Sunday, November 20, 2011

Worst Family Illness Ever

So many of us walk around with illnesses we don't know we have. Just this week I learned that the brother of my dear friend Celeste has a malignant form of brain cancer with a three percent survival rate after just one year. The way he found out was that he lost use of his arm. No prior symptoms. How fragile we are.

My family has an illness that is easy to spot if you're looking in from the outside, but hard to accept if you have it. The illness is bipolar disorder, and it can ruin the lives of the sick person and everyone around him or her. All the while, the sick person is protesting that there's nothing wrong, how dare you tell me I need help?

About six years ago, my sister and her husband sold their ranch house in West Virginia and moved across the river into Maryland. They purchased a lavish 4-bedroom home with cathedral ceilings and mountain views. Sis bought all new furniture and decor for it. When I first walked in, it looked like a palace.

Sis and her husband received two large inheritances, one from my side and one from her husband's. I figured the big bequests bankrolled the new house. But then Sis started buying stuff. Expensive stuff. Lots and lots of it. And she acquired pets. She started with one dog. Now she has three. She started with one cat. Now she has five. She started with one bird that she had for 22 years. That bird flew out of its cage recently and hit its head on a wall and died. So now she has two new birds.

Last spring, my sister and her husband (ages 47 and 49) adopted two boys ages 5 and 8. My sister paid a private Christian adoption agency $30,000 for the adoption. The boys have behavior issues, especially the younger one.

This is what my sister told me when last I spoke to her: She and her husband (he has a very well-paying job) are living paycheck to paycheck. They have exhausted both inheritances and their retirement account. The house, once spotless, is now awash in dust and mayhem. She is trying fruitlessly to sell some of the expensive stuff in a desperate effort to recoup losses. I offered to buy a statue she has of a Pan faerie, only to be told it cost $800.

Many nights Sis gets four hours of sleep. Many evenings she deals with wild tantrums. This is all I will say here about the children, but I'll bet you get the picture.

I wondered how an adoption could be arranged without an agency contacting next of kin for a report. Now I know. This "Christian" agency either heard from Sis that I was a Pagan, or it didn't hear about me at all. I would have told them not to place young children with her. I would have told them I didn't think she was stable enough to be saddled with a ready-made family.

Several times in the past few years I have warned Sis that she was showing symptoms of bipolar disorder. Each time she lashed out at me. On one memorable occasion she denounced Druids for being cold-hearted, as if my faith had influenced my discernment.

One of the classic symptoms of bipolar disorder is profligate spending of money. I figured my sister's husband was making big bucks, but he's not. They have blown through a fortune and inherited a whirlwind. I say "they," because her husband is the enabler. It was incumbent upon him to get her ... them ... help.

The moral of this sermon is this: If you know someone who is bipolar, don't blame yourself when that person's life goes awry. Bipolar disorder is a terrible illness. It is incurable but can be managed with medical treatment, constant monitoring, and medicines. But first the victim needs to see the illness. When that doesn't happen, the legal system protects the person until he or she becomes a danger to self or others.

Light a candle for my sister, please. I think she is quickly approaching the danger zone. It's like a car wreck that I don't want to look at, for fear of what I will see.


Aquila ka Hecate said...

There are two people living in my street with Bipolar. I'm lighting a candle for you and for your sister in my Shamanic base-camp tonight.
Gods bless you Anne.

Terri in Joburg

Bukko Canukko said...

Heya Ann -- just clicked over from Teh Gen'l's blogroll (my one-stop shop for all sorts of left-wing and anti-religious viewing alertification) because your latest post had an interesting headline there. Wow, so much I could say about this. I now work on a psychiatric ward here in Canada, after spending much of my high-flying country-hopping nursing career as a butt-wiper on medical wards. I like psych because it's cleaner, although more violent.

I see lots of patients diagnosed as bipolar. I'm from Maryland originally, and my mom's sister in Anne Arundel County is a nest of fundie Xtians. Two of my female cousins are quote-unquote "bipolar." They were acid-dropping, hitch-hiking-across-the-country-with-truckers hippies in the 1960s until they became Jeebus freaks. They've been maladept at life for pretty much all their 60+ year existences. In the 90s, they had the Dx of "BiP" hung on them, which was a comfortable label so they could blame their illnesses on brain chemicals instead of their personalities.

I question the catch-all diagnosis of "bipolar disorder" for so many people. Not sayin' that bipolar illness does not exist. My ward periodically gets patients admitted in the throes of full-on mania, and they are a sight to behold (and listen to). The non-stop talking, the grandiosity, the flight of ideas, the floor-pacing inability to sleep for days (which leads to temporary psychosis from lack of REM time to reboot your neurotransmitters) -- that's undeniably a brain chemical thing, not behavioural. Ditto for a lot of cases of clinical depression so deep that patients stop eating because they just don't have any more will to live.

