Sharon: Changing Expectations

Sharon believes Gabrielle inherited a genetic predisposition for bipolar disorder from her side of the family. Also, she noted that Gabrielle has characteristics, such as anxiety, which exacerbate her symptoms.

I was worried about her getting sexually promiscuous related to her bipolar disorder diagnosis. She’s a pretty attractive girl. She gets a lot of attention from men and especially when she dresses up and puts on her miniskirt and does the selfie in the mirror. I was very fearful about boys, when I was having all the nightmares that first year or two. I also used to worry that she’ll never find a partner that will be able to tolerate her behavior. She’s not abusive or anything like that. She’s just dramatic. I feel like I’m always on call. I think I’m pretty good with that where I just get her grounded. She’s very amenable to what she learns in therapy.

Sharon views Gabrielle’s symptoms as separate from who she is as a person. She believes Gabrielle’s troublesome behaviors are not willful but she acknowledged that people who live with bipolar disorder are sometimes manipulative. She views this behavior as a coping skill and when she feels Gabrielle is using manipulation, Sharon asks if she can share a different perspective with her about what is happening.

Sharon talked about her concern about whether Gabrielle will be able to take care of herself. She asked, “Can she be independent? And if she can’t, after I’m gone, who is going to play that role for her?”

I knew that Gabrielle had insight, which I learned at the Family to Family class. About 50% of people with bipolar disorder have insight. Fifty percent do not. I was so grateful. We can handle this because she recognizes symptoms and she can name it. [She can say] “I feel like I’m going to get manic.” That is extraordinarily helpful. She can call me and we can just talk through it. What’s your plan? When do you see somebody on your care team? Have you refilled your prescriptions? I think the emotional part in the beginning was overwhelming, because I have people in my family history who live with mental illness. I have to take care of somebody now for the rest of my life? I feel like I’ve been worrying about other people my whole life and now a new generation, so kind of that sense of burden, never ending burden.

Once she realized Gabrielle was not going to be violent or engage in illegal behavior, Sharon “put things into perspective” and “got really educated on bipolar.” She looked into research on what is effective in managing bipolar disorder. She observed that her responses to Gabrielle have made a difference in how Gabrielle interacts with her.

I’m always very calm and uplifting even though usually every phone call is like some crisis. I say, “Hi, Gabrielle, how was your day?” . . . I’m trying to create environments where she’ll thrive. I really try to educate her dad and her sister and other people. I try to role play how she can handle problems at work. . . She has a good friend who she met in the hospital who lives with a mental illness. I really try to educate Gabrielle about her friend’s symptoms and her lack of insight. Even though they’re friends, I’ll always say to Gabrielle, you really want to find people who can reciprocate.

Two years ago, Gabrielle and Sharon spoke at a breakout session at a NAMI conference. Sharon observed that Gabrielle is very proud of her advocacy role and posts on Facebook about NAMI events and information. Sharon concluded she is seeing Gabrielle’s brain maturation because she is establishing good personal boundaries and supporting others. However, Sharon is also concerned that many of Gabrielle’s friends from college are moving on with their lives while she is not.

More of the Story: Staying Grounded