Tag Archive: Family Dynamics


 

As children we believe that we are the center of everything, that is why children who experience the trauma of problems in the family, such as marital discord and divorce, often blame themselves for it. It is just part and parcel of childhood development, It is even worse when parents appear to blame us by behavior that seems to be rejecting of us. Of course there are times when that is perception and there are times when the rejection is real. But do we know the motives behind these behaviors? Not always, because once again we think it is about us, not them.

Grief

Grief (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The problems in my family were not about marital discord, but something that shook the very foundations of the entire family, the death of my brother. This is perhaps the most traumatic thing that can happen to parents, and it often results in divorce. In my parents’ case, they supported each other, which was good, but that does not mean that the family dynamics were not dramatically affected.

It has taken me a long time to put the pieces together and realize how much of my parents’ behavior towards me was a result of this. Some of the details I only found out about as an adult. My therapist also helped me to understand this better as well. I am now in a position where I am able to finally put myself in their place, rather than letting my wounded inner child carry the whole narrative. Perhaps I should have seen this earlier, I am now 50 years old, but better late than never.

From my earliest recollections, I never felt loved. My mother was critical and rejecting of me and my father was distant. I never bonded with either of them. There are many reasons for this dynamic, but one of the big ones was the accidental death of my older brother at age six. I was only a year and a half old when this happened and my sister was four,

Looking at family pictures is very telling. My sister for instance looked very happy and care-free before this happened. Afterwards I can see the birth of the very serious sister that I knew growing up.

I don’t remember my brother, yet oddly enough I miss him. A piece of the family went missing and never came back. I am told that he adored me, and would crawl along behind me on the floor and call me “baby-doll.”

The trauma didn’t actually start with his death, although that was the climax of it. He was always a sickly child. Born prematurely, he had a defect in his stomach valve that caused him to have serious fits of vomiting, where he became dehydrated enough to require medical attention. Insurance laws on pre-existing conditions back then made it extremely difficult for him to get the surgery he needed to correct the problem. Family pictures show him as a happy child, but pale and skinny. He looked similar to pictures I have seen of children with cancer.

Eventually he did have the surgery, but it did not fix the problem. During another one of his vomiting episodes my mother took him to the doctor. His regular doctor was out of the office, but another one was covering for him. My parents at that time had no idea that he was not a pediatrician. He gave my brother a shot of compazine for the nausea and sent him home.

The following details I only got from my father after my mother passed. I never knew the exact details of my brother’s death but they are horrifying.

In the afternoon my mother got a call from the doctor. He told her that he thought she should take my brother to the hospital. But my brother had stopped vomiting so she assured him that everything was fine. She just thought the doctor was acting out of an abundance of caution.

That night my brother died in his sleep. An autopsy showed that he had fluid in his lungs. The medical examiner believed that he aspirated vomit.

My father was very suspicious about the whole thing and went to see the pediatrician. Having not treated my brother himself he looked in the medical record. He did not have much to say to my father, but he left the record with my dad before leaving and asked for him to take it to the front desk. My father believes this was intentional, that the doctor wanted him to see what was in there. My father took note of what drug he was given and the dosage. When he looked it up he discovered that the doctor had given him the ADULT dose of the drug!

And the most horrible part of the whole thing is that obviously the doctor at some point realized what he had done, which is why he made the strange call to my mother. But he was too chicken to tell the truth so he could get help!

The way compazine works to stop vomiting is to reduce the gag reflex but it also reduces the choking reflex as well. In an appropriate dose that is not a problem. But in the dose that my brother was given it completely eliminated it. My mother gave him water before putting him to bed. That water went straight into his lungs, explaining the autopsy results.

My mother blamed herself for not taking him to the hospital. She felt that she had put finances before my brother’s well-being because my father had just gotten a new job and they did not have insurance yet. Of course it was never her fault but that did not stop her from feeling guilty.

My father put the blame where it belonged and went to a lawyer but at that time the doctors were the ones who had all the powerful lawyers so it would have been almost impossible to win the case. Furthermore my father had no money to pursue this. And it was not going to bring my brother back anyway.

So here was my grief stricken mother who was trying to hold it all together and still take care of two young children, one just a baby. No wonder I felt rejected, she simply couldn’t deal with it all. My sister was probably old enough to be sensitive to the situation and try not to be a bother. Even before my brother died though, my mother most likely was having some trouble taking care of me because my brother was sick all the time.

Things were very bad for my father as well. In fact I can’t even imagine how he had the strength to keep going. He had to take time off from his new job to take care of funeral arrangements. And his boss bullied him over it. And not just him, but my father’s co-workers as well. My father has told me that they actually made sick jokes about my brother’s death. And he also told me something that shocked me even more than that. He said that this is the kind of bullying that makes people want to kill themselves. Then he said “But suicide would not have solved anything.”

Even as I write this down I am fighting back tears. My poor, poor brave father! No one should ever have to go through that!

He actually stayed at the job because they needed the money. So day after day he had to keep going. He was fired eventually, and this same boss blacklisted him, so he could not get another job. But my father got lucky on one count. He talked to someone who knew this boss and it turns out this guy had something scandalous on him, and told my father not to worry, that he would take care of the situation. The blacklisting stopped.

After putting this all together how can I not have empathy for what both of them went through? I would not have been able to endure that.

I now know that it wasn’t about me. The rejection I felt was from two people who were struggling to keep their heads above water. And they made it. They loved my sister and I enough to keep going.

God bless them both.

 

 

 

I went into therapy so I could learn to do my own laundry.

