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Coping With a Family Member’s Mental Illness

By Amalah

Photo by Migraine Chick
Hi Amy!

This isn’t your typical cloth diaper or eyelash curler question, but you always seem to perfectly nail your responses so I’m going to go ahead and ask…

Backstory: I’ll try to be brief, but I know I won’t be! Feel free to edit as necessary.

Both my mom and my sister have bipolar disorder. My mom had a full break when I was two, which I remember pieces of, but has been fairly well medicated and stable for most of my life. She still always had a larger arc in her emotional pendulum than most, but was OK. My sister, on the other hand, was very much ALL CAPITALS, ALL OF THE TIME, if you know what I mean, whether it’s because her dry cleaning wasn’t ready or she had it out with her boss or she got a raise. And she is still that way, but has really gotten herself together over the last few years. She’s incredibly intelligent, and a kickass lawyer. I love them because they’re my family, but I’ve moved an ocean away in order to protect my own sanity… I don’t have any mental health problems and would like to keep it that way!

I got married this summer (yay me! whoot!), and for all the stress and emotional turbulence of the event, they both did wonderfully. And then they got home and my mom lost her shit. I mean, it was buh-ad. I’ve tried to be supportive, but there is not a whole lot you can do from another country. And she is most definitely wallowing. I may not have personally experienced what she’s going through, but I’m a shrewd and experienced observer. Wallowing. She’s got a thundercloud so she’s going to wrap up in it and make sure everyone else has one too.

I didn’t hide my family’s mental health from my husband, but I sure as hell didn’t give him a power point presentation on it either. I made references to them “being crazy ha ha ha” and so on and he met my sister and there’s no denying her crazy quotient.

Here’s the problem.

My mother has taken to emailing my husband and my father in-law (whom she only met at the wedding weekend in June) moaning mental health status updates. Long and in-depth ones. About just how depressed she is and woe is me and on and on and on.

Not OK. Not appropriate.

I’ve tried to calmly (ie. through clenched teeth) explain that to her. To tell her how much it upset me. To ask please please please talk to anyone else in the world about this besides them. She hung up on me and tabooed the subject and continued to do it.

I am mortified. I am really angry about it and I am out of patience with it.

So how do I get her to stop?

Like I said, not exactly a cloth diaper question 🙂
Thanks ma’am!

Okay, forgive me if I’m making assumptions here and also typing through clenched teeth, but please. PLEASE DON’T TELL me that no one in your life has ever suggested or referred you to family support resources. A doctor, a therapist, a guidance counselor? At some point, someone told you that you should not be navigating through this alone, no matter how far away you move?

I have absolutely NO IDEA how to help you here, no solutions for getting her to listen to your request to stop with the contacting of your husband and father-in-law and using them as emotional sounding boards for her mental turmoil. Family dynamics are difficult enough when everybody is (relatively) on an even keel. This…I have no idea how to get her to stop. This over-sharing is a symptom of her disorder — perhaps she’s alienated enough people in her own life with similar behavior and is unable to see that while YOU have gained new family members, they aren’t hers for the talking-to. You have every right to expect her to respect your boundaries and wishes…unfortunately I can’t help you figure out what to do when she refuses to (or is simply unable to, at this point in time).

But I’m betting you’re not the only family member of a bipolar sufferer to go through this. You just need to find those other family members, or at the very least, a therapist of your very own. I don’t know if that suggestion prompts any kind of knee-jerk “but I’M not the crazy one!” reactions from you, but seriously, I cannot imagine the stress you’re dealing with. (Not to mention some possible unresolved grief and anger about your early childhood, both of which are PERFECTLY REASONABLE THINGS.) You’re obviously a smart, well-adjusted person who is matter-of-fact about her family’s health problems, but that doesn’t mean that those health problems aren’t going to occasionally really bother you and leave you somewhat flummoxed about what in sam hill you’re supposed to do now.

Talking with someone who is 1) intimately familiar with your mother’s disorder AND YET 2) not intimately familiar with her, and can provide neutral third-party advice on the situation, could be really, REALLY helpful for you right now. And the next time your mom or your sister has a bad episode. And the time after that.

From your question, I gather you’re no longer living here in the U.S. or Canada, so I can’t provide country-specific links to those local family support groups. I’m guessing they exist, though — you’re dealing with a universal illness here. has a directory of links for a few non-U.S. family support groups here. If you can find any sort of non-profit association or alliance for bipolar patients and doctors, you’ll likely be able to find some resources and help for family members. Most hospitals also provide meeting rooms for family groups, so a call to your local psych ward or depression helpline would probably be a good idea. And of course, if you’re up for some Googling, there are hundreds of message boards and email groups on the Internet for siblings/grown children of bipolar sufferers. Even if you’re NOT a primary caregiver, you still need support — even if it is just a temporary thing while you work through this depressive swing and the tricky job of integrating YOUR unique family into HIS.

(One last thing: I can definitely feel you on the father-in-law mortification factor. OMG, that’s…clearly inappropriate and strange. But your husband…well, while it would be IDEAL if your mother would stop updating him with her wallowing, if it doesn’t happen: This is what he’s there for. Better and for worse, family members included, and to love you through it all without judgment. He’s going to see you at your most vulnerable, and your family at their most vulnerable.

Physical illness, hospital gowns, old age, death, the histrionics of grief. None of this stuff is pretty, either. I’m not saying “oh, he just needs to get used to it,” exactly…just that it’s someone we all go through with our families and our partners’ families in some form or another.)


Published September 22, 2009. Last updated May 16, 2018.
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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