I am 34 years old and still feel like a kid when I engage my parents like this. I had called them and asked if I could come over and “talk about a few things.” What I want to talk about is me, mostly. This will be incredibly awkward.
While we live in the same town and have a very good relationship, I’m still nervous. I’m nervous because I am going to talk to my parents about my bipolar disorder and anxiety. They know that I go to counseling and see a psychiatrist, but we have not talked in depth about my diagnoses or my plan of action or any of that. They did experience a major “event,” when I became quite suicidal and had to be taken to the hospital. They were the first people that my wife called. They know that there is something there, but we’ve avoided talking about that something.
I’ve avoided this conversation because we have had it twice before. First, when I was 17, I went through a depressive episode and basically cut all my friends out of my life for a chunk of the summer. I laid in bed and really did not know what was wrong. I was more depressed than usual and my parents, worried, knew this went beyond simple “teenage moodiness.” Worried, they talked to me and, against my reservations, sent me to a local counselor.
It was a disaster. He was totally unqualified. He said I was just a teenager and that I’d grow out of it. He did not evaluations, no tests, no nothing. We talked and he deemed me “fine” and told my parents.
I was not fine, but I got through.
At 19, I had a major break. I realize now that during my first semester of college, I was going through what is called a “mixed state.” For someone with bipolar, this basically means fluctuating between the manic and the depressive episodes at the same time. So, I’d be angry and agitated and thoughts racing while wanting to die in the worst way imaginable. It’s a truly terrifying experience because you have no escape.
After living in these mixed states for about 6 months, I finally got myself to see another counselor recommended to me by the Student Services Division of my university. Again, it was a disaster. This guy was a guidance counselor, not a mental health counselor. He was not prepared or qualified to deal with someone going through what I was. But, he was the first person to recognize that I was clinically depressed. He did not recognize the bipolar or anxiety, but he did see depression…and he sent me to the student clinic to get meds.
I realized that I would need to talk to my parents. This was for no other reason than the fact that I knew my doctor bills and prescription costs were going to start showing up in their mail. So, I sat down at the table with them when I was home from school. And I told them, “I’ve been seeing a counselor for the last few months and been on anti-depressent medicine for the same amount of time.”
It was clear I blindsided them. They had no idea I was depressed, did not understand why I was depressed, wanted to know what I was doing about it, and some other general questions. They were shocked and we did not talk about it again.
Thus, when I approach my parents at 34, there is history and it makes the conversation more awkward. But, I need to talk to my parents about my bipolar and anxiety because, well, I’ve started to tell other people. I’ve started to live my life publicly as someone with mental illness. And I want my parents to know and ask me questions before someone asks them.
“I need to talk to you about me. I have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and anxiety. I keep it under control, mostly, with my meds and exercise and stuff. But, I have it and it’s tough on me and I’m going to tell people.”
My mom interjects. “Why are you telling people? Why do you feel the need to tell people?”
“Well, I’ve been writing about some of my experiences to help others and I don’t want anyone finding out from an article or something. Besides, it’s a major part of my life and I feel like I’m lying.”
At this point I can see it on their faces: they still struggle with the fact that their child has lived through this pain. They struggle with my struggle. I try to reassure them. “There’s nothing that could have been done about this. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. I just happen to have this, the way someone is born with diabetes. My brain just has a chemical imbalance.” This is the truth. My brain is, in a sense, broken. Bipolar and anxiety are mine to bear, but that’s only possible because there are people in my life who actually care.
We sit there and they ask a number of questions, trying to get at the heart of my illness. This is a contrast to what had happened fourteen years earlier. Then, they did not know what to say or what to do and just tried to let me be so that I could deal with it. And I did because I did not want to burden them. Now, though, things are different. They are asking questions that are important and show that they want to understand and be there for me.
“You’re not going to hurt yourself, are you?”
“What’s it like when you are depressed?”
“What things help you?”
“What can we do?”
They eventually come to this conclusion: “We don’t know what you are going through but we are here for you and for your wife and for your boys.” And they are right here: they do not know what I am going through. No one does. But, it’s the decision to be there, to be present for me that makes it possible for me to continue going on.
I appreciate this more than they know. Their support and love is exactly what I need. And, while not perfect, they help me overcome the stigmas I face on just about a daily basis.