My next-older sister has bipolar disorder. She was diagnosed with it in her late 20's, but it first manifested in adolescence. It was a long and terrible stretch of years in which awful and impossible things happened. Clearly, the lion's share of the awfulness was hers, and that is her story; but it affected all of us in the nuclear and extended family. Today, things would have happened differently, because today she would have received a diagnosis earlier and been treated earlier, too.
As it turned out, she beat the odds and, once she found a doc she trusted, never went off her medicine. She had a wildly successful career as a kindergarten teacher and retired a few years ago to enjoy her animals and garden.
This spring, my friend and hero Joani started writing about mental illness at her blog, Unorthodox and Unhinged: Tales of a Manic Christian, I was delighted and horrified. Delighted to know a smart, funny Episcopal priest writing honestly about her bipolar condition and how it's affected her life, and also horrified at the fear it brought up in me. I thought, "Joani! you can't tell that! you'll get in trouble!"
Well, no. She won't. (She's a grownup, you know.) And my fear is a symptom of the unwillingness to talk about it that is a huge part of the problem in our society. We don't talk about mental illness, about suicide, any of that, because it seems shameful, selfish, maybe they are just a bad person, etc. I know better, of course, but the discomfort was still there, and it shocked me how much fear I had about my own family story. It goes back to my grandmother's dictate that you can go to a counselor, but don't TELL them anything. (!)
Because...at the time I was worrying about Joan, I was already fretting because I had agreed to join my mom and my sister in giving a talk about living with bipolar disorder to my mom's local chapter of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Several months ago, mom had proposed that as a family we would present the program in September.
During the process of talking with the two about them about the event, what would be said, I became aware of how uncomfortable I was feeling. There was a lot of pain that we had not dealt with, and I didn't realize it. (I've had a LOT of counseling...you'd think I'd be all done by now.)
Long story short, we did it on Thursday. It went well. We were graciously received by the group, some of whom had mental illness diagnoses and some of whom were there for support to deal with family members who do. It started with a support group meeting and continued with our presentation.
I'm so grateful that those folks were willing to open their circle and let us join, to listen to a bit of our stories. All three of us lived it differently, of course, and we learned from the opportunity to talk about it. It was stressful but it was healing.