Em grew up riding the highs and lows of a father who wasn't diagnosed with bipolar disorder until she was in her 20s.
5 Ways to Handle Living With Your Bipolar Dad
- Create a strong circle of support (for yourself) with friends and family
- Do not engage with your bipolar dad more than is necessary for day-to-day function
- Have a space in the home that is safe and sacred, your own place to escape
- Plan for the future
- Get out of the house as much as possible
I'll keep this part short and to the point - living with a bipolar parent sucks.
Without giving too much of myself away (because despite everything, I still love my dad and wouldn't want him to know I'm writing about him) I lived in a home with a bipolar, alcoholic, emotionally abusive father until my mid-20's.
This was during a time where bipolar disorders weren't as well-understood or as well-treated as they are now (though we still have a long way to go) and unfortunately my father wasn't diagnosed until after he had a nervous breakdown involving psychosis and suicide attempts when I was just about 20.
This means that for two decades I lived with someone who was trying to handle a very serious mental illness by self-medicating with alcohol and prescriptions drugs. Just writing that paragraph makes me ache for my dad and it also makes me ache for myself and all of the other kids who grow up this way. Things are much, much better now, but even medicated, my dad isn't always the easiest person to live with.
If you're reading this, chances are, you're dealing with a bipolar parent too (or something similar) and whether that parent is your dad or your mom, or another parental figure, here are 5 things that helped me survive - and even sometimes thrive - in the same home.
1. Create a Strong Support System
This is up top because it is the thing that really eased my teenage and young adult years - find friends. Find people who are important to you and make sure you're important to them. Find people who like to have fun and can do it in a safe and positive way. Growing up, I knew that my friends were there to hang with when a new movie came out that we all really wanted to see, to celebrate when someone was having a birthday and to take walks with when the weather was nice. Those were good friends who I could connect with when I lacked a parental connection. They reminded me that I was lovable and gave me an opportunity to give out love to people who reciprocated it.
Setting Healthy Boundaries
You have a parent with a bipolar disorder which means you carry a tendency to want to please people as a coping mechanism so make sure the friends you have are healthy and beneficial to you. Ask yourself these questions before starting or continuing a friendship with someone:
- What is this person gaining from me? If you have a friendship that's based solely on you giving something to this person, maybe rides, maybe money they never pay back, maybe listening to them rant without ever reciprocating then they may not be an ideal person to keep in your life.
- How is this person contributing to our friendship? Friendships are a give and take but you're used to a mostly give when it comes to your bipolar parent. If your friend is checking in on you on Mondays to see how your weekend was, asking if they can give you a ride since you're both going to the same place, or down for watching a movie without any strings attached, then this is probably a solid person to maintain a friendship with.
- Does this person exhaust me? You have limited energy to give out when you're living with a bipolar parent.
These same questions apply to your family, your other parent, your siblings, your cousins. Although you can't always filter your family in the same way you can filter friendships, be aware of how your other family members treat you and if you're allowing toxic attitudes and behaviors into your already cluttered world, or if fostering these family relationships is positive and healthy for you.
2. Do Not Engage with Your Bipolar Dad More Than You Have To
If your dad (or whoever the bipolar parent is) is properly medicated and receiving the right behavioral and psychological treatment than you'll be able to engage with him more.
Chance are pretty great though that he's not because mental health care is not what it should be. This means you need to protect yourself the way a parent would normally protect you and that means guarding yourself emotionally and physically. Growing up, I learned quickly to not talk to my father unless he talked to me and to only respond in a neutral way that shut down any possibility of conversation/confrontation.
Protect Yourself with Vague Interactions
Remember also that a bipolar parent will likely not give two shakes what your response is if it doesn't have to do with them and if it doesn't build them up. That means if your dad asks something kind of innocuous like "What do you think of this tie with this shirt?" You say, "Dad that really makes you look great," not "Dad, where's the tie I got you for your birthday?" which is probably going to come off as a personal attack to him even if you didn't mean it that way.
Examples of What to Say and What Not to Say to Your Bipolar Dad
|Statement or Question from Bipolar Dad||Proper Response||Really Bad Response that Will End in the World Exploding|
Did you see my new car?
Wow dad, that's a beautiful car. You look great in it!
Dad, where did you get the money to buy that? Also, why is the electricity shut off this morning?
