What My Dad Taught Me About Love in the Midst of My Mom’s Mental Illness

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My mom’s mental illness diagnosis taught me an important lesson: Everyone deals with grief differently. Back in 2009, when my family first got the diagnosis “bipolar disorder” for my mom’s illness, I didn’t understand this truth.

I was 18 at the time and for me, my mom had always been my mom, nothing short of a superhero. She was the woman who spell checked all my papers or who, when I got a good grade, put it on the refrigerator. She was the person who fixed broken hems and replaced missing buttons. She was the person who made sure my brother and I were at church every Sunday and that we said our prayers before bedtime. She is the person who made every meal and left notes in my lunch. I didn’t know anything about bipolar disorder back in 2009, but I knew who my mom was.

It seemed like her mental illness came suddenly, almost as if it crept in through the night and my whole family missed it. The truth is we probably just didn’t know what signs to look for leading up to my mom’s first major episode. Neither my brother, my dad nor I knew anything about mental illness or what it looked like.

My mom’s first, full-blown bipolar episodes went on for a few months before my family ever sought medical help for her. My mom would experience the highest highs in her manic phases and the lowest lows in her depressed stages. It all felt so sporadic and scary at times. You never knew what you might come home to.

My initial response to the signs of my mom’s mental illness was shock, then fear, then grief. After that it became, “What are we going to do to help her?” I went into fix-it mode, but for awhile, my dad denied it. He tried to overlook my mom’s erratic behavior. I resented this at first, wondering why my dad wasn’t doing anything, as I saw it, to get my mom help. What I came to realize later, is that everyone handles hard situations differently. While it was hard on my brother and I to watch our mom go through this, my dad, my sweet dad, he took it the hardest.

Looking back now, I see that. While my mom is a parent to my brother and I, to my dad, she is his best friend, through sickness and in health. I now understand how mental illness can affect an entire family, wife, husband, daughter, son. It literally shakes the core of a family, but it doesn’t have to destroy it.

Since we first heard those words, “bipolar disorder,” I’ve seen the insides of mental clinics, seen cop car sirens looming in my front yard, sat in court rooms as a judge stripped my mom of her ability to make her own medical decisions, visited her behind glass doors of in-patient units, watched her lose weight from her medication, cleaned up after her as she got sick from that same medication and sat beside her in the ER room. Through it all, all the many highs and lows, one thing hasn’t changed: My dad standing faithfully at my mom’s side.

My dad has shown me so much over the last few years about what love and faithfulness looks like. It doesn’t leave when it’s hard. It stays, and although it’s been impossibly hard for my dad to watch his wife struggle at times with an unrelenting illness of the mind, he still finds joy. He still comes home to a bowl of ice cream each day. He still watches his baseball games. He still brings my mom Valentine’s Day flowers. He still puts up the Christmas tree.

My mom’s mental illness changed my entire family. A lot of it was hard and not what some would call picture, perfect. A bipolar disorder diagnosis, what could be viewed as a terrible, dark, ominous thing, brought out the best and worst in my family, but mostly the best. My dad taught me so much without even meaning to, just by loving my mom in sickness and in health.

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35 Things People With Bipolar Disorder Want Their Friends to Know

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For the 5.7 million American adults who live with bipolar disorder, support from family and friends can be crucial. But sometimes through all the ups and downs, miscommunications and misunderstandings can occur on both ends — it can be hard to know what to do or what to say when a friend with bipolar disorder isn’t doing well.

So, we joined the International Bipolar Foundation to ask people with bipolar disorder to tell us one thing they want their friends to know.

Here’s what they had to say:

1. “Sometimes I may be more dependent on you, and other times I may really not want to be around you. It doesn’t mean I love you any less.” — Jasmine Lancaster

Quote by Jasmine Lancaster: Sometimes I be more dependent on you, and other times I may not want to be around you. It doesn't mean I love you any less.

