Life with a Sibling with Bipolar Disorder

Having a brother or sister with bipolar disorder can be a source of minor or major tension, depending on relationships in the nuclear family. How close are you to this sibling? Did she have the disorder when you were growing up? Was it diagnosed and treated? If the bipolar symptoms manifested instead in young adulthood, how much did this impact your own life? Did you live under the same roof at this time?

Treatment Is Working

If your sibling was treated successfully for bipolar disorder as a child, you may have been spared serious difficulty. There might have been instances before diagnosis that were extremely upsetting for you. You may have felt ignored as your sister received attention for acting out such dramatic mood swings and inappropriate behavior. You may have felt guilt for being angry at your sibling, for being ashamed around your friends, or for having been spared from having the same problem. Perhaps other family members continue to give your sibling much more attention than you receive, or you might have resented the help you were expected to provide to your sister.

Children can assume unjustified guilt in other ways. For example, you might feel guilty for not recognizing your sibling had a mental disorder if it wasn't diagnosed. Additionally, if your sibling was punished too severely for behavior beyond her control, you might feel extremely sad for her.

In cases where the bipolar symptoms did not emerge until young adulthood, you might have been unprepared to deal with it all. And even though you are older, you still might resent the attention your sibling gets.

Alert

The causes of sibling abuse in families can include lack of parental supervision or ignorance of children's activities, giving older children inappropriate adult responsibilities, favoring one child over another, not stopping violent behavior, and assuming that the behavior is an acceptable manifestation of sibling rivalry.

If your sister is responding well to treatment, and you feel comfortable doing it, try discussing with your family the experience and the effects it had on you. Both informally and in therapy settings, you can work to gain a better understanding of what each of you has been through.

Treatment Is Partially Effective

If you are close to your family, you might find yourself having to help provide care if a sibling is able to control some but not all symptoms of bipolar disorder. This could range from checking on her now and then to being a daily source of support. Some people may not mind doing this, while others might resent it.

At times, you might tire of providing this support. You might feel as though you are sacrificing too much of your life because you never know when you might get a call that your sister is hypomanic or dangerously depressed again. Your resentment may be greater if you feel you are doing more than other close relatives.

Even if you are not very involved in the sibling's everyday life, you might resent the attention she gets or despair over the way others treat her.

Of course, you are not responsible for the mental illness or the fact the medication cannot control it. You can, however, try to help when you can without overstressing yourself. It is natural to feel conflicted in such a situation. The stronger you make yourself by understanding your reaction to your sibling's illness, your feelings for your sibling, and the limits you are willing to go to help will give you a greater sense of control over your own life.

Not Receiving Treatment

If your sibling does not receive treatment, there is a good chance she will be hospitalized multiple times. The best scenario in this case is that she has some means of maintaining a source of food and shelter, whether it is provided by family, public assistance, or her own resources (if she is one of those who built a successful career before the episodes became extreme). The worst scenario would be homelessness, a fate that befalls many people with untreated mental disorders.

Essential

A person is not the disease they have been diagnosed with. A patient with cancer is not a cancer person; he is a person who has cancer. She should not be defined by an illness, no matter how dominating or devastating it is. It might seem to be a pedantic or trivial point, but such labels can have a significant effect on how we regard others and how they regard themselves. A person with bipolar disorder is a complex human being with many other aspects to their character than the phrase “bipolar person” implies.

If you're in the position of caring for your sibling with bipolar disorder as a parent would, then effectively you are no longer siblings, but parent and child. You should seriously consider alternate strategies for the care of your sibling if you are uncomfortable taking on the role of parent.

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