How Britney Spears Is Helping Me Understand My Sister’s Mental Illness

My sister is no celebrity, but learning about the pop legend has brought me clarity.

I’m watching a video of a woman on Instagram. Her eyes are ringed in thick, smudged black eyeliner and mascara, and her hair is long and poorly maintained. She’s speaking in an accent that’s not her own something between British and Australian, but the words sound hurried and slurred.

I take a screenshot because the post, containing an incoherent, vitriolic caption, likely won’t be “live” on Instagram for more than an hour.

The person I’m watching is pop legend Britney Spears. But it could just as easily have been my older sister, Rachel, who has lived with bipolar disorder for more than a decade now.

Spears has been open about her mental wellness, especially in light of recent media coverage where her mental health has come into question. While she hasn’t announced any specific diagnoses, there is documented evidence of instances where she was treated at mental health facilities over the years, including moments when she “felt forced” into treatment programs while under her 13-year conservatorship.

In my daily life, when I reveal that I’m a celebrity gossip writer specializing in the daily events of the star-studded singer, a lot of people will say,“Britney Spears is so crazy!” And I suppose that her unfiltered approach to social media is a major reason why we’re all so fascinated with her everyday status.

But, the more I’ve analyzed Britney’s content, the more I’ve come to find empathy for my own sister’s mental health struggles. I see a lot of similarities in their behavior.

Sometimes, I’m too close to my sister to understand or not feel frustrated and scared when she does things that don’t seem to be in her best interest. Strangely enough, seeing a public figure struggle with what could be similar issues has helped me better process what’s going on.

It’s also made me realize how easy it is to make fun of the antics a celebrity shares in public, but how painful it can be for loved ones living with or trying to care for that person too.

Celebrity mental health is not a joke

I never really knew much about Spears’s life before I started covering her. I came of age to her early hits, lost my virginity to one of her songs, and stopped caring about her after her disaster of a performance at the 2007 VMAs.

What was meant to be a comeback performance turned out to be a flop of stringy hair extensions, slow, fumbling dance moves, and a distant look in her eyes. I figured it was just a rough performance, but the next year, close members of her inner circle placed Spears in a conservatorship.

Everything — her career opportunities, finances, reproductive rights, and even how much coffee she consumed — was allegedly controlled by her father Jamie Spears, the main appointee of the conservatorship, as well as other trustees, including her younger sister, Jamie Lynn Spears.

In 2013, the star first mentioned bipolar disorder. “I have always been kind of shy, since I was a little girl,” Spears said during the opening of her E! documentary, I am Britney Jean. “It’s who I am to be modest, so I really can’t help it. It’s almost like it’s my alter ego when I get on stage… I turn into this different person, seriously. Bipolar disorder.’”

Spears also spoke in court about her therapist putting her “on lithium out of nowhere” and how strong its effects were. Although she didn’t disclose a diagnosis in her testimony, lithium is often used to treat severe bipolar disorder.

While her exact mental health conditions remain ambiguous, it’s clear that Spears navigates life differently than most celebrities. In November 2021, she was released from her conservatorship, but even over a year later, the “Overprotected” singer is still struggling to adjust and take charge of her own life.

How I came to understand my sister’s condition

In 2013, my sister was diagnosed with bipolar I. The condition includes cycles between manic behavior, such as high-energy bursts, rapid thoughts, and conversations, and depressive episodes.

When left untreated, these symptoms can last several days to several weeks, severely impacting daily patterns, social interactions, and physical health, such as not sleeping or engaging in dangerous behavior, like drug abuse.

Rachel has never been in the limelight, but her life has been the subject of our own family drama for years. She has issues holding down jobs because she can’t get out of bed in the morning after a depressive episode. She’ll call someone 17 times in a row if they don’t pick up, or she’ll shout and get aggressive if things don’t go her way in public (so she has trouble maintaining healthy friendships).

