The Beauty in the Beast

Happiness across the cultures.

Mental Illness and the Family

Mental illness affects more than the individual, it also affects their family.

**Updated Nov. 28 2012** (My brother called to inform me that he had been diagnosed with Bi-Polar Disorder not Borderline Personality Disorder as I had previously mentioned.  Thankfully instead of thinking I was the worst sister in the world he simply corrected me and in his words, "They aren't that drasically different....except bi-polars get better drugs".)

My brother is one of the most important people in my life.  When I was a child I hardly spoke a word until I was about 3 years old.  My mother will tell you it’s because I didn’t have to, all I would do was point at something and my big brother would go and get it for me.  I was the princess little sister.

Things slowly started to change as we got older.  There was the typical sibling rivalry, but there seemed to be something more to it.  My brothers anger seemed a little more extreme than my friends and their siblings.  It just seemed....harsher (to use a technical term).  I remember having to take my brother to his ‘special’ doctors appointments.  I remember eavesdropping on my parents’ hushed conversations.  They just couldn’t figure out why he was such an angry child.  Why he would go through periods of being happy and excited and then suddenly become uncontrollably angry and depressed.  Doctor after doctor was consulted with no answer.  It was frustrating for my mother, and it was clearly upsetting for my brother.  When he would be questioned about why he would have these outbursts he couldn’t explain why… people assumed he was being difficult, but the truth was that he himself didn’t know why.

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It wasn’t until we were much older that we finally had our answer. 

Bi-Polar Disorder (BPD)

You would think that after years of searching for an answer that we would be relieved that we finally had a ‘thing’ to point to that explained what was happening.

There was a sense of relief but then there was a huge sense of ‘now what’?

What does Bi-Polar even mean?

That, at least, is something that we can answer.  Bi-Polar disorder is classified as a mood disorder that affect an individuals ability to control their moods and emotions.  It is often associated with periods of elation and extreme 'mania' followed by periods of deep depression and anger.  

The DSM IV states:

For a diagnosis of Bipolar I disorder, a person must have at least one manic episode. Mania is sometimes referred to as the other extreme to depression. Mania is an intense high where the person feels euphoric, almost indestructible in areas such as personal finances, business dealings, or relationships. They may have an elevated self-esteem, be more talkative than usual, have flight of ideas, a reduced need for sleep, and be easily distracted. The high, although it may sound appealing, will often lead to severe difficulties in these areas, such as spending much more money than intended, making extremely rash business and personal decisions, involvement in dangerous sexual behavior, and/or the use of drugs or alcohol. Depression is often experienced as the high quickly fades and as the consequences of their activities becomes apparent, the depressive episode can be exacerbated.

Knowing all this information is helpful, but it doesn’t really provide a road map to having a relationship with someone who is suffering with BPD.  For my brother and I it means that we don’t get to have as close of a relationship as either of us would like.  The closer my brother and I get, the more worried he gets that I will abandon him…and he begins to resent me.  This triggers another one of the symptoms; intense and sudden anger.  He tries to push me away before I leave on my own.  In these times of anger he can be equally as cruel as he can be loving in the good times.  Admittedly at first I didn't respond well to these outburst.  I would try to match his anger, I would be just as cruel as he was.  

I wasn't being very understanding.  I was seeing his behaviour as coming from him, and not from his illness.  I would take everything that he said personally.  He has very little ability to control these outbursts and after they are over he feels intense guilt, fear and sadness.  He enters into a form of depression.  He doesn’t WANT to push me away… he just does…. and then he feels even worse about it.  He may not be able to control his outburst...but I can control how I react to them.  It is hard to remain calm when he has these outbursts, but I am trying to understand that when they happen....it's not my brother speaking.  Its the BDP.

Because of BDP my brother and I are not as close as we once were…back in the days when I didn’t have to say a word.  I love my brother with all my heart and I know that he loves me too.  Mental Illness prevents us from having the relationship that I know we both want.

This isn’t to say that we never will again, but it is an extremely difficult thing to overcome.  How do you have a relationship when the very act of being in that relationship triggers painful and deeply emotional symptoms in the other person?

When my brother contacted me, and asked me to write something on Mental Illness, I couldn’t say no.  In a way this is my way of showing him that I understand.  I know why we can’t be close…and that even though I can’t be the little sister he wants… I love him with all my heart.

Mental Illness is something that most people don’t like to talk about.  It is something that has become ‘taboo’ in our culture for some reason.  It makes people uncomfortable to hear about it, and as a result people who are suffering from the affects of mental illness don’t get to do the one thing that can ease some of their burden…TALK. 

Mental illness is more pervasive than we would like to admit.  It is easier to tell someone that you have Cancer than a Mental Illness.  When you tell someone you have Cancer they react with sympathy.  When you say you have a mental illness they don't know how to react or they try to change the subject.  For this reason most people suffering from mental illness stay silent about it.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (http://www.cmha.ca/) 20% of Canadians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime. 20% is not an insignificant number and it just covers the person who is actually diagnosed with an illness.  This doesn’t include the friends, family members or colleagues that are also impacted.

Until we start to view people suffering from Mental Illness as people first and an illness second the stigma that adds to the suffering will continue.  

As for my brother and I we are slowly finding our way to a relationship.  Taking it one step at a time. 

If you know someone that suffers from a mental illness, reach out to them, help to break the silence and the stigma.  You have no idea the impact that simply listening may have.

Copywrite @Jaime Booth Cundy 2012

Jaime Cundy is a writer and a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania's Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program.

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