Last week, Gabe shared all the things his parents did wrong when it came to helping him manage his bipolar disorder. This week, he tells us some of the things his parents got right. Dr. Nicole shares how many of her patients have tried to reconnect with estranged family members, and they both discuss ways to bring people back together. An inspiring, hopeful, and motivating episode awaits!
Please note: This is a continuing discussion from the previous Inside Bipolar episode, “Families Are Complicated and Bipolar Doesn’t Help (Part 1 of 2),” however, both episodes can stand alone.
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
He is also the host of Healthline Media’s Inside Mental Health podcast available on your favorite podcast player. To learn more about Gabe, or book him for your next event, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.
Dr. Nicole Washington is a native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where she attended Southern University and A&M College. After receiving her BS degree, she moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma to enroll in the Oklahoma State University College of Osteopathic Medicine. She completed a residency in psychiatry at the University of Oklahoma in Tulsa. Since completing her residency training, Washington has spent most of her career caring for and being an advocate for those who are not typically consumers of mental health services, namely underserved communities, those with severe mental health conditions, and high performing professionals. Through her private practice, podcast, speaking, and writing, she seeks to provide education to decrease the stigma associated with psychiatric conditions.
Find out more at DrNicolePsych.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Bipolar, a Healthline Media Podcast, where we tackle bipolar disorder using real-world examples and the latest research.
Gabe: Welcome back, listeners, to part two of our episode about how family relationships are complicated, especially when someone has bipolar disorder. My name is Gabe Howard and I live with bipolar disorder.
Dr. Nicole: And I’m Dr. Nicole Washington, a board-certified psychiatrist.
Gabe: And in part one of this episode, we talked about all the things that my parents did wrong. Now, I love you, mom and dad, but hey, they made a lot of mistakes and we want people to know that because I think those mistakes were out of ignorance and not malice. Now, none of us understood what bipolar disorder was and what it meant. So, to get back to our discussion, Dr. Nicole was asking about my contributions to the family dynamic.
Dr. Nicole: A lot of times when I’m taking care of people who have bipolar disorder, they will blame everything on everybody and everything of theirs is because of their illness. Like everything they did wrong is bipolar. They’re all good. Bipolar is bad. Their family is horrible. Did you have to do some work in there where you had to figure out how to take some responsibility for any things you did that you couldn’t attribute directly to? Oh, I was manic or oh, I was depressed during that time.
Gabe: I think what gets missed is that bipolar disorder, it’s like a ripple effect,
Dr. Nicole: Mhm.
Gabe: Right? Like. Like we’re the rock when it hits the pond. But all of the ripples are all the people around you. And we’re really, really focused on helping the rock understand why the rock is wet. But we’re not so good at helping the rock understand why it made the ripples. So, I got really, really good at explaining, look, I didn’t mean to hurt you. It was mania. Hey, I didn’t mean to wreck that family event. It was grandiosity. Hey, I didn’t mean to bail on you and not help you move. It was depression, and I couldn’t get out of bed. And these are all very reasonable things to feel and to say. The problem is, is yeah, that that’s not a it’s not a conclusive thought. You’re still on the journey. And I think we end the journey too soon. The reality is, is the things I did because of bipolar disorder were not my fault, but they weren’t anyone else’s fault either.
Dr. Nicole: Right.
Gabe: And they’re my responsibility. I feel that it is an extraordinarily empowering statement to say my illness hurt you and I’m going to fix it. I’m going to make amends because you’re draining the power out of bipolar disorder. You’re draining the power out of those moments. And ultimately, if you can repair those relationships, if you can repair your reputation and if you can take control of these things, you win. But listen, I want to say it more smarmy than that, Dr. Nicole, how come everything I did can be bipolar’s fault, but everything people did to me is. No, it’s them. There’s no excuse. Malicious. They’re assholes and they hurt me. No excuse. I hate them. But then you put that microscope back on me. It’s like, No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. It was bipolar. Listen, they can say the same thing, you know, after being yelled at by you for an hour, Gabe, and you screaming that you hated me. Yes. I yelled some mean things at you, but, you know, things were really chaotic. I was raising a child with bipolar disorder. You think the house was stable while you were ranting and raving? You think that you staying up all night and keeping me up all night made me the best parent I could be the next morning? You think you running away and me worried about you while having other two other children to worry about made me the best parent. You know, you and bipolar disorder did that to me. Now I’m real quick to fire back. I didn’t do it. I didn’t do it. It’s just bipolar.
