Honoring Her Illness

Author: Melinda Goedeke

Destigmatize: to remove association from shame or disgrace  (according to Miriam Webster). I like destigmatizing; it feels honorable and worthwhile. And it is. I destigmatize all over the place often with tears streaming down my face as I participate in 5k walks, wear a t-shirt offering hope and talk openly, or is it candidly, no it’s passionately with an edge about bipolar. I even wear a green charm and sometimes a rubber bracelet in honor of bipolar.  My daughter died from bipolar.  She wasn’t crazy, insane or unable to see the beauty in a sunrise; she was sick. Her brain chemistry was out of whack and despite all the medications and professional help she received, she died.  Her brain told her every day over and over that she had no worth; she hid it. She smiled, she laughed and she made the world better, especially for me. Unfortunately, bipolar can be terminal and in her case, it was.

In some people, their cells are all out of whack attacking organs causing damage and potentially shortening lives.  With medication and professional help, their whacky cells can be altered, killed, successfully treated. Unfortunately, cancer can be terminal.   Yet, we don’t destigmatize it.  We raise awareness, we raise money and we offer support openly with our time, our words, even our prayers. We don’t need to remove shame or disgrace from cancer even though it is just like mental illness – out of one’s control.  My daughter Laura didn’t screw up in a way that caused her brain to get sick any more than some people whom I love deeply screwed up in a way that caused them cancer.

I don’t get it.  I don’t want to destigmatize anymore.  I just want people to do better; to be better. Learn. As with most illnesses, education is the first step; at least that is what we push. Believe me, I have researched the hell out of bipolar, lithium, suicide, etc.  I have also researched the hell out of stage IV cancers.  In my mind, they are the same.  Treatments are available that have side effects, may or may not work and may or may not impact the longevity of one’s life. That’s where the similarities end.  I don’t have to remove disgrace or shame from my conversations about stage IV cancer, but I do have to do so with mental illness. When I tell people that Laura died from bipolar or that she took her life, they contort their faces, look down and pat my arm.  That pat is a funny thing, but it happens a lot.  The arm pat seems to say, “Oh…oh…..”  When I tell people that someone near and dear to me  has cancer, they look me in the face with warm eyes and ask me to tell them about the type, the treatment and then give me a hug, not just a pat on my arm.

What I wish for is that no shame or disgrace were associated with mental illness in the first place.  Unfortunately, we might sometimes cause shame ourselves.  It seems easier to say that someone I love has cancer than it does to say my daughter is cutting herself.  Maybe we can begin de-destigmatizing (that can be a word, right?) by talking shamelessly about our own experiences. So here goes:  Laura had an eating disorder.  She cut herself.  She slept for days on end.  She made life changing impulsive decisions.  She took her life.  She had bipolar.  AND Laura created amazing artwork. She laughed from the bottom of her soul.  She was an incredible athlete – a 3rd degree black in Tae Kwon Do.  She loved big and with fervor.  Laura had bipolar.  I love her fiercely.  NOt  loved, love.  Her brain took over the rest of her, and there is no disgrace in that any more than there is disgrace in those cells creating havoc as they hip hop all over the bodies of people I love.

It will be a long time before we stop needing to destigmatize all kinds of things because we are human.  But I learned early on in my life, unless you are living the story, you don’t really know it.  Secrets and silence lead to shame and judgement.  With eye contact, candor and  love, share your story no matter what it is.  It isn’t disgraceful.  It’s yours.  And maybe it’s mine too letting us  hug in a way that says more than an arm pat.  It says, this sucks and I see you.  You are beautiful.  My bipolar daughter was in fact sick and beautiful.  Maybe she couldn’t see it, but I did tell her that every day.

I don’t want to destigmatize anymore. If you don’t want to share your story, don’t but not because of shame or disgrace, just because you don’t want to.  That is shamelessly your choice.

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