Author: Melinda Goedeke
Enraptured in a riveting discussion about The Crucible in my junior lit. class, I vaguely hear a threatening buzzing. And then I spot it – a killer bee swiftly flying around the room darting over heads and under desks, coyly, without consequence. I try to focus on my students’ heated discussion about the vices of man while simultaneously planning my next move. Scanning the room, I see where Savannah is sitting, and my heart rate skyrockets; she is by the open window where the bee likely entered. I am somewhat confident that the epi-pen is in my top left desk drawer nestled carefully under my Swedish fish eaten only in cases of emergency. I, however, am sitting atop a desk on the other side of the classroom. I nod my head knowingly suggesting that the conversation is going in the right direction while being careful not to bring any attention to the possible looming crisis as I plot how to kill the bee and save Savannah’s life.
I knew Savannah had a severe allergy to bee stings that could even result in death. I also knew Marty had a heart condition and Clare had a rare bone disorder that meant if she were bumped into with even a little force, she could break a bone. I knew because every year, I was given a list of kids with reading struggles, bee sting allergies, peanut allergies, ADHD, special education needs and much more. I made accommodations for these students to help them succeed despite the physical and academic struggles they were facing. I didn’t enable them; I helped them become able. They had to work to their own potential, but if they needed to stand or take a quick lap around the halls or check in with me after school, I helped them do that. If they needed to stay away from the window to not be stung by the bees or sit in the front to see better, I allowed that. But if they were depressed or coming off a manic episode where they hadn’t slept for days, I didn’t know, unless they told me. Parents didn’t want to talk about it, at least not directly; the administration said it was confidential. I was fully informed if a student had a heart condition but not a head condition. It was a disaster if a swarm of bees flew in the window and stung Savannah, but if Susie sat quietly with suicidal ideation, it was none of my business.
My daughter worked tirelessly in school to keep her bipolar disorder diagnosis a secret because she was embarrassed. She didn’t want to be thought of as crazy; she wanted to stand out for her wit, her brilliance, her athleticism, not her mental health. So she hid it, but she didn’t hide that she had acne or terrible vision or even pleva (look that one up), and those things could be embarrassing too. Laura was strong, and thankfully that strength led her to eventually share her diagnosis openly with others. She wanted to normalize mental illness by sharing her own story. That makes a mama proud. If bipolar disorder has any chance of being de-stigmatized, we need to start talking about it as easily as we talk about wearing glasses. This may seem like an oversimplified analogy, but stick with it. Laura was medically diagnosed with vision loss and bipolar disorder. For both health issues, she met with doctors, she tried new prescriptions, and she complained about both. The difference was that she wore glasses (some with crazy frames) and no one cared. No one said, “Oh, there’s the crazy girl with those glasses.” Until she found that inner strength, she suffered privately with bipolar because had she said, “Hey, I have a severe mood disorder,” the response would likely have not been harmless.
Stopping the stigma of bipolar could start in the classrooms with our kids and professionals who dedicate their lives to caring for those kids. I’m not suggesting teachers stand in front of the room saying, “Oh, Laura, you are the student with bipolar. Are you manic today?” any more than they would stand in front of their classes saying, “Betty, sit at the table over there because you can’t read.” I’m simply suggesting we make accommodations for each other whenever and wherever we can with compassion. If a person chooses to keep private his/her vision loss, bipolar or any illness, that is his/her choice; however the choice should not be made because of fear of ridicule.
Laura was an unparalleled woman who indeed did have bipolar disorder, a mental illness that can be life-threatening, and in her case was terminal. She also wore glasses and talked way too fast. Had she been able to comfortably share that not only did she need preferential seating but also sometimes needed to pace the room, school might have been easier for her. So in her honor, let’s talk about mental health. If Laura were here today, she would say, “Yep, I have bipolar and I love skittles. Wanna talk about either?” And my answer would be, “Yes. Interesting about your bipolar, but how many skittles can you eat in a sitting?”