Dr. Nicole: Uh huh.
Gabe: And bipolar is not taking responsibility, ladies and gentlemen. It’s not bipolar. It’s never going to be like, my bad. No, bipolar is like, look at this. This happened five years ago. This happened ten years ago, and they’re still fighting about it. This is awesome. Bipolar disorder is still winning and we profess to be in recovery. We’re in recovery and we’re rehashing arguments that are years old. This is just like bipolar disorder is just like a vampire. You just you just can’t kill it unless you do it right.
Dr. Nicole: No.
Gabe: I believe that driving the stake through the heart of bipolar disorder is to say, you’re right, that happened.
Dr. Nicole: Uh huh.
Gabe: How can we make it better?
Dr. Nicole: Uh huh.
Gabe: How can I make it better? I’m sorry I did that to you. I’m sorry. Because you just drain all of the power out of it. And the last thing that I want to say is, once you drain that power out of it, here’s. Here’s the best part. You can start making new memories. You can start making different memories. I’m not even saying better. I’m just saying different. And as time marches on, no, nobody remembers anymore. I’m not saying that people forget them, and I’m not saying that we even should forget them. I’m just saying that the stories that you tell are all the memories that you replace those stories with. And that to me is the ultimate in recovery is when you start defeating those things.
Dr. Nicole: So, we’ve talked a lot about what your parents did wrong during this episode. Tell us what they did right.
Gabe: It’s always a difficult question to answer because what did they do right about bipolar disorder? Almost nothing. They did almost nothing right until after I was diagnosed. And then they went to classes. They went to support groups. They learned about my illness. And they were super, super, super supportive. So that’s like that’s like a really great thing that they did, right. But let’s forget about bipolar disorder for a second. One of the things that they did right was be good parents. That’s a real big protective factor, right? They did everything wrong as it pertains to bipolar disorder. But my home life was stable. Food was always on the table. They made sure I went to school. Mom and dad were there every single day to make sure that I had clothes on my back. I had drum lessons. I had just they were there for me. So, one of the things that they did right was be a good mom and dad, and it sort of offset the mistakes that they made, when you talk about being a mom and dad to a teenager or a young adult with bipolar disorder.
Dr. Nicole: You know, from my end when I say, oh, a parent made a mistake or I start thinking about the mistakes parents made. The biggest one is just blaming things that happened as a direct result of a manic episode to the person directly. And that’s a huge, huge, huge one. And I’m always trying to educate families and parents, and it’s really hard for them to find what they need. So, I definitely want to make sure we touch on, you know, what education is out there for families who are in this situation, who don’t know what to attribute to bipolar disorder, because, you know, the reality is maybe that person is just not a nice person sometimes. And some of that is not mania or depression. They’re just being a jerk. Like, let’s face it, you can be a jerk and have bipolar disorder at the same time. So, educating yourself about what is mania, what is actually the other mistake I see a lot is parents who. Parents who close the door, they cut them off. They closed the door and don’t even leave it unlocked. Like I’m fine with you closing doors temporarily. If you have tried everything, if you have tried everything you could to help that person and they still aren’t in a space where they can accept that, sometimes you do have to close the door because it can be dangerous for you.
Dr. Nicole: It can you sometimes you have to do that, but I don’t think you should do it and just close it and lock it and bolt it shut and say, you can never come back in here. I think that’s very dangerous. And that’s the second one. And the third one is, is the parent who is so focused on themselves and their embarrassment about the person having bipolar disorder and worrying about what it looks like to the family. And we don’t want to talk about it and we don’t want to tell anybody because that in and of itself tells that person that they should be ashamed of themselves and they should be embarrassed and that that is just not a great place to be. So those are like when I was thinking about this episode, I was thinking, you know, those are probably the three mistakes I see parents make the most when it comes to this illness. And that really does line up with the things that you’ve talked about, you know, and your family. And luckily, they didn’t close the door because you wouldn’t have the great relationship that you have now. But the education part is so important. So, what kinds of education did your parents participate in? Did they link up with Nami? Did they just read a lot on the Internet? Like, what did they do?
