Michelle Dickinson lives in New Jersey, USA, the ‘Medicine Chest of the US’ and has spent 19 years working in the regulatory and education sectors of the pharmaceutical industry. Over the last five years, she has also become a strong advocate for mental health and has written a book about her experiences growing up with a bipolar mother and what it’s like to love someone with a mental illness
Living with a bipolar parent can be very unpredictable and can cause a deep change to the parent-child dynamic. Michelle, had no real idea about what ‘normal’ was and would come home from school each day with not knowing what to expect because everything would be dependent on the mood her mother was in. Michelle’s mother showed all the classic bipolar behaviors with rapid mood swings from depression and hospitalisation to manic behaviour and complete over-energisation and could be mentally, emotionally and physically abusive so Michelle learnt how to ‘read’ a room and adjust into the role required for that day at a very young age.
Michelle’s father worked very hard to keep his family together but Michelle was still called on to help out with whatever needed to be done in the house. She sometimes had to stay home from school to look after her mother so when she did go back to school, instead of studying she was worrying about what was happening at home. Pressures like these can have a real impact on children and can change their social behaviours, such as a decline in school performance, lack of participation in activities, personality changes, self-isolation and changes in the way they interact with adults and other children.
Although children are generally self-focused, the addition of an illness or disability to a family member can change that focus to one of helping others and of an increased sense of responsibility. Michelle didn’t know any differently so did whatever her father needed her to do because to her, just getting on and doing the things that needed to be done, was part of being a family.
As she grew up, Michelle realised her relationship with her mother was completely different to the ones her friends had with their mothers but it wasn’t later in her life that she really understood that her mother had a mental illness. Her mother died suddenly of a heart attack and at that point she was able to start having real compassion for what life had been like for her mother – she was struggling with a mental illness while still trying to be a mother and didn’t understand what was going on so hurt those around her.
There is still a stigma attached to mental illness. People who suffer look ‘normal’ to the outside world so there is sometimes a feeling that they should just ‘pull themselves together’ but mental illness is as debilitating as any physical illness. If you have heart disease or diabetes, people accept that you have a disease of a specific part of your body but anything related to the brain is not thought of in the same way.
People talk about physical illness but they don’t talk about mental illness. They are afraid to tell people they have a mental illness because they feel shame and fear. Shame because mental illness is perceived as a weakness and a fear of being rejected by friends and family and of the treatments available and whether they will work. Because of this, many people just try to ‘muscle it out’ on their own and become increasingly isolated. Having a mental illness is just like having heart disease or any other health condition it’s nothing to be ashamed of and the more we talk about it, the more people will get the help they need for loved ones or themselves.
On her mothers death Michelle started a journey of healing and self-discovery and can now look back with love, compassion and forgiveness. She harbored a lot of anger and is still challenged but is grateful for the attributes she gained such as resilience. She still has trouble with the problem many child caregivers face – putting everyone else’s needs first – but as she has got older she has found her voice to ask for what she wants.
Michelle is passionate about causing change around mental illness and can be contacted at:
Website and Blog: Breaking into my life
Michelle recommends 18percent.org It’s a free peer-to-peer community with different chatrooms where you can talk to people with similar mental illnesses.