"Stigma = a mark of disgrace or infamy; a stain or reproach, as on one's reputation"
I was diagnosed with postpartum bipolar disorder in October of 2007, six weeks after the birth of my second daughter. I was thirty-seven-years-old when I admitted myself into a locked-down mental facility at our local hospital. While there, a psychiatrist met with me and within two minutes he informed me that I had bipolar disorder.
I called my father on the unit's pay phone. We were very close and I loved him with all my heart. My Dad had bipolar disorder, and while growing up I never dreamed that he and I would share the same mental illness. He cried when I told him the news.
I was manic, and while I was frightened to be in such a sterile, intimidating unit, I took Dad's sorrow in stride. I'd fall apart in agony later on.
My father only lived a few years after my first hospitalization. During that time he never judged me for having bipolar disorder. If he did make a disparaging remark, he would have been a hypocrite, but parents with bipolar have been known to condemn their children for also having the same mental illness.
I've had a diametrically different relationship with my mother. I love her very much, but we've had a turbulent connection ever since I was a teenager. She frequently told me that I was "oppositional" and she was right, for I seldom agreed with her on many points. We did (and do) share some things in common aside from loving one another, but when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a much greater rift formed between us.
I now regret that I never had very much compassion for what it was like for my Mom to live with a husband with bipolar one disorder. I had no idea what she endured before my diagnosis. She rescued Dad many times from dire situations that were caused by his mania or depression, including saving his job numerous times by contacting his employer. Then again, the world of bipolar disorder was murky to me, and no one in my family sat me down to explain it clearly.
Mom cared for Dad when his health began to fail, she advocated for him with his grossly incompetent doctors, and she kept watch over Dad until his dying day. It had always been crystal-clear to me how much she loved him despite his severe mental illness.
My Mom, who is nearing eighty, comes from a generation that I call the "stigma generation". Although she's a freethinker in many respects, I believe she harbors stigma toward those with bipolar disorder in spite of her high intellect.
That includes me...especially me.
Part of me doesn't blame her for being a stigmatizer, but a much bigger part of me does hold her responsible for her disparaging attitude. The mother-daughter relationship is often one of the most deep-rooted, intense bonds that can exist. That fact in itself explains why it's very painful for me when she puts me down for having bipolar. We live hundreds of miles apart, so the berating usually happens over the phone. When she tells me that I'm "being manic" in a belittling tone when I simply disagree with her about something, I wind up hanging up the phone on her in anger. Nothing triggers me like my Mom when she calls me “bipolar” in a demeaning way.
Last night, when I told her I was working on my book about postpartum bipolar disorder, she said that I was "obsessive" in choosing that as my topic. (Well, maybe I am a little obsessive, but I prefer the term "focused") She said she envisioned me writing novels.
I laughed! Barbara Cartland I’m not! I've never been a creative writer, and I never stated that's what I wanted to do with my life. I've made my peace with my choice of what to write about. I love non-fiction, and I've been writing in that genre for over fifteen years. All I wanted was her approval, really. I wanted to hear her say, "Oh Dyane, I'm so proud of you. That's a worthy topic to write about!", or something along those lines.
I couldn't hold back and I told her that encouragement was what I wanted, not put-downs. She backtracked a bit, and she conceded to me that yes, my book topic was a good idea after all. But I knew it was really lip service from her. I was well-aware that she didn't want to tell her high-society friends that I was writing a bipolar-themed book.
"Is this a memoir?" she inquired.
"Well, uh, yes." I replied. (It's half-memoir, half-other stuff, but I didn't want to get into detail with her just then.)
"Am I going to be in it?" she asked. I knew I couldn't lie to her about that question. I was worried that if I told her about my project, she'd freak out at any mention of her, even a complimentary one.
"Well yes, just a little. It's mainly about me and Dad." I back-pedaled. To my surprise and relief, my brief explanation soothed her for the time being.
"Well, you're going to write about what you want, aren't you?" she retorted a tad haughtily.
Uh-oh, I thought, this could go south real quick.
"Yes, but it's a good thing." I replied reassuringly.
Mom's storm clouds were averted for the time being, and I could take a deep breath.(When my Mom had a tempter tantrum, it made my two little girls' explosions seem like gentle burbles in a stream.)
I can condemn my Mom all I want, but I can’t imagine what it must be like to have a child with bipolar disorder and because of that, I want to step up my empathy. The jury is not out on either of my girls as far as whether or not they have inherited the genetics for bipolar. I’ve read various reports that children could have between a 15-30% chance of inheriting bipolar disorder if one parent has bipolar.
All I can do is learn from my mistakes that I've experienced with my Mom. The hardest thing for me to do by far is to accept that it is likely she will never change her attitude towards bipolar disorder. Stigma is so insidious, and if you’ve harbored stigma towards mental illness for almost eighty years, it’s unlikely to disappear. I try to be a positive person, and the phrase “Never say never” comes to mind, but unless there’s a cure for bipolar disorder, I’ll most likely always be seen as damaged goods in her eyes.
Dyane Leshin-Harwood is a freelance writer, mother and mental health advocate working on her first book Birth of a New Brain – Healing from Postpartum Bipolar Disorder. Dyane is proud to be a Consumer Advisory Council member for the International Bipolar Foundation. Visit her blog “Birth of a New Brain” at www.proudlybipolar.wordpress.com