2. “It does not define who I am.” — Dorothy Braaten

3. “I’m not using it as an excuse.” — Crystal Saulter

4. “I want them to know I worked hard to survive. Quite literally, it has taken so much effort to accomplish half of what many of my friends and family have. I’m not lazy. But most of all, I want them to know bipolar is more than a catchphrase or a mood swing.” — Julie McSorley

5. “I want my friends to know I love and appreciate them even if I don’t always show it. When I have to cancel or reschedule plans due to this illness, it’s not because I don’t like them or don’t value them. There are just some days where I feel I can’t go out and it’s nothing against them personally. I love spending time with them when I’m feeling well and able. They mean the world to me.” — Kait Weihofen

6. “I love it when you call or text me. Sometimes I don’t reach out. It helps to feel remembered.” — Catherine Mather

Quote from Catherine Mather: I love it when you call or text me, even when sometimes I don't reach out. It helps me feel remembered.

7. “I sometimes shut off because everything is overwhelming; please don’t judge me. I’m not purposely being ignorant or a bad friend; I simply can’t be social when my head is so full.” — Jayde LoveCanoe Potter

8. “I’m truly sorry if I ever upset you when I am unwell.” — Karen Imogen Senior

9. “I’d like my friends and family to know there are days I feel really good with nearly ‘normal’ mood patterns, and other days I’m barely making it and I’m struggling not to let it show. All these days may look the same to you. Please remember they aren’t the same, so help when you can, hug always and stay positive when sometimes I can’t.” — Patti Rowe

10. “It’s just as frustrating for me as it is for you.” — Deanna White

11. “Learn about it.” — Nate Nelson

12. “I already have a therapist and a psychiatrist — from you I just want friendship. ” — Shannon Galpin

Quote from Shannon Galpin: I already have a therapist and a psychiatrist -- from you I just want friendship.

13. “Don’t pity me. It makes it worse.” — Karrah D. Salmons

14. “It’s not anything you did wrong; my moods shift entirely on their own, and it has nothing to do with you.” — Kristin McElligott

15. “You can be a productive person despite having bipolar disorder. I have bipolar, I am not bipolar.” — Catherine Hayes

16. “You can’t catch it.” — Larry Rubenstien

17. “It can be achingly lonely without the support of friends and family.” — Ann Hayes

18. “I want my friends to know how grateful I am for their patience, support and understanding. Even when I’m depressed, my friends keep me in the loop so I don’t feel isolated. When I’m manic, they keep me safe without undermining my freewill. On hard days, they are there for me any time day or night. When I say nasty things about myself, they’re there to build me up. I can be hard to be to love, I know. But the fact that you keep loving me every day makes this big old roller coaster a little less scary.” — Samantha Elizabeth Paardekooper

quote form Elizabeth Paardekooper: I can be hard to love, I know. But the fact that you keep loving me every day makes this big old roller coaster a little less scary.

19. “It’s the same old me under the mania and depression.” — Nick Tewson

20. “I feel everything immensely and with every part of me. Some say it’s a curse, but I’m trying to make it my unique blessing.” — Nikki Childers

21. “I’m so grateful for you. Not just for the big things, but all the small ones. The gentle check ins, reminders and questions that help. Answering the frantic text message. Sending me an unexpected postcard. The celebrations of small victories. All of it adds up.” — Vanessa Kinsey

22. “I don’t call you because I think I’m bothering you, and when you call I think you’re mad at me for not calling. I know it’s silly, so leave me a message or text me. I’m still here.” — Margaret Ritcey

23. “Not everyone with bipolar disorder is the same.” — Jay Hilliker

24. “When I push you away is when I actually need you the most.” — Jennifer Jobe

Quote by Jennifer Jobe: When I push you away is when I actually need you the most.

25. “Having bipolar disorder can be hard. When you’re honest about my behavior, it helps. Thank you. Your ability to love me and focus on my strengths allows me to love and be strong in return. You have never judged me. You’ve loved me through so many challenges. And you’ve accepted my assistance during challenges of your own. You help me feel whole. And I love you for that.” — Sandra Sweeney

26. “Please know I’m doing all I can to be well. Pleasant company, not advice, is what I need.” — Wendy Lewis

27. “I’m sorry I lashed out when you were trying to help. It’s hard when you’re first diagnosed, but with therapy and meds you can grab hold of your life once again and be happy.” — Frances Hnyda

28. “Right now, I’d like my friends to know I love them. I really, really appreciate them being there for me even though I find it  hard to let people in, and even harder to let anyone help me. I really wish I was able to hang out more. I’m looking forward to this current episode ending so I can hang out with you all again. Also, I want them to know they can always talk to me about any problems they have. Other people’s problems don’t make me feel worse, and I like to be there for them, too.” — Becky Elle

29. “My friends help me keep my pieces together.” — Keaton Behrendsen

Quote by Keaton Behrendsen: My friends help me keep my pieces together.