English: Wall post with love in different lang...

English: Wall post with love in different languages. Taken in Las Vegas. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course it wasn’t just that, but it really was part of it. My mother did everything for us kids. In addition to doing the laundry, she washed our hair for us even into our teenage years and neither my sister nor I learned how to cook because she always chased us out of the kitchen. I was told that I might burn myself.

I guess my sister and I were both lucky that she trusted us with washing the dishes!

One day when I was sixteen I decided I wanted to do my own laundry and asked my mother to show me how to do it. Her reaction was to scream at me and call me “selfish.”

As  with so much of my mother’s behavior, I found that inexplicable and hurtful. I had stored hurt in my heart from my earliest childhood memories. The biggest problem in our family was lack of good communication skills and I was never allowed to speak up for myself and ask my mother to explain her behavior. If there is only one piece of advice I can give to parents, it is to keep the lines of communication open with your children, as it will keep misunderstandings from turning into estrangement.

And that was all this was, a stupid misunderstanding on top of other stupid misunderstandings that at least in part contributed to my first suicidal breakdown at age 16. My thought processes were of course skewed and magnified by my bipolar disorder, but the fact that I had never felt loved by my mother and that I did not feel like I was a good person was the driving force behind it.

My parents got me into therapy, which helped some. The therapist counseled us separately. It certainly helped loosen my mother’s controlling grip on me and after the first appointment with my mother she never called me “spoiled” again. That was her favorite epithet for me.

But the therapist made a big mistake. He never counseled us together. What I needed was not just for my mother to back off, I needed closure. I needed to know why she was so angry with me. Being used to not being able to speak up for myself, I never asked that crucial question from my therapist. He was the authority figure and he ran the show.

The closest he ever came to explaining my mother’s behavior was to say “Your mother loves you but all you feel is her fear.”

The problem was is that it wasn’t fear that I felt from my mother, it was rage and hatred. The statement confused the hell out of me. Again I did not speak up and ask him what he meant by that. If I had he most likely would have told me what I know now, anger is a secondary emotion. It is a cover for hurt and/or fear.

Both emotions were at play in my mother’s behavior.

She did not have a mental illness, I am quite certain of that by comparing my behavior with bipolar disorder with hers. However that does not mean that she wasn’t royally messed up, like 99% of mankind.

It is only at the age of 50 that I have finally gotten a glimpse into my mother’s world with the help of the best therapist I ever had. Unfortunately he has left the county mental health facility that I go to for another job, but I am eternally grateful for what he has given me. I hope someday he may go into private practice and then maybe I can arrange to see him again.

What he told me makes perfect sense. The only way she felt competent as a mother was to do things for us, and when I asked her to show me how to do my laundry what she heard was this: “Mom, I don’t think you are doing a good job, so I want to do it myself. I don’t appreciate anything you do for me.”

Of course that wasn’t what I meant. I was just trying to assert my independence which is normal and healthy. While other kids were doing that by getting into sex and drugs, I just wanted some extra responsibility.

This helps explain many other things she said and did, such as saying to me that she wished she were “like other mothers, who don’t take care of their kids.” Perhaps I was being a bit of a brat, I complained that she was pulling my hair while combing it. After she said that she went to take a bath, and I was so devastated because I thought she meant that she didn’t love me or want me around. That statement seemed to confirm my worst fears. I wanted to walk out of the house and never come back, but I had nowhere to go. I was only 14. Inexplicably, after her bath she was smiling and relaxed, while I was still hurting from the worst thing she had ever said to me.

She passed on in 1997, and I never got to resolve things with her. But I think I finally understand. My therapist referred to the book, The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman. I have not read it yet but he did give me a good run down on it. Literally people have different languages or rather ways of doing things to demonstrate their love for others. It seems that we all have a preferred style. Her language was to take care of us. What I needed was a completely foreign language for her, to praise me and tell me that I was a good daughter. I could not speak her language and she could not speak mine.

I think this is a great lesson for any kind of relationship. We always assume that others know what it is that we need from them and they think the same thing about us. Then we think the other is deliberately withholding what we need from them and vise-versa.

My therapist also explained that she likely had a limited repertoire to draw from. He feels that she felt incompetent as a mother and so this was all she knew how to do.

The fact is of course that if my mother had not loved me she would not have gotten me therapy when I needed it. But to me our relationship was a confused mess of contradictions. She would say the most horrible things to me and then in the next breath say, “I love you.” I couldn’t process it.

I wish she were around so I could ask her about these things, but I am certain that this is the truth. She wasn’t a bad mother, she was a confused mother.

I hope I have given people some food for thought. There are other things about my mother’s behavior that my insightful therapist has helped me with and I will share those in future posts,

Are We Too Sensitive?

Being sensitive is a double-edged sword, for sure. But without that sensitivity we would not have empathy for others and also would not have the capacity for introspection. Both are necessary qualities for a spiritual path.

Pressure Sensitive

Pressure Sensitive (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The key is not taking on that as a harsh judgment against ourselves. It can be difficult. For me it started in childhood with a verbally abusive mother. Every time I am rejected or perceive rejection it takes me right back to that vulnerable place. I have to remind myself that the situation is not the same and that I am not powerless like I was before. And that my mother was screwed up and her judgments of me were not correct.

Therapy is very helpful in this process. At the same time of course I have made mistakes and hurt people so I have to face that and see what changes I need to make. Frankly at this point the best way I can differentiate between situations that are my fault and those that are not is to talk to my therapist. He is very good at helping me to understand other people’s points of view. That in no way means that other people are always right, but they are not always wrong either.