Gabe: The. So first, let’s go back 20 years ago. So, there weren’t as many options as there are today.
Dr. Nicole: Oh, that’s right. There was no Google. 20 years. You weren’t
Dr. Nicole: Googling something 20 years ago. I’m sorry, Gabe. I forgot how old you were. I’m sorry.
Gabe: Ah, that’s. That’s. That’s.
Dr. Nicole: I forgot. I forgot.
Gabe: That’s. I need you to make amends. That’s
Dr. Nicole: It’s because you look so young. I forgot how old
Dr. Nicole: You were. Because you look so young. That’s what it is.
Gabe: Oh, that’s a that’s a that’s a good save. I’m going to remember that the. But I only say that because there’s so many more options now like for example this podcast. Right. And this podcast, blogs, articles, Healthline, Psych Central, these are, these are great resources that you should use as they as they fit for you and then, you know, use it like a buffet, take what you want and leave the rest. And more importantly, when I say use it like a buffet and take what you want and leave the rest. That also means when you go to a buffet and there’s a food there that you don’t like, you don’t stand in front of that food screaming that you don’t want to eat it and that you don’t like that food. And that’s a terrible food. And you can’t believe that, you know, you just you just ignore it. I you’ve got to have like that sort of philosophy, you know? Gabe and Dr. Nicole say something, you think about it and you’re like, I like that. Gabe and Dr. Nicole say something, you think about it, and you’re like, I don’t like that. And then move on, right? You
Dr. Nicole: Mhm.
Gabe: Don’t need to start yelling about how we’re stupid. Just I feel the need to say that.
Dr. Nicole: Yeah. I Was going to use your buffet analogy, and I was going to say, you know, sometimes you leave things there and you don’t take them in when they look questionable. They’ve been sitting out too long. They’re a little fuzzy. That’s how we feel about inaccurate medical things on the Internet. So, you know, Reddit threads can be dangerous. They can be valuable in a lot of ways, but sometimes they can be very dangerous or chat groups or Facebook groups because there’s a group for everything that you have. There’s there are bipolar people who hate blankety blank. Whatever the med is, there’s always something for somebody, right? So, you just have to be very careful in that vein. But I think out of everything you just said about your parents and your family, Gabe, I think the important thing to pull out of that is they were talking to each other.
Gabe: They were and they were talking to me. I would be remiss if I didn’t touch on the hard stuff. Right. And you’re and you’re thinking, ooh, the hard stuff. Like. Like, what did you tell your mom? She did, right? Because it’s always a mom story. My mom is super awesome and super engaged with me. So, all of my stories, all roads lead to mom. It always leads to mom. I’m sorry. I love her. I do. It seems like I’m picking on her, but I’m not. And I have this story where my mom really offended me. It she hurt my feelings. She made me angry. She pissed me off, and I wanted to bite her head off. I just wanted to come at her with. With all the rage that I could have because it hurt me so much. And you want to know what she did, Dr. Nicole? She told me that my pill minder was bigger than my grandmother’s. It hurt my feelings.
Dr. Nicole: She had no idea what that meant. She had no idea what that meant to you.
Gabe: It was a throwaway comment. It was a she just she looked at my pill minder, my little pill thing that had my pills in it. And she looked at my grandmothers. They were both sitting next to each other. And she just said it and pardon the pun, something snapped in me and I left the room. I took a deep breath. And but I also tell this story because I sat on it a while,
Dr. Nicole: Mm.
Gabe: Like a long while longer than I should have. And I complained to everybody, can you believe my mom said this? Can you believe And I sat on this for years.
Dr. Nicole: Mm.