30. “I want my friends to know I can’t always handle life the way they can. I want them to know that a lot of times I wear a mask for their benefit; I smile and laugh on the outside, but on the inside I’m crying or maybe just numb. I would want them to know that if they loved me anyway, that would be the best gift ever.” — Trenda Marie Berryhill

31. “Please be patient.” — Lindsay Barnett

32. “I’m fighting 24/7 to be OK. And when I ‘seem’ OK, it doesn’t mean I’m cured. It means I’m fighting my hardest.” — Sara Kearse

33. “I’m the same person you’ve grown to love, just understand I’m not perfect.” — Debbie Langston Brown

34. “Every day is different for me. Go with the flow with me.” — Angie Leanne Ryan

35. “I am who I am and I’ve achieved what I’ve achieved despite having bipolar and because of having bipolar. I push myself to be perfect, loving, overly helpful and empathetic to make up for the guilt and shame I sometimes feel after an episode. But mostly at the end of the day, I want you to understand me. I can’t break the stigma without you.” — Leah Cameron

Quote by Leah Cameron: I can't break the stigma without you.

*Answers have been edited and shortened.

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When You Feel Pressure to Be ‘Well’

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I struggle with bipolar disorder and anxiety, and while I’ve been managing my bipolar disorder, I’ve recently had a lot of problems with the anxiety. In my role as the Executive Director of a nonprofit peer-run recovery center, I feel like I have to be a prime example of perpetual wellness. Deep down, I know this is an unreasonable expectation of myself.

Even though I’m in recovery, I’m still going to experience difficulties at times. That’s what recovery is about! It’s not puppy dogs and rainbows 100 percent of the time, and what I’ve come to realize is that despite my leadership role, it’s still OK to struggle at times. I’m human. Although it feels like I’m failing when I experience difficulty, I have to remind myself it’s not failing — but rather means I’m a step closer to victory “once again” over this annoyance we call mental illness. When I say “once again,” I’m referring to the non-linear process of recovery.

For about the past two years, my anxiety has caused me to struggle intermittently with obsessive thoughts. My thoughts get stuck in a continuous loop and it’s like watching a never ending videotape reel in my head. Recently my medication has been adjusted, which has helped. I receive cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps tremendously. Peer support, of course, also plays an integral role in my recovery. I have one support person in particular who I know is always there. I also have a very supportive husband and family.

It’s challenging being in a leadership position and feeling like I have to maintain an image. I put unnecessary pressure on myself to live up to my own standards. Who am I kidding, right? The truth of the matter is, I need to be more open with my struggles. When I’m open I have the opportunity to help others by sharing my own experiences.

I have a condition that has to be managed just like the rest of my peers. But I’ve hidden my symptoms so well at work, most of our newer members seem shocked when they find out I’m a peer with a mental health issue just like them. While I’ve never hidden the fact I have bipolar or anxiety, I guess I’ve just never felt the need to discuss it often.

This article is the beginning of letting my authentic self shine through. Things are not always as they appear. When you see everyone around you leading happy, white picket fence lives, I’d bet it you dug a bit deeper, a different picture would be painted. Those living with depression, anxiety, etc. sometimes don’t wear their emotions on their sleeves. I think it’s important for more individuals to be open about their struggles so no one is left to feel alone. Even if you’re in a leadership role as I am, don’t feel like you have to hide behind a mask. Being open is how we’ll overcome the stigma of mental illness. We are in this together! It’s time to unite!

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A Letter to Myself After My First Dissociative Episode

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Dear Charlie,

You sit there in an office. A year and a half later, you find yourself sitting again. Today, you had your first dissociative episode. With this letter, you attempt to find a grasp on reality. It’s so easy to say, “I am alive, yes, here are my knees and elbows.” It’s so easy to have thoughts of suicide too. You’re used to those by now.

Your mania is something you welcome with open arms. You hear voices and can truly identify with Russell Crowe’s performance in “A Beautiful Mind.” Depression is something you sit and revel in. You welcome darkness into your life.

Fighting it is something you gave up on long ago. In doing so, you have creeped into a world where you accept yourself. You find solace in your dark moments.

You sit there in your car, wondering why your lovely therapist and family can’t fix the way you feel. Trust me, you do feel better, but bipolar disorder and life throw you some heartbreaking truths. Adapt.

Evolve into a new person, my dear friend, because you have miles to go. But listen close, you have a fast horse, and many well-lit inns along the way. When you are lost, think of Frost’s words.

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep

And miles to go before I sleep.”

Because the woods will get dark. And as much as you would like to spread your light throughout this world, the whole place can seem bleak. There will be nights that never seem to end.

Sometimes that dark paranoia will creep up to your car and tap its knuckles on the glass. It whispers, I’m here. Sometimes, you see or hear things other people don’t.

Recall how during Inception, Leo spins a top to tell what reality feels like.  Tonight, you drew a tattoo on a piece of paper. The artist traced it and placed it on your body. You went with your sister and her friends. That small sun with seven rays is your spinning top. Press on it to pump sunshine into your blue and black veins.

I don’t know what you’re thinking right now. But please, put the key in the ignition and start driving. You have a hell of a life in front of you. Turn the music loud and roll the windows down. Scream at the top of your lungs. Love hard and fast.

You’re about to fall flat on your face. Get ready for a fight, every day for the rest of your life. It’s going to be one epic, soul-crushing saga, but I’m going to let you in on a little secret. You do it.

Use your voice as a weapon. It’s strong, but for some reason you kept it quiet for way too long. You are the light in your life. Shine wildly.

You are going to be looking for something in the next few years. It is a place where you can call your own. A home. A place you find peace. The very place you consider a nightmare has the secrets to your dreams. Your brain is a beautiful place.

See the beauty in each moment as they drip down the hourglass. Your life is going to end, but that day is not today or tomorrow or the next day after that.

How you think about love is going to change drastically. Trust, not empathy, is what will help you through it.

Stay alive. Every second is worth it. You will learn how to fly.

And when the day winds down, and you feel tired, the voices might bark loudly. Ease yourself into the sensation of the cool pillow on your cheek. Your head resting, aching for another chance at an incredible day. Morning always comes. Breathe in and out. Feel your heart beat.

Tomorrow is eternal.

With all the love in the world,

Someone who has your back no matter what

Follow this journey on Adventures of a Little Boy.

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5 Real Reasons I Speak Openly About Bipolar Disorder

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I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 13. Looking back, this was both a blessing and a curse. I was lucky to receive my diagnosis at a young age and have time to gain some insight and stability by my early 20s. However, the shame a young teenager can feel carrying a diagnosis such as bipolar disorder can be detrimental. I hid my diagnosis – and the self-harm, ER visits and hospitalizations – from my peers. When I was hospitalized in the mental health unit at age 17, I felt like my entire world would end if anyone I knew found out. I took me several years, two manic episodes, a few depressive episodes, three hospitalizations, multiple ER visits and a suicide attempt to realize owning my struggle was going to be an important part of my recovery. Since my suicide attempt in 2009, being forthcoming and open about having bipolar has had many benefits, and there are many reasons why I continue to disclose my illness without fear.

1. It leads to acceptance.

It wasn’t until my 20s and after my first true manic episode that I was able to accept my diagnosis as a fact of life. I will never forget the morning I had been up all night and had done something impulsive and embarrassing. I was telling my mother what I had done and talking very quickly. I paused and said, “I am so manic right now, aren’t I?” After that moment, I realized I needed to seek treatment for my illness and was soon able to get on the right track. I wasn’t automatically better, but being able to tell people in my life about my diagnosis helped me to find support I could turn to while I was struggling.

2. It reduces stigma.

In my opinion, recovery can be a great time to disclose your diagnosis to others, especially if you’re celebrating successes. It makes people who might not otherwise be empathetic realize people with mental illness are just like them. Once someone realizes this, I believe it’s easier for them to have empathy when someone is struggling and symptomatic as well. The majority of people are shocked to find out my diagnosis and I try to use my stability as a platform for fighting stigma whenever I can.

