Stigma from the Source by Dyane Leshin-Harwood
“Stigma = a mark of disgrace or infamy; a stain or reproach,
as on one’s reputation.”
I was diagnosed with postpartum bipolar disorder in 2007, seven weeks
after the birth of my daughter Rilla. I was thirty-seven when I admitted
myself into our local hospital’s locked-down mental health unit. While
there, a psychiatrist met with me and within two minutes he informed me
that I had bipolar disorder.
I called my father on the unit’s pay phone. We were very close, and I
loved him with all my heart. My Dad also 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 had made
a disparaging remark, he would have been a hypocrite, but parents with
bipolar have been known to condemn their children for having the same
mental illness as they do.
I’ve had a different relationship with my mother. I love her, but we’ve
had a turbulent dynamic for years. She frequently told me that I was an
“oppositional teen” and she was right; I seldom agreed with her. We did
(and do) share much in common aside from loving one another, but when I
was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a rift formed between us.
I regret that I never had much compassion for what it was like for my Mom
to live with a husband with bipolar disorder. Mom repeatedly rescued Dad
from dire situations caused by his bipolar, including saving his job.
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 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’s 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.
I don’t completely blame her for being a stigmatizer, but I can’t help but
feel incredibly hurt by her disparaging remarks. The mother-daughter
relationship is often one of the most deep-rooted bonds that exist. That
fact in itself explains why it’s painful for me when she puts me down for
having bipolar. She lives far away from me, so her berating usually
happens over the phone. When she tells me that I’m “being manic” in a
belittling tone when I’m simply disagreeing with her about something, I
wind up slamming down the phone on her in anger. Nothing triggers me like
my Mom does when she calls me “bipolar” in a demeaning way.
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 love non-fiction, and I’ve been
writing in that genre for many years. All I wanted was her approval. I
wanted her to say, “Dyane, I’m proud of you. That’s a worthy topic!”, or
something along those lines.
I couldn’t hold back. I told her that encouragement was what I wanted,
not put-downs. She backtracked, and conceded that yes, my topic was good
after all. But I knew it was really lip service. I was aware that she
didn’t want to tell her high-society friends that I was writing a
“Is this a memoir?” she inquired.
“Uh, yes.” I replied. (It’s half-memoir, half-other stuff, but I didn’t
want to get into details!)
“Am I going to be in it?” she asked. I knew I couldn’t lie to her about
her question. I was worried that if I told her I was going to mention
her, she’d freak out, even if she was portrayed in the best light.
“Well yes, just a little. It’s mainly about me and Dad.” I back-pedaled.
To my surprise and relief, my 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 because of that, I want to step
up my empathy. It’s uncertain whether or not either one of my girls has
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.
I am now involved with actively fighting stigma, including being the
editor at the new website Stigmama.com and working with the International
Bipolar Foundation. While I’m able to help through those rewarding ways,
I must accept the hard reality that my Mom probably will never change her
attitude towards bipolar disorder. 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 seen as damaged goods in her eyes.
Dyane Leshin-Harwood is a freelance writer, mother and stigma fighter!
Dyane was diagnosed with type I postpartum bipolar disorder at age
thirty-seven six weeks after the birth of her daughter. Dyane is an
editor at the new website Stigmama.com. Stigmama.com is a cutting-edge
forum that focuses on women, mental health and stigma founded by the
acclaimed perinatal/postpartum expert Dr. Walker Karraa. Aside from
raising her two daughters with her husband, Dyane is a mental health
advocate. She founded the Santa Cruz, California chapter of the
Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) and facilitated free
support groups for mothers with mood disorders. Dyane is a Consumer
Advisory Council member for the International Bipolar Foundation and she
blogs for them at www.ibpf.org. Dyane is working on her first book “Birth
of a New Brain – Healing from Postpartum Bipolar Disorder”.