Imagine going through childhood thinking that you are somehow, someway very different. The cutting and self-mutilation, a persistently-depressed mood or the thoughts of ways to hang yourself is your normal. But you don't have these thoughts because you want to hurt yourself; rather, you either want the pain to stop or just to feel something. You don't really know. It's all very confusing. Either way, it is completely normal being completely mentally ill.
This is the real experience a constituent, who I will call Jane, felt for a long time until it suddenly made sense to her when at 30 years old she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
I met up with Jane at a Dunkin Donuts three doors down from where I live. Jane is a very beautiful, smart and articulate woman living in Massachusetts. She has three wonderful kids and as they called her when I interviewed Jane about what its like living with bipolar disorder, I could instantly hear the caring and compassionate mother communicating with children who look up to her.
Jane is successfully living with bipolar disorder. But it wasn't always so.
Growing Up With Bipolar Disorder
When Jane was a teenager, after several episodes of erratic and abnormal behavior she was sent to psychiatric treatment. Not yet diagnosed with bipolar disorder, she found her exams to be the "look at the inkblots and tell me what you see" approach. Or "take these [pills]" but there was no follow up on the outcome of the prescription. Jane felt that her clinicians didn't want to listen to her because she was just a kid. Jane also experienced a recurring eating disorder. For a teenage girl, this was a confusing time. What made it worse for Jane is that as a teenager, she lost her mother. But lest you think that these were symptoms of her mother's untimely passing, the symptoms began well before her mother passed away.
Grown Up With Bipolar Disorder
After Jane became romantically involved with who would one day become her husband, she became a mother at 21 years old. Pregnancy seemed to offset her not-yet-diagnosed mental illness.
During her time raising her three children, she was full of anxiety. Several years ago, her husband, a member of the reserve armed forces, was being deployed to Gitmo. That event triggered a stress in Jane that led her to contemplate hanging herself in her garage the night before he deployed. She realized what she was thinking and went to the hospital, where she was sent home with the order to take some Tylenol PM and contact a psychiatrist in the morning. Eventually, Jane ended up on an anti-anxiety medication, an anti-psychotic, and four mood stabilizers. None of this worked for Jane. The prescriptions made Jane look thin, very thin. Down to 95 pounds thin. So her psychiatrist took her off the prescriptions with the justification that she didn't treat anorexia. Jane felt that just when she needed help by a professional, that professional abandoned her.
It was hard to raise three kids, cope with being different, and have experiences such as being at the grocery store and spending 30 minutes trying to decide which shampoo to buy. Jane also tried to change her name and social security number for no evident reason. Jane knew her life was different. But then at about age 30, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The NIMH estimates that about 2.6 percent of the population has this treatable disorder.
Jane's oldest child knows she has bipolar disorder. Her youngest doesn't. One of the biggest challenges is keeping her bipolar disorder private from the school her children attend. She worries that any legitimate complaints that she has about the school are going to be dismissed as a symptom of her bipolar disorder and not of the school's wrongdoing.
Jane is going through a divorce. She has three kids and is living successfully with bipolar disorder. When we were chatting, I observed her hands were shaking very noticeably. I asked her if she was nervous talking to me. She said she was not but noted that it is the Lithium that makes her hands shake. I asked her if it is worth it and she said "yes" very securely; Lithium "changed her life." I asked Jane if she can control her disorder without the meds and she said no. "You don't choose when it is going to happen." When off meds, she is "jittery and can't make decisions."
Is Jane going to be one of those so-called welfare moms living off the system? No. Jane is going back to school to start a career in the health care industry.
One of the things that concerns Jane is after her divorce is finalized, she wonders who is ever going to want to be her partner? Jane asks: Who would ever knowingly get involved with someone with bipolar disorder? As Jane and I talked at Dunkin Donuts on North Main Street in my hometown, I told Jane that if anyone has a problem with her disorder it is their problem, and their problem is not to be made her problem.
A Bigger Picture
There is a reason that I took on mental illness as a campaign issue, why I requested to be on the Joint Committee on Mental Health, why I push to increase awareness, treatment and compassion. Roads, bridges, businesses, parks and other aspects of public policy are all important. Each affect people in a secondary manner compared to the manner in which mental illness affects the lives of people directly.
No one wants to live with a mental illness. No one deserves to live with the stigma associated with a mental illness. Some people live successfully with an illness and some do not. The important thing that we need to do as a society is be more compassionate, more informed, more caring and more supportive of those with mental illness. With 45 percent of the population having a mental illness at some point in their life, if it is not you it will be someone close to you someday.
A discussion of the merits of medication or if there even exists something called bipolar disorder as a real disorder is not in the scope of this message or the point. The point here is that if you are living with bipolar disorder, successfully or unsuccessfully, you are not alone and there is hope. It might take a few years, it might take a few doctors or different medications, but there is always hope. Jane found her way. She never gave up on herself because if for no other reason she wanted her kids to have not just a mother, but a good mother.
Paul Heroux is a state representative from Massachusetts on the Joint Committee Mental Health & Substance Abuse, and the Joint Committee on Children, Families & Persons with Disabilities. Paul has a bachelor's in psychology and neuroscience from USC, and a master's in public administration from Harvard. Paul can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
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