Saturday, April 16, 2011

Parents magazine and the bipolar disaster

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.


Irish said...

I grew up with a mom who had an undiagnosed disorder that ended up ruining the majority of my childhood. Her issues came from the abuse she suffered as a child, which in turn caused her to unintentionally abuse her own child - me - and pass on a whole set of mental issues that I've only begun to overcome. I honestly thought my life was over when I began to delve into the many problems that plagued me. I read all of these stories about men who simply cannot cope and eventually break and turn into an evening news story. It became so bad that I nearly turned into an alcoholic - I stopped only because I realized it was exactly what happened to my mom. I didn't want to pass that on.

After getting some help, I've realized life is not over simply because I have a bunch of otherwise bothersome issues. None of them are bi-polar, admittedly, but I think the idea is the same in terms of the consequences if I go off my medication. I will never become that abuser my mom became, but you don't often find stories about those sorts of people - the people who have overcome a lot of these issues and excel. Instead, you'd hear the story of their abuse, if such a tragedy occurred to them in the first place, and nothing else.

Great post, ma'am. It always gives me a bit of hope when I see people talking in a rather odd way about issues like this. Odd, mind you, in that you're being honest and fair.

Twinsmom said...

Thanks, Irish! I'm so glad you got the help you needed and were able to end that cycle.

Anonymous said...

I didn't see the article but I am trying very hard to co-parent with someone who does not accept his diagnosis. It is the hardest thing I have ever done. My child only gets one childhood and we had to leave for safety concerns. The courts have been of no help in either encouraging him to seek wellness or to help keep our daughter safe emotionally.

The empathy/compassion I have tried to exhibit has worn thin since his refusal to accept/treat have caused great trouble for our young child. His rants in front of her that are later denied, his anger in general, are terribly hard to watch and to help her handle. While I am the first to advocate for understanding and better education about mental health issues, please don't discount the challenge of someone dealing with a particular situation. If we could all work to better educate the law enforcement and courts in more rural counties, work to convince insurance companies to make their rules for treatment fit the way the condition works, work to help the other parent in the equation with practical, workable tips, and work to support other parents in general, things could be better for our kids.

Anonymous said...

I have been dealing with a similar situation for almost a decade. My ex is bipolar and his life is a roller coaster. I have much compassion for him and what he deals with but I must put the safety and happiness of our child first. My ex was more stable when we were together but I had no choice in the matter of our divorce. Sadly my ex lacks the focus to meet the most basic needs of our child for safety and stability. While I am challenged constantly with the task of facilitating safe opportunities for our child to spend with dad, I don't have the luxury to assume or rely on my ex to follow through on anything. I will not elaborate further out of respect for my son's dad but I will say that it is incredibly short sighted and naive to compare coparenting with bipolar to coparenting with diabetes or heart disease. I am blessed that nothing terrible has happened to either my son or my ex but I have a lifelong investment and commitment to helping both my son and my ex maintain a safe and balanced relationship. So yeah to Parent magazine for recognizing our struggles and sad for you to see the reality of these sad situations for all involved.

Twinsmom said...

I am sorry for all you've been through and for all your son has been through, but your ex clearly is not on the right meds or not taking his meds. He is an exception, not the rule. To paint him as the portrait of bipolar disorder would be wrong. Wrong and unfair to the many, many, many other parents with bipolar disorder who work hard to manage their illnesses and raise their children in stable environments. It is not "incredibly short sighted and naive to compare coparenting with bipolar to coparenting with diabetes or heart disease." It is incredibly short-sighted and naive to believe that all people with bipolar disorder are unstable and/or dangerous and, therefore, unfit as parents.