Getting diagnosed with a mental illness is a little like putting on glasses when you’re near-sighted. Suddenly, the world zooms into focus: past events defined, current behaviors clarified, the up and down zig-sag of moods explained. A correct diagnosis makes sense; it’s not some arbitrary set of numbers slapped on a medical chart.
For me, it was a new view of the world. Now I viewed the world from the perspective of a bipolar mama-to-be, and that world looked scary.
Crazy. Unreliable. Difficult. Unpredictable. Dangerous—I’d heard rumors of what the mentally ill were like. It didn’t fit my experiences with the mentally ill I knew. It also didn’tnot fit my experiences with the mentally ill I didn’t know. After all, how well can anyone know another person?
Feared, shunned, belittled—I’d heard rumors of how the mentally ill were treated. Now I was one of them. And I was certain that those around me were slapping those labels on my back.
The hushed whispers and sideways glances. Were people talking about me? What were they saying? Laura’s crazy—flies out of control at every little thing—can’t be trusted with any responsibilities.
What if they were right? Those glasses I wore, the ones that clarified my actions, now tinged everything with fear: the fear that I would live up to those stereotypes.
The worst stereotypes are the ones we believe about ourselves.
I researched my disease and learned a lot of useful information. Mania triggers. Signs of depression. General patterns of behaviors. All very useful.
I analyzed my past episodes, examining molecule-sized details with microscopic precision. Again, useful.
Then again, maybe not.
I wore those glasses, and now I was looking for an explanation for every unexplained thing in my past. Sometimes, I saw what I thought I would see—a prejudiced person—when that wasn’t really there.
Once, I was convinced that a particular church member disliked me, possibly for my bipolar disorder. Then I stepped into her shoes for a few hours and realized that her unsmiling face was an indication of the fatigue and stress of having three children with complicated medical issues. It wasn’t me.
Sometimes, when a person looks cross-eyed at you, she’s being nasty. And sometimes, she just needs to see an ophthalmologist.
Sometimes I saw the illness, and didn’t see my personal responsibility for my non-illness related actions. Where did bipolar end and I, the me that is my self, begin? The boundary blurred until I believed that I was my illness and nothing else. It wasn’t God who defined me, or my husband, or my kids.
The diagnosis defined me. The stereotypes of bipolar moms defined me.
Mentally ill moms are irresponsible, people whispered. (I thought I heard them, at least.) The kids aren’t fed. The house is a mess. If there’s a parental responsibility, it isn’t fulfilled. They can’t be trusted with any responsibilities!
I looked at my own young daughters. Well fed. Clothed.
I looked at the house. Clean. Tidy.
I looked at my blank schedule. No wonder I could handle two kids and clean the house; I had nothing else going on. Plus, I had family nearby and a supportive husband. Not to mention good medication and a caring psychiatrist and excellent health care. Of course I was responsible, I had nothing else to do!
But what if I took on more responsibilities? What if I took on too many tasks? (Wasn’t that a sign of mania?) What if I pushed myself too hard and went out of control? (Wasn’t that another sign of mania?) What if I couldn’t be trusted with responsiblities, and I only looked like I could because I didn’t have many? (Were these racing thoughts mania?)
So I avoided responsibilities. I said no to chaperoning field trips . . . church opportunities . . . writing commitments. Even when they were things I could handle, I said no. Even when I was stable. Even when I was healthy. Even when I wanted to say yes, I said no.
Sometimes people asked. More often it was a private no, said only to myself. No, I won’t commit to blogging three times a week. No, I won’t commit to writing x-number of hours a day. No, I won’t say yes, even when yes would give me what I want. I have to say no.
Why? Because I’m bipolar, you know.
I meant to avoid triggers. But my intentions didn’t justify the means. There is a difference between avoiding a possible trigger from prudence and avoiding it from fear.
I was shirking responsibility from fear. I put tasks on others that I could handle (and wouldn’t have minded doing prior to the diagnosis). When I did that, I re-enforced the stereotype I was trying to avoid becoming.
I was also hurting myself. I saw only my limitations and not my capabilities. Those glasses of diagnosis had brought certain things into focus, but distorted other objects. My God-given abilities were caught in my peripheral vision. Each time I turned to look, they disappeared behind the lens of my diagnostic glasses.
A quote from Seth Godin changed that.
“If you spend your days avoiding failure by doing not much worth criticizing, you’ll never have a shot at success. Avoiding the thing that’s easy to survive keeps you from encountering the very thing you’re after.”
He’s talking about writing, but it skewed my glasses, much like a hug from my daughter might. I glimpsed possibilities. Before I adjusted the frames, I thought, maybe I should say yes.
An opportunity arose to chair the school book fair during the last week of September. I am organized. I was available. I could do this, and the school committee of moms-who-do-everything needed someone to do it. Moreover, I felt God kicking my rear, telling me to say yes. I asked, hesitantly, “What’s involved?”
And—wham!—I was the book fair chairmom.
On the way home from this meeting, I was panicky. It was September. I don’t do well in September. I’m doing fine now, yes, and my medications are working, true, but what if I’m not doing well then? It’s a commitment, a responsibility. What if I’m not responsible enough? Oh, God, help me please! What if I prove the stereotype true? What if—what if—what if—
Things went smoothly. I took precautions, cleared my schedule, and lessened the load of mom-chores, but I fulfilled my responsibility. I busted the stereotype I had of myself as a bipolar mom, to myself.
And in doing that, I adjusted my diagnostic glasses and saw the truth.
I am bipolar.
I am a mother.
I am also a wife, writer, chocolate lover, runner, and medicine taker, but none of these things define me. I am a Christian, and God defines me, not my fears and stereotypes and illnesses. Not my abilities and strengths, either. I am this: a person. Flawed. Human. Valuable.
I am a person.
Laura Droege is a wife of a rocket scientist, a mama of two daughters, and a novelist with three manuscripts in search of a good publishing home. She holds a graduate degree in literature and taught English as a second language for four years. She blogs at lauradroege.wordpress.com.