Handling bipolar drama
April 7, 2013 5:24 PM   Subscribe

My distant sibling, diagnosed with bipolar some time ago (I don't know any solid details, unfortunately), fell out of touch with me for years. Now he's back in touch, but mostly just to drop dramatic texts on me ("I'm at the hospital", or, tonight, "I'm with the police, I'll call you when I'm released") and then not answer my increasingly plaintive texts or phone calls. I haven't been the prime target of this sort of thing before, what seems to be big swings of mental illness with the hospital and sheriffs and police involved, and the person involved giving me a bit of information but then nothing. Can anyone with more experience give me some advice as to ways I might handle it?

My brother is in his early 40s, gainfully employed (as far as I know, anyway--I feel like I have to put caveats on all this, because he fell out of touch for a long time and I hear very few details from him directly). My guess as to why he was in the hospital is maybe a suicide attempt, possibly a 72-hour hold? But it's all guessing at this point, and when I respond to his initial announcement texts, I get a couple of one or two-word replies and then nothing for days or weeks. No answers to calls, either.

Any ideas for how I might proceed? What might be happening on his end if these are suicide attempts or other events serious enough to get the hospital and police involved, and/or if he is going in for a 72-hour hold? Things I might try saying, or shouldn't say?

I mean, I can tell him I love him and worry about him. I've asked what his doctor thinks, whether maybe there are med changes or adjustments that might help (no answer, but then there's no answer to almost everything). I haven't yet said how angry I am getting at the swooping in with drastic announcements and then swooping off into the night never to be heard from again, but maybe I should? Or not?

I know it's hard to say because you don't know him, but neither do I, so I'm really at sea. Any suggestions or thoughts would be appreciated.
posted by theatro to Human Relations (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
This is actually quite common with people who are bipolar and not well-medicated. There is really not much you can do beyond what you are doing right now. Please don't feel guilty. For him, sometimes this is the only way he feels like he can communicate and anything further is stressful to contemplate (like responding to your responses). It is part and parcel of his disorder. He wants your support, but doesn't know how to respond to it in an appropriate way. It's good that he is reaching out for help locally. Maybe encourage that aspect? It's hard to reach out for that kind of help.
posted by kamikazegopher at 5:38 PM on April 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

Don't be his audience. When you get a dramatic text, respond with, hey, man, that sucks. How's life treating you otherwise? Don't give him a big reaction to anything. Eventually he will realize that he can't use you to feed his drama. I know that sounds heartless but he needs to be more than his disease. Make him more than his disease.
Periodically send him a goofy text, just to let him know that you are thinking about him. That is it. You can't fix him, you can't change him, and you can't ignore or abandon him. Just don't feed into the crazy and your job is done.
posted by myselfasme at 5:44 PM on April 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

I think honest / blunt is good. "I love you, and I'm worried about you. Not sure what I can do, though. Sounds like X is a good idea. Keep me posted." You're not in control of this situation, or responsible, so I would communicate from that reality.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 5:50 PM on April 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

It may sound cruel or uncaring, but I think the best thing you can do is, Protect Yourself. He's your brother, but perhaps, just perhaps, you need to back away from him a bit. You don't say why he's back in contact now, after all those years of being out of touch; but whatever the reason is, you're not suddenly responsible for someone you you barely know anymore.

With all those sudden, drama-filled texts and phone calls, it almost sounds as if he's looking for an audience, and you've been elected for the job. Try reducing the drama by not responding immediately --- just let his texts sit for a while; let his phone calls go to voicemail.
posted by easily confused at 6:03 PM on April 7, 2013

Is there anyone else in his life who takes care of him or keeps tabs on him in any way? They would be the ones to ask. Other than that, the only way you could find out more would be to become more involved in his life.
posted by emjaybee at 6:07 PM on April 7, 2013

Re: someone else in his life, I'm not sure anymore; he recently got divorced, after about ten years with a wife who seriously disliked his family. I had the sense she purposely isolated him, at least from us, although I know he also could certainly have been making his own choices in that regard.

(Maybe this means I'm the recipient of the announcements that used to go to his wife.)
posted by theatro at 6:22 PM on April 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have bipolar. I can't speak for everyone with this illness, but using my experience I think he's reaching out in times of (real or imagined-but-real-to-him) crisis when he can't quite deal with the situation alone. Then one of two things happens: 1. the situation resolves itself, so he doesn't feel the need to continue talking about it - if he's more manic he might not recognize your need for resolution; 2. the depressive part of the mood shows up and makes him feel guilty for contacting you so he stops. I dislike the suggestions that you ignore him, because its possible he's reaching out when in crisis, but I can agree that there is only so far you can invest yourself because often things seem more serious than they are due to the distorted thinking of the illness.

I'd suggest a simple reply back, just to let him know you're listening and care. For me, that is often enough.
posted by veerat at 6:27 PM on April 7, 2013 [10 favorites]

I haven't yet said how angry I am getting at the swooping in with drastic announcements and then swooping off into the night never to be heard from again, but maybe I should? Or not?

I wouldn't so much emphasize the anger part, because that's probably not going to be useful when communicating with someone who is mentally ill and in a fragile emotional state. Plus, more drama, which you definitely don't want.

But you can and should tell him this behavior is not okay. His problems don't give him a free pass to treat you in a way that makes you feel shitty and freaked out.

I agree with the posters above who are saying that your brother wants an audience. The drama, at some level, is gratifying for him. Encourage him to get the help he needs - which, right now, is from a qualified medical professional, not you. When and if he gets some sort of normality back in his life, you might be able to help. But in the mean time, don't get drawn in. Don't reward this mindfuck by giving him even more attention, because that will just encourage him to keep doing it.
posted by Broseph at 6:28 PM on April 7, 2013

When people are refusing to engage with you in a productive manner about serious things (tm), it is then your responsibility to disengage until they are ready to act like an adult.

Which will probably be never.
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 8:43 PM on April 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Not by way of direct advice but more as some perspective, Stephen Fry: Secret Life of the Manic Depressive (Pt 2/2) explores bipolar disorder from a multiple of perspectives.

Best of luck.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:52 PM on April 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm not that comfortable generalising about mental health disorders, but some people with BPD can excel at bringing the drama when all is not well. My suggestion is in line with veerat's but with the specific caveat that you yourself respond with zero drama.

"I'm at the hospital" That sucks, let me know if I can do anything for you.

"I'm with the police, I'll call you when I'm released" Yes please do that, thanks.

Responses that ask for things ("OMG what happened" or "Why are you in the hospital, which hospital, are you on a hold?") seem like they're more burdensome on your brother and more frustrating to you since they're futile anyway.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:16 AM on April 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Don't feed the drama. As others have said, acknowledge the text, offer your help and leave it at that.

Do send him an email, a text, or call him, not in response to anything, but initiating contact. Don't reference any previous DRAMAZ texts.

"Hey bro, I was just thinking about you, how's it going?"

You can let him know that you'd like to be more involved in his life. "Hey bro, love to chat with you sometime, what's a good time to call?"

Keep reaching out in small ways, you may be rewarded with a stronger and closer relationship.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:06 AM on April 8, 2013

Update, for what it's worth, is that he never did call me when he was released, and I have no idea what that was all about. But instead of getting upset about it, after hearing from all y'all I actually expected it. That was a much better place for me to be, mentally and emotionally.

I wanted to belatedly thank everyone for your thoughts on the matter--they've all been, and continue to be, very helpful. I feel like now I have a steadier perspective on the matter, instead of being reactive. Much appreciated!
posted by theatro at 7:06 AM on April 18, 2013

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