Gabe: Years, Dr. Nicole. And one day I wanted to use it in a speech. And I thought, well, it’s kind of disingenuous to tell a story about how your mom screwed up If you don’t tell your mom that she screwed up. And I told her and here’s the fascinating part. She has zero memory of it. Zero. It meant nothing to her because that’s not what she was thinking about. She didn’t mean it as an insult. It was a nonevent for her. But even though she didn’t remember it, she’s like, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it. And I was like, can you see where it would hurt? She’s like, Yeah, I can see where that. Yes, yes. And you know, she said, if I, if I, if I, you know, needed a cane to walk and you told me that I moved slower than my elderly mom or my grandma. Yeah. That would hurt my feelings, especially if I was working really, really hard to move. I was like, Yeah, exactly, Mom. And then just now, just I held all this in for years because I would rather be mad at her. Or maybe mad is not even the right word. I’d rather have this skosh of negativity, you know, just kind of curled up in the recesses of my mind than to actually have a conversation with her. When I started having these conversations with my parents, so much of it turned out to be so insignificant. My parents didn’t remember it. They didn’t mean anything by it. They apologized immediately. Other family members were like, Look, we just didn’t know what to say. We didn’t know what to say. So, yeah, it’s not even it’s not even a little bit surprising we said the wrong thing. And I want to say to the parents who are listening, start these conversations and if it goes poorly, just put it in your back pocket and try again later.
Dr. Nicole: Uh huh.
Gabe: To the people living with bipolar disorder listening, start these conversations. If it goes poorly, put it in your back pocket. But what I want everyone listening to know is you can’t come hostile, right? You you’ve got to say, hey, this thing happened and I wanted to talk to you about it because it made me feel bad. Right? It’s the whole I statement thing. If I walked up to my mom and say, you insulted me and you need to apologize, she would have been very defensive really quick. But that’s not what I did because again, years past, but I just put yourself in the shoes of how you would want somebody to tell you that you made a mistake and that you need to correct it. Right? Think about it. Whether it’s a boss, a spouse, a child, whomever, how would you want somebody to address it with? You take a big, deep breath and address it that way and listen. Think sometimes, Dr. Nicole, you families are not perfect. People are not get perfect arguments, break out over the dumbest things.
Dr. Nicole: Yeah, they do.
Gabe: The dumbest things. If an argument breaks out, take a big, big, deep breath and say, you know, let’s go to our separate corners. Let’s bring this up tomorrow. And I love you very much. Remember, you’re the one introducing it. Whichever side you’re on, you’re the one that brought it. So, make sure when you bring this up,
Dr. Nicole: Mhm.
Gabe: You’re in good headspace.
Dr. Nicole: Right.
Gabe: I swear, Dr. Nicole, everybody that listens to this podcast always wants to have a fire drill when the house is on fire. That is not the best time to have a fire drill.
Dr. Nicole: No, it’s not.
Gabe: The best time to have a fire drill is when everything’s good. It’s a nice overcast day. It’s not too hot outside. It’s not raining. Everybody’s happy. Run through the fire drill and then I’ll go to lunch. That’s like the best time to have a fire drill. It’s the same thing here.
Dr. Nicole: And we’re back discussing the effects bipolar disorder can have on family relationships.
Gabe: Wait until you’re in a good headspace, right? The. The crisis is in the past. It’s a nice day. Take him out for coffee, take him out for dinner and just say, hey, just want to have a little conversation with you about something that’s been eating at me
Dr. Nicole: Yeah.
Gabe: And see where it goes.
Dr. Nicole: And just know that if you can’t do that, but you still feel it’s necessary to have those conversations, that’s when you bring in a third party. That’s when you ask your therapist, because I’m hopeful that you’re in therapy. That’s when you ask your therapist if they’d be open to a family session to just talk about your illness and education. I have had countless meetings with adults with bipolar disorder and their parents just about the illness and talking through symptoms and how to approach things. It can happen and if it needs to happen, I think that’s a resource that you should consider accessing.