Ironically, sensitive people can come across as uncaring, even when we care a great deal. That is because of defensiveness. We are afraid that what we have done is an indictment against the core of our being.

In order to face the things I have done wrong and not be defensive I have to remind myself that I am a Child of God and that despite what I have been taught I am not evil, I only make mistakes. There is that part of me that is Divine and wholly good and that will never change. I simply need to align myself with that part of me.

After many years of being in therapy off and on I am so happy that I have found such a good therapist. He has been helping me clarify my relationship problems and I am seeing things in a new light. I have also been spending a great deal of time thinking about things (one thing that being disabled gives you is plenty of time to think! That can be good or bad).

The fact is that people scare the crap out of me. I don’t make friends easily. You see I think I am going to ruin their lives. From an early age I was always “making” my mother cry or get mad, but I never knew quite what I did that would cause that extreme reaction.  Mostly what I did was simply talk at the wrong time.

I also have an almost clear memory of her putting me and my sister to bed, and I was talking to her while she tucked me in. I don’t remember what I said, but she got this shocked look on her face and started crying and ran out of the room. My sister said “See what you did!”

Perhaps guilt is why I do not remember what I said, I have blocked out some childhood memories where I only remember parts of what happened. All I know is that I wasn’t saying anything with an intent to upset her and her reaction mystified me.

My mother obviously had problems, but having gone through bipolar depression myself I do not believe that she suffered from depression. Overall her moods were okay, except when it came to dealing with me.

When I started school I would not talk to anyone because I figured that they would hate me, because if I was not good enough for my family how could I be good enough for anyone else? Of course that was a self-fulfilling prophecy and I got the label “retard.”

My fear of people is now 100% worse because of having bipolar disorder. I have created my share of havoc with it although I am dealing with it better now.

It doesn’t help when my brother-in-law chimes in “No wonder you have no friends!”

Ironically when he said that I had done nothing to him but that is a story for another day. The point is that it hurt, badly.

The reason I have few friends is not because I don’t care about others, as he implied. It is just the opposite. I often feel like all I have to offer to others is pain and misery. And that is also why I have not dated in years. And now I am  disabled with fibromyalgia/chronic fatigue so somehow I doubt that I would be a fun date.

I know, at least intellectually, that I am more than my illness and more than my worst qualities. But that has not reached my heart yet.

My therapist says that I remind him of a sun-burnt person who is always desperately trying to make sure no one touches her in a crowd of people.

However he is helping me to understand what went on in my family and the ironic fact that my mother actually loved me, but did not know how to show it. I will write about that in another post. The point is that hopefully I can learn to let go of the shame that I have accumulated. Shame is actually different from guilt in a very subtle way. Guilt says “I did a bad thing but I can correct it”. Shame says “I am a bad person and nothing I can do will ever change that.”

It is the shame that leads me into suicidal ideation, although I have promised myself to not go down that road again, mainly for my father’s sake. He spent so much time listening and helping me during the bad times and it would be a betrayal to him to do myself in. He is also proof that I am lovable, even when I don’t feel it myself. His love has sustained me.

I wonder how many of you identify will what I have said. Please share. 🙂

 

July 31st was my birthday. The Big Five-O. Yikes!

Like most people I am not eager to grow old, especially when physically I feel like I am turning 90 not 50 due to fibromyalgia. I spent a lonely birthday because I had to cancel plans with some friends because I was not up to going out.

It was lonelier still because I am once again on the outs with my sister and her family. It isn’t all her fault, but I apologized for my behavior while she did not. After wooing me back last year by apologizing for an incident where she threw me out of her house without even telling me what she was upset about, she then decided to take that apology back. How does that even make sense? She told me that she realized that it was just a simple misunderstanding.  Now she says it was because I yelled at her, which is not true in the least. While I do tend to have a hot temper, I very purposely stayed calm because my nephew was there. It goes to show that even when I do everything that I am asked to do, it is never good enough.

No that last statement is wrong. I AM NEVER GOOD ENOUGH.  At least according to her and her husband.

My therapist has spent a good deal of time trying to convince me that just because I make mistakes does not mean that I AM A MISTAKE.

I am a smart lady. I know that. At least intellectually. But the problem is that my emotions tell me different.

It isn’t just my bipolar disorder that is the problem. It comes from a lifetime of being told what a screw-up I am. And certainly I HAVE screwed up many things. I am grown-up enough to admit that.

But rejection and lack of forgiveness sends me into a tailspin. I question my self-worth because I depend on others to tell me that I am okay.

It is ironic that I go to the one person who is not able to tell me that, for whatever reason. Because I confuse her with mommy. Because in many ways, she is just like my mother was. But even my mother eventually changed her attitude towards me, although to be honest I was too immature at the time to see that. She is passed on now, and I regret that.

My sister was told that she was better than me by our mother. There was hardly a day that went by where she did not say to me “Why can’t you be like your sister?” The question baffled me. I was ME, how could I be HER?

My mother was unrealistic. My sister was three years older than me so in terms of maturity I was never going to catch up. The other problem was that everybody thought I was a great kid, except for my mother. My teachers loved me and I got A’s most of the time. I never got in trouble at school, not even once

To my mother I was the worst kid in the world, and although I certainly did deserve punishment from time to time, it was excessive.

Oddly enough considering our rocky relationship, my sister is in fact the only one in the family who acknowledges that that our mother played favorites. She in fact needed no pressure from me at all to admit that. In fact she has told me that she feels bad about that.

