I occasionally submit posts to The Mighty, a webpage for people with disabilities. They have a section for mental illness.This is my latest submission about a DBSA meeting I went to last night.
You wanted to know information about your son’s bipolar disorder. At first you asked specific questions about the illness and I did my best to answer them. You told me about your son and I was impressed with his accomplishments and sorry to hear where he was at right now.
One of your questions stuck with me. Is there a physical test? Is the diagnosis just based on observation? It is a common question. I wish I had an x-ray or blood test that would show that my diagnosis is real. People can understand a broken arm or diabetes, but not brain disorders.
It was what I didn’t hear that struck me. I have heard parents with children who won’t get treatment, desperate for answers, trying to figure out how to help them get better. Instead, you sounded like you doubted he really had an illness. I could picture you using the “tough love” approach to get him to be more productive.
My mind went back to my own brother. He had a psychotic illness starting in the late 70s. My father didn’t believe in mental illness so he didn’t really get treated. He died young in an act that was either a reckless accident or intentional, I don’t know.
I told you about my brother. I feel guilty that he didn’t have the chances I do.
I pleaded with you to be gentle with your son. The words slipped out of my mouth that suicide is so common. It has been reported up to 20% of people with bipolar disorder complete suicide. I felt like I said too much and second guessed myself when I came home.
Now, that I have had time to think, I am glad I said something. I did not want to make you feel bad or scare you. I have not met your son and I don’t know where he is at mentally. But, you wanted information and that is a valuable piece of information.
I remember my grandmother in her baggy dresses that covered every inch of her body like the shrouds that covered the furniture when the summer folk had left for the season. My cousin Heidi was surprised when I told her that my grandmother — her aunt — had spent many hours of each day lying in bed.
“But she was always so jolly, so friendly.”
“Yes,” I said. “She could be like that. Like so many of us she knew how to fake happiness.” I do not mean that as a slander. I admire how she could pull herself together despite her suffering and be there.
I know my grandmother loved me. When I was young, she used to get in big fights with my mother for the way she mistreated me. The rows were long and loud — I would go to the very back of the yard so that I could not hear them.
My mother had her own problems: there was a deep-seated meanness in her. She disparaged my grandmother when we were alone together, complaining about what she thought as Stella’s laziness. When I was depressed, she was panicked at the thought that would do the same, so she hectored me about getting a job — any job — no matter how inappropriate or soul-killing it was. Once, when she was in the hospital with roof-busting high blood pressure, I told the doctor about our family secret. A psychiatrist prescribed Prozac. For three months, she was a nice person.
The biggest loss after I was diagnosed was my poetry. Before my diagnosis, I wrote a lot — I filled a ring binder with it. Two inches of verse, mostly free. Then I stopped because I believed that going to readings and writing it made my condition worse. And I believed that I lost the ability to write it. I did not stop, but my output was meager and sparse. One poem a year. Some years I wrote nothing. But a part of me yearned for the truth and beauty of a fine image. So last spring, I conducted an experiment. Thanks to a psycho-stimulant that gave me a renewed ability to focus, I cautiously began to compose free verse and haiku. To my joy, I did not explode into mania. I was not writing long intense blogs as had been the signature of my mania and I did not lapse into consequent depressions. So I have begun thinking: If I can handle poetry what about spirituality? Could I attend a church without turning into a prophet? Could I handle being a member of a congregation and not its priest? So I have been contemplating where to go, what denomination suits my temperament. That is the next signpost.