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 🙂 )…

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