My sister was not great to me as a kid, but I don’t blame her. This was a dynamic set up by our mother.  But ironically my sister treats me even worse as an adult. Because on some level, she still believes that she is better than me.

I was never good enough. When I was young, I played with my sister’s Barbie doll and broke it. I was too young to realize that Barbie’s legs could not splay apart to sit on a model horse.

My mother declared that I would not get a Barbie of my own until I learned to take care of my toys. Ironically I was not in the habit of breaking any toys, whether they were my sister’s or mine. I did bathe in the bathtub a cloth doll that had a crying mechanism, and she never cried again. But everyone laughed that one off.

That Barbie doll became a symbol of my mother’s approval and I waited year after year for it. I never got it.

Lest people think that she did not know how much I wanted it, she did after many years of waiting buy me a knock-off doll called “Tricky Micky”.  She was “tricky” all right. She was held together by rubber bands on the inside. She broke.

Granted I am sure my mother did not know how cheaply made this doll was, but she never bothered to buy me a better doll.

It was a not so subtle message: “You will never be good enough for the real thing.”

This sounds so trivial compared to stories of horrific physical abuse that many children have gone through and yet I have heard from many that they preferred the physical abuse to the emotional abuse. And this, along with the other constant verbal put downs I got from my mother, qualifies.  The message was that even the most trivial of mistakes can never be forgiven.

I AM A MISTAKE. Not that I make mistakes that can be forgiven.

As an adult people have suggested that I buy myself a Barbie doll now. I have resisted because I am not a child anymore so what would I do with a toy?

But this year I remembered that there are Barbies that are not made for play. Collector’s dolls. So I half-heartedly went on-line to look. WOW! There are literally HUNDREDS of dolls ranging from around $20 to hundreds of dollars. And they are beautiful!

So I bought one for myself. To tell myself that no matter how much I screw up, IT DOES NOT MEAN THAT I AM UNFORGIVABLE AND WORTHLESS BEYOND REPAIR. It also does not mean that my mistakes are somehow any worse than other people’s mistakes.

I haven’t murdered anyone. I have never stolen anything. That does not mean that I am proud of everything I have done, but quite frankly my sister is far from being a saint and at times has done some pretty crappy things herself. SHE IS NOT BETTER THAN ME.

Forgive me for the long rant. But I need from time to time to hear myself say that I AM NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR EVERYONE’S PROBLEMS!

I was not responsible for my mother’s problems. She did not have a mental illness but that does not mean she didn’t have problems. I used to think it was just me because she only got mad at me, no one else. Actually she probably was mad at a lot of people, but took it out on me.

So I bought my Irish Princess Barbie doll and I have it sitting right in front of me to remind me that I am okay. I make mistakes but I can be forgiven and if no one gives that to me then I can give it to myself.  And my inner child adores her.

Wanna see???? Do you?? Huh??Huh??

Here you go!!!

 
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

Magical Merry Go Round

Magical Merry Go Round (Photo credit: Floyd’s Noise)

There are times in a family relationship when it can’t be maintained anymore. But I feel that it is still my fault, because to be honest, part of it is. But apologies mean nothing unless I totally capitulate to her point of view, that basically I am a horrible person and therefore my position on anything is totally invalid. Because, you know, that “bipolar thing.”

She refuses to acknowledge that I have genuine concerns in this “relationship” Quotes because it really fell apart years ago. There is no relationship, unless it is totally on her terms.

I started the argument. So lots of guilt right there. But after a reluctant look at myself I realized that I was wrong and apologized. But not until after I got blindsided with a whole bunch of rules I should follow, based on grievances that I had no way of knowing about others that I thought had been resolved.

Like the fact that she openly agreed to an arrangement we had and every single time I asked her about it she assured me that she was fine with it. But she wasn’t and so she has a lot of anger about it and so one of her “rules” was that I should not expect that from her and that I apparently should have known that. What is wrong with her just saying “No” in the first place? I would have been fine with that. This has been an ongoing pattern in our relationship, but she will not take responsibility for it. I actually feel completely set-up by her. I go along thinking everything is fine until I get dumped on. And she completely mangled my motives for having this arrangement. I have gotten dumped on by both her and her husband for many years about how selfish and thoughtless I am (which it true that I can be that way, but not most of the time as they claim) but here I bend over backwards to make sure that everything is okay by asking her repeatedly if it was. I did not pressure her in any way.

Then I got a lot of verbal vomit about a situation that I thought we had resolved. She even accused me of things that I had not done. A while back she threw me out of her house over a minor misunderstanding. When I saw she was upset I kept calm and asked her what the problem was. I asked repeatedly but she thought I knew so she did not answer. She just threw me out with no explanation.

Now her version of this is that I yelled at her and that is why she threw me out. So therefore one of her “rules” is that she has the right to throw me out if I yell at her, Well I would agree that she has that right, but I resent the accusation because I took great pains not to yell at her. In fact I was completely and totally stunned.

After months of not talking she reached out to me and she even seemed to reluctantly acknowledge my point of view that the problem had been miscommunication on both our parts. Which is something I told her at the time.

Doesn’t that sound like an apology of sorts?

But now it appears that she still thinks it is my fault and it is not just about my supposed yelling incident but about everything.

I sent an e-mail to her saying that I am willing to abide by rules but that I did not appreciate the nastiness. Then I had a few rules of my own. That went over like a lead balloon!

