My eldest daughter is in the hospital. She’ll likely be coming home in a few days, and we’re grateful for the doctors and nurses and other medical professionals who have served her well and cared for her during the past week.
Many of us are familiar with the fact that some people prefer privacy during times of illness. But in some situations – like this one – many people never say anything at all, because the ongoing disease that my daughter will deal with all of her life is a mental illness.
My daughter was diagnosed with bipolar disease 10 years ago. During that time, she’s had periods of tremendous stability (“remission”) – both with and without medication – and times when the disease was more active, to the point that it interfered with normal activity. My daughter determined early on to be self-aware and practice self care so that she can live well in spite of the unique challenges of this disease – and she has done so with dogged determination and an incredible support system.
While bipolar disease often has elements of both depression and mania, it manifests differently for every individual. My daughter’s biggest struggle is with mania. Recently, the stress of the holidays and a few personal challenges (an extremely busy work schedule, some old relationship issues, and trying to connect with a lot of family members in town) coincided and activated a cycle of mania. The mania kept her from sleeping, which in turn heightened the mania, and it became a vicious cycle. Left unchecked, mania can lead to delusional thinking, anger and violence, and even psychosis. She realized what was happening and called a friend to take her to the hospital. Treatment began with an immediate medical intervention to bring down the mania and essentially reboot her brain so she could sleep.
It worked, and after a few days she was calm, able to regulate her mood, and in complete control. Again, we are so grateful for her medical team and the incredible support at St. Mary’s in Richmond.
We talk a lot about “ending the stigma” of mental health, and in that vein I am being very transparent with you in sharing this news. When my daughter is manic, it can be messy. She’s loud and grandiose and exuberant; she posts a lot on social media, and it doesn’t always make sense. Sometimes manic behavior makes people raise their eyebrows or back away; they lift their hands and whisper, “What’s the matter with her?” That’s how mania makes itself known, and it’s hard; people often turn away because mania can be weird and annoying. (It can also be fun and silly and energetic – it’s not all bad!) But ultimately, mania is a problem with brain chemistry – either toxicity, neurological, or something metabolic. We’ll probably never know the exact cause of this disease in my daughter.
And that’s just it: Mania is a symptom of a disease; a disease she didn’t ask for, a disease she manages with medicine, an intentional lifestyle, and great care. There is a genetic component; it’s the way her brain chemistry works. Just as my husband has to navigate diabetes and I have to deal with terrible eyesight, she drew the card labeled mental illness. She didn’t ask for this or make some terrible mistake that made her sick; she didn’t drink too much or do drugs or anything else. It’s the genetic hand she was dealt.
Today, while I visited her in the hospital, we had a conversation that was revealing, convicting, and heart-breaking. She had just come out of a group meeting, where everyone on the Behavioral Health floor had an opportunity to share (it’s essentially a short-term small group!) The topic came up of illness and support, and someone in the group commented, “Yeah – I don’t get flowers. Nobody sends me flowers or teddy bears or makes me dinner or even sends me get well cards…because they don’t think I’m sick. They think I’m crazy.”
“They don’t think I’m sick. They think I’m crazy.”
Mental illness is serious and can often be challenging to deal with. It can be incredibly overwhelming to navigate; because it affects brain chemistry and alters moods, it can be frightening. There is a huge stigma attached to mental illness. But at the end of the day, it is simply an illness. And so many people deal with mental illness – 1 in 5 these days – that it’s safe to say that our churches, our communities, our schools, and our neighborhoods are full of people who struggle, or family members who are devastated as their loved ones suffer. And many of them are suffering in silence, trying to learn how to manage a disease that is incredibly difficult to deal with, while others around them raise their eyebrows or whisper behind their backs. Because most of the time, we treat them differently. Either we ignore them altogether and give them a wide berth, or we step back and whisper a prayer (“Thank God that’s not MY kid!”), or we point fingers and poke fun.
In our family, we often say, “end the stigma” as we decide how to talk about mental illness. One important way to do this is to treat this illness just like we would any other; no whispers, no keeping secrets, no fear of talking about what is really happening. To be completely honest, I guess what I’m doing here is, in effect, trying to stand up and shout and make you look. Look at my beautiful, exceptionally talented daughter, whose brain chemistry makes it hard to be “normal”. Look at her, even when she’s acting strangely, and understand that she didn’t choose this. Look at the men and women and children around you who might be exhibiting the same symptoms, and find compassion and kindness. Don’t look away. Let’s be willing to be present; let’s unmask the secret and diffuse the anxiety and be okay with the fact that mentally ill people sometimes exhibit difficult symptoms, and medical intervention – and a good dose of support and kindness – can go a long way.
In short: My daughter is getting out of the hospital early this week. We don’t need to whisper or tiptoe around what seems like something that should be secretive and shameful. She has a debilitating chronic illness and needs treatment, no different than any other person who might need medical care. She would benefit from prayer and continued support as she comes back home and gets back to work.
So, pray for her. And then perhaps consider how to move in grace this week as you encounter others who are not neurotypical; those who might act “off” or different. They may simply be one of the 20% of people who are navigating life with a mental illness.
Be patient – especially when people might act weird or loud or annoying. Show love. And when a flare up or recurrence happens, don’t be afraid. Don’t turn away from somebody and just think they are “crazy”. These are people who need to see our love and support.
When we show love in the hard places, we are the best versions of ourselves, fully living out the gospel on multiple levels. That’s a good way to make this difficult world a better place.
A little more grace, every day.
Some important and very helpful resources:
A great book to read if you love someone who has bipolar, aptly titled Loving Someone With Bipolar Disorder (great for other family members, too).
Incredible resources and support, including meetings – NAMI.
Great perspectives, tons of articles, and helpful insight – bpHope.