However, I think that the bipolar word is way overused by the psychiatric community (and the universe of patients who want to call themselves with that.) Although I make my living passing out psych meds, I'm skeptical of a lot of the drugs and diagnoses. I read, and occasionally go to in person, contrarian presentations about the psychiatric field. (Not the Scientology shit, though -- those people are nucking futs.) In the 1960s, bipolar disorder was recognized, but it was rare. I don't have the exact stats that were listed at a recent talk I attended, but it was a minor condition. Now it's MASSIVE.

And so are the meds used to treat it. SSRI antidepressants. "Mood stabilizers" like valproic acid and a raft of anti-epilepsy drugs. Uppers like Ritalin, Adderal and even old-fashioned dextroamphetamine -- what we called "speed" back in the day -- are making a comeback on physician's prescription pads.

But ya know what? With all this attention, and all these drugs, the problem ain't gettin' cured, is it? There's more "bipolar" people than ever. Which is a good indication that a.) the treatment is failing and/or b.) the alleged problem was misidentified or never existed anyway.

Bukko Canukko said...

Hadda break this up into to parts or Blogger will reject it for being more than 4,096 characters long. I'm up early, just had my usual strong cappucino made on our fancy Italian espresso machine, and I'm on a tear. Not manic, though!

Anyway, my conclusion is that a lot of people just plain don't know how to live. It's not that they're mentally ill. I think that label is slung about too easily, and should be reserved for the people who really ARE. (Have pity on the unfortunate schizophrenics, for instance.) "Lacking common sense" is not a brain condition.

My wife and I, although we're ardent Leftists, also have enough acumen to follow financial affairs. We both had inheritances that we didn't squander, plus other things like selling a house in San Francisco at the peak of the bubbleicious market. We've done pretty well with our money management, enough so that we could take TWO trips to Europe this year instead of the usual one, driven in part by our panic to make a slow-motion run on our little corner of the European banking system before the collapse hits. We've been good at paying attention to events and forecasting into the future, then operating on a long-term plan. That's how we were able to immigrate to Australia and now Canada when we bailed on the U.S. -- planning and legwork.

A lot of people just don't have the mental ability to work on those long-term perspectives, though. I first noticed this in the late 1990s when I was working in a state prison in Florida, and I'd talk to the inmates. They'd see no problem with bashing someone on the head to take their money because they needed some NOW, or smoking crack (this was before meth got so big) even though such activities inevitably lead to problems not far down the road. Mental short-sightedness was how their brains worked.

Sounds somewhat the sam with your sister and BiL. They don't have the forward-looking perspective to see that buying expensive crap (an $800 dust collector?!?) and adopting costly children was going to have long-un effects. They exist in the NOW. So did my dog. But I didn't let him handle the chequebook. And I didn't say he was bipolar. "BAD DOG! BAD DOG!" was as far as I'd go.

Sad to say, I've given up hope for a lot of our friends in the U.S., just like I've given up hope for the entire country. These are people who JUST DON'T GET IT, whether it's mismanaging their financial affairs or still having the false hope that Obama is a secret liberal; only he's been held back the the Republikkkans. (Get a clue -- he IS one!)

It helps to realize that you cannot save a person (or a country) from themselves. Keep in mind the part of the Alcoholics Anonymous prayer about "accepting the things I cannot change." Be there for your sister when she needs a place to park her car while she, hubby and the kids are forced to sleep in it. But don't wrack your psyche trying to hold her head above water, because she'll only drag you under too.

Bukko Canukko said...

Just one more thing, since I'm on a tear here. This has probably occurred to you before, you being an anti-reilgiouscrazy person. But if someone bases their understanding of the universe on a delusion, it only goes to follow that they'll do foolish things in the way they carry on their life.

If their higher mental imagery is silly, like believing some misguided mystic's book about an Invisible Sky Spook, that's an indicator that they're not entirely reality-based. If they were big believers that Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny would come along and deliver presents that would get them out of trouble, everyone would say they're tetched. But the fact that Xtians follow an illusory ideology that's embraced by so many fellow delusionals gives them cover.

Is it any wonder your sis and BiL would act with no regard to consequences, when they have a predilection for fantasy? I don't know how strongly Christian they are, but it's always struck me that the harder people hang onto the Godfairy tales, the more susceptible they are to other sorts of snake-oil salesmen and poorly thought-out schemes.