You see she wants a relationship with me only on her terms. In fact she gave me a condescending figurative “pat on the head” by saying I sounded too upset, implying of course that my feelings were not worth listening to because “obviously” it has to do with my having bipolar disorder. So essentially only she has the right to be angry and make ridiculous accusations, but I am not allowed to respond. Ever.

She has taken a page from our upbringing. The only people who were allowed to have feelings were mom and dad. Actually my father was not hands-on so it was mostly my mother. I can only think of a few times where I expressed a feeling, only to be shot down. I went numb inside. At least until I had a nervous breakdown at sixteen.

Sometimes I wish I could go back to that numb state. But I digress.

My mother would often take a minor incident (such as my talking at the wrong time) and turn it into an “attack” on her. She would cry and ask me why I wanted to hurt her. At the time she started doing that I was so young that I actually thought I had wanted to hurt her somehow, even if I didn’t feel it. Because mommy was “always right.” Then one day it dawned on me that I did not have that motive so while I was grounded in my room after the lecture I started crying hysterically. My mother came to check on me and while crying I told her that I did not want to hurt her. She simply said that I was feeling sorry for myself and left.

Now I have forgiven her, but I am simply looking at the dynamics of what went on between us. And to be honest, I have treated people the same way in my illness. I am actually glad that I never had children, because I think I would have been a horrible mother.

So how much am I at fault for what happened between my sister and I? I did start the original argument but I did apologize. But it isn’t just me that is the problem and she refuses to take any responsibility for her actions.

Supposedly she is the “normal” person in the family. but she definitely has issues. Big issues. She is a very angry person, but in her mind I am the only one with an anger problem.

We exchanged a few e-mails but the last time she said she was cutting off contact. I told her that when she was ready to be honest with herself and take responsibility for her actions then I would be here. I don’t know if she read it but if she did I doubt that went over well either. But I am tired of this and I don’t really care anymore.

I have a choice. I can blame myself for the whole thing (which I have certainly done in the past) and become depressed and destructive to myself. I can blame her for everything wrong in our relationship (which I have done also). Or I can simply let her go like I have done in the past. She simply can’t be what I want her to be. Ever.

I could apologize until the cows come home and not only would that not work, but I would be giving away my power. She wants to be in complete control of the relationship. I don’t consider one person being in control as even fitting the definition of a “relationship”

I am exhausted from this and I simply can’t do this anymore.

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1212mentalhealth-RW

1212mentalhealth-RW (Photo credit: Robbie Wroblewski)

 

I have noticed that I am getting a lot of searches on my blog about setting boundaries with bipolar family or friends. So I am going to devote a short post to this topic. Unfortunately I am in a lot of pain right now with my fibromyalgia so I am saving some of the longer posts that I had planned to write until later.

So this is my opinion based on my thirty-some years of dealing with this illness and my work with others who suffer with mental disorders.

Note: Do not take what I am about to say as an excuse for bipolar behavior. I am only noting the complexities of dealing with this illness as simply a behavioral disorder. Please read the entire article before making a judgment. I do in fact talk about what the responsibilities of the person who has bipolar disorder are. Ultimately it is up to the person who has to live with the person who is diagnosed as to how much they feel they can tolerate. However I encourage an attitude of compassion, rather than judgment. Also you are welcome to respond to this article as long as you do so in a respectful manner.  If you cannot do that then your comment will not be approved.

Boundaries, for the most part, should be similar to those that anyone without an illness should adhere to. However, there are some caveats:

1. Recognize that bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, schizo-affective disorder, and schizophrenia are not character disorders. The person you are dealing with is the same person that she was before she got sick, so if she was a good person before then she is also a good person even in the midst of her illness. Often people get bipolar disorder confused with borderline personality disorder (which often even has the same initials as bipolar disorder, BPD). While the symptoms may be similar to each other borderline personality disorder is a part of a person’s character and is formed early on in childhood. Medications tend to not help much.  Therapy is recommended as the most effective treatment. However in people who have a true mental illness based on biology, medications are very effective in restoring function and therapy is considered an adjunct treatment.

2. Because of #1 it is very important that you not shame the person who is dealing with bipolar disorder or any other mental illness. Chances are they are already dealing with a lot of shame, even if they don’t show it. Suicidal behavior is often motivated by feelings of guilt. Guilt is actually a hallmark symptom of the depressive phase of the illness. You are not responsible for any suicide attempts but just keep in mind that the goal is to help the person feel better and guilt trips don’t help.

3. Don’t take their behavior personally. Most of the time it has nothing to do with you.

4. Keep in mind also that some people experience a break with reality in which they are not totally in control of their behavior. See my article Are People With Bipolar Disorder Inherently Evil?

 5. After saying all this I think that the primary way of setting boundaries should be to insist that the person get appropriate help. It may be that it is impossible to live with that person’s behavior otherwise. I have dealt with that problem myself when I took in a homeless schizophrenic who refused to take his medications. He became homeless when he quit his job and went on a wild spending spree. Unfortunately by trying to help him I only enabled him to continue his destructive behavior. Please note that I am not suggesting that a mentally ill person should be left out on the street. There are mental health organizations that can help with finding them medical help and housing. See the bottom of this article for resources.

6.  Keep in mind that most medications do not work overnight and it may take a while to find the right combination. Also most people do not get total relief from their symptoms so they might still have mood swings, just not as bad as before.

7.  Because of #6 most people need to also develop coping skills to deal with their illness. This is where therapy and support groups are helpful. One of the things that I have learned and continue to learn is how to separate my bipolar feelings from my healthy feelings, This is where self-responsibility comes in to play. I can’t take my feelings out on others and this is where appropriate boundaries are needed.

