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Dealing With Ignorance
Coming Out Bipolar
Patrick Kennedy visited Jesse Jackson Jr. at the Mayo Clinic to give him comfort while he is suffering from depression. Jesse Jackson has been diagnosed as bipolar and after weeks of trying to keep this quiet, the media has got onto it.
I’ve just been reading comments about their meeting on the internet and I’m appalled by the cruelty, ignorance and irrelevance of most of the commentators. In many cases they have twisted the event into abusive opinions about both men and their privileged families and reduced the matter to political infighting. Some mentioned the issue of whether Jesse Jackson should retire from public life and others focused on the medical insurance issue. Every one of them has entirely missed the point.
When I heard that Patrick Kennedy had reached out to his long-time friend to publicly demonstrate his support, I could have cheered. One afflicted by the experience of depression was moved to comfort the other, even knowing that this association would pull coals down upon his own head. I can only believe that the visit affected Jackson positively. I hope he is not reading about the ignorant and unkind attitudes to his condition in the press. That would be enough to depress anybody.
If you have not suffered depression personally, and even if someone close to you has been so afflicted, you may have no idea how devastating it is. By definition depression renders you without hope. It is a weight on the chest; it brings to mind your worst nightmares, and offers no prospect of relief. For some only death and an end to existence seem to be the way out. If this rings a bell with you, read on. Resist the urge to end it because the mood will pass.
If you are bipolar you may experience another strange phenomenon, quite the opposite but equally unsettling. Your spirits soar while affected by euphoria. You start by feeling elated, which leads to increasingly unrealistic assessment of your own abilities, and may sharpen your sense of humor to the level of comedy script writers, although in everyday life your jokes are average. Now your speeding mind sees word play and invents jokes that normally would not occur to you. It can be inspiring. But all too soon (often a day or two later) you crash and without help you can proceed to the other extreme.
A lot of comedy writers and other gifted, creative people are bipolar. I concede that a bipolar person should not be in a position where he or she can do great damage, like pressing the button if he happens to be the President. But there is no reason why he or she should not be president of a corporation or a head teacher, for example. bipolar people while stable are often useful and competent members of society (in a higher proportion than you would credit) and should not suffer from the bias of critics who know nothing about the condition.
That it is vastly more common than you suppose is partly because it is treatable, but also because it’s concealed due to that harmful prejudice. Mental illness carries an unfair burden of stigma. bipolar mood swings are due to a chemical imbalance. So is Diabetes. Nobody tries to hide their diabetic condition or is hounded out of office because of it. But people are afraid to disclose their bipolarity for fear that jobs will be denied them, or that they will be discriminated against on many levels. So they hide it, thus adding to their tensions.
Admitting you are bipolar is akin to Coming Out. I applaud and value Patrick Kennedy for his compassion and courage, and hope that Jesse Jackson will soon recover from this bout and be established on an even plain with medication; that’s all it takes once the doctors have explored and found the best treatment. Jesse Jackson and all who suffer from this condition need to know that it is treatable and they have nothing to be ashamed about. Today’s psychiatric medications are extremely effective.
I was briefly hospitalized with post natal depression in 1963, aged 26. Up to then I had no mental instability at all, so it was a great shock to suffer a surge of elation after a difficult birth, followed three weeks later by a depression so deep, I literally prayed to die. At that time I first heard the expression ‘manic depression’. I told my husband of one year, you should divorce me and marry someone normal. He stood by me, but many of my fellow patients were not so fortunate. For three months I was insomniac and incapable of looking after the baby without the support of my mother and mother in law, but I was fine for many years after that. I gave birth three times more without mental problems.
In the next forty years I was twice more hospitalized for acute episodes, in both cases due to pressures in my life, and while taking no medication by my own choice. My moods went up and down but generally were not disruptive. I should have taken the pills but a brief experience of Lithium (all that was available then) left me so flat, I preferred to take my chances in order to maintain my normal joie de vivre. The last breakdown was the result of the demise of my second marriage at age 65. 2002 was the first time I heard about ‘bipolar disorder.’ Then I agreed to take the medication and ten years later, have had no further problems. After trying three medications I found one that maintained my balance perfectly without side effects and I would urge anyone suffering from bipolar disorder to seek this kind of help. It is not an admission of weakness; you wouldn’t hesitate to take a remedy for indigestion.
In my memoir Plate Spinner I have written openly about the experience of mental illness, and hospitalization, in the hope that it gives encouragement to people afflicted and ashamed of it. I am not ashamed now, but I was then. I can afford to bruit about it in my seventies when I will not be turned down for a job or socially shunned because of it. The shame and dismay I felt at 26 is as acute in my recollection as the misery experienced in that state, and the shame should not be necessary. Statistically it is a common experience but you would never know, because it is hidden. I am open now at every opportunity, in order to encourage others.
We sometimes hear about celebrities having this condition but if they can conceal it, they usually do. I look forward to the day when they all Come Out, in order to demonstrate to others that highly functioning people sometimes succumb, and recover, and that they are not to blame. Unfortunately there will still be unkind comments from the ignorant, but for the ignoramuses I’m afraid there is no cure.
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