. i dont have words of comfort or help to the mothers since i feel helpless myself. i guess the only form of comfort i can offer is that there are many families like you out there struggling with this complex, exhausting, and relentless issue.

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