A good resource for family and friends of people who suffer from mental disorders is NAMI (National Alliance for the Mentally Ill). They also offer classes in coping skills for those who suffer from mental illness.

For information on support groups and other programs to help the mentally ill go to the Mental Health America website.

For a good list of therapists and other mental health professionals who can help both the person suffering from mental illness and also family members who need help to deal with their loved one’s illness go to the Psychology Today website and click on “Find a Therapist” on the top of the page.

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The Power of “No”

English: Robert Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions

English: Robert Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have been through some mind-boggling crazy relationships with certain people in my life and I would say that the common denominator is that I always end up feeling completely powerless. Other people have taken over the reigns in the relationship and no matter how hard I fight against it I always end up in the same place, feeling baffled and hurt because they don’t get what I am saying. Admittedly I have not always expressed myself in the proper way because I get to the point of screaming at them just to get them to leave me alone. Part of this could be attributed to my bipolar mood swings, however I have consistently wondered just how much of my reactions are valid. I usually have ended up with a toxic feeling of anger combined with an even more toxic feeling of profound guilt and worthlessness.  Usually what has happened is that they do back off on an issue for a while, but then later on the same pattern repeats itself, over and over.  This may sound dramatic, but there are times when I literally have felt that I was fighting for my psychological survival. I think this reaction goes back to my childhood, where I was literally bombarded with my mother’s intense feelings, which she blamed on me. There was never a point where I could say to her, “You know that really hurts, STOP IT.”

When I hit adolescence, feelings that I had repressed for my entire childhood started bubbling up to the surface. Up until then, I simply existed in a state of virtual numbness, punctuated by periodic crying spells that came out of nowhere. I got labeled as a “cry-baby”, and got the old lecture on “crying wolf” numerous times. It never occurred to anyone that I might have a reason to cry. I wouldn’t have been able to tell them what was wrong anyway, because I myself didn’t know why I was crying. One day at school, I broke down during a test. I was sent to the school counselor who simply pronounced that I didn’t handle stress well. That was all.

By fourteen I started feeling depressed and the only friend I had was a pen-pal. I stopped writing to her because I wasn’t able to write any happy, chatty letters to her anymore. She of course, was very hurt, and I have always felt guilty about that. But I simply did not know how to express what I was feeling.

By sixteen, I was suicidal and I made a half-hearted attempt at cutting my wrist. I was fortunate that at that point, my parents did start to take me seriously. They sent me to a church counselor who said that I just wanted attention, I think that a common misconception among people is that when someone makes a half-hearted suicide attempt, then that means that they really don’t want to kill themselves. They don’t understand the desperate compulsion to die, combined with the fear of actually doing it. I wanted to die, but I just could not muster the courage to follow through.

I was fortunate again that my parents sent me to professional therapist, rather than take the word of someone who really had no idea what she was talking about. The therapist talked with me alone and then talked to my mother separately. He apparently had some harsh words for her, because when she came home she was crying. After that, she never called me “spoiled” again, which was one of her favorite epithets against me.

The therapist did help with getting her to stop a lot of her destructive behavior, although the depression did not abate. He did not recognize that I had a serious clinical condition, which is a shame. But I am certain that my parents would not have agreed to medication anyway, because they didn’t trust doctors. I made still another suicide attempt, by sticking a key into an electrical socket. Of course the sparks frightened me, and the circuit blew anyway. My mother knew this and yet for some reason, either she didn’t tell the therapist or else he did not take it seriously when she did. The entire time I saw this therapist, we never once talked about my suicidal feelings. I would have had a lot to say to him, about the fact that I obsessively read the Bible and picked out every verse that said that I deserved to die. “The wages of sin is death.” But it was never brought up.

His feeling was that I had a lot of repressed anger and that was what was causing my depression. He told me that it was okay to be angry and he was right about that. I wasn’t even aware that I was angry, until he said that. Then, boom! Overnight I became a stark raving bitch and yelled constantly at my mother.  Although he was right about the fact that I had a right to be angry, he never gave me any guidance on how to handle it.  Despite the fact that I released my anger, though, I was still seriously depressed and thought about suicide constantly.

As I look back I find it extremely strange that he never once brought my mother and I into a therapy session together. He counseled us separately. I think he did us both a deep disfavor. By not telling me how to express my feelings appropriately other than simply screaming at my mother, he never gave us the opportunity to actually work things out together. In essence, he stole my voice, the one that wanted to know why she felt I was such a terrible person. The one who wanted to express my pain in a way that she could understand. The one who wanted to say desperately, “STOP IT. THAT HURTS and explain why.

I think that this is why I have found it so difficult to deal with other people in my family who behave in the exact same manner that she did. It is even more frustrating with them because at least with my mother, she did make some changes. It wasn’t until I was an adult though when she finally let go and respected me as a person. Unfortunately, I never really forgave her entirely because I was never able to ask the question “Why?” I should have been more mature about that, but I wasn’t.

Recently, as I struggled with these issues with other members of my family I have asked myself why am I so obsessed with them. I think that there are many reasons, they are my only close family members other than my dad, who is in failing health at age 85. He has been the only member of the family who has forgiven me for my behavior during my bipolar episodes, the only one who has been there to support me through them, and the only one who recognizes that I have changed. We haven’t had a major argument in ten years and I intend to keep it that way. I will not betray him by taking it out on him when I am feeling bad, In fact I have that attitude towards the rest of the family too, but they will not recognize that. To them, anytime we have a disagreement, no matter how well I handle it, is “proof” that I haven’t changed at all. For them, they see that the only way that I can can prove that I have changed is to always agree with them and always do what they want.

