I have written a book. It has essentially been finished for more than two years and yet it languishes in the memory of my computer and in a distant hard drive that is protecting it lest my laptop suddenly crashes. If I were to take the time to do so I might have it uploaded as a Kindle or Apple book in less than a week. I would be a published author albeit by dent of my own initiative rather than interest from a company. For some reason I have been reluctant to take the final risk of revealing my story to the public. Upon self reflection I realize that my procrastination comes from enormous fear. Even though I place my ideas on public view five days and week, when it comes to my most personal essay ever I feel anxious about being misunderstood.
We live in a very contentious society. Words are continually being parsed and twisted into meanings that were never intended. Good people are all too often portrayed in very misleading and untrue ways. We take sentences out of context and figuratively burn people at the stake for having the temerity to suggest something with which we do not agree. We place our own interpretations on all utterances often to the detriment of what is actually true. Our sense of self-righteousness and judgmental natures have no bounds. It takes great courage to come forward in a very public way and so far I have to admit to being somewhat of a coward.
The topic of my book is quite delicate. It outlines my family’s journey through the tragedy of my father’s death and into the despair of my mother’s battle with bipolar disorder. Because we each perceive reality in different ways I have little doubt that my telling and interpretation of events my vary from others who shared some of the moments that I describe. They may disagree with how I have seen things and even feel betrayed that I have even spoken of some of our very private moments. I suspect that there will be those who do not understand that the intent of my book is to inspire and comfort anyone who has ever had occasion to deal with the complexities and difficulties of mental illness. It is not to embarrass or be disloyal.
Even in our very modern era we tend to have somewhat primitive reactions to mental illness. We do not understand the many forms that it may take. We still hide such diseases and too often treat them as personal defects rather than medical conditions. Our ignorance is indicative of our unwillingness to bring discussions of mental difficulties out into the open. If I mention that my husband has heart disease nobody recoils but if I speak of the bipolar disorder that so tragically invaded my mother’s brain I can visibly see the discomfort on people’s faces. Such conversations often stop abruptly because as a society we are not yet ready to face the realities of conditions that cause our brains to work differently.
There were times when my mother’s illness was quite frightening. She was consumed with paranoia and unable to complete even simple tasks. She became a victim of the delusions that raced through her brain and it was exhausting for her and for those of us who attempted to help her to get the care that she needed. She was not bipolar, she had bipolar disorder. The difference in the wording is significant. She was never defined by her illness. There were times when she appeared to be a very different person but she was merely exhibiting symptoms of her diagnosed disorder. Her true essence could only be found when she was doing well and the ravages of the depression and mania were not affecting her thoughts and actions. Most of the time with diligence on the part of everyone she was able to function in what we often describe as a normal fashion. At other times she experienced setbacks much like anyone with a physical problem might have. It often took time to return her to good health. Her condition was chronic. Like diabetes it could be controlled but it was never going to just miraculously go away.
My mother did nothing to create her illness. It did not come from bad habits or wrong choices. It was a disease that infected the chemistry of her brain without her consent. Her psychiatrist once told me that she might have never had a psychotic experience had my father lived. She may have just appeared to be a bit eccentric, a little manic or melancholy now and again. The stress of losing her husband and being a single parent to three small children only increased the likelihood that her bipolar disorder would become more pronounced without intervention. Since none of us had any idea that she was walking around with a time bomb slowly building up pressure inside her. We were all shocked when she had her first breakdown. It was an event that none of us were able to understand. We would have known what to do if she had been diagnosed with cancer but our knowledge of mental diseases was nil.
For years I was silent about my mother’s condition. Only those closest to me knew the extent of her countless breaks from reality and our efforts to get her the help that she needed. She herself denied that she had bipolar disorder, instead insisting that my brothers and I were being brutally cruel and unfair to her. She was very good at hiding her symptoms from other people but doing so was tiring for her. She often missed work because she worried about being unmasked. She did not realize that her coworkers had figured out what was happening and they quite lovingly allowed her to play out her charade. They were exceptionally good people who alerted me each time that she began to show signs of becoming ill again. They were courageous allies in our family’s fight to keep our mother as healthy and independent as possible.
These are the kinds of things that I want my book to portray. I want people to understand that mental illness is a legitimate medical condition and that each person afflicted with it responds differently. I believe that if we are ever going to effectively treat such disorders we have to become very honest about the mere fact that they exist. We have to teach the public how to cope with such situations in loving and rational ways. Right now we are a long way from being where we need to be but I believe that the more we are willing to learn, the more likely we are to bring such diseases out of the shadows.
Right now there are millions of people suffering needlessly simply because neither they nor those who love them understand that mental illnesses can affect anybody and that they are not signs of weak character. Having a mental illness does not mean that someone is doomed to an abnormal life any more than having cancer is a death sentence. We still have much to learn about how and why such illnesses affect individuals. I believe that with determination we may one day eradicate many of the mental disturbances that now wreak havoc on so many lives, but we have to have open minds and a willingness to honestly dialogue about the realities of mental illness if we are ever to bring the kind of relief and understanding that we need. We have to have courage, something that I am attempting to find inside myself so that I will be willing to share what I believe to be a very important and inspiring story.