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Question
Posted by: Maria | 2008/01/02

Bipolar sister-in-law

CS, I've written to you before about my very immature sister-in-law who is in her mid thirties but still dependent on parents financially and emotionally. She believes that bipolar stole her childhood and therefore she is still childlike. On Christmas Eve her aunt was once again treating her like a child, giving the same treats to her as to my five year old daughter (who was the only child there). I asked her aunt and her mom if if isn't time they started to treat SIL like a adult. Their response was that she is not capable of growing up, they've tried everything.

Last time I wrote you responded that bipolar is not usually this disabling, there might be additional problems. The thing is, how do I determine this? It's such a touchy subject that you can hardly discuss it with anybody. She is going to become my and hubby's problem once her parents can no longer look after her. I could just about bear this (I hope) if there is really something wrong with her that prevents her from taking responsibility and behaving like an adult. But I'm not going to care for an adult who is quite capable of doing it herself and just haven't learnt how.

Do you think I could write to her psychiatrist and describe the family situation from my point of view? He might not be aware of the extent to which her family (especially her mother) treats her like a child. I realise that he cannot discuss her with me without her consent, and I don't know how to ask for this consent. But perhaps he could diplomatically bring up the issue next time she sees him. Would that be ethical?

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Our expert says:
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Obviously, as you know, unless your SIL is actually severely mentally retarded, there is no biological reason why she can't rapidly learn to act as an adult --- but so long as close family insist on infantilizing her, expecting nothing more, and treating her as a child, she wouldnt have any motivation to grow up. I find its much more common than most people realize ( and more than books acknowledge ) for a family system to build itself around an individual who is the Designated Sicko, and to strongly resist and sabotage, collectively, any attempts to remedy that person's problems. <br>And even where unuually severe Bipolar Disorder ( I suppose the diagnosis was made by a proper psychiatric expert after a careful assesment, was it ? ) is seriously disabling, this is not the way in which it disables someone. <br>And it is very fair indeed to make it very clear to the family that you will NOT take over her care if they continue to treat her in this way and then expect you to care for an aged child created by THEM, not by Bipolar Disorder. <br>It makes sense for you to write, in confidence, to the psychiatrist treating her, who may need to know this extra information, and also to know that you are not prepared to take over her care if she continues to be infantilized. <br>Consent can on occasion be a tricky thing, but nothing stops you from writing to him or him from reading the letter. And it is not usually seen as a major consent issue if the treating shrink asks her if he can call and talk with some of the people who now care for her or who may do so in the future.

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