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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.)


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

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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  • Amy

    September 23, 2009 at 12:32 pm

    When I first got married my father-in-law got my very upright Christian mother’s email address off of an email my husband sent out to everyone with pictures of our honeymoon. My F-I-L was new to the internet, and enamored with email forwarding, including outright pornographic images. He has always had a problem with his appropriate and inappropriate filter. Since it was my husband’s father, I made him sit him down and show him a stack of the worst of them (including a photo series of what I can only describe as a shemale centaur Real Doll) and tell him in no uncertain terms it had to stop immediately. I also helped my mom set up an email filter so she didn’t even get his emails after the centaur incident. Maybe the letter writer’s husband could set up one for his father and himself.

  • Alex

    September 23, 2009 at 12:38 pm

    You are living one of my worst fears. I totally and completely know where you’re coming from – my brother is bipolar (and a really, really bad case of it) and I’ve long worried about how to keep my boyfriend…wait! finacee (I got engaged last week!)…sheltered from it. It’s hard enough on me and I do not want him to have to deal with it any more then he has to. Though I know that there’s no way to keep him away from it completely I’ve just tried to make it clear to my brother that when it comes to having breakdowns and talking to people my fiancee is completely out of bounds. This has lead to huge riffs between me and my brother in the past. But what can you do? I’d take that bullet anyday.
    As Amy said, over-sharing is a symptom of the disorder and man do they like to get everyone around them wrapped up in their problems. It’s not fair to you, your husband or your in-laws. Drawing lines is so hard to do delicately. And they must be done delicately, because people with this disease also tend to be extremely sensitive.
    I think if I was in your place I would encourage my father-in-law and husband to clearly tell my Mother that they are uncomfortable with the situation and though they wish they could help, they’re unqualified and would like her to please stop emailing them. It will probably be horrible and lead to problems between your families but it might be for the best. Your Mom sounds like she’s been able to get back up on her feet in the past and maybe once this latest break is over she’ll recognize it was wrong. Then maybe you all can move past it. Eventually.
    It’s so easy to say and so hard to actually do. But I think that she needs to hear directly from them. In the most patient and kind way possible.
    I’m so sorry you’re going through this. Best of luck with everything.

  • Beth

    September 23, 2009 at 1:51 pm

    I know exactly what you’re talking about. My mom is bipolar and so is my brother. My bro is much more stable than she is, however.
    I have a horrible relationship with my dear old Ma but I do happen to know that when a person is in a depressive cycle they aren’t wallowing. It seems like they are, but they are not in control of their behavior. It’s an illness and no matter how much you scream and yell, there’s a compulsive side to bipolar. The person literally CAN’T stop their behavior. Yes, it’s very frustrating. Enraging even.
    If the emails are bothering your FiL he has the option to block your mother’s email and I suggest you tell him that. Your husband as well. It’s not your responsibility to monitor your mom’s behavior or make excuses for it or justify it or even worry about it. It doesn’t reflect on you, even though you think and FEEL like it does.
    I second the need for counseling. Growing up with an emotional roller coaster of a parent definitely ingrains habits you’re not even aware of. The fact that you’ve moved yourself to another continent to get away from your family shows you have unresolved baggage that you’ll feel better once you deal with.

  • ms martyr

    September 23, 2009 at 2:47 pm

    My mother-in-law does something similar with my husband, her son. He has told her numerous times to stop, with no effect. Now he just deletes her e-mails without reading them. I think the filter is an excellent suggestion.

  • Anonymous

    September 23, 2009 at 3:38 pm

    I am so very thankful that you answered this question, Amy.
    My husband’s sister is extremely mentall ill and we all deal with the backlash of her many and frequent episodes. To have an idea of where to start to try to navigate this is invaluable.
    Thank you so very much. This will not only be a help for us in dealing with his sister but also it can help heal some of the damage caused in our marriage.

  • Floyd

    September 23, 2009 at 3:48 pm

    Okay, finally an area where I can weigh in a bit.
    I have a bipolar sister who is 20 years younger than me. Due to some other circumstances, I actually raised her through her high school years (she is now 19). I include this information to show just how enmeshed in my life she is. By her own choices, she is now out “on her own” which basically means she’s going from one friend’s couch to another.
    Trying to balance my life between her and my boyfriend is challenging to put it mildly. I feel like I’m running interference between these two sides quite a lot.
    It’s hard to expose the “secrets” of your family life to new people – especially new family! However, I’m learning honesty is working best for me.
    Be clear to both your husband and your father-in-law about the illness and your mother’s history with it. Explain that she goes through these cycles and hopefully she’ll be getting out of this down cycle soon.
    Also, be honest with your mother. I find myself trying to protect my sister or make excuses for her to such an extent that it somehow seems to condone her behavior. I know you’ve told your mother – but keep telling her! Sometimes it takes a really long time for those messages to sink in past the illness.
    Lastly, Amy hit the nail on the head. Find a support group or therapist for yourself. It’s all about boundaries and most of us who grow up with mental illness in our families have a horrible time setting them for ourselves. You are not responsible for your mother’s behavior and you can only do so much (so easy to say, say hard to do – I know).
    Above all, hang in there. I’m sure your new family will continue to love you and will try their best to understand the situation.