Tossing and turning one night, obsessing about this, I asked myself why I was so upset. The answer came clearly, “I HAVE NO VOICE.”  It literally feels like I am screaming inside for someone to listen, for someone to care, for someone to take me seriously. Just like with my mother, anything I say is dismissed as mere excuses.  Nothing that I do that is good matters. I can’t say, “STOP IT. THAT HURTS.”

But I realize now that I CAN SAY IT. Not for them, because it is unlikely that they are going to change. BUT FOR ME. JUST SAYING IT IS WHAT MATTERS. It doesn’t matter if they don’t take it seriously, because I need to draw a line in the sand and stick to it.

This keeps coming up over and over again because they keep trying to bring me back into the relationship, but only on their terms. I tell them that the only way I will come back is if they will agree to respect my decisions, even though they may disagree with them. They keep telling me that I am welcome to come back, as long as I drop that condition.

FORGET THAT.

My dad is a bit upset with me, because he doesn’t quite understand the stakes here. He of course does not want to see the family broken up, but to me this is a matter of psychological survival. I literally can’t be drawn back into a situation where I am being told that I am a horrible person, just because I disagree with them on something. My brother-in-law’s favorite mantra is that as long as he has known me, I have been a completely selfish person who has never done anything good in my entire life. I am demanding, ungrateful and since I don’t care about him, why should he care about me? My sister seconds him on that. All because I believe that I ought to have a say in how I spend my money and how I live my life. The ironic part is that they are describing themselves, not me.

At my support group today I finally said the words: I DON’T OWE YOU A DAMN THING.  Everybody cheered!

I have been a bit down on myself for not being able to move past this issue as fast as I thought I should.  But I realize that it is hard for anyone to leave an abusive relationship. It is never as simple as just leaving, It is a loss, a grieving of what never was and what never will be. A fear of being alone, but then realizing that you are already alone so there is nothing to lose. But I will survive.

I have made a commitment to not waste one more minute on negative, toxic people. I will make a new family out of the kind and wonderful people I have met at the mental health social center.  I will take the chance of actually cultivating friendships with people when I have previously not done that because I was too scared to do so.  It makes sense doesn’t it?

I’ve discovered the power of “NO. I WILL NOT TAKE THAT ANYMORE.”

To Play Or Not To Play

Cover of "Bad (Aerial Fiction)"

Cover of Bad (Aerial Fiction)

 

A relative is coming to visit next week and I am invited.  My sister is upset that I have not gotten back to her yet. The reason why is that I don’t know if I want to come. considering my sister’s behavior. However if I do not go, then I miss seeing a relative that I haven’t seen for a long time.

When there was a get-together on Easter I told my sister that I would come as long as she treated me with the same respect that she would give any guest in her home. She promptly “un-invited” me.

The problem is that she and her husband treat me like I am a child that needs disciplining. I am forty-eight years old.

Actually they treat me worse than that. I am treated like a dog that pooped on their floor. Last time I saw them I was literally tossed out of their house. It’s as if I were a puppy-dog that was thrown into the back yard because I did a “no-no.”

Now if I had been tossed out because I had actually metaphorically taken a dump on their floor, then their behavior would make sense. However, what really happened was that I didn’t perform the right “trick” for them.

Now they want “doggie” to come back in because the punishment is over and “doggie” is being unreasonable by not coming to their beck and call.

The reality is that all “doggie” did was give her nephew a birthday gift rather than pay for his birthday meal.

Woof, woof! BAD, BAD DOGGIE!!!

“Doggie” didn’t even know that that was what they wanted.

Well, you get the picture.

I have tried to talk with them and they don’t want to because I am being “unreasonable.” The problem is solved in their eyes so why should I be so presumptuous as to bring it up again?

This is a pattern that has gone on a long, long time where they do not respect my decisions. In their eyes I am “abusive” if I disagree with them. Because, you know, I am bipolar, so of course nothing I have to say is worthwhile listening to.

Never mind the fact that I have not been in the hospital for ten years!  Never mind that I have gotten my life together while they have not gotten theirs together!

The truth is that usually people who are that controlling have tremendous problems in their personal lives (which they definitely do) that they don’t want to face. Since they can’t find anything real to blame me for then they just make up stuff to suit them.

Ironically they call me petty for objecting to that sort of treatment! Maybe ten or more years ago they might have had some reason to object to my behavior, but not now. Other people in my life recognize that but not them. The fact is that the problem lies with the fact that they haven’t changed. Actually that is not entirely true. In the case of my brother-in-law he has changed for the worse.

He demands that everyone has to cater to him. If I were the problem then why are there others who object to his behavior also? He has expected my dad to support his family for YEARS.

This is clearly a situation of how people in glass houses should not throw stones.

When I try to talk with them about anything their reaction to me is always that I am “just making excuses.”  Not that they ever do that!

Since trying to talk this out with them had no effect then at Easter I simply told them that they needed to treat me with the same dignity and respect that they would treat anyone in their home.  That was my condition for coming and it wasn’t an unreasonable one since I was not asking for special treatment.

That went over like a lead balloon!

How do you reason with people who always think they are right 100% of the time? I certainly do not make that claim for myself but I do know that I am not wrong 100% of the time either.

I get the feeling that they are waiting for the time when I accept the “obvious fact” that they are morally superior to me.

