Mental Health: My Bipolar Sister and Me

Written by Anonymous

Illustrated by Cienna Wajsowicz Harrison

There’s no bond quite like that between two sisters. From hand-me-down bras to secret in-jokes, sisterhoods create cherished childhood memories and are often our first and most enduring friendships. I adore my big sister, Alice. There’s no one who makes me laugh like her and no one I’d rather be related to.

However, we haven’t always been this close. Our childhood relationship was rocky to say the least and it took a lot of time and patience to truly understand and respect each other as we do now.

From a young age, Alice stood out as different. Recoiling from social situations, she would go to nursery and sleep the hours away in a corner. She went through friendships like shoe sizes, discarding anyone close to her before they had the chance to reject her. She was controversial, misunderstood and often missed off the birthday party invite list.

Needless to say, teenage-hood was even trickier. Where most teens struggle with self-consciousness and uncertainty, this period was acutely hard for Alice. Her teachers misjudged her silence as a sign of low intelligence, putting an A* student in the bottom sets. Where her peers were discovering their sense of self, Alice tried on personalities like costumes.

As the months flicked by, I watched her change from ‘chav’ to ‘punk’ to ‘geek’ and back again. As a ‘goth’, she’d roam the cemetery dressed as a dead Victorian, reciting Edgar Alan Poe. As a ‘hippy’, she’d walk the town in long skirts refusing to wear shoes.

Not only did she change her appearance frequently, she went through a wide range of obsessions. I was exposed to all sorts of cultures, cuisines and traditions through Alice. There was the Egyptian phase, the Japanese phase, the phase where she wanted to be a nun, a WAG and then a paleontologist.

She learnt everything from elvish and dressage to how to play the harp. She thought she was asexual, lesbian and finally straight and obsessed with Orlando Bloom. And I? I was exhausted. None of her obsessions lasted long,  but the ferocity with which she pursued each one and the energy my family would spend in supporting her was enormous.

Source: Metro Parent

Along with her ever-changing appearance and interests, she suffered from erratic and extreme moods. She would spend hours applying and re-applying her eyeliner, insisting it wasn’t perfect. For weeks I was late to school, the new drop-off ritual consisting of driving a screaming Alice to the school gates only to turn around and go back again. She was verbally abusive and destructive and I, as a child, was completely ignorant and intolerant to her mental illness. Naturally, our lives as a family centered around Alice and her well-being, leading to a lot of resentment from myself.

My parents spoke to endless doctors, counsellors and psychologists. Alice was diagnosed with everything from autism, depression to ‘just being difficult’. It wasn’t until the ripe age of 25 (after 15 years of trying to get the correct diagnosis and help), that Alice was diagnosed with bipolar type 1. This strain of bipolar is characterised by episodes of mania and occasionally, depression. Although the word is suggestive, mania does not automatically mean violence or hysteria, but can manifest as:

  • Feelings of euphoria
  • Bouts of creativity
  • Impatient, irritability or anger
  • Heightened senses
  • Recklessness
  • Less need for sleep
  • Increased sexual desire
  • Hallucinations or delusions
  • Marked increase in energy

What I had thought of as immature ‘obsessions’ were in fact manic episodes. Her anger and outbursts were byproducts of extreme anxiety and feelings of complete isolation. Her hallucinations weren’t bids for attention but real and terrifying experiences. Although we were already aware Alice suffered from mental illness, this diagnosis threw a whole new light on her behaviour and idiosyncrasies. As a family, we were able to properly educate ourselves, and Alice was afforded an invaluable understanding of herself, her triggers and how to manage her illness.

I do want to note that Alice wasn’t always ‘difficult’.  We shared many happy memories together as children and the days which were easy were just as frequent as the days that were hard. The above is just a snapshot of the difficulties endured by Alice and sufferers like her. I don’t begrudge my sister our childhood just as she doesn’t resent my intolerance or ignorance.

As a family, negotiating a mental illness (especially an undiagnosed one) takes a lot of energy and an endless well of patience. My love for Alice has, and always will be, infinite. I can now appreciate the struggles she faces and approach them with care and understanding rather than frustration. With the correct treatment, education and support, the easy days can become much more frequent.

Edited by Stephanie Kleanthous

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