  • Donna

    September 23, 2009 at 10:18 pm

    I love the advice here. I go through that with my sister and it has gotten worse lately. The truth is this will escalate because you will probably have children and your mom will be depressed because she can’t be with them all the time because you’re so far away. It’s better for your husband & his family to understand point blank where you’re coming from, what the deal is and suggest they spam her. If she sends anything worthwhile to you, you can forward it.
    I love the idea of a counselor, I may have to use that myself. The problem with mental illness is that it is invisible. We have sympathy for a broken limb but we can’t see the broken synapses & unbalanced chemistry. I walk a fine line keeping my sister away from my family because I never know what she will say. I try to be fair to her but not give her control over my emotions or family business. The hard part is having the integrity to draw the line in the sand about what is and is not acceptable. Your husband is your ally, so don’t be embarrassed, you can’t change or control them or else you would’ve long ago! Accept his help and be grateful for a good man and a new, saner family. I know I am with my husband, but then we grew up together I didn’t have to explain my sister or anyone else!
    Good luck!

  • Jasmine

    September 24, 2009 at 2:32 am

    Though in no way do I have bipolar relatives, I hope my suggestions don’t seem totally … unqualified. I really think Floyd is right — tell your husband and FIL about your mother. The communication has to go beyond “crazy ha ha ha” — confide in them and explain your mother’s behaviour. Let them know where you are coming from, and involved, in helping your mother.
    I can imagine a lot of stress and embarrassment because you can’t control what your mom is saying and how that will factor in to your husband and FIL’s evaluation of you. I understand you don’t want to abandon your mother’s problems either, you just don’t want her to negatively influence your relationship with new family members. But I think it’s time to seriously discuss it with your husband and FIL in a way that brings new understanding, since your mom has tabooed it.
    Also, is there anybody else around your mom other than your sister whom you can pull in? Maybe your mother is truly lonely and really needs a caregiving companion to listen. Try to engage other relatives on your side as well to give her support. How about suggesting she undertake some activities around the community (like a cooking class or yoga) for her to find new people?)
    It’s possible that I don’t fully grasp the nuances of the issue here and I’m really sorry for that! I hope everything irons itself out. Best of luck to you. 🙂

  • Anonymous

    September 24, 2009 at 8:47 am

    Thanks for all of the support!!! She actually gave me a really good opening last week and I was able to explain just how much those emails upset me. I got a lot of “well, I can’t do anything right,” but I think the message got through. Here’s hoping.
    She left a few days ago for a month long stay at my Aunt’s farm in England. It’s a really healing place and hopefully that will help too. And I found I already had a support group! A dear friend (one of my bridesmaids!) has had similar experiences and we didn’t even know it!! There has been a lot of purging over pumpkin spiced lattes and it has really helped. And so has my husband. I still don’t want to share the goriest details just because I know I don’t have to. He’ll still love and support me without knowing every single detail. As for my FIL I’m going with a “least said, soonest mended” approach. I think we’re both comfortable with that.
    Amy. Seriously. You are incredible. Thanks.

  • Anonymous

    September 24, 2009 at 11:35 pm

    I strongly agree about talking to the husband and FIL and being as forthcoming as you can. My MIL is bipolar and I suspect schizophrenic as well. When I married my husband he gave me very little information–partly because he was the baby of the family and didn’t know much, and partly because he was embarrassed. She said some really hurtful things to me, and it was years before I really understood the extent of her illness. Knowing more to begin with would have saved me a lot of hurt feelings.

  • Anonymous

    September 27, 2009 at 9:05 pm

    My MIL is mentally ill & has gone so far as to contact my mother’s friends & family, who she’s only met at my wedding or baby shower, etc. The phone calls and notes are very inappropriate & embarrassing for my husband & me, but something I’ve realized recently after 5 years of marriage is that EVERYBODY knows there is something wrong with her, and understands neither of us can stop her. She is her own person. It’s her behavior and she should be embarrassed, not you!

  • Martha

    September 27, 2009 at 9:16 pm

    I have a family member who suffers from bipolar disorder. The one thing that has helped the most is becoming educated and meeting other people with mentally ill family members. NAMI — — has an excellent program called Family to Family. I participated in the program 3 years ago and now have a local support system that just can’t be beat. I urge anyone dealing with mental illness to make the time to go.