Dealing with a Friend’s Bipolar Son

By Kristina Randle, Ph.D., LCSW

My friend “Liz” of 35 years has a 47 y/o bipolar son, “Dan”, who was institutionalized for one year, twenty years ago. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He now lives near me. “Liz” and her husband who are 70, live in another state. They are wealthy and have provided for their son in several ways but mainly have allowed him to remain independent. I feel they have shown diligence in protecting their son and have given him respect and dignity that allowed him autonomy all these years. Liz has asked me to contact her if I observe any changes in his behavior when I see or hear from him (most often he contacts me.)

Up until recently, “Dan” has been functioning and gainfully employed with two low paying but respectful jobs. He likes the supplemental perks his parents provided in his life to help him succeed with his job and to keep him from ever being homeless.

(They have provided a basic car, a modest condo and extra money if needed for necessities only. They charge him rent for the condo – he criticized them for that.) They are careful not to give him whatever he wants.

He went off his meds without anyone’s knowledge in January and had a major setback in May acting out at his two jobs, making wild accusations and threats. He lost both his jobs. It is possible he has a restraining order because of a possible death threat. He was hospitalized for a week then and is back on meds but they may not be the correct dose or he isn’t taking all of them.

He is now unemployed, angry and still in denial that anything is wrong with him. I get cryptic information from him when he calls me at different hours of the day or night. Sometimes he calls weekly, sometimes months will pass with no phone calls. I am never certain if what he tells me is exaggerated, truthful or irrational thinking. What I can tell you is that he frequently criticizes his parents and siblings, – all of whom are dear to me and I respect immensely. He blames them for his problems and for falsely institutionalizing him 20 years ago. He maintains he does not have a mental illness. He rambles on for long periods of time about his greatness because of his intelligence, career and the college he graduated from. He claims that there are conspiracies out there and people trying to ruin his life. I listen to him and just accept his paranoia and delusional thinking.

On Thanksgiving, he called, obviously troubled and ranted on about his father. His anger was greater than usual.

I did not want to hear it and challenged him for the first time. He got annoyed and hung up on me. What disturbed me was that I did not abide by my friend’s advice to let him ramble and not to challenge him. Because he is irrational, challenging does not help. My brother disagrees with my friend’s advice.

My brother has worked with the mentally ill and advised me to not allow “Dan” to control situations and conversations. He said I am not doing him any favors. I should tell him that I will not listen to hostile talk or criticisms of his family and to call at another time when he can talk civilly. I feel that to tell him this will alienate Dan, and I will not be able to be a watchdog in the future for Liz. How should I handle Dan’s behavior/phone calls in the future? I want to be available to help my friends when and if I can. I also want to protect myself from his irrationality since I do live near him. Any wise words will be appreciated. Concerned friend.

A. I agree with your brother who told you that you cannot let Dan control how he interacts with you. Your brother is right. Dan does not have the right to call you and say disparaging things about people you care about or harass you but he will, if you continue to let him. It is important that you place rules and boundaries on your relationship with Dan and this would be true for any other relationship. If you do not like the way he is speaking to you on the phone then it is up to you to stop it. Otherwise, it will likely continue.

You also mentioned you are worried that you will offend Dan, he’ll stop calling and then you will no longer be able to serve as his “watchdog.” That may be true but the alternative is to let Dan continue to harass you. Also, keep this in mind, if he is psychotic and off of his medication, he may not even remember this incident in the future. Even if he did remember, you would still be doing the right thing.

It is not mean to put limits on how Dan interacts with you. You are doing what you have to do in this situation. You are faced with a circumstance that has become out of control. Either you take control of the situation or it gets worse. I know that you do not want to offend Dan but you also have to do what is right, even if that means offending others.

You wondered if what he told you was true. You said that he talked about how great he is, told you he thinks people are conspiring against him and that he is clearly delusional and paranoid. What is probably going on is that he is not taking his medication and he is psychotic. Because he is psychotic and clearly unable to control himself, it is important that you be firm with Dan and let him know you will not accept or tolerate his behavior. If you don’t, as I mentioned above, he will most likely continue to harass you.

Also, how did you become his “watchdog?” Is this something you volunteered for? It is kind of you to watch after your friend’s son but also know that he is not your responsibility. You want to be careful about interjecting yourself into a complicated family situation when you do not need to. Also, because you have offered this “watchdog” service to your friends, they may come to expect you to continue to watch over him in the future. But what if you decide that you do not want the “job” anymore? They might become upset with you when you quit being their son’s “watchdog.” Think about whether you want the job and if not, now might be a good time to let his family know.

I would suggest that you call his parents and let them know that Dan is psychotic. Make them aware of the phone calls. Also, think about whether being Dan’s “watchdog” is something you want to continue. If you don’t that is okay. He is the responsibility of his parents and if Dan requires more care then he can move closer to his parents or they can hire a home care worker to help. You would not be a “bad” or “mean” person if you chose to stop being his “watchdog.”

I would also suggest that you take the advice of your brother who said that you need to put boundaries and limitations on how you interact with Dan, especially when he becomes psychotic. Your brother gave you wise advice.

Lastly, call the police or the mental health crisis team if Dan does not stop harassing you or if you feel that he is out of control or a danger to himself or others. It is important that you do what is right and be safe in this situation. I hope this helps.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 1 Dec 2008

APA Reference
Randle, K. (2008). Dealing with a Friend’s Bipolar Son. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 25, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2008/12/01/dealing-with-a-friends-bipolar-son/

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