Gabe: And if you’re not currently in therapy, make an appointment. Make an appointment and tell the therapist, hey, I need a few sessions with my mom or my dad or my brother or my sister or my grandma or whomever you want to bring in. There’s nothing stopping you from fixing your relationships and using. And this is what I want people to hear using every single tool at your disposal because you only get you only get one family. And obviously, the bigger the issue, the longer it’s going to take and the more help that you need. I, I really sincerely wish that that every single problem was as small as your mom insulted your pill minder. But I know they get bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger. And I want to make sure those who are listening that have the really, really, really big problem, a lot of these steps still apply. But yes, it is bigger. It takes a lot longer to remodel a house than it does to remodel a kitchen. But I want to make sure that everybody hears that you can remodel a house. Remodeling a house is it’s done every day. These relationships are repaired every day. But, you know, back to the Hallmark analogy, it’s probably not going to be quick, but anything worth doing is probably not going to be quick. How long does it take you to get through medical school? Dr. Nicole
Dr. Nicole: Oh,
Gabe: You did it in an afternoon with
Dr. Nicole: Yeah,
Gabe: Like rain and perfect music and a great set.
Dr. Nicole: Absolutely. I listened to a podcast. I listened to a podcast.
Gabe: You did your own research. Dr. Nicole, I, when I think about my family and I think about the things that I went through, I, I went through a lot and, and I really, really, really, really, really feel for me, the shift is when I realize that we
Dr. Nicole: Mm-hmm.
Gabe: We went through a lot. That was a big deal for me. And my family is described it the same. My mother and father have always said, well, we had a challenging child. And then they started to shift to you had a challenging childhood. This this made a world of difference to me. We started thinking about how it impacted all of us
Dr. Nicole: Mhm.
Gabe: And how we could all come together and listen. We also figured out what things were off limits there. There are stories out there where we just couldn’t come to terms. Mom and dad still feel that they’re right. I still feel that I’m right. But. But you know what? That’s okay.
Dr. Nicole: Uh.
Gabe: Compartmentalize those and move on. If you can set a boundary that, you know what, we’re not going to let this get in our way. Families are complicated. Hard stop. Not families with bipolar disorder or complicated families are complicated. Relationships between parents and children are complicated. And then bipolar disorder in the mix. It’s going to make it even more complicated. I’m glad that I was able to repair so much with my family. And here’s my deep, dark secret. Dr. Nicole, I’m glad for me, I’m just glad for me, my life is absolutely better having
Dr. Nicole: Mhm.
Gabe: A good support system and a good family. So selfishly, I’m glad I did it because it made Gabe Howard life 100% better. It’s I’m just. I’m. I personally. Get so much happiness. Having a strong support system and a strong family. And I’m proud of myself for doing it. And I think that I think that everyone listening can be proud for themselves. It’s okay to be selfish about this. It’s okay to want to repair your family for you.
Dr. Nicole: It absolutely is. Okay, because who wouldn’t want to have that relationship? I’m oh, I’m not going to say how old I am. I was about to say how old I was on this podcast. Can you believe that? I was about to literally say how old I was on this podcast. Not happening, y’all. Oh, but I am a mature woman and I still enjoy my family of origin, not just the family I’ve created. I still enjoy spending time with aunts and I still enjoy, you know, I don’t have any grandparents left and I only have one parent left. But those times are still memorable and I still want that and long for that. So, I completely understand you, as an adult, saying, Yeah, I’m super happy that I have these people around me to support me. We could all only hope to have people around them who support them.
Gabe: Dr. Nicole, I’m just curious. Do a lot of your patients have my story where they’re estranged from their families?
Dr. Nicole: Oh, absolutely. This is very, very common because of the reasons we talked about. The parents don’t really understand bipolar disorder. They don’t know what it is. They assume it’s something the person can control and are just being the biggest jerks in the world. Then there’s always the point after the diagnosis when now we have this diagnosis and the person just flat out refuses to take the medication as prescribed. And that’s a whole different space to be in because now that the diagnosis is there, a lot of times it takes my patience a while to get to the point where they can accept it and also with the acceptance, go ahead and make the decision to take the medication to achieve stability. So then that comes with a lot of anger from the family because they’re like, hey, buddy, now you know what you have and you won’t even do what you need to do to maintain stability. And then there comes a whole lot of other arguments and fights. So yeah, I see this a ton.
