I’m driving home from the store with my 82 year old mother and we start talking about my book, “Bipolar Disorder, My Biggest Competitor,” In many ways the book has unleashed good ole’ Esther. Since I wrote about some of her struggles with bipolar disorder, she has talked more about it in two weeks, than I believe I have heard in more than 30 years.
Tonight she says, “People need to understand when you’re psychotic you don’t know what you’re doing. But people don’t understand. They think there’s something wrong with you and that they’ll get it too if they hang around you.” “Mmm…is bipolar disorder contagious?” I asked jokingly. “Some people think it is. Like you have some horrible disease and if they come around they’ll get it.” I laughed and we continued our drive home.
Then it hit me, after 30 years my mother finally articulated how bad she felt when her relatives stopped coming around. They literally stopped inviting her to their houses. She became an outcast. The “crazy” sister. Shame on them. It’s not like all their lives were perfect either.
So, as a family member of a loved one with mental illness, I’m quick to defend my mother and sister. But when it comes to me living with a mental illness and becoming an outcast myself, I sort of just give everyone a pass. I suppose it’s because for so long I felt like I caused my own suffering. It was my fault I had those episodes.
I ask my mother, “Who was there when you went through your first tough time?” “You were,” she answered. “Your dad didn’t know what to think. But he would come in the house and ask me if I was doing alright. He didn’t understand it, but he tried. I’ll give him that” I smiled and said, “There were a few people who I could have thrown under the bus in my book. They did some not so nice things. But I wanted to take the high road. And truthfully, I didn’t want to spend time having a pity party for myself. My life is far too blessed to feel sorry for myself. I am exactly where I am supposed to be.”
However, as we drove further down the road I realized Esther really did have a point. Some people treat bipolar disorder like it’s contagious. As if a brain disease can magically rub off. Perhaps that’s why they stop answering calls, not returning text messages or give you all your pictures and press clippings back, as one uncle did with me. He had become ashamed of who I was, and when I needed him most he turned his back on me.
At the end of the day I just move on and say, “I’m not crazy, just contagiously bipolar.” Whatever that means.