Author: Melinda Goedeke
Dedicated, thanks and praise to my therapist.
I used to have a stabbing searing pain in my right shoulder. You couldn’t tell by looking at me as I winced silently until I simply could not. At that point, I sought medical help and now go to physical therapy. I do the exercises; I do the work. I feel less pain. The same is true for my mental health. Unable to contain the pain inside of me, I sought mental therapy. I do the exercises; I do the work. I feel less pain. Those of us living with someone with bipolar disorder often feel an immense pain that we do not show as we focus all of our energy on helping our friend or family member survive this unpredictable and life-threatening disease.
Those who have a diagnosis of bipolar usually use medication and therapy to help manage their symptoms. My daughter Laura did just that, and she saw great value in therapizing, as she called it. She worked with some truly gifted therapists without whose help she wouldn’t have made it to almost 24. I, too, needed help because it was a harrowing adventure being so close, so connected with someone who had bipolar disorder rapid cycling. I consoled, I listened, I screamed, I hugged, I collapsed. I loved. But, I didn’t understand the unbearable agony Laura felt nor the great lengths she took to mask her pain from everyone. Her smile was infectious, distracting others from the subtle clues that she was in trouble. Her lows were full of despair as she disassociated, isolated and restlessly slept unaware of the days passing by. The highs were terrifying as she drove recklessly down city streets, music blaring, eyes closed, mind altered. Her bipolar disorder hijacked all of her and most of me.
Laura needed help, but so did I in order to have a chance of survival. It is easy to talk about physical therapy, sharing exercises my PT gave me to help ease my shoulder pain; it is not so easy to talk about the strategies I’m using to keep my mental health in check. People are afraid to listen as if I’m sharing a disgraceful weakness; in reality, I’m sharing my greatest strength. Therapy is work. It isn’t lying on a couch awash in tears and tissues waiting for the therapist to wave her magic wand leaving you renewed. It is painful AND healing, just like my PT. I had to learn how to separate myself from Laura’s illness. Her life had become mine and that enmeshment was literally killing me. I didn’t see it, nor did I see the bone spurs and floating debris in my shoulder. I just knew I hurt, and I needed help to heal. Now I have to learn to accept myself as worthy despite her death.
Finding the right therapist takes time and persistence. I’ve had my share of therapists who didn’t understand my level of trauma past or present making me feel like a pity-project or a freak. I had to keep trying to find a fit for me – an expert who would walk beside me and not lord over. I needed someone capable of finding me and seeing me, Melinda, the person underneath the trauma. Now, I see a therapist who challenges me, laughs with me and cries with me. She can hear any words I have to say without making an “Oh my God” face, and she can redirect me ever so slightly with a gentle push. She doesn’t have all the answers, but she is willing to ponder all the questions with me. It is in those conversations and under that umbrella of safety that I heal and feel as if I didn’t fail Laura.
My daughter Laura’s bipolar disorder took our family on a journey we didn’t know how to navigate. The GPS was always trying to find the satellite, and the maps we had were out of date. Most days, we barely stayed on the road trying only to creep forward. We were learning how to avoid the potholes, manage the speed bumps and get to the next rest stop. When Laura took a sharp right, she left us stranded on the road with no directions, no map. Unnavigable. Unimaginable.
Five years later, I still weep. Where is there space in a mother’s heart and soul for the death of a child after a hard fought war? Nightmares continue, grieving seems endless and time passes. And so I share my story with someone who calls bullshit when she hears it, voices success when I voice failure and walks beside me giving me the tools to put perimeters around my life which stop the pain from oozing into my every waking moment.
My shoulder still hurts, but thanks to my PT and my hard work, I can hold my beautiful granddaughter ache-free. My heart still aches, but thanks to my MT and my hard work, I can see a future and remember a past full of laughter and love.