I recently began speaking openly about my mental health diagnoses. After living in fear of stigma for 17 years, this opportunity to join the conversation has been rewarding on many levels. It struck me, however, that while I often cite my highly valued support system, I’ve said little about this team of family and friends.
Why is this group of people so important? Who are they and what have they done to help? What are the challenges for not only the diagnosed but for those offering help and guidance?
By asking questions such as these and sharing stories, I hope adding this important piece of my story to the conversation will enable a better understanding of why support systems are a quintessential piece to regaining health and maintaining an ability to thrive with a mental health diagnoses.
Throughout a three part series, I therefore hope to illustrate how my family and friends have helped make me the person I am today.
I recently sat down with my Parents, Aunt and Uncle to discuss my breakthrough episode and how far I’ve come from that exhilarating and horrifying place.
One common theme resonated throughout the interview process: a pride in who I’ve become throughout this often frightening path, as well as a distinct familial understanding of my episodic personality versus the woman I am today.
I asked Mom for her first recollection from my return home for NYC. “My knees became weak and wobbly”, she said remembering my walk down the steps from the small commuter plane. “You looked old and disheveled”. By 9 p.m. that night, she said she knew something was radically wrong.
After a sleepless, dramatic night of rapid cycling with both auditory and visual hallucinations, Mom said: “you announced the devil had impregnated you”. Knowing it wasn’t the devil’s doing, but wondering if maybe I could be pregnant, she called a well-recommended obstetrician.
Mom said the OB reported that a psychiatrist should be contacted immediately. Before we left, the doctor made an appointment for us with the best practitioner she knew in the area. That night, I was at the home office of my future psychiatrist. He diagnosed me as bipolar I and prescribed a medication that required immediate intake. My Father said he and Mom took the doctor’s direction as gospel. In the hands of practitioners they trusted, the path was just a little easier, he said. Having left a job in New York without notice, I was without health insurance. But Dad said they dug deep and found the resources to pay for the crucial medication. “It’s what we had to do without question”, he said.
Each family member told many stories about my arrival home. Both my Aunt and Uncle remember a shell of the “sweet, pretty girl” they had known throughout my childhood and young adult years. And with love, they did what they had to do for me to become grounded. Mom –my support group’s team captain — worked tirelessly bringing me back and forth to appointments and keeping a sense of “normalcy and calm” around my childhood home. But since my parents both worked, they also assured I was never alone. My Uncle, for example, said he would converse with me quietly and as “normally as possible”. “I didn’t want you to feel like a patient”, he said.
My Uncle also explained how proud he’s been that I clearly inherited the family trait of “buggering on”. He said not giving up regardless of “the deal you’ve been dealt” has kept you moving in a healthy direction. Dad reinforced this sentiment by saying, “Yes – you could have given up . . . you could have become bored without mania and wanted to turn back”, he said. “But with support and internal fortitude, you walked a path to compliancy”.
My Aunt said: “We see you as “Kate”, not “Bipolar Kate”. “The history of your illness is now a blur and we celebrate who you’ve become”. She added I’ve always been an outgoing, vibrant person, making it difficult at times to distinguish between the two brands of Kate. But “knowing you and understanding your diagnoses as we do, the difference is clear”, she said with a smile. Mom, for example, said jokingly but ultimately most meaningfully: “Those who don’t know you might not understand the problem so well, but we see it as understanding the difference between “Bipolar Kate” and “Drama Queen Kate”. “We see you as the strong-willed woman managing a diagnoses of Bipolar that you are today”, she said proudly.
She later added: “This is a life long journey for me as much as for you, because I’m your Mother”.
Better understanding my brand of family – those who bond even further in a time of crisis – has taught me the gift of real love and support. I know I’ve been blessed.
But these positive realities hurt me intellectually, too. Too often I hear of those recently found ill or undiagnosed shunned by their true friends and even family. In this way, it’s difficult for me to re-count my brand of support, as I feel so awful for those who cannot achieve an ultimately positive mental health experience.
So this is why I’m talking about support. Perhaps my story will help a few with newly diagnosed friends or family better understand that joining together as a team doesn’t necessarily bring to life any inherent fears, but offers a source of security and an ability for your loved one to overcome a series of back-breaking hurdles. It’s a rocky road and I am not naïve of the trials it triggers, but mental health need not call for fear or shame; a mental health diagnoses calls for thoughtful love and support.
I’m in a safe space and need not worry so much about my future as my safety net is stronger than I truly realized . . .