Wednesday, November 24, 2004

By Popular Demand

Friends and family have encouraged me to post this letter that I wrote to my dad. I've hesitated because it's so long and serious that I was afraid our regular readers would become bored and quit stopping by. Well, fuck it. If this bores you, skip it and come back tomorrow. I'm gonna listen to my friends and post it!


Dear Dad:

Lately I’ve been kind of obsessed with the idea of talking to you about my life and how my bipolar disorder has affected it. I’m not certain that you truly understand what this disease is and what it does to someone. It’s pretty hard for those who don’t have it to know how it feels—just ask Steve! It’s taken him years and he’s still learning.

As I learn more about bipolar disorder and exactly what it does to a person, I’m discovering why things always felt so hard for me. I used to think I was lazy or not trying hard enough. Now I know that at times I was experiencing different levels of depression that made it difficult or impossible for me to do what I needed to do in school or at work. I used to feel guilty and mystified that I didn’t have better grades while my test scores were so high. Now I realize that the fact that I actually graduated at all is a testament to my own persistence and determination, the comfort and patience I received from Mom, and the work ethic and encouragement I got from you.

It’s taken me many years to come to terms with having bipolar disorder, and I still haven’t learned all I need to know about why I have it, what it means in my life, what I need to do with the lessons I’ve learned and have yet to learn. I’m so glad that I’ve finally listened to the various voices that have told me that I need to simplify my life in order to deal with having both a family and bipolar disorder, that I do not have the energy or the strength to deal with both while working outside the home full or even part time. I still occasionally feel guilty about “retiring” at such an early age, but I have a wonderful support group (Steve, Leah, Theresa, my doctors and therapist) who bring me back to reality by reminding me about how sick I got when I was working.

I look at other women who have families and careers and manage a household (a clean one!), and I think, “Why can’t I do that?” Then I realize that we all have different ways of contributing to the world, and that I never really did see myself as the homemaker or even as the career type. Not sure what type I did see myself as, but per haps now that I finally have time to think about it…! At least now I will take into consideration that whatever I do, I will take bipolar disorder with me.

There are treatments, most of which I’ve tried, but no cure. It does not go away, and it is usually progressive (although some studies show that post menopausal women experience a decrease in the frequency and duration of depressive episodes). I’ve discovered that having to switch medications every year or two is not uncommon, and research continues with new medications that have fewer side effects and long-term problems. Still, these medications won’t cure me, but may make the disorder a little easier to live with.

Electro convulsive therapy (ECT) treatment, which is what I had last year, is statistically safer and more effective than drug treatment. The idea is to give frequent treatments for the first month, then taper to a therapeutic level, often as few as two or three times per year. The patient needs little or no medication. Unfortunately, I was one of those rare patients for whom they were unable to find a therapeutic level. Bummer.

Perhaps this helps you to see that bipolar disorder is a medical condition which requires medical treatment. It is not a character flaw, or a bad attitude, or an unsatisfactory life situation. It cannot be cured by diet, exercise, rest, a hobby, a new job, or a shopping trip, although all those things can be beneficial to anyone. It must be understood, however, that someone who is severely depressed may find it difficult to do anything more demanding than getting up to go to the bathroom.

I’ll try to get some reading materials for you that explain the symptoms, or, if you’d rather, I can just write down some of my experiences and feelings. Either way, I don’t want you to feel badly for me, or guilty in any way. You did nothing to cause this. You didn’t make any mistakes in parenting that contributed to this. In fact, my therapist and both my shrinks have commented that aside from having bipolar disorder, I’m one of the most mentally healthy and well-adjusted people they know, which is a tribute to my upbringing! So pat yourself on the back!

I hope that this letter is only the beginning of many communications, both written and spoken. There is so much I want to share with you. I’ve learned so much from you that has helped me be a better person—things that I’ve passed on to my kids, sometimes without even realizing it! You’re an amazing person and you’re leaving an impressive legacy!



You might ask why I'd share something so personal with strangers. Well, there are several reasons. Mostly, I'm hoping that this will encourage those with mental illness to share their experience with their family and loved ones. We need all the help and support we can get, but sometimes we have to educate people before we can get it. It is possible to break through to even the most stubborn skeptics. Maybe this letter will help people find the words (hell, print it out and show it to someone!).

Also, you've probably noticed that I'm on a personal crusade to reduce social stigma about mental illness. It shouldn't be such a huge deal to talk about our mental health. I mean, the brain is just another organ in our bodies. We have no greater control over brain than we do our heart, lungs, or liver, and we should not ashamed when it malfunctions. I'm not ashamed, so I talk about it. The more we talk freely about mental health/illness, the closer we get to breaking the stigma.


At 9:53 PM, Blogger Kay said...

Lu, that's beautiful. I would like to think that if my brother could have written something nearly half as eloquent to our father, Dad wouldn't be berating himself every day since my brother's death. They had other issues between them but Daddy never really understood that it was a disease, and I think he believed that my brother blamed him somehow when it was just other (normal father-son) issues he projected upon him. But give yourself credit too. In order for someone to write something like that, they need to have fully accepted the truth of their own disease, and I'm not sure my brother ever wanted to do that. You all have a lot to be thankful for!

At 1:59 AM, Blogger Buster Van Buren said...

Bravo...well done....That was a brave thing to do, and a nice thing to do for your Dad....If I was bipolar right now, I would be both proud of you, and wondering what's for dinner. (As one side of me would be all sympathetic and stuff, and the other side would be mainly hungry all the time). Hopefully I won't have a thousand people sending me hate mail now for making a joke. Aw...screw 'em..let them send me mail - it'll give me something to do when I search them down and find out exactly where they live and what time they'll be home.... :)

Anyways....It was REALLY a good post, and I was not bored. Have a great Thanksgiving, and save a leg for Buster #2....

At 2:28 PM, Blogger John Q. Public said...

Incredible. Just fucking incredible. Thanks for putting into words what I cannot - as another with Major Depression with a little Bi-Polar thrown in for good measure, thanks for posting this. Although, being nuts is somewhat fun, don't you think?


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