That is never going to happen.

My choices seem to be limited when it comes to the get-together.  My dad has offered to pay for everyone in hopes of preventing any problems however since I do not consider that to be the cause of the problems with my sister and brother-in-law then I have very little confidence that they won’t find some other reason to get mad at me.

Telling them that they need to respect my decisions hasn’t worked either.

So what I am left with is the hope that they will not act badly in front of their guests. There is no guarantee of course that they won’t get mad later.

While I have felt like cutting my sister and brother-in-law out of my life forever I just don’t know how practical that is in the long-run. Maybe I should just focus on limiting contact with them instead.

I am at my wit’s end because I know that they really don’t have any motivation to change. If they really cared at all about my feelings then they would be willing to talk. They have had three months in which to calm down and be reasonable with me.  The fact is that they are set in their ways and they think that the only person who needs to change is me. They won’t even acknowledge that I have changed. Apparently their definition of change has nothing to do with handling my illness and emotions in a constructive manner that does not affect others in a negative way, as they like to claim, because I am already doing that and have been for a long time.

No, their definition of change is for me to always do what they want. Period.

Many, many years ago, before my sister was married and before my most spectacular nervous breakdowns had happened we took a trip to Nevada together. We were getting along very well at that point. At a particular tourist place, she realized that she had no money and there was no ATM around. Neither one of us had a credit card. She and I and another friend of hers had decided to get a tintype photo done. But her friend had to leave so my sister decided she didn’t want to do it with just the two of us. I had given my sister forty dollars to pay for it but since we weren’t going to get it done I asked for her to return my money to me. I saw something that I wanted to buy but she refused to give me my money back, because she thought I was “spending too much money”. Now mind you, she didn’t think it was too much money when it was going towards what she wanted. But when it was going to go towards what I wanted then it was a problem. The fact was that I had a full-time job, I was not in the habit of spending massive amounts of money and this was my vacation!  I saw a lovely piece of Native American Zuni pottery that I could not have found at home so I wanted to buy it.

When we returned to the motel she was still upset, as was I, so she went for a drive. When she came back she had a rock from the desert that she thought I might like and she apologized. I accepted.

For the life of me I never figured out her thought process as to why she thought that she had the right to decide how I was going to spend my money in the first place, because that is so completely beyond anything that I would ever think of doing to someone else. But I accepted her apology and left it alone.

Fast forward some twenty-five years and she apparently has lost the ability for self-reflection to realize that there are times when she is just plain wrong, no doubt about it.  Because I am bipolar so nothing I do is right, ever. And bipolar disorder is a moral issue, not a mental illness. And even though I haven’t been hospitalized for ten years I am obligated to make up to her every little mistake I have made until she is finished punishing me. Which means never. I guess I keep thinking that I am dealing with the person that she was back then, so I try to reason with her even when it feels like my brain is bleeding trying to follow her convoluted “logic.”

Despite all this though, I do want to visit with a relative that I have not seen in several years. So I guess I will just have to bite the bullet and hope that my sister behaves herself.  But I am damn well not going to apologize for spending my money the way that I choose. I did nothing wrong in buying my nephew a gift, rather than  paying for his meal. It was his birthday, not theirs and besides who ever heard of someone dictating what kind of gift to give?  My nephew was happy, why can’t they be happy too?

The fact is that they are responsible for their own happiness, not me. If they want to get bent out of shape over non-issues then that is not my problem at all.

We’ll see how this experiment goes…

The past few days have been an eye opener for me as I am finally coming to a sense of closure about what has been going on in my family. It seems that cutting them off has been one of the best decisions I have ever made. I feel more at peace than I have for a long time. Why? Because I realize I don’t owe them. Not only that, they don’t owe me either.

Fly-away close up

Fly-away close up (Photo credit: tdlucas5000)

Spirit has been showing me that my sister is on a different path than mine, and that we aren’t meant to travel it together. That does not make her path any less valid than mine. I firmly believe that all roads lead to the same destination.  But her path is custom-made and the lessons are for her alone.

The bottom line is that just like some romantic breakups occur because of unworkable expectations, the same thing can happen in family relationships, too.

The reason why we are here on this earth is not to make everyone happy. Nor should we expect that others should make us happy either. We are here to love and grow through our mistakes and we can choose to share that with others or not.  Many times we get hurt by sharing with the wrong people.  It is not always our fault but we can learn little by little who we can trust, and who we can’t.

Despite all of my complaints about my sister, I do have a good model of what trust looks like with my dad. I think this situation has been brought to a head because just like with any creature, it is time to leave the nest and look for sustenance elsewhere. I am financially independent and I have my own house, but I am extremely emotionally dependent on my father. Underneath all my drama with my sister has been a desire for her to take over that role. But she can’t and I shouldn’t expect her to.

Ironically what has held me back from making more friends is that I am afraid of rejection. I have felt unworthy of any love or compassion. Yet with my sister I have created the very situation that I am afraid of!

The fact is that I am worthy and I don’t have to prove that to anyone. My worthiness has nothing to do with the fact that I have a mental illness, bipolar disorder. It is not a moral issue. Who I am transcends all that, because I am in the image of Spirit.

When I close my eyes an image comes in front of me. I am walking through an apartment complex. I am in an  indoor passage with carpeting. As I stop in front of an apartment door it does not bother me that it is firmly closed against my entering. In fact it feels like freedom. I don’t have to be a part of what is beyond that doorway anymore. I walk past and leave with a spring in my step and lightness in my heart.