The following is an excerpt from my upcoming memoir, BrainStorm: From Broken to Blessed on the Bipolar Spectrum:
The manuscript was ready, but I still had some hesitation about publishing it. I know attitudes are changing about mental health, but I was still nervous about the entire project and its potential invasion of my family’s personal lives. I carried all this with me as the entire family drove south on I-95 for a winter break vacation.
It’s the third day of the drive and the four of us—Joe and me and our twins, Sam and Maya—have settled into a rhythm, switching drivers every couple of hours. The kids hang out with earbuds and laptops in the backseat. The driver gets to pick the podcast in the front. Sam and Maya are almost 17, they’ve had their licenses for just shy of six months, with most of their driving careers spent on backcountry roads. The white-knuckle shift each of them just had—driving seventy in pouring rain on a two-lane highway in South Carolina surrounded by eighteen-wheelers—was an initiation into a new level of driving prowess. They’re feeling primed for action. Our Honda Pilot tank is full, and I’m tanked up on two Dunkin Donuts mocha lattes.
I’m happy to have the teens captive in the car for a few days. Their lives are so full these days, with commitments to an academically driven high school, sports, friends, clubs, plus their new licenses. Not to mention Instagram, Snapchat, and whatever other new social media craze of the hour has emerged, filling their every waking moment. The spaciousness of this time together without an agenda feels luxurious. And though I’m hoping for some meaningful conversation, I know better than to force it.
Just outside of Georgia it came up. Maybe it was because the rhythm of the windshield wipers had us mesmerized. Or because the kids were wired and spent from their share of the drive. Or because they’d simply run out of chats to snap for the moment. Sam was sitting next to me riding shotgun instead of in the back seat on buds. Maybe that helped.
“Guys, do you remember I told you I wrote a memoir on my experience with Bipolar, called BrainStorm?”
“Yes,” they answered in unison and without that absent-minded hesitation that I’ve learned means they’re pretending to listen. A rare present moment of full attention, times two.
“There’s something I’d like your opinion on,” I said.
Exploring attitudes about mental health with my kids
We drove down the road and I explained my fears about attitudes of mental health. I explained that all the stigma about mental health represented a serious risk to us. My career could be impacted. They could face backlash. But I also told them a story about Kity, a friend of mine in the publishing industry who had read the book and told me it would save lives. Her own nephew has suffered from BiPolar and killed himself at a young age. Kity had generously volunteered to help me get the book ready.
I took a deep breath and realized I too was now white-knuckling the wheel as I drove, but for different reasons.
“‘I told myself I couldn’t publish the book until my parents were gone. Now they are,” I said. “And I also told myself I couldn’t publish it until my kids–you guys–were old enough to understand, and old enough to give your consent.’”
I stopped talking for a moment, the breath caught in my throat. Maya and Sam were completely silent, listening to every word.
“Now you’re old enough to understand. Maybe it’s the right time. Here’s where it comes to you: I want to know what you think. I’m in a dilemma as to whether or not to do this. On the one hand, there’s Kitty’s serendipitous offer. You have the fact that the way has cleared with Gramma and Grandpa passed on.
“You have the knowledge that the manuscript really could help some people. Maybe a lot of people. Maybe save lives. Probably save lives. And you have the opportunity in me as an author to destigmatize this disease. Yes, Bipolar can look like this: a woman who is a professional, mother, wife, a woman who has a full and good life.
“On the other hand, you have that stigma. Attitudes about mental health may be changing, slowly, but stigma and backlash are real.
“I don’t want you to be embarrassed by me. I may be putting my career in jeopardy. So many people still have deep prejudice against mental illness, and they blame the victim. They fear and mistrust people with the Bipolar label. Coming out of the closet with the truth of my history could put me on the receiving end of that kind of ‘-ism.’ Could tarnish my professional reputation, cost me clients, some livelihood…your college tuition. It’s a real dilemma for me and I keep going back and forth on what I should do. To publish or not to publish. What do you guys think?”
“You have to do it, Mom,” says Maya.
“Absolutely, no question,” echoes Sam almost simultaneously.
“Mom, you really could save lives! What else is more important?!”
“Who cares what other people think of you! Tell the truth.”
“You know it’s kind of like sexual orientation,” Sam continues, “Your generation cared about it, we don’t.”
“Yeah, attitudes about mental health have changed,” says Maya. “A lot of kids we know are on meds. A lot of kids have anxiety. Kids cut themselves. Kids are gender non-binary. We learn about this stuff in health class and we all just kind of accept it. Don’t worry, Mom, people won’t judge you! Mom, you have to do this.”
My heart swelled with gratitude: for the truth, for my disease, and for this moment in time when I could be fully open with my kids. I felt relieved at no longer having to hide the whole truth of my story from them. They knew part of my story, but they didn’t know my full story. I had been protecting them. I had never wanted them to know what I had gone through, or to be afraid for their own brains. I felt so much pride in that moment driving through Georgia with the car’s headlights piercing through the dark. Pride at their generosity of spirit and their commitment to doing the right thing to help others. It was almost enough, that moment right there: their championing of me and this cause.
But then I realized that to fulfill their aspirations for me, to merit this level of enthusiasm and respect from them, I would have to say “yes.” Yes to laying my soul bare and telling the raw truth and sharing a story full of sorrow and redemption. And so I am. And so I did.