World Bipolar Disorder Day
March 30th is/was World Bipolar Disorder Day (WBD); it was established by several international associations to bring awareness to bipolar disorders and eliminate social stigma. The date was chosen because it is the birthday of Vincent Van Gogh, who was posthumously diagnosed as probably having bipolar disorder. It’s a date that is important in my life because our daughter has bipolar disorder.
A little information about Bipolar Disorder from their website:
Bipolar disorder is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. Symptoms of bipolar disorder are severe and different from the normal ups and downs that everyone goes through from time to time. It is estimated that the global prevalence of bipolar disorder is between 1 and 2% and has been said to be as high as 5% and, according to the World Health Organization, is the 6th leading case of disability in the world. In order to address this global problem, we need a global solution. With support from leading experts from around the world, groups like ANBD, IBPF, and ISBD are supporting efforts to investigate biological causes, targets for drug treatment, better treatments, better methods of diagnosis, the genetic components of the illness, and the strategies for living well with bipolar disorder and this is just the beginning. Collaborations between research and advocacy groups are continuing to grow, and WBD is a tribute to the success of this strategy.
As I mentioned, one of our daughters has bipolar disorder, and she posted five informational items on Facebook over the course of WBD. Her dad and I both picked one or two to share on Facebook. She commented after that it was disappointing that there were few serious comments on the posts. She said that most of our posts and pictures bring a lot of comments. We have a large circle of supportive, encouraging friends, and yet there was nothing. She said that no one wants to talk about it or acknowledge it.
I can’t blame our friends. It was the middle of a busy work week and we just shared without giving our friends any context. That’s what I’m hoping to do here.
Bipolar and our Family
For the longest time, I would say, “our daughter has been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder.” Can you hear the denial in my choice of words? A doctor thinks she has it. Her mother, that’s another story. I’ve known her her whole life, I’m not so sure. I just wish she’d do what she’s supposed to do! I’ve recently gotten to the point where I’ll say “our daughter has bipolar disorder,” but it has taken several years.
There is so much that’s difficult about mental illnesses. You can’t see it, there isn’t a blood test to confirm it. I like something that Carrie Fisher said to a young fan who was recently diagnosed with bipolar and had asked for advice. In speaking about her own difficulty in accepting her diagnose, she had this to say:
I was told that I was bipolar when I was 24 but was unable to accept that diagnosis until I was 28 when I overdosed and finally got sober. Only then was I able to see nothing else could explain away my behavior.
When the treatments for bipolar seems to help, it just might be bipolar disorder. Our daughter, began to struggle academically early in her high school career. This gifted student, was failing classes, would do her school work, but not turn it in. I would daily get a call from the nurse’s office to pick her up because all she wanted to do was put her head down on her desk and cry.
It became apparent that the status quo wasn’t working. Our pediatrician diagnosed her with depression, gave us a referral to a psychiatrist, and told us she could no longer be our doctor. She didn’t deal with patients who had psych issues. After an adverse reaction to the first antidepressant he prescribed, that psychiatrist refused to see her until she’d been cleared by a pediatric neurologist. Can you imagine how long it takes to get an appointment with a pediatric neurologist in Tucson? About six months; we didn’t bother. One thing I’ve noticed in helping family members who needed care from a mental health professional, is that it can be very difficult to find, and if you need it, you probably don’t have the wherewithal to get it. By the way, her reaction, psychosis, is a common symptom of bipolar disorder when treated with antidepressants.
Fortunately, we found someone willing to treat her with medication and talk therapy. She was off and on antidepressants for the next seven or eight years. With the help of an alternative format charter school, she graduated from high school a semester early, with honors, and was one of the speakers at her very small graduation ceremony. She went on to college.
There were good years and bad years. At one of the low points in her senior year, a mental health professional said, maybe you have bipolar disorder.
Life has gone on from there with a more certain diagnosis and while trying scads of medications. She was on Lithium for a time, until it became toxic. She has been stable for over a year, so it would be proper to say she’s in remission, although she continues on a host of other medications.
She has been hospitalized when she was perceived to be a threat to herself, on short-term disability while attending out-patient treatment during rapid cycling. But through it all, she has managed to take care of herself (she doesn’t live near us), to hold a job steadily for several years, and maintain a relationship with a very understanding man.
Our daughter is not the only member of our family who has bipolar disorder. Some have been diagnosed; in some you just see it.
The Stigma of Mental Illness
In some parts of the world, there is still social stigma associated with cancer. I feel like we’ve moved beyond that in the United States. We don’t blame the patient, we don’t see them as less of a person, we don’t assume that they’ve brought on this disease themselves. Cancer patients can talk openly about their diseases, their prognosis. Their family, friends, colleagues, rally round with support and encouragement. Wouldn’t it be nice if the same were true for mental illnesses?
Our daughter works in a mostly male environment. She is one of the few Americans on staff; her co-workers and supervisors are from Eastern Europe and Asia. They joke about and make insulting remarks about people with mental health issues in a cavalier manner. Her work attendance is excellent, but if things change in the future, if she goes through a more difficult spell, I’m sure she’ll call out with “the flu,” as she did when dealing with Lithium toxicity.
It’s a pity that she can’t be open with these people because this is how they could learn, and possibly change their mindset. They know her to be someone who is intelligent, reliable, and hard-working. If they knew that she had bipolar disorder, and that someday, that might prevent her from being able to come to work, it would challenge their perception that needing a real “mental health day” means one is stupid, lazy, or shirking responsibility.
Bipolar and You?
Bipolar disorder is not rare. I work at a large church. Statistically speaking there are probably 50 individuals on our mailing list who have bipolar disorder, and hundreds more who have a parent, child, or sibling with bipolar, and yet, I’ve felt alone in this regard. Recently, a lay leader in the parish shared that her daughter has bipolar disorder, and that she feels it’s her ministry to offer emotional support to people who are in similar situations. We had a lunch, and shared our stories. There are similarities in our experiences, but, of course, there are differences too.
If this is something you or your loved one are facing, I hope you’re finding support too. You’re not alone, there are others out there, and I hope you’re finding them.