I’ve been on vacation this week. It’s been good; restful, restorative. I’ve spent some meaningful time with important people, including family members. I’ve stayed connected with my kids, several states away.
And I’ve had time to think. Recently, the topic of mental illness has resurfaced in my life. Conversations; phone calls; careful, cautious inquiries; in several instances lately it’s been external. But I can relate – because for me and my family, mental illness is internal.
I’m reposting something I wrote about in April of 2012, one of the most difficult – and yet freeing – bits of public writing I have ever done. With my daughter’s permission, I told the world.
I’m telling you again, because I think you need to know. Here’s a little bit more about me, about my family, and about the reality that many of you are dealing with every day. My hope is that it would be helpful to you, as awareness often is; as bringing things out of the dark and into the light often is.
I love someone who is bipolar; my life is better for it. Here’s the story:
April 15, 2012
I’m house cleaning. Music pours through the empty halls and off the walls as I wait for three of my five kids to make the 45-minute trip from their dad’s house back home. I’m in the kitchen, and I can hear the shuffle of the melodies from the living room.
Eminem – Tenth Avenue North – Susan Graham – Michael Roe – U2 – Willie Nelson – A.R. Rahman – Andrew Bird – Dave Matthews – Jay Z – Lecrae – Hillsong – Sting –
I’m unsure about so many things these days, including what kind of music I want. So I put it on shuffle. It works brilliantly. There’s a little bit of everything – a LOT of everything!
I think, to myself, “This music….it’s like I’m schizophrenic or something…” and I imagine me saying that to someone, because I do that, sometimes, when I’ve spent a few too many hours alone.
And I pull up short in that moment. It’s that word, schizophrenic. Because I have learned, recently, that comparing the challenges of a mental illness like schizophrenia to the razzle-dazzle of an eclectic music collection meets a wide range of criteria for wrong.
There is no comparison. Bad analogy.
I’m not schizophrenic. I just have diverse taste in music. I don’t have a mental illness.
But my daughter does.
There it is. I said it. The truth is out.
And oh, the roaring rush of wind that blows through mind as I even type those words…it is loud and it is fast and it blows where it will. And I can’t control it.
So I am giving up control. I have decided (with her permission) to let it go.
It seems, at times, that we live in two separate worlds. It’s not the biggest secret; there are many who will read these words and acknowledge what was confided months ago. Coming out is no surprise to all.
But we have lived in this other place, where we read blogs about bipolar and pass around a book called Loving Someone Who Is Bipolar and we talk about and pray for friends who are exhibiting symptoms that we recognize so well. We talk about our extended family, and those who have gone before, some undiagnosed, and what cousins are struggling still. We see the scarred branches of our particular family tree and have learned to find new names for what we once simply called moody. Or over the top. Or intense. Or hyper.
And we live in this place where we are all just a bit sensitive to the mania and the depression and the way the tendrils of either one can wrap around our legs and throw us on our collective asses.
Bipolar disease has changed our family dramatically, because we live here, now.
Sarah was diagnosed just a few weeks after her 19th birthday. Calling it what it was – naming this thing that was bouncing off the walls and scratching itself bloody on our backsides – led to a decision (hers, mostly) to walk into St. Mary’s psych ward here in Richmond. Reliving those moments as I watched my child – my baby girl! my daughter! my beautiful child! – walk through doors locked to keep me out as much as to keep her in – it brings hot, tense tears even now.
Of all the things that life has brought; of the many mistakes I have made, the pain I have caused, the injuries I have inflicted, the wounds I have felt, nothing – absolutely nothing – compares of the utter agony of a suffering child.
My suffering child.
And me, rendered completely incapable of helping her. In fact, quite the opposite, as therapy and hot dialogue reveal that the initial triggers all connect to me, somehow. Those tight, tense strings of maternal love and affection can also carry deadly, destructive disease.
I am her mother. I bring healing, and I bring pain.
There is a special place for this sort of motherhood. I’ve yet to determine any analogy, any comparison. I know this: that there is a depth to my soul untouched and likely unreachable by anything but the fiery coals that sear this tainted love, the kind that rages within the boundaries of mania and weeps with the despair of depression. Only this particular, unforgettable fire burns this deep. None other that I have felt.
I love my daughter. She is bipolar. And we will never be the same.
Sarah is incredibly wise and proactive and continues to embrace – even to own her life, in a full and vibrant way. The challenges of living with mental illness are greater for her, the affected individual, than any of the rest of us; but Sarah has a unique, God-given ability to consider others around her. Perhaps it’s because she is the eldest, the “big sister”. Years of looking out for everybody else created habits and patterns of bold love and heartfelt kindness. It’s a beautiful thing.
Today, she sent a note to me and to her sisters, quoting a book she is reading. It was the trigger to finally tug these words out from beyond the walls of our house and into the light.
So, now you know. And I wonder if some of you read this post and were surprised.
It’s everywhere. There are people and families all around us who live with bipolar and other mental illness. The spectrum of treatment and life engagement varies wildly. You never know.
In opening the door to our situation, we hope to offer an invitation toward healing for other families who are living with bipolar disease or other mental illness. And we want to help eliminate the stigma. Everyone around you is carrying some sort of burden. Some of them struggle with mental illness. Don’t forget that.
Here’s the quote Sarah sent us, how she is helping her siblings walk this road:
The effects of mental illness on brothers and sisters
Mental illness can lead to a variety of emotional effects for brothers and sisters of the affected person. For example, they may feel:
-Confusion about their sibling’s changed behaviour.
-Embarrassment about being in the affected person’s company.
-Jealous of their parent’s attention.
-Resentment about not being like their peers.
-Fear of developing the mental illness.
What brothers and sisters can and can’t do
What you CAN do:
If your sibling has a mental illness, you can:
-Talk honestly about your feelings and encourage others in the family to do the same.
-Be active in improving mental health services – for example, through local mental health support groups.
-Avoid making the ill person the axis around which the family revolves.
-Maintain your focus on living and enjoying your own life.
What you CAN’T do:
If your sibling has a mental illness, you can’t:
-Be totally responsible for their welfare.
-Make your sibling behave in a certain way – for example, force them to take their medication.
-Solve all their problems or feel you ought to.
-Lessen the impact of the illness by pretending that it is not there.
UPDATED MARCH 2016
Sarah is now happily married, living in a new city with a husband committed to her well-being and their future together. She continues to thrive, aware of her unique brain chemistry and the need to balance her health with good nutrition, therapy, a strong support system, self-awareness and honesty, and medication. Just today she called with further insight from her psychiatrist, who offered suggestions about new meds, family histories and constructive ways to approach new seasons of life. This is her life; we are her family. It is what it is, and – in fact – it is very good.
She – and I – are always willing to talk about our experience – or listen to yours. The most important thing I can say is this: Whether it is depression, anxiety, bipolar or any other struggle – don’t hesitate, and don’t give into the stigma.
Mental health is a health issue – no different than physical, emotional or spiritual help. Seek treatment. Find freedom. You are worth it.