One of my dearest friends and I were discussing strong women on a sultry summer night. She was talking about how strong she was, and I echoed her when I matter-of-factly stated that I, also, was a strong woman. She laughed and then she snorted (Yes, snorted) and I was immediately offended to learn she did not consider me to be a woman of strength. I asked her, “Have you ever had someone you love die in your arms?” Very flippantly, she said, “Yeah,” but I knew that wasn’t true…then she added, “I just mean…well…you’re sick.” Those words delivered a crushing blow. Yes, I have a mental illness…I am a rapid-cycling bipolar 1 and I have had to bear the loss, stigma and isolation of my disorder along the way to learning how to manage this unwelcome disruption to my life.. My brother and sisters, who once looked at me with respect, now treat me as though I am a feeble child. That hurts. I was also surprised as I watched close friendships dissolve as my illness exacerbated. I felt betrayed and bereft, but as I became better acquainted with the aspects of my illness, I understood their departure from my life. Unmanaged, bipolar can be a very ugly illness, and, quite frankly, during the early days following my diagnosis, I wasn’t much fun to be around, and as bounced in and out of hospitals, and went through a plethora of drugs that either didn’t work, dumbed me down, or damn-near killed me, my social circle all but disappeared. My successful career was also a casualty of my illness, and to this day I mourn the loss of that. I became highly sensitized to the propagation of misinformation and stereotyping about this disorder. I am so tired and somewhat angry that the media frequently blames bipolar for violence and crime…The only violent behavior or crimes I ever committed during a bipolar episode were directed at myself, and I am fortunate that I survived. One in eight, with this disorder, is successful at ending their life…and many kind, worthwhile, and creative individuals are lost to us. For years I tried desperately to disguise my disfigurement until one day when I realized maybe, just maybe, I might be able to help or educate one person with this disorder, and mustering all the courage in my being, I finally stepped out of the closet and became quite vocal about individuals living with mental illness and its ensuing stigma. I became hopeful that I still had something to offer this world. I educated myself on every facet of the disorder and its treatment. I set up a web page on living with bipolar and began to discuss it openly when initiated by comments or other appropriate impetus. I have tried to live by example to show others I am not to be feared or avoided. Occasionally, I succeed, and that makes all my past suffering slip away a bit… Oh I still remember it, but it serves me well at times…keeps the fire in my belly burning.
As for my strength…as for being a strong woman… I survived a tortuous childhood of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of a man who wanted to decimate my spirit…. The love of my life died in my arms two weeks before Christmas, still I found a way to celebrate the life he lived and was strong enough to stand before 400 people at his memorial and give a very uplifting eulogy. His friends and family laughed, as together, we remembered the very full and good life he lived. I was devastated by the loss of the only real father I had ever known…He was a friend and a mentor and I still miss our long discussions and his wise advice. I still have some manic-depressive episodes, but I now know what I need to do to get through them. In a commentary for NPR, I coined a motto that I frequently use to end my articles: “I have a disorder…It does not define me.” I AM a strong and giving woman and, of course, I can be the funniest person I know. I will not let this illness beat me.