An article in the May isssue of Parents magazine caught my eye the other day.
It was written by a woman whose ex-husband has bipolar disorder and it promised to focus on the difficulties of shared parenting when mental illness is involved.
I am very close with several people who have bipolar disorder, so I was excited and interested to read what the author had to say. This is Parents magazine. Certainly, it would take a fair and well-balanced look at the affects of mental illness on parenthood.
Then I read it and was terribly disappointed.
The woman's ex-husband goes off and on his medications. Once, when he was on his medications, she thought that having a baby would make their marriage stronger, so she got pregnant. Then he went off his meds again and their marriage disintegrated.
He never did anything dangerous to himself or others, but he was often manic and unpredictable. He spent money wildly, rarely slept and once decided that when her parents came to visit, they should sleep in the backyard.
Like many people who experience mania, but not depression, he apparently didn't see the need for medication. Mania feels good. Manics feel smart and invincible. Convincing them that they are sick is next to impossible.
So she took their child and left him.
Can't blame her for that.
The rest of the article is about her attempts at visitation and her struggle with whether her daughter should have contact with her father at all. It's sad and it's probably true, but it's also misleading and will likely take us a few more steps backward toward the days when people with mental illness were locked up forever "for their own good."
The article fails to mention that bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive disorder, is common. According to the National Institutes of Health, about 2.6 percent of adults have it and most cases are considered severe.
It's also highly manageable.
It takes time and patience to find the right medications, particularly since the disorder presents differently in everyone. But anyone can find that balance. Look at Jim Carey, Robin Williams and Rosemary Clooney. How about Alvin Alley, Francis Ford Coppola and Vincent Van Gogh? Or Ted Turner, Buzz Aldrin and Winston Churchill?
Those are just a few of the more high-profile people for whom bipolar disorder is or was part of every day life.
A very few.
The people with bipolar disorder who are close to me have families who love them. They are successful in the careers and they are people I want to be around. They care for their children, they love their spouses, they excel in most everything they do.
I am often humbled around them because, like many bipolars, they are so unbelievably bright and creative.
They struggled before they were diagnosed, they struggled to accept their diagnosis and to get on the right medications, they struggled with the fact that they would have to live with it the rest of their lives.
But they survived and thrived.
As with any illness or disorder, there are people like the ex-husband in the article who will not accept their medical conditions. We can't help people who won't help themselves, so many people go untreated. Too many people. Unfortunately, a small percentage of those people, in states of psychosis, do things that are highly dangerous or so ridiculous that they make the headlines.
Those sensational acts are what average person knows of bipolar disorder.
They are what publicly defines it, the false image that so many of us have fought to change.
And this article doesn't help.
There are far worse dads (and moms) than the writer's ex-husband.
There are abusers, abandoners, and people who are just too selfish to love anyone more than themselves. There are thieves and killers and cheaters. There are far, far worse parents than a bipolar dad who forgets birthdays, talks nonsense and overwhelms his daughter with voice mails and letters about subjects that are beyond her maturity level.
How harmful is he?
How much does it really affect her daughter?
I guess I was naive. I thought the media was working a little harder to give a more accurate portrayal of mental illness, to help people understand that in most cases, it's no different than having diabetes or heart disease or any other chronic illness.
It's incurable, but it's treatable.
People live with it every day and do quite well.
Shame on you Parents magazine for not providing more balance, for not putting this article and this woman's experience into perspective.