Family History and Bipolar Disorder

Greetings all! I am a new blogger here as of this month, and I’m really excited to begin the process of opening up a great door: the door of honest discussion about bipolar disorder. There are so many facets to this condition. I thought I would start off with one I am currently working through. 

I’m a woman with bipolar disorder. I’ve been living with it for 20 years now. I’ve seen and done a whole heck of a lot in these last 20 years: visited doctors & therapists, day programs, emergency rooms, psych wards…. on the downside. On the upside, I’ve graduated from college magna cum laude, become a professional singer, performed around the world in theaters, opera houses, stadiums, and recorded with world-­renowned artists. 

Lately though, my brain keeps returning to that “moment of truth” (one of many) during the admissions process at the hospital when I needed more intensive help: “Do you have a history of mental illness in your family?” 

Ugh. How do I answer this? I want to be honest, but I also don’t want to seem like a “rat”; maybe it’s my heritage, but we don’t like to tell our business “outside the family” if we can help it. Sometimes I try to be flippant: “Oh, you know, a little here and there.” Sometimes I’m apologetic: “Well, I don’t need to pull them all into my mess!” But lately, I feel honesty has been the best policy. 

My family is weighted with mental illnesses, on both sides. One side is mostly anxiety and substance dependency, the other is depression and bipolar disorder. One side has a cousin who was “housed” for periods of her life because of schizophrenia. One of my grandfathers attempted suicide in the 1950s. The other drank himself to death. One of my great-­grandmothers was hospitalized often for “running away from home” when she became depressed and disoriented. This is what many would call “the dark underbelly” of my family history. 

But not for me, not anymore. I now see what this history in my family truly is; it’s a guide. It’s a map for me, struggling now, toward a future where I am more knowledgeable and in control. It’s a reminder to me that people can live long and fruitful lives, even while dealing with chronic mental illness. It’s an assurance that even with the heartache, there are fantastic times. 

I have great memories of spending time with my cousin, playing the piano for her. I can remember the visits with Pa, his dining room cabinet always stocked with candy. I remember singing Christmas carols with Da. These wonderful times prevail, even amidst the cruel punches of their illnesses. 

I believe we can and should be more open about our families’ mental illness history. We can love the memories and learn from the mayhem. We are stronger when we tell our truths unashamedly. 

No longer the dark underbelly, this will be our path to a better future. 

Read more from Laura at her personal blog Coffee and Lithium, or see the rest of her posts for IBPF here.

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