Tag Archives: Real Simple

Why I Write About Mental Illness

This blog post is a little different from previous ones.

An essay I wrote for Real Simple was picked up this week by CNN. I was pleased that a story about a serious issue — mental illness — was getting attention. My ex, who I’ll call Mike, developed bipolar disorder after we’d been together thirteen years. I spent another five years with him, trying to make him take his meds so he’d stay well. He didn’t. I took Lizzie and left — Mike’s untreated illness had made him a danger to us.

I write about Mike because I got a firsthand look at a mental health system that’s broken, and far too many of the most vulnerable fall through the cracks. Mike did. I write about my experience of seeing someone I once loved fully and deeply change into a stranger because it changed me. I write about mental illness because, after I “came out” about Mike’s illness to friends and acquaintances, I was astonished to find out how common it is, precisely because it’s not talked about. But mostly, I write about it because I have to. There’s an almost burning need to share our experience.

It’s been eleven years since I left Mike. Everyone who knew us back then knows about his illness and has seen him deteriorate. I can’t sit silently by and whisper, “Poor Mike.” That doesn’t do a whit of good. Instead, I have to put fingers to the keyboard and get our story out because I can’t sit by and do nothing about mental illness. I can’t cure it. I can’t fix the system. But I can write about it. I can tell my story.

When I logged on to CNN and read some of the comments, I was surprised at some of the vitriol. I know I shouldn’t be. I’d already learned firsthand about trolls — when Salon published an essay of mine for the first time, the editor told me she warns writers not to read the comments. We all know that it’s easier to judge and express rage anonymously rather than expressing legitimate concerns using a real name. So I thought I’d address some of the recurring comments.

One thing that struck me was that so many people didn’t seem to know about how bipolar disorder can vary and that it can present differently, especially in severe cases. This, to me, is yet another indication that we need to talk about mental illness instead of keeping quiet about it. Mike, after several misdiagnoses (which is apparently common), was given a diagnosis of bipolar disorder about fourteen years ago. He’s been in and out of hospitals and has seen different psychiatrists. They all agree on his diagnosis. But apparently many on the internet, who’ve never met Mike and are most likely not psychiatrists, know better.

I was stunned by those who kept chiming in about “What about her wedding vows: in sickness and in health?” When I was married to Mike, I took those vows seriously (as I do with my incredibly wonderful second husband). I spent the final five years of our eighteen year relationship trying to make Mike better, taking him to doctors and pleading for him to stay on his medication. That’s an awful lot of “sickness and health.” But vows take two people. Mike repeatedly went off his meds. What happens when the person who has bipolar disorder refuses to do his part to keep himself “in health?” What happens when they refuse to take them not just for themselves, but for me and for their daughter?

It’s an interesting question, though: whose responsibility is it if a sick person refuses his meds? If they’re sick and refuse to take part in their recovery, are they responsible for their choices? If Mike didn’t think he was sick and didn’t take his meds, whose “fault” is it? His? Mine? An inadequate health system that flings meds at people with mental illness, hospitalizes them — but only if they’re a danger to themselves or others, and only until they’re stable — and releases them without followup healthcare? Would the old Mike, pre-mental illness, choose to be unmedicated? I truly can’t imagine that. Ultimately, I had to protect my daughter and me. And I’m confident I made the right decision, as I wrote, in this essay.

The fact is that Mike’s mental illness doesn’t just affect him — it affected me, his daughter, his parents, his sister, his relatives, his neighbors and his friends. Mike’s mom has stuck by him and has spent both massive amounts of time and money attaining legal guardianship. She should be at the point in her life where she gets to enjoy herself and her grandkids rather than worrying what will happen to Mike in the future.

Some commenters mentioned, validly, about Lizzie appearing in the photos. We discussed it with her beforehand. She has a say. She also knows about Mike’s illness — I’ve been open with her about mental illness in an age-appropriate way from the time we left. I never want her to think mental illness should be stigmatized.

I can and do ignore trolls. Writing about mental illness it too important to worry about what others say. I don’t have time to fall into the troll pit. And I’ve been truly floored by the many emails and messages I’ve received from people who’ve gone through something similar. If my essay made even a few people feel they were less alone, then it was worth it.

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