While she is typically more stable when she sticks to her treatment plan, I’ve seen her weight yo-yo depending on which medication she’s on (or off) and listened to her fears and anxieties after she floated from one toxic relationship to the next.

Before I started reporting on Britney Spears, I’d get frustrated with my sister’s behavior. I couldn’t connect with her actions and I didn’t understand why she would periodically deactivate her social media accounts, which were often the only way I could contact her when we lived in different states.

I remember the first story I ever wrote about Britney Spears. It was about an Instagram “rant” in which she described some truly chaotic conservatorship conditions (like allegations that security guards may have seen her naked while changing clothes), followed by a call-out to Jennifer Lopez and Justin Timberlake, and how they never had to deal with things like that.

After reading the caption in that now-deleted post, I thought, “This reminds me so much of when Rachel used to post incoherent things on her Instagram.” My sister used social media as a platform for dredging up things that had happened in the past, including my parent’s own restrictions and rules while she lived under their roof as a 30-something adult.

With Rachel, some details were true, others were fabricated. She also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, which developed after she had an involuntary mental health clinic stay the first time she was diagnosed. Flashbacks are common, but the details can change depending on how well she’s doing at the moment. As a result, Rachel may have really believed that some of her more grandiose stories actually happened, like when she wrote about how she was dating Justin Timberlake and he was bringing her to the Royal Wedding as his guest.

The same may or may not be true about Spears’s posts as well. Since I’ve begun covering her, she’s blasted her family for grueling conditions under her conservatorship, has changed her name to “River Red,” and has written cryptic messages about pie.

Sometimes, there are multiple, explosive stories in the same post. And then, poof, the post is gone or her account is deactivated, as she tries to find respite from the onslaught of comments and overwhelming media attention.

I’ve now come to realize that when my sister shuts down her social media accounts, it’s because she probably also needs a break. And, while I worry about what she’s up to, or who she’s with, I have to give her that space because it’s part of a healing process.

I trust the Jack in the Box guy, even if Britney doesn’t

One of my favorite Spears stories is about a time when the singer left her home on her own, the first recorded instance she had mentioned in a long time. She could have gone anywhere, but where did she choose? A Jack in the Box drive-thru for a burger and a milkshake.

She admitted to having a bad day, but that her behavior wasn’t really anyone’s business. The alleged drive-thru employee who had handed Spears her paper sack of food said he thought she looked upset, and offered up some words of encouragement:

“It’s going to be ok.”

Spears seemed to take offense to this, however, and ended up blasting the employee’s moment of sympathy on social media. She’s since referenced his words in subsequent posts both with kindness and with annoyance.

For me though, these exact words have gotten me through some of the hardest times with Rachel’s condition.

My sister is not a celebrity. Her circle is small, consisting mainly of family members and her live-in boyfriend of a few years. We’ve laughed at the same stupid Austin Powers movie lines and danced to the music of my journalistic beat together. I’ve witnessed her kindness and consideration, like how she has no problem cheerfully chatting with strangers, especially little old ladies on park benches in the city.

I’ve also witnessed my sister break down after a manic spiral, too exhausted to make her own decisions, agreeing to be hospitalized for brief bipolar treatment in an effort to get back on track.

We’ve given up on trying to intervene with Rachel’s treatment plans. She needs to get there on her own. We still try to get through to her, and when we do, we count it as a momentary win.

She’ll never be cured of her condition, and relapses will continue to happen. But for now, there’s stability, and that’s enough for us to feel she’s safe.

Like Spears, my sister is constantly trying to adjust to life with her condition. We have a whole lifetime ahead of us, and, just like that guy from Jack in the Box once said, “It’s going to be ok.”

Perhaps Britney’s loved ones are saying the same about her. I’m fortunate that someone, who is such an inspiration to people of all kinds, is also inspiring me in a deeply personal way as well.

If you or someone you know are struggling with mental health, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or visit the Mental Health America website

Katka Lapelosova
Kat is a born and raised New Yorker exploring the world as she writes, eats, and everything in between. Read more