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When Family Doesn't Listen, Maybe They Can't Listen

Better Communication May Work -- or May Not


Updated May 15, 2012

Has something like this ever happened to you?
    "I just talked to my brother-in-law and told him about my hallucination of my cell phone ringing in the other room, and he said it was similar to how he had thought he has seen his daughter's missing flute part, but realized it was actually something he had seen at work.

    He didn't believe I had a hallucination! He basically said the two things were the same. Then I had to tell him about people strangling me, men in my room, people sleeping with me, the TV turning on by itself, music coming from the refrigerator, etc. Then he said, "Well, I don't know about that." Here is my brother-in-law, and I realize that he doesn't even believe in my illness! He doesn't really believe that I hallucinate!

    Then I call my sister upset to tell her about this, and she says something like, "Oh, well," and proceeds to tell me about her sick dog who has pancreatitis. I feel bad for the dog, but what about me? I tried to tell her how I haven't been able to leave the house, and she wouldn't listen.

    I could just shoot them all. I don't know why I even bother to talk to them. They infuriate me. They all lied to my mother and said they would take care of me and watch out for me. They don't even want to hear about what's going on in my life.

    The same freaking problem that everyone else has. Don't you just want to strangle them?"

    ~TempestHost on our Forum

Tempest is right that almost every one of us has someone important -- family, close friend, boss, what have you -- whom we need to have understand, and who doesn't -- or doesn't seem to. They may not believe your illness is severe. They may be so preoccupied with themselves that your problems don't seem important. Or they may simply have no idea what to say, and so say all the wrong things.

What Tempest's brother-in-law said may indicate disbelief, but it may also be that her first description of a hallucination just didn't sound all that unusual to him. When she described other, more bizarre hallucinations, he may have felt helpless. "I don't know about that" may have meant exactly that -- he doesn't know, and so doesn't know what to say. Her sister's responses may come from indifference, or they, too, may come from just not knowing what to say.

They may seem like they don't care, but ...
NikiDeaf's experience, posted on the forum in response to Tempest's story, gives another perspective on family communications:

    "I know exactly how you feel. One time when I was in my late teens (this was around the time when the BP was just beginning to rear its ugly head) I got really depressed and decided to take every single pill in my parents' medicine cabinet. (Mostly stupid things like cold and flu remedies! Nothing really lethal, but I didn't know that, of course!) I took about 50 pills of different varieties, then fell into a deep deep sleep for a long time (I think maybe a full day.) Then I woke up, felt absolutely TERRIBLE, crawled to the bathroom and puked. Then I staggered downstairs to see if anyone had even NOTICED, and my mom was sitting at the kitchen table reading the newspaper. She didn't even look up when I came into the room, but just said, in a very tight voice, "Don't you EVER. Do that again."

    At the time my pride was all hurt because I thought they weren't taking me seriously, but then later I realized a few things:

    1. By not making a big fuss over my "suicide attempt," they were effectively telling me, "You're not going to get attention that way, so don't do it!"

    2. My mom was PISSED. I didn't realize it at the time, but she had been scared and pissed and this was how she expressed it to me. Scared, but she's from English heritage so she has that whole "stiff upper lip" thing going on, and pissed because HOW DARE I take the life that she gave me and try to end it?! And didn't I think about/care about anyone except myself? To realize what my death would do to them? Only much, MUCH later were we able to address these issues (communication between me and my parents SUCKED at that time but has improved vastly since.)

    Since then my parents and I have worked out some kind of agreement: I try to avoid such dramatic measures, but if I do feel the need to kill/injure myself, I tell them, and then take it seriously. All I have to do is say, "I think I need to go to the hospital," and they will calmly and without fuss take me there. They are now at least cognizant of the fact that "watching over me" by themselves is too big a task for them."
Maybe they just can't cope
NikiDeaf then went on to make some excellent points about difficulties some family members face when someone has bipolar disorder:
    "I agree it's infuriating not to be taken seriously. However, sometimes people think that by avoiding the problem they can make it go away (in this case the problem = you.) Also, for most families, to "watch over" a BP person is too large a task. The best they can do is to know the signs of when to call in the professionals.

    It does not sound like your family is at that point, and they might never learn these cues well enough to do this. Therefore, you need someone else close to you who knows when to call the hospital, pdoc, tdoc, or other professional who can deal with the situation. Perhaps your best friend? I know you don't like to impose, but just consider: if she's as close as you say, I'm sure she'd rather you imposed than ended up dead because you didn't ask her for help."

    ~NikiDeaf on our Forum

If you are in a family situation such as this, the first thing to do is find out whether they are capable of giving you the kind of support you need. My suggestion is to talk to your family member(s) at a time when you are not in distress and tell them what you needs from them - and listen, too. Our How Family Can Help series gives some tips for having this conversation.

As you listen, you may realize they are just not able to do what you need, and if that's the case, it will help you to understand why and hopefully forgive them for their own limitations. Or you may find out that they just need the guidance only you can give them.

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