Semantics Matter! Do Your Part to Stop the Stigma!

I am bipolar.


On Thanksgiving morning Sarah and I woke and prepared for our quest—to run a 10K on Thanksgiving Day. Four years earlier, back before her bipolar disorder diagnosis, she, Laura and I had run in Huffing for Stuffing, a 5 and 10K event in Bozeman, MT that benefited the local food bank. This year, we invited friends to participate along with us—wherever they might live—and make a donation to their local food bank.

Laura ran a 5K in Tulsa, my friend Amy walked 5K in Alabama, another friend walked 5K on a sunny -6 degree morning in Bozeman, and Gilbert, a former student who suffered serious injuries in motorcycle crash last year, managed to walk almost five miles. Some of my other friends, Debbie and Kebrina, ran the real event in Bozeman, Montana.

In Holbrook, the below freezing weather and weak sunshine made my nose drip and my eyes water as we headed outside for our own personal “Huffing for Stuffing” event. It felt good to run with Sarah again, as if we had started a new chapter where the familiar characters had returned to doing comfortable things together again.

After we passed the halfway mark, Pedro texted both of us to let us know that he had breakfast ready. Since I didn’t want to stop mid ‘race’, I used the voice recognition feature to let him know that we hadn’t finished our quest. Later that day, I glanced at his text again and my heart almost stopped beating for a split second.

Right above Pedro’s innocuous words, “Oh! I forgot about your turkey run!” the words from a conversation between he, Sarah and I jumped out and squeezed my heart. It took me a moment to realize that the words above his “Breakfast is ready” text had been written back in March.

Back when Sarah suffered from mania and paranoia and had lost her executive functions (foresight, hindsight and insight). Pedro and I had each texted her “I love you!” and her response of “Whatever” glared angrily back. I had to scroll back through the whole painful conversation and check the date just to make sure.

God graced our Thanksgiving vacation with the greatest present ever—our daughter. Our sweet, helpful, funny, responsible, kind, talented, enthusiastic, and ready-for-any-adventure daughter. She has returned to college and she has a plan. She has goals in life and knows how to reach them.

She has dealt with the bumps in college life with equanimity and calm. She has come to terms with the fact that, like a person with diabetes, she will need to maintain a certain lifestyle in order to cope with her bipolar disorder.

We have both arrived at a point in our journey where the numbness of diagnosis has worn off and learning more about bipolar disorder seems like the right thing to do. I have learned that semantics make a difference.

I had gestational diabetes during my first pregnancy. The diagnosis required immediate lifestyle changes to get me through the last few months of pregnancy, and lifestyle changes in my late thirties when I realized that because of the gestational diabetes I could more easily fall prey to Type 2 Diabetes if I didn’t watch my weight.

People I know who identify themselves as diabetic—as in “I AM diabetic” always seemed to over identify with their diagnoses—turning it into an excuse or a crutch and bemoaning their life sentence that prevents them from indulging in what they long to indulge in (and then they often indulge anyway—worsening their situation).

On the other hand, those who take the “I HAVE diabetes” approach seemed more balanced in their lives. They have a long-term health issue that requires them to make some adjustments, but they don’t plan on letting their diagnoses dictate their life.

Making the distinction between BEING bipolar and HAVING a bipolar disorder might not seem significant at first, but semantics matter. I think it makes all the difference in acceptance—not just for one’s self, but for family members and friends as well.

After all, one would not go around cheerily announcing, “I’m cancer!” or “I’m kidney failure!” or “I’m heart disease!” One HAS those medical conditions. The having rather than the being expresses inherent hope that with lifestyle changes, medical intervention and follow-through, things will normalize.

Semantics matter. People HAVE a diagnosis. They are NOT the disease. #stopthestigma #mentalhealth #bipolar Click To Tweet

Cancer, especially, carries a comeback codicil. But eventually, one learns to live life in the present and ignore the shadowy scepter of relapse. It took a few years to realize that every time Pedro had a sniffle or a headache or a bout of dizziness that a rational reason existed to explain each of these things (common cold, dehydration, standing up too quickly). I fought against hyper-vigilance and helicoptering (not at all becoming behaviors in a spouse).

As the parent of a young adult diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I must rein in my inner vigilante and refuse to fall into the trap of analyzing every laugh, giggle, unusual text or delayed response. These things do not mean Sarah has relapsed. Hyper-vigilance and helicoptering are equally unbecoming in a parent of an adolescent.

And so for now, we spend our spare time learning—educating ourselves in the intricacies of a long-term disease that plays out differently in 99.9% of the cases. The family members of persons diagnosed with bipolar disorder have a responsibility to educate themselves about the disease, the resources available, and how to have helpful conversations in the same way that the family members of a person with diabetes need to educate themselves.

Only through open conversations, education, acceptance and planning can those with mental illness experience the support that they need to navigate the confusing waters of their diagnosis. Above all, they need to know that they are not alone. They are not pariahs.

