Stigma from the Source


“Stigma = a mark of disgrace or infamy; a stain or reproach, as on one’s reputation.

I was diagnosed with postpartum bipolar disorder in October, 2007, six weeks after the birth of my second daughter.  I was thirty-seven-years-old when I admitted myself into a locked-down mental facility at our local hospital.  While there, a psychiatrist met with me and within two minutes he informed me that I had bipolar disorder.

Everything changed.

I called my father on the unit’s pay phone.  We were very close and I loved him with all my heart.  My Dad had bipolar disorder, and while growing up I never dreamed that he and I would share the same mental illness.  He cried when I told him the news.

I was manic, and while I was frightened to be in such a sterile, intimidating unit, I took Dad’s sorrow in stride. I’d fall apart in agony later on.

My father only lived a few years after my first hospitalization.  During that time he never judged me for having bipolar disorder.  If he did make a disparaging remark, he would have been a hypocrite, but parents with bipolar have been known to condemn their children for also having the same mental illness.

I’ve had a diametrically different relationship with my mother.  I love her very much, but we’ve had a turbulent connection ever since I was a teenager.  She frequently told me that I was “oppositional” and she was right, for I seldom agreed with her on many points. We did (and do) share some things in common, but when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a much greater rift formed between us.

I now regret that I never had very much compassion for what it was like for my Mom to live with a husband with bipolar one disorder.  I had no idea what she endured before my diagnosis.  She rescued Dad many times from dire situations that were caused by his mania or depression, including saving his job numerous times by contacting his employer.  Then again, the world of bipolar disorder was murky to me, and no one in my family sat me down to explain it clearly.

Mom cared for Dad when his health began to fail, she advocated for him with his grossly incompetent doctors, and she kept watch over Dad until his dying day.  It had always been crystal-clear to me how much she loved him despite his severe mental illness.

My Mom, who is nearing eighty, comes from a generation that I call the “stigma generation”.  Although she’s a freethinker in many respects, I believe she harbors stigma toward those with bipolar disorder in spite of her high intellect.

That includes me…especially me.

Part of me doesn’t blame her for being a stigmatizer, but a much bigger part of me does hold her responsible for her disparaging attitude.

The mother-daughter relationship is often one of the most deep-rooted, intense bonds that can exist.  That fact in itself explains why it’s so hard for me when she puts me down for having bipolar.  We live hundreds of miles apart, so the berating usually happens over the phone.  When she tells me that I’m  “being manic” in a belittling tone when I simply disagree with her about something, I wind up hanging up the phone on her in anger.  Nothing triggers me like my Mom when she calls me “bipolar” in a demeaning way.

Last night, when I told her I was working on my book about postpartum bipolar disorder, she said that I was “obsessive” in choosing that as my topic . (Well, maybe I am a little obsessive, but I prefer the term “focused”) She said she envisioned me writing novels.

I laughed!  Barbara Cartland I’m not!  I’ve never been a creative writer, and I never stated that’s what I wanted to do with my life.  I’ve made my peace with my choice.  I love the non-fiction realm, and I’ve been writing in that genre for over fifteen years.  All I wanted was her approval, really.  I wanted to hear her say, “Oh Dyane, I’m so proud of you.  That’s a worthy topic to write about!”, or something along those lines.

I couldn’t hold back and I told her that encouragement was what I wanted, not put-downs.  She backtracked a bit, and she conceded to me that yes, it was a good idea after all. But I knew it was really lip service from her.  I was well-aware that she didn’t want to tell her high-society friends that I was writing a bipolar-themed book.

“Is this a memoir?”  she inquired.

“Well, uh, yes.” I replied.  (It’s half-memoir, half-other stuff, but I didn’t want to get into detail with her just then.)

“Am I going to be in it?” she asked.  I knew I couldn’t lie to her about that question.  I had been worried that if I told her about my project, she’d freak out at any mention of her, even a superficial one.

“Well yes, just a little.  It’s mainly about me and Dad.” I  back-pedaled.  To my surprise and relief, my brief explanation soothed her for the time being.

“Well, you’re going to write about what you want, aren’t you?” she retorted a tad haughtily.

Uh-oh, I thought, this could go south real quick.

“Yes, but it’s a good thing.” I replied reassuringly.

Mom’s storm clouds were averted for the time being, and I could take a deep breath. When my Mom had a tempter tantrum, it made my two little girls’ explosions seem like gentle burbles in a stream.

I can condemn my Mom all I want, but I can’t imagine what it must be like to have a child with bipolar disorder and I want to step up my empathy.  The jury is not out on either of my girls as far as whether or not they have inherited the genetics for bipolar.  I’ve read various reports that children could have between a 15-30% chance of inheriting bipolar disorder if one parent has bipolar.