Gabe: Out of curiosity, do patients ever ask you like, what they can do to help fix issues with their parents? And I’m assuming that they do. What advice do you give them?
Dr. Nicole: I tell them to start with going through all of the pros and cons of making that decision. So, if you’re estranged from your parents, you all haven’t spoken in years. We need to be prepared for everything that’s going to happen. I never tell somebody not to do it unless the parent was wildly abusive and it could be a danger to the person’s mental health and their mental safety to reengage with that person. But largely that’s not the case. It’s these it’s these fights that Gabe has talked about or their lack of understanding or the person’s behavior or whatever it was. I never encouraged anybody not to reconnect unless that parent was wildly abusive. Otherwise, I’m all in. So, I think the most important thing is preparing the person with bipolar disorder for all the possible scenarios, or at least a few of the most likely scenarios. You know, what happens If it goes well, then what? What happens if they decline your offer? Nobody ever thinks about what they will do if that parent or that loved one says, No, I’m good. I have no desire to talk to you, that’s a whole different place to be. So, then we have to figure out how to work through that. But we just want to make sure we’re willing to do it, knowing that that could be the result. So, once we get to that point, then we figure out what’s the best way? Is it a phone call? Is it a letter? I like letters.
Dr. Nicole: Not going, gonna lie to you. I love a good blank card on the inside. I love a handwritten letter that just says, you know, hey, you may not read this. You may not want to hear from me, but this is where I am in life. I just want to catch you up. And I would love to reconnect with you over a phone call, over coffee, over Zoom. You know, no pressure on your end. Whenever you’re ready, I’m ready and just leave it at that. And so, I like a letter. I love love writing a letter to an estranged family member. So that’s usually how I recommend people start. And I have actually helped people write letters like in a visit like, okay, let’s write this letter, let’s get the card. We’re going to write it out. And I’ve seen some really good outcomes. Have I seen some that didn’t work? Yeah, I have, because the person felt that they were hurt beyond repair and they just didn’t want to repair it. And then we start working with the person on how do you develop your support system outside of the people that you want to be your support system? But I’ve seen it be wildly successful and I’ve seen people reunite and reconnect after years of not talking. And it’s probably my favorite thing I’ve seen throughout all of practice. Seeing somebody reconnect with their family after no connection is just hands down one of the best things ever.
Dr. Nicole: You know, when I think of those scenarios from both sides, it is mostly my patients who are the ones coming to me about it. I do find that when they’re successful reconnections, the family has this sense of We would love to connect, but we just don’t know how. We don’t know what to say. Maybe they have a lot of regret about how they’ve handled things. They just don’t know how to make the first move. Maybe they’re waiting for you to make the first move because they’re just not sure what space you’re in. So mostly it is my patience that I see and that come to me and say, Yeah, I want to, you know, reconnect with my family. I don’t have a lot of experience with the families coming in, but I do know that most of the time when they connect, the families are really happy that they connected and they verbalize that this is something they’ve wanted to happen for a long time. They just didn’t know how to make it happen.
Gabe: Dr. Nicole, thank you so much for being here and thank you to all of our listeners for being here as well. This was part two of a two-part episode, so if you haven’t listened to Part one, that’s okay. It’s okay to listen to him out of order, but go back to the previous episode and check that out. Now, my name is Gabe Howard and I am the author of “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations.” I’m also a public speaker who could be available for your next event. You can grab my book on Amazon because, well, everything’s on Amazon. Or you can head over to my website to get a signed copy with free show swag or learn more about me, gabehoward.com.
Gabe: Wherever you downloaded this episode, please follow or subscribe. It is absolutely free. And hey, can you do us a favor? Mention this show in a support group, Mention this show online. Hell, send somebody a text message because sharing the show is how we grow. We will see everybody next time on Inside Bipolar.
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