Why are you such a whiny little loser?
I don't know dad, I'll try to figure it out and let you know when I do.
Gee dad, I'm thinking it has at least 85% to do with the fact that we've moved 5 times in four months and you sold our dog to pay for a downpayment on a motorcycle.
Can you make me a pot roast for dinner?
Dad, that sounds really good. I have a lot of homework tonight that I need to do if I'm going to get into a great college and get a great job to repay you for all you've done for me. I'd LOVE to serve you though. How about a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?
Why don't YOU feed ME?
3. Find a Safe and Sacred Space in Your Home
I don't know what your home looks like, what the layout is, or how much space you have to yourself. Maybe you have to share a room with your crusty older sister or you have a basement bedroom all to yourself but it smells like mildew because your dad keeps saying he's going to fix the leaking pipe but he never actually does.
What I do know is that wherever you are, you can make a space for you. It doesn't have to be a whole room. It can be a corner of a closet - for me, when I was a teenager, it was a hidden-away corner of my parent's unfinished basement, away from their bedroom and away from any place in the home that my dad utilized. I hung up blankets to create walls, stuck a mattress and an old desk in there, and this became my escape when my parents were fighting or when my dad was just in a really bad mood and I needed to get away from it. I did all of my college homework here so this was a win/win space for me because I wasn't only escaping the present, I was building for my future.
Why It's Important
You're probably pretty sensitive because you have to be to survive in the environment you're in and because of that, you need to have a place to escape bad vibes and regroup.
4. Make Plans for Your Future
One of the things that now brings me a lot of comfort is planning for my future. Every day I make sure to take steps to ensure I'm building a peaceful, solid future for myself. My only regret is that I didn't do this sooner.
How to Focus On Your Own Future
- Go to or stay in school. I ended up not going back to college for years because I was so hung up on the stress at home that it was hard for me to step away without worrying about what bad things were happening at home - don't do this! You are important, your future is important, more important than the chaos happening at home. As my therapist has told me, there will always be chaos, what are you going to do in it? If your answer is to wait it out, you'll be waiting your whole life to actually live.
- Put away money. I worked throughout this time and I also spent a lot of the money I made. I don't regret the stuff I spent money on of course, it was things I needed like clothing and food. But, in hindsight, some of that money could have been socked away to help me move out faster and pay for college without depending on any kind of loans or deferred payments.
- Be selfish. One of the side effects of having a bipolar parent for me, personally, was that I felt an intense need to protect the people around me - my other parent and my other siblings. To be clear, I don't regret being there for my family. What I do regret is not being there more for myself.
- Take a step back, think about who you are, who you want to be and what you're good at and make those goals a priority. What do you love, what are you good at? Channel the negative energy that comes from living with a bipolar parent into this thing that can transform your future.
And remember, you can help the people around you without giving all of yourself away.
5. Get Out of the House As Much As Possible
When you live with a bipolar parent, home sometimes doesn't feel like home. It can be hard to thrive in the same space as a bipolar parent. If this is the case, get out of that space because you're important and you're going to thrive.
What can you do outside of the house, especially if transportation is an issue? Heck, you can go sit out on the back porch, just as long as you're getting out of those four walls.
Here are things I often did to escape my home when I lived with my dad:
- Do homework or write at the coffee shop down the street.
- Walk around town with my friends.
- Spend time outside with my dog, coming in only to use the bathroom and eat.
- Take classes.
Something important here, about getting out of the house is that it should be to something or someone healthy. You need to counter the unhealthy at home with good things happening outside of your home. Sure, you've become accustomed to the idea that the world is a harsh place, but I promise that the more you explore it, the more you'll find that there's a lot of good out there and you can be a part of it.
Resources and Support for Learning More About Bipolar Disorders
Knowledge is power, right? Empower yourself and learn more about your parent through these sources:
- National Alliance on Mental Illness' Bipolar Information Page
- "I Have a Parent with Bipolar Disorder and It's Ruining My Life" on Psycom
- "Why I Wish I Knew About My Mom's Bipolar Disorder Diagnosis Growing Up" by Collette Portner on The Mighty
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2018 Em Clark
Ellison Hartley from Maryland, USA on October 13, 2018:
Sounds like you have really been through a lot, but have learned from it and are helping others by sharing your experiences. Making the best of a bad situation I'd say!