The same goes for High Holy Muslims, too. With the religious Jews I've known, it's more of a cultural thing with them, the "5,000 years of our people's history" and all that. The Hindus I've known did not wear their religion on their sleeve, and never talked amongst everyone else about "We must do this or Shiva will get angry." None of them ever said "Rama bless you" when I sneezed in Australia. (Even the Anglos never say "God Bless you" after a sneeze -- Oz is wonderfully secular, even to that level.) I work with a few Sikhs, and while they sometimes make reference to the 10th Guru or somesuch, it's usually a line of poetry or a philosophical saying, not how some all-powerful entity is going to deliver a smackdown. They too make wrong decisions in their lives, these people of other non-monotheistic faiths, but I don't see the same wooly-headed stupidity in their fundamental conceptualization of everything as I do with Abrahamic types.

As for me, I believe strictly in science. Concrete in my thinking, I am. What science can't explain, it just hasn't discovered yet. That belief system works quite well for me, and I'm never at a loss for wondering why stuff happens. Remember, random chance is also a scientific belief.

Anyway, thank you for letting me junk up your blog. I am off work today, it's Sunday, and I'm always full of words.

Moma Fauna said...


How close this story is to my own heart. Bipolar -- we always used to call it 'manic-depressive illness'-- is carried through the generations in my family in a thin web that connects each family member who suffers from it. We can trace back to my great grandmother who ended up inpatient more than once in her very long lifetime. Then my grandfather, one of my aunts, two cousins & my sister. I agree wholeheartedly with you that they MUST recognize their condition in order to be able to manage it. Granny lived during a time when people didn't understand it, so she could not address it for herself. Instead, she suffered with incredible highs & massive lows -- once, she disappeared & they thought she had drowned herself. She showed up, barefoot & happy while the rescue workers were dredging the Sacramento river for her body. My grandfather never received help either, he was almost always agitated, always up to some hare-brained scheme, even in his depressions. He was dangerous to himself & others. He hurt many people with out ever knowing it, leaving such sadness behind. My aunt sabotaged a wonderful marriage & sort of bailed on her family, then went on to squander all her money on plastic surgeries. She took epic losses. Family members (including my mother who was in psychiatry) tried to get through to her, but no luck.

Now for the silver lining: my two cousins & my sister, having been clued in to the family history, are all fully aware of their illness & they are working their tails off to manage it. Each of them finds it manifests in different ways. They have all grappled with the question of whether to have children of their own, fearing they may pass on the illness to another generation. In your sister's case, she does not have to worry about the genetics, but she does have to consider how much her instability will shape the future of her children who already seem to have the deck stacked against them. My sister has been to the underworld & back. Several times. (I am certain my cousins have too.) She is uninsured & cannot afford prescription medications (although she has been on Rx medications in the past), so she has found the supplements that work for her. She is able to observe her own moods & behaviors, taking appropriate actions when necessary. She gets herself back into therapy, changes her exercise patterns, sleep patterns, etc. when she feels she is "slipping." Self-awareness is the key.

What I am trying to say with all this is that it IS manageable. It is never, ever a walk in the park, but it can be better. Your sister will have to be ever-vigilant, ever self-wary, but it is really the only way for her (& her family) to stay out of the danger-zone & live a happy life together. The hardest part is that SHE has to do all the work. There isn't much we spectators can do other than watch the trainwreck-in-progress. Of course, you know all this, so I am preaching to the choir here, but I just wanted to throw my cents & sympathies out to you during this difficult time. I can remember all the times my sister hit the bottom. It is heartbreaking & frightening. If you need an ear, I'm out here in the ether & I get it.

Lavanah said...

Lighting a candle for your sister, and for you, Anne. May you have the strength to deal with what you need to deal with, and when that strength tires, may you always be aware of those around you with strength for you to borrow and lean on.

Gods all bless.


candles lit, prayers sorry Anne...I know this is painful for you to watch and not be able to do anything about it..

Ray Tyler said...

Hi Anne
There is a great deal of truth in your post. This includes an unwillingness to accept the problem exsists. Acceptance is especially hard during a hypomanic episode. Also there can be a strong need to spend money and lots of it.
You say the disorder is incurable. That is what the medical definition does state. You are definitely correct in saying it is manageable.
My question is simple. What is the difference between curable and manageable? I was diagnosed with manic depressive disorder (now bipolar disorder) nearly thirty years ago.
`I have not had a bipolar episode since 1997. I suppose the medics would say I am managing the disorder. Their argument would be that I could have another episode at any time in the future. I also suppose the medics would acknowledge that I am managing the disorder very well.

Kayla said...

Sorry Anne, It seems everyone suffers from difficult sister problems, I know I do. I will light a candle for you and your sister, if you'll light one for me. It feels too tedious to go into my problems and not the right thing to do, but you are not alone in this situation. Keep heart, and take comfort from the words of Lavanah, who said it better than I ever could. K

Anne Johnson said...

Ray, curable means that you don't have to take any more medical action against the illness. Like strep throat. Manageable means that you have to take medication for the condition, but if you take the medication, you will be fully functional. Like diabetes, epilepsy, and asthma. I'm no doctor, that's just how I look at it.