All I can do is learn from my mistakes that I’ve experienced with my Mom, and (this is the hardest thing for me to do by far) accept that it is likely she will never change her attitude towards bipolar disorder as far as I’m concerned.   Stigma is so insidious, and if you’ve harbored stigma towards mental illness for almost eighty years, it’s unlikely to disappear.  I try to be a positive person, and the phrase “Never say never” comes to mind, but unless there’s a cure for bipolar disorder, I’ll most likely always be damaged goods in her eyes.











18 thoughts on “Stigma from the Source

  1. I find your stories inspiring. This part of the reason why I started blogging to battle the stigma of the disorder. I wanted to show that we weren’t those displayed on tv. You can have a mood disorder and be a normal person.

    • I’d rather get a comment like this, thebipolarmama, than be given a fancy chocolate bar! Your words are so very sweet to me. Thank you or taking time to comment. You are absolutely right – we *can* have a mood disorder & still be a normal person, and in some ways I think we are way more normal than typical “normies” in that we moms w/bp often have greater compassion for others. Thanks again for stopping by! I look forward to reading your upcoming blog posts!

  2. Your story really resonates with me. This is exactly why I have withheld my diagnosis from my family (my mom). If I disagree with her on anything, she immediately jumps to well I think you aren’t “seeing things” clearly, and she doesn’t even know. Anyway, you strength and patience with your mom is what I hope to possess one day. Thank you for sharing your story!

    • Whyteknucklez, thank you from the bottom of my heart…no make that from the bottom of my feet! 🙂 (I mean that as a compliment, really…I have very clean feet.)

      Your comments have been a joy for me to read and inspire me to keep writing. I only discussed the tip of the iceberg regarding my mom’s attitude towards my bp in this post. (She doesn’t read my blog, & she doesn’t know I have a blog, but of course that could change in ten seconds, and so I didn’t want to go off just in case she becomes a reader.)

      You truly get it regarding how it could be with your mom if she found out about your diagnosis. I am so sorry you cannot be open with her – that sucks, but I COMPLETELY understand your rationale! I still have a long way to go with my strength & patience with my Mom, but some headway is possible, and my intuition tells me you could definitely do it!

      Take care and thanks again for reading – I am very grateful to have you as a reader.

  3. Thanks for your kind words to me on Twitter today. We don’t live too far from each other! My daughter went to pre-school in Ben Lomand! Keep in touch…I love your writing and can’t wait to read your book!

    • Wow bpnana – what a small world. Both my girls attended Kreative Kids in Ben Lomond with Freesia Raine & then Teacher Sandy! I must follow your blog & get to know you! We live near Highlands Park and I love how beautiful it is up here. Thank you for the fantastic compliment about my writing…it makes me feel wonderful. :))

  4. I am so sorry that you have to live with that stigma. I can understand that pain, my family stigmatizes me too. Apparently I just need to pray more and not worry about medicine, husband is finally getting it though at least. Which is why I blog, to break the stigmas. 🙂

    Can’t wait for your book!

      • Just knowing that you are out there reading makes me feel happy, blessed and honored. I’m curious to see what you think of tomorrow’s (Wed.) post, so stop on by! But never feel pressured to comment – I do the same thing with you, read but don’t always comment – but ever since I started following ya, I never miss a post of yours!

    • Love your comment (I love them all) and yes, I know you understand where I am coming from for real. When the time comes, *you* are going in my acknowledgements/thank you page for being there for me as my virtual buddy and font of inspiration!!!

  5. Wow, sorry that you have to face stigmatizing in your own family. I can imagine how much that would hurt.

    I was lucky. My dad was a psychology professor so he understood that being bipolar is not a choice.

    I wish everyone understood that. Blame is the easy solution but it does far more harm than good.

    • Thank you Dr. DeVinney, I will keep writing! I like to follow a good “Doctor’s Orders”! 😉 It’s wonderful to have you and your co-author visiting my page and inspires me to keep on…

  6. Pingback: Mental Health Monday: A Special Tuesday Edition | A Way With Words

  7. Thank you for this heart-felt, and heart-wrenching post about a struggle I have faced with members of my own family. I have included this in a special Tuesday edition of my “Mental Health Monday” feature.

    • Tony, I cannot thank you enough for making me feel truly awesome with your words. It was difficult to write about such a personal issue, but it was worth it for me to share my pain. I feel appreciated and understood by you, and you’re in my thoughts and prayers today!

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