What It Was Like Growing Up With a Sibling Afflicted With Bipolar Disorder
As she grew, the biting subsided, but the outbursts got more ferocious. By the time she was 10, we'd gone from occasional thunderclouds to a perpetual hurricane. Mornings were a Category 5. Unable to get herself together and out the door in time for school, she would lie on the floor defeated, screaming, kicking at anyone who approached her. On days when my parents couldn't deal, I was called in. I'd lie next to her, staring up at the ceiling with her until some calm descended. But even in her moments of stillness, my stomach stayed clenched as I waited for the lightning flash of rage that could seize her at any moment. Her fury froze me. All I could do was wish it would stop.
The attempt to diagnose my sister was a fluid, frustrating business. The labels—ADHD, depression, anxiety, bipolar—seemed to identify the symptoms, but never offered a solution. There were always new meds, new therapists, new doctors. In her teen years, there were suicide attempts—threatened and actual, both equally catastrophic to those who loved her.
I was relieved to go away to college hundreds of miles from home. I knew I was the lucky one, independent, in control of my moods, my life. Yet I kept being drawn into the drama of her disease, my parents' despair bubbling over in late-night phone calls to me when they needed support. And I couldn't deny feeling resentful when I saw all our family's resources—time, love, attention, money—going to her. Was it selfish of me to want to tell my parents about my roommate crisis when my sister was in a psychiatric hospital? Undoubtedly. Did my heart ache to tell my mother when I found myself falling in love for the first time? Of course. But she was occupied with far more urgent matters: shuttling my sister to therapy, consulting with my sister's doctors, arranging in a little plastic container the seven pills my sister took daily to manage her moods.
And then one day, when she was in her early 20s, I saw my sister arranging the meds herself—and I knew things were changing for the better.
The period of relative peace that has ensued allowed her personality to emerge—her sense of humor, the delight she took in graphic novels. I felt it was safe, finally, to get to know her. We took hikes together to practice the mindfulness she'd learned in therapy as I panted up the hill behind her. I suppose she saw me in a new light, too. Occasionally, she'd listen to me—even comfort me. Because of the pain she'd endured, my sister was compassionate when the heart and mind were unaligned and mysterious even to the person they belonged to.
When I got married, my sister stood beside me as my maid of honor. It had felt like a risk to ask her—what if the pressure was too much?—but she came through beautifully. Upon seeing me melt down the day before I walked down the aisle, she cracked a smile and said, "And I'm the crazy one?"
Despite her stability over the past five years, I still worry about the future. If she relapses and my parents are gone, will she become my responsibility? Will she need to move in with me and my family? Will she drain resources from my children, my life? In my darker moments, I wonder: Has she not taken enough already? But then: Would I take care of my sister if she were sick with cancer? Of course. Would I be honored to help the little girl with big brown eyes who has fought so hard for her happiness and emerged shining with strength and empathy? Absolutely. Heart and mind not yet fully aligned. I hope she can be patient with me.
* Author's name has been changed.