If you have a family member with a #bipolar diagnosis, educate yourself! It's your job to help #stopthestigma. Click To Tweet

To be continued (Sarah gets the last word 🙂 )…

Anita currently teaches English to 7th-12th graders. She describes herself as a ‘recovering cancer caregiver’ who gives thanks daily that her husband has been cancer-free for ten years.

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  • It’s so hard to deal with mental illness…or know exactly what to do and when to do it. I am thankful that God helps me through this and gives comfort and help. He gives hope when it seems (In my situation) sometimes hopeless. Great point today, having something is not the same as being something.
    Kortney recently posted…A Christmas Wish List & Fun Giveaway!My Profile

  • YES! I’m nearly jumping out of my seat as I’m reading this. I’ve caught myself saying “he’s bi-polar” or “she’s depressed” so many times, and I’m having to repent myself from that kind of talk. We are not defined by our diagnosis. And I love this line: “Only through open conversations, education, acceptance and planning can those with mental illness experience the support that they need to navigate the confusing waters of their diagnosis.” Bravo!
    Samantha recently posted…Devotionals for WomenMy Profile

  • Yes! Great post. Blessed to be your neighbor over at the RaRa linkup.
    Tara recently posted…Our Eternal Advent HopeMy Profile

  • This is excellent. In so many arenas, we reduce people to a demographic instead of simply describing one aspect of their personhood. This series on mental illness has been so great!
    Michele Morin recently posted…Words About THE WORD: Recommended Reads for ChristmasMy Profile

  • That is a really important distinction that I never thought about, Anita. Thanks for making it so clear. The Lord is using you to bring about greater awareness of the challenges of mental AND PHYSICAL illness in this series and in previous posts you’ve written about caregiving.

    Keep up the good work!
    Betsy de Cruz recently posted…When You Need a Promise of HopeMy Profile

  • What a helpful perspective the right words can give. People who haven’t dealt with these issues aren’t being thoughtless on purpose – they just don’t realize what’s involved until it affects them in some way. Thank you for sharing your family’s story and educating us about mental illness.
    Barbara H. recently posted…A Christmas MemeMy Profile

  • Oh friend… as one who knows and values the power of words… and of self-talk… so much Yes and Amen to this!!! We are not the diagnosis –whatever it is! So good! (And I love that you are giving Sarah the last word!)
    ~Karrilee~ recently posted…He’s All In! (… aka Ya Gotta Love a God who quotes Luke Danes!)My Profile

  • I love that you make the distinction between being and having. I like to remind myself of that even with my thoughts and emotions–I have some crazy thoughts and emotions, but I am NOT those things either! They are just things that pass through me. Thanks, Anita.
    Lisa notes recently posted…Avoid these 5 mistakes for hometown missionsMy Profile

  • I agree with you whole-heartedly. I was in education for 11 years and I know how important it is not to label anyone! It was so important that no student ever called themselves dumb or stupid or learning disabled. NO! They are smart and capable and have a learning disability–one that they can learn to overcome through understanding their brains more and figuring out how they learn best! Thanks for sharing!!! Blessings!
    Christine Leeb recently posted…3 Ways to Get Past Negative Comments (Plus, Why it Still Bothers Me to be Mistaken for a Grandma!)My Profile

    • Exactly! I remember learning this lesson when I first started teaching students whose first language was not English (it helped that I had gone through the language learning experience myself). First-hand experience does wonders for helping us understand other people, doesn’t it?!
      Anita Ojeda recently posted…Ten Tips for Turning Reluctant Readers into Eager ReadersMy Profile

  • Wow! Your words today ring true. I love how you dug into the semantics of any disease. I also appreciate your honesty and transparency throughout the writing of this story. Being a parent is hard on any given day, but when you have outside factors such as you have experienced life because very unbalanced. Thank you for sticking this out – telling us the whole story. I look forward to Sarah’s final words!
    Mary Geisen recently posted…Beginnings of GraceMy Profile

  • Anita, your words are so clear and real. Why is it that we try to fit everyone and thing into boxes? Our assigned boxes! This is a blessing for those who suffer such diseases and also for those of us who are diagnosed with physical illness. I need to watch my own words about myself let alone others. Thank you, thank you.
    Caring through Christ, ~ linda
    ~ linda recently posted…Simeon WaitingMy Profile

  • I relate to this: As the parent of a young adult diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I must rein in my inner vigilante and refuse to fall into the trap of analyzing every laugh, giggle, unusual text or delayed response. These things do not mean Sarah has relapsed. Hyper-vigilance and helicoptering are equally unbecoming in a parent of an adolescent.
    I could say the same thing of my 46-year old daughter’s problems with addictions. The over-analyzing if she even takes an Advil.
    O God help us to be wise and discerning and not taken to paranoia.
    Susan Shipe recently posted…five minute friday: reflectMy Profile

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