I just wanted to say thank you to Catherine Zeta-Jones for going public about her struggle with Bipolar Disorder. Her courage about discussing this will, I hope, help to de-stigmatize this diagnosis. We hope you get excellent treatment, Catherine!
This post is the first of an ongoing series where we discuss the emotions involved in loving someone with a mental illness.
When I look back over my mother’s struggle with bipolar disorder, the most enduring emotion is uncertainty. I never knew what lay beyond the door. Which way will the pendulum swing? Will I come home to the depressed person, unable to function, or the hyper energy of a mania phase?
Sometimes she was irritable as hell; other times she was in a state of terrible, manic happiness. The stages themselves also offer varying degrees of uncertainty—will the mania manifest in relatively minor levels of incessant talking or out-of-control surges of activity? When she talked about her ideas and plans in a manic phase, I couldn’t tell what was real and what was an illusion of her disease.
The uncertainty seemed to increase as my mother’s illness continued. On her good days, I wanted to believe that she was finally, “Fine,” as she promised. I wanted to believe we had found the right doctor, the right pill, the right diagnosis. I wanted, in essence, the uncertainty to finally become certainty.
Except that never happened.
Each time, I let myself believe we had found the answer. And each time, I let my guard down, and then after weeks, days or sometimes minutes, I somehow ended up in the same place I was before—full of uncertainly about my mother and her illness. I never knew where I stood with her. Instead I tiptoed around her or tried to avoid her altogether.
I had to learn to deal with the uncertainty, which remains even years after she died. I mourn for the lost innocence that let me believe I could somehow fix everything—if I only tried hard enough. I know better now.
I believe this particular emotion is not unique to this particular mental illness, although bipolar symptoms in themselves lend to a huge amount of uncertainty. Uncertainty is perhaps the cornerstone of dealing with mental illness. The uncertainty of the disease transfers across to more uncertainty about treating it, and to coping with its effects. Never knowing exactly what the right thing to do is. Never knowing if you did everything you could do.
Never knowing anything again with certainty.
We’re pleased to report that Next to Normal won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. This rock musical is about a mother who struggles with bipolar disorder and the effect that her illness has on her family. (Wow, sounds familiar to us!) The musical apparently addresses such issues as grieving a loss, suicide, drug abuse, ethics in modern psychiatry and suburban life. Not living anywhere near Broadway, we have not seen it, but please leave a comment below with your personal review if you have.
It’s nice to see an artistic work about mental illness recognized with an award of this caliber. We hope it’s just one more step in breaking the silence about mental illness in our society. For more about the play, visit the Next to Normal website.
A conversation with a friend about this post brought up an interesting point. If you recall, I had some surprising reactions from old classmates at my high school reunion.
She said, quite wisely, “Did it occur to you that they simply didn’t know what to say? I mean, the last time they saw you, your mother had just died.”
Huh. An interesting thought. I have to say this possibility did not occur to me. Were they just uncomfortable? Maybe. Since I left for college soon after graduation, I hadn’t seen most of these people for more than 20 years. I’ve had those 20 years to recover, but their memories of me may be stuck back in 1989.
The concept of other people being uncomfortable around me simply because of my mother’s suicide is not new. Unfortunately, it is also not confined to old high school classmates. Even new friends, ones who did not know me at age 17, find it difficult to relate to me after learning about my mother’s illness and death.
I’m thinking of one in particular — who is otherwise a wonderful and compassionate person — making awkward conversation about my experiences with a mentally ill parent after I shared some details with her. Soon afterwards, our friendship simply started slipping away. It might be too much to say that she now avoids me, but we are not as close as we once were.
I do believe, if you come from a family without mental illness, that it might be hard to relate to someone who shares the disturbing and painful experiences with you. I find it sad, though, that the result may be more feelings of isolation and rejection for those of us who do.
Last weekend I attended my 20 year high school reunion. Since my mother committed suicide three weeks before I graduated from high school, this event held a lot of mixed emotions for me. These emotions will take some time to sort out, so I won’t even attempt to do it in one post. Here I simply give you some basic facts.
I grew up in a small town (around 25,000 people). I was not particularly popular in high school, but some of my friends were. I didn’t belong to any specific group, and as I was desperate to leave both high school and my hometown for college, I was also somewhat disconnected. I had an older boyfriend already in college, and I was really biding my time until I could get that diploma and get out.
My mother had been diagnosed as bipolar earlier that same year. Her behavior, particularly a period of acute mania, had become more and more odd over the past few months, and people had noticed. How much, I’ll never know. It’s a small town. People talk. Sometimes they even get the facts right.
I didn’t talk about my mother’s suicide afterwards to anyone at school, even my closest friends. How many knew the truth and how they found out, again, I’ll never know. What always surprised me was how few people asked.
My sister warned me beforehand that people at my reunion may not remember that my mother had died or how. I think she was right. Certainly no one mentioned it to me, not that I expected them to.
Most people were warm and welcoming at the reunion, which I found to be a nice change from high school. There were exceptions though. Three notable ones, in particular — one definitely a part of my former circle of friends, one more on the fringe and a third who wasn’t really a friend, but whom regarded me with such hostility 20 years later, I was baffled. Could these snubs be related to my mother’s death? After 20 years, are there still people who regard suicide as something so shameful that it requires ostracizing a survivor? Have we really come no farther after all this time?
Now, I could have been imagining it. A high school reunion is hardly the best environment for such an experiment — there’s far too much going on. Unseen forces could have been at play. I will never really know. I will probably never see those three people again. But it has given me much to think about. It’s why we started this site. I would never wish what happened to my family on anyone else. The only way to prevent that is to talk about uncomfortable things like people giving you the cold shoulder in social situations, where their motivation may have been related to your association with mental illness. It’s sad. It’s heartbreaking. It pisses me off. But I’m going to talk about it. I hope you will too.