From personal experience, I understand how having a sibling with bipolar disorder can have negative effects on all areas of a student’s life, and when that sibling is only eighteen months older, there is no place to escape from the effects of the disorder; not even school can be considered a safe haven. At school, I had many negative experiences when it came to my sister’s diagnosis, but not everything was bad. Cassie and I had a lot of fun too. It seems, though, the negative outweighed the positive. From my peers, I received constant bullying and teasing about my “crazy” sister, and my teachers lacked compassion and understanding on days of or the day after a complete meltdown. Often my assignments were late, if they were done at all. Sometimes, my assignments had been finished but were destroyed during the volatile outburst of the evening before. Though Cassie and I scored slightly below 150 (149 and 147) IQ assessments, when she hit puberty, both of our grades began to drop.
Not only did my grades drop, but I also began to notice changes in the attitudes of teachers as Cassie’s bipolar disorder worsened. Whereas teachers were once excited to have me in their classrooms, I would be warned the first day of school every year that I would not be allowed to behave as my sister had. One teacher actually pulled me aside in the hallway before I stepped into her classroom and said, “You will not be the little troublemaker that Cassie was last year. I will not put up with that, and any failure to follow my class rules will result in a failing grade on your report card.” I had not even been given the opportunity to introduce myself to the teacher nor was I allowed an opportunity to make my own first impression; my sister had already made that for me. Furthermore, I was attempting to enter the classroom with my friends when I the teacher confronted me. Understandably, friends soon began to shy away from me, and I became isolated and alone.
Before Cassie’s breakdown my freshman year of high school, I was recognized as one of the top students in school. Afterwards, I was struggling to stay afloat. I began to develop mixed and confusing feelings about my sister. Cassie was beginning to become more aggressive and volatile, and outbursts directed toward me became more frequent and dangerous. Although I felt like no one else in the world could understand what I was going through, I know now my experience is common for siblings of individuals with bipolar disorder. Evans and Andrews write in their book If Your Adolescent Has Depression or Bipolar Disorder, “Siblings may bear the brunt of a brother's or sister's angry outbursts” (2005). These outbursts began to foster a sense of loss, resentment, fear, embarrassment, and envy within me.
My sense of loss stemmed from many attributions, one of which was the loss of the close relationship Cassie and I once shared. It seemed as if Cassie’s body had been snatched in the middle of the night, and I was sharing a room with a stranger. Although Cassie had been aggressive toward me from the day my mother brought me home from the hospital, we did love each other very much, and we did get along. However, all of that was suddenly gone. Cassie bombarded me with “I hate you!” screaming sessions and left horrible wounds and bruises on my body. Other times she would tell me that I was a mistake and should have never been born.
For a matter of fact Cassie had me believe I was not my parents’ child, and their neglect toward me helped Cassie to convince me. Although I did believe it then, now I do not believe Mom and Dad intended on neglecting any of us. I know from recent research that neglect is all too common when families are dealing with bipolar disorder. In the book Understanding the Mind of Your Bipolar Child Lombardo states, “Because the bipolar child needs an excessive amount of attention, other children in the family receive less parenting – especially if they're healthy” (2006). My little brother, Scott, and I both received minimal parenting and support. Frequently, Dad worked from sunup to sundown, and Mom was so consumed with taking care of Cassie and/or keeping up with her that I would be left to help Scott with his homework, cook dinner, and do chores. I do not remember Mom ever being around for basketball games or to watch me as I marched in the band.
Because of the neglect, I began to resent and envy my sister. She, alone, had my mother’s undivided attention and nothing I did seemed to matter anymore. I began to become depressed, and I spiraled down a path I should have never been allowed to go. At the end of my junior year of high school, I tried out for drum major and actually won the competition. However, many of the school board members in our small town decided that I was not a “good representative for the school” because of our “family problems.” My overall GPA of 98.6 or my clean discipline record suddenly meant nothing. Mom did, on this occasion, go to the school board and fight for me. I was allowed to be drum major, but my family was still falling apart. While I was at band camp, my mother and father decided to separate on my birthday. By the time I returned home, it was to a different house without my father and sister’s presence.
Not having Cassie and Dad around did not make things easier; Mom had been stressed out for far too long. “Caring for a bipolar child is exhausting” (Lombardo, 2006), and it had taken its toll on my mother. Within three months of my return from camp my brother had been sent to live with Dad, and my mother was admitted to a stress unit due to a nervous breakdown. Before we knew what was going on, I had been living on my own. I had not seen my mother for weeks before her admission to the care facility. Not feeling as if I mattered, I began drinking, doing drugs, and cutting. With my arms full of wounds and a dazed look in my eyes, I still went to school because it was the only place I could get a meal. I continued to do well in academics but was often sent out of the room to the principal’s office because I cried all of the time. So, once my lunch ticket ran out, I stopped going to school. As soon as Dad found out what was going on, I was reunited with both him and my brother and finished high school with honors.
My feelings of depression and abandonment are common for siblings of individuals with bipolar disorder. As an adult, I have sought counseling and therapy because I have feared for years that I have bipolar disorder too. However, my therapist and psychologist have explained to me that when Cassie cycles, we all cycle with her. If she is in a good mood, then we experience good moods as well. However, when Cassie is down, she takes the rest of us down with her. Admittedly, Cassie’s bipolar disorder is part of the reason I left my family as soon I graduated high school. I love my sister, but drifting off from the family is the only way I can keep my sanity. The therapist has explained that I suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which explains frequent anxiety attacks during family functions. Apparently PTSD is common for siblings of people with bipolar disorder. According to Survival Strategies for Parenting Children with Bipolar Disorder, “siblings of children with rage issues often show signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder such as hyper vigilant reactions, nervousness, and nightmares. These symptoms are caused by living under the continual stress of the threat of violence in the home” (Lynn, 2000). Though I do not blame Cassie, I blame the monster she has to battle each and every day. I know Cassie still struggles, and I am just now, twenty years later, beginning to be able to let go of some of the resentment and anger toward her.
I know if I had just one teacher, one youth minister, or one adult friend who understood my situation and the difficult times I endured, I would like to think I would not have suffered as much. Most of my school-aged years I blamed myself for my sister’s problems and would purposely do poorly on work to keep my sister from being jealous. Therefore this is my plea to any educator who reads this to show more compassion to their students who are siblings of children with mood disorders or other disabilities. Although they are typically developing and seem to be healthier than their siblings, life is anything but typical for them.
Evans, D. L., & Andrews, L. W. (2005). If Your Adolescent Has Depression or Bipolar Disorder (pp. 127-128). New York: Oxford.
Lombardo, G. T. (2006). Understanding the Mind of Your Bipolar Child (pp. 68-72). New York: St. Martin's Press.
Lynn, G. T. (2000). Survival Strategies for Parenting Children with Bipolar Disorder (p. 64). Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley.