Today feels like a grand Harmonic Convergence of sorts.
It marks the 15 year anniversary of our nation’s darkest day.
It is my 17th wedding anniversary, as well as nearly 6 months since my husband returned to our home after almost 5 years of being away.
September also happens to be Suicide Prevention Awareness Month.
So here I am, celebrating 17 years of marriage to a man diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, during a month designated to raising awareness of one of the highest risks for his diagnosed illness, on a day when our nation is grieving our worst national tragedy and still dealing with the resulting continued mental health challenges of the trauma.
Whew! Harmonic Convergence indeed.
Where do I even begin??!
A year ago, I shared some of my remembrances of 9-11-01 that fell on my second wedding anniversary, as well as an update of where things stood with my husband.
What a difference a year makes!! I spoke of something that I felt at the time that I had not felt in a long time: HOPE. Something was different last year…the atmosphere in my heart was beginning to turn from sorrow to joy, as I had begun getting some hints at the possibilities of my husband’s recovery.
Well, I am pleased to say that hope does not disappoint!! From last year to today, we have experienced rebirth; new life…
So for those who may not know, 17 years ago today I married a wonderful, sweet, gentle man who happens to have a horrible beast of an illness called Bipolar Disorder I, that he was diagnosed with at the age of 16.
Bipolar Disorder is a chronic mental illness that affects a fair amount of folks in this country…about 2.9% of the population. It is classified as a mood disorder, marked by episodes of mania and/or depression as well as impaired thinking. Its severity lies on a spectrum. On the mania side, the extreme may manifest as psychosis or delusions that can result in bizarre and sometimes even catastrophic behavior. On the depression side, it can lead to suicide. Many people fall somewhere in between this spectrum. Often times, the illness can be managed with medications and therapy, but occasionally episodes can become so severe that it can result in hospitalization. In recent years, Bipolar Disorder has become more visible, especially as mental illness is beginning to experience greater understanding and a reduction in stigma. The mental health community owes much of that visibility to the actress Patty Duke, who recently passed away. She was also diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, and became a vocal mental health advocate. Some other famous folks with Bipolar Disorder you may know: Carrie Fisher, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and possibly even Robin Williams. It can affect anyone, regardless of race, class, gender, or education. Because it is a complex disease with an endless combination of symptoms, the way it affects one person is not necessarily the way it affects another. It’s not all episodes and mood swings, either. There can be long periods of wellness and “normalcy” in between episodes…which in a way can make the illness even more unsettling, because of its unpredictable nature.
At its worst, bipolar disorder can be scary, misunderstood, and difficult to manage. At its best, just like any other illness, it CAN be well treated, although it is not always easy. Unfortunately, mental health care in this country is still a severely neglected and confusing field of medical care. I would venture to say that most people who deal with some form of mental illness do not receive the adequate treatment they need, for various reasons. As a result, many people who have bipolar disorder, and their loved ones, can go through terrible hardships…much of which could be avoided with education, advocacy, and better resources. Sometimes, even in the best of circumstances, Bipolar disorder can still lead to tragic outcomes.
While I am certainly not a spokesperson for all mental illness, I can only share our story, and hopefully offer some enlightenment, hope, and encouragement for those who find themselves in a similar situation such as ours. We are not alone or unique in our situation, although some circumstances may be different.
For us, and especially for me as a spouse and caregiver, I cannot stress enough the importance of having a good support system. This is paramount for anyone who finds themselves in the midst of any life challenge, no matter what it is. But especially on this road to mental health.
I think that on this Day of Remembrance, the need for support is probably what is on my mind the most.
I have a dear friend who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. I went to visit her a few weeks ago, and was blown away by the amazing outpouring of support she has received! Her fridge was filled with meals; her home was filled with friends doing home repairs; she is on the prayer list of her church; her 3 girls who range in age from tween to college were all taken care of as far as getting where they needed to go; her husband of 21 years has been her rock and his job has been wonderfully supportive; her Facebook feed has blown up with tons of well wishes and positivity; she has been showered with gifts of books, pretty scarves for her head; and many, many other cancer survivors (even complete strangers!) are standing beside her to offer support, gifts, prayers, and words of encouragement, cheering her on. At the time I visited her, she had only begun one round of chemotherapy, and all of this was in place! Much of that has to do with the wonderful person that she was before her diagnosis, and that she has built community. Her heart is filled with so much faith and confidence in God, and a strong sense of His presence, she simply shines and people are drawn to the Light. My own heart burst with SO much hope and gratitude for her, and pride in knowing her!! While she has a road ahead of her still, with that kind of love around her, the road ahead is an absolutely beautiful one, simply because she is not alone.
When it comes to mental illness, particularly severe mental illness, the brutal and ugly truth is this: good support is hard to find. When someone is in the middle of a manic episode, or stuck in the trenches of depression, people don’t really want to rally around…they’d rather keep a safe distance. The stigma, isolation, and fear for both them and their families can be just as awful as the disease itself…and contributes to many of the resulting challenges.
In the past, I do not believe my husband or myself had adequate support in place, for a variety of reasons; not understanding what we were dealing with, people not understanding us, ignorance of what was available to us, etc. During our time apart, I believe we’ve both learned some valuable lessons. Time and maturity has a way of altering perspectives. Thankfully, in the 6 months that my husband has been back home, I believe we have more support than at any other time in our entire 17 year marriage. Yep, it has taken that long to figure out the best approach to health and wellness for both of us. It’s not just HIS disease, it affects our whole family. I think we’ve both learned that we need to take what I call a holistic approach to wellness, and make it a priority. This has been one of my biggest prayers and desires, to build a team of folks to support us on our journey. We have a ways to go in getting all the right pieces in place, but for the first time I feel that we are well on our way, headed in the right direction.
I’ve learned something on this journey: some folks just aren’t going to get it. As a result, you will get rejected, misunderstood, and even abandoned. Sometimes that can feel like a good excuse to just give up and stop trying, and have a pity party. I’ve been guilty of that.
But, I’ve also learned that if we keep asking, keep talking, keep pressing in, eventually someone will come along and…regardless of whether they get it or not, they’ll just stand by you and be there for you. Sometimes that’s enough.
My aforementioned friend, the one with a recent cancer diagnosis, also has a mental health diagnosis. Not Bipolar Disorder, although that is in her family as well so she is definitely familiar with it. She is someone I consider to be one of our biggest advocates. She was even in our wedding!!! Since I have known her, she has always been open to sharing her story…her challenges, her triumphs, her concerns…as she navigated her own mental health challenges. In the process, I have learned so much from her, and much of what she has shared with me has helped me. I am certain that her openness has contributed to the outpouring of support she is now receiving in her newest challenge. She has certainly made a difference for us!
The same way we keep talking about things like how 9/11 has impacted our lives…and even the way so many other “conversations” have been started in recent years over many other important issues… I think that’s what we need to do with mental illness. Just talk about it. Ask questions…get educated, share stories, experiences, and above all, HOPE. Chances are, it hits closer to home than you may even realize. I cannot even begin to tell you how many people I’ve met who has been touched in some way by mental illness, whether themselves or a family member, friend, or colleague. There’s something therapeutic about shared experiences, and I think half the battle is not holding in the struggles.
I am still trying to sort out the best way to share our own story. It’s not easy to be vulnerable…especially about something as uncomfortable as mental illness.
But I believe it is important, now more than ever.