3. It helps me reach out to others.

Because I’m so open about what I’ve been through, people will reach out to me when they have a family member who is struggling, or when they’re struggling themselves. Hearing about my journey makes others in a similar situation realize they aren’t alone. Once I realized how passionate I was about helping other people like me, I decided to pursue a career in advocacy. I don’t always disclose my diagnosis and my story, but sometimes it is relevant to the situation and helps clients know the person they are talking to understands where they are coming from.

 4. It’s part of my parenting journey.

Being open about my diagnosis has been a large part of my parenting journey. I’ve had to make decisions and seek support that will allow me to be the best mother I can be. I don’t plan on hiding the fact I have bipolar disorder from my children. My hope is that they’ll look back and see this as something we faced with strength. I want them to know there’s no shame in having a mental illness, and if they end up being diagnosed with one as well, I want them to know that, as their mother, I’ll be a strong ally. 

 5. It makes me feel accountable.

The more I talk about my recovery and the journey that brought me here, the more accountable I am to stay well. This means following through with my treatment, whether that means medication, therapy, doctor’s appointments etc., and knowing when I’m not feeling my best. I have many people looking to me as an example, and while that may seem like a lot of pressure, the accountability factor is actually a huge positive for me. Knowing how many people would be affected if I discontinued treatment and became ill again keeps me in check. When you’ve been stable for so long, it’s easy to wonder if you exaggerated your symptoms — maybe you’d be OK without any treatment. It happens all the time, even to those with the best intentions in their recovery. Accountability is a large part of my motivation in recovery, and I’m glad being open about having bipolar has helped keep me in check.

Hilary at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's North Country Out of the Darkness Walk.
Hilary at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s North Country Out of the Darkness Walk.

If you or someone you know needs help, please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

The Crisis Text Line is looking for volunteers! If you’re interesting in becoming a Crisis Counselor, you can learn more information here.

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Comedian Tackles Heavy Topics in Personal Documentary About Mental Illness

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British comedian Stephen Fry first opened up about his experiences with bipolar disorder in the 2006 documentary, “The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive,” and BBC One just aired a follow up to the film: “The Not So Secret Life of the Manic Depressive: 10 Years On.” The latest project chronicles Fry’s progress in therapy and examines the life of several other individuals living with mental illness.

Fry allowed cameras to film his therapy sessions with his psychiatrist, Dr. William Shanahan, who’s been treating the star since his 2012 suicide attempt in Uganda, reported Huffington Post U.K. In the film, Fry also discusses how the death of his friend and fellow comedian Robin Williams made him reevaluate his own treatment.

“This is not a condition which is going to go away, you are not talking about curing me, you talking about how best I can cope with something that will live with me,” Fry told Dr. Shanahan during one session. “No matter how well things are going one day, there is always the possibility of me getting it wrong.”

In addition to Fry, the documentary profiles Alika Agidi-Jeffs, a man who rose to fame after a video of him singing on the London Underground was shared on YouTube and viewed by millions. Agidi-Jeffs has bipolar disorder, and he was going through a particularly tough time when the video went viral. Agidi-Jeffs considered taking his own life, but after finding support with his family and a therapist, he’s in a much better place. He now speaks at schools to help break down the stigma associated with mental illness, reported The Guardian.

“I want to remind everybody who’s going through this that they are not their diagnosis,” he told The Guardian. “Don’t let it be what shapes you. When people have the flu they don’t go around saying ‘I am flu.’ You might have bipolar [disorder], but you are not a sickness. It doesn’t define you.”

Fry is currently the president of the U.K. charity Mind, and he hopes sharing this film will continue to raise awareness for others living with mental illnesses. “It’s in the culture more and it’s understood more, and it’s extremely pleasing,” he said in the film’s trailer.

“You have to find a way for us as a society to value everyone including the mentally ill,” he added in the film. “Their difficulties make life harder for them to deal with.”

“The Not So Secret Life of the Manic Depressive: 10 Years On” aired on BBC on Monday, and can be viewed on the BBC One website.

If you or someone you know needs help, please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

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