As I sit in my room thinking how I should approach a journal entry centred around having a family member (aunt) with bipolar disorder, I acknowledge the complexity of this condition. As many of you know, bipolar disorder is a mental health condition that can make life very challenging for those living with it, and can leave family members feeling helpless due its often unpredictable and sometimes destructive course. I would like to be totally transparent here. When I contemplated writing about the second hand effects of bipolar disorder on immediate and extended family, I was hesitant. I did not want in any way to offend or invade my dear aunt’s privacy. I also want to highlight her honest character, her true integrity as well as show her the utmost respect which I have for her. I proceeded to ask her if she would be okay with me writing about my personal experience and to my relief, and a little surprise, she was ecstatic. Whatever it takes to increase awareness and lessen the stigma around mental illness is her mantra. To Lee, thank you for your support, for being a true role model and the most strong willed person I know.
“We have a responsibility to respect that it is only the person living with bipolar disorder who truly understands the difficulties and it is our job to support, not judge and stay calm.”
As you all already know, living with bipolar disorder can be no easy task. The challenges of the condition are different for each individual and their family. My family and I navigate our difficulties in our pursuit to support my aunt and understand her complex illness. This is an ongoing, dynamic process depending on the different situations that we find ourselves in. Some circumstances we anticipate and some are completely unpredictable. Bipolar disorder can seem overwhelming and confusing to the person living with it, let alone to the family members trying to empathise with it. For a very long time I thought that if only I could understand what my aunt was going through, maybe then I would be able to help in some way. I now realise that understanding is not always the answer. Rather, we have a responsibility to respect that it is only the person living with bipolar disorder who truly understands the difficulties and it is our job to support, not judge and stay calm.
Family vacations, birthday parties, family dinners are a few of the many gatherings that can seem stress free and enjoyable to most. A simple event such as leaving a familiar environment can cause a lot of stress for my aunt leading to a deterioration in her mood. I remember this happened at a Thanksgiving dinner as well as at a family New Year’s Eve party. This often makes seemingly easy family bonding events difficult to attend regardless of how strong and loving the relationship is. There are times that I too find myself at a crossroads, wanting to push my aunt to join our family, to come over for a visit, to maybe push her out of her comfort zone. Then I feel guilty, perhaps I am putting her in a difficult position, she would join us if she could. Family is complex in and of itself, but we all unconditionally love each other.
“I truly believe that the challenges of my aunt’s bipolar disorder have brought our family closer together and made us more resilient and accepting.”
Loving someone doesn’t mean you have to love all aspects of that person. I adore my aunt but hate the pain bipolar disorder has caused her. I have seen what it has done to her and what she has had to go through because of it. I love her unconditionally but I have to learn to deal with all the difficult emotions that come with bipolar disorder… disappointment, fear, worry, sadness to name just some. Lack of stability, mania, depression, irritation, lack of self control. All negative consequences that can characterise bipolar disorder. I know that this is not all of who my aunt is or what type of a family member she is. In times of difficulty and struggles, families either grow apart or come closer. I truly believe that the challenges of my aunt’s bipolar disorder have brought our family closer together and made us more resilient and accepting. Bipolar disorder is a powerful condition that can control one’s life if not treated and not understood. Treatments can come in many forms and from diverse sources; psychiatry, good diet, psychotherapy, friendships, support groups and finally the core family. Unconditional love is probably the one thing that can combat an unconditional illness.