A family can be defined in the following way: “A group of people living together and functioning as a single household, usually consisting of parents and their children.” (Encarta Dictionary)
I prefer this definition: “Families may span several generations, several households, and may change in response to life events such as divorce, remarriage and children leaving the parental home. It is sometimes easier to define a family not by what it looks like but by what it does — it cares, supports, protects and loves. Those are the characteristics that families have in common.” (Author unknown)
In our society there is also the illusion of a family represented by organizations such as the Mafia or street gangs. In those families, the offer of support, protection and care is conditional and based upon adhering to the conditions of service.
The above scenarios define families differently. In one, the family is described in terms of unity and love, and in another the family is an imitation sought out by those craving acceptance so much that they are willing to embrace an illusion in order to be a part of a family.
The mere mention of the word family conjures up mixed emotions depending on one’s own personal experience. Some have beautiful memories while others continue to feel the pain of abandonment or abuse.
Parents are expected to be exceptional when, in fact, model parenting is usually a sporadic event. I have often wondered why God did not place an emotional turn off button placed in our navels so we can hit the switch when we need to deal with our children on an intellectual level.
Maintaining a healthy family can be difficult enough but the addition of a chronic illness into that family mix creates even more complications. When the illness is bipolar disorder, the dynamics change drastically.
Here is a possible scenario. Dad and Mom have their first two children. They are filled with joy and spend hours discussing what their children’s lives will look like. Perhaps they will become professionals — maybe a doctor or an attorney.
Each day is filled with plans for their children’s future — saving for college, choosing schools from preschool through college. Their lives are full of preparing and protecting their children.
Then it seems without warning the second child’s grades fall, he becomes agitated, frustrated and unable to sleep. They attribute the changes to the teenaged years and assume he’s finding himself.
When problems continue year after year, and then drugs, alcohol, and incarceration come into play, it all becomes unbearable.
Parents might ask their child to try harder and get his life together. Their lectures become like a broken record. Feeling helpless and hopeless they search for a doctor, Website or counselor to provide the answers to their fears.
When their son has been gone for weeks and they are feeling discouraged and alone, these same parents might receive a pamphlet about Bipolar Insights from a friend and be encouraged to attend.
When gripped by fear, though, most people don’t want to consider that their child might have a mental illness. That pamphlet of information sits unread. Although desperate for answers and help, many people avoid attending Bipolar Insights hoping to avoid what they see as a label rather than an illness. Prompting questions like— Is it their fault? Did they do something wrong?
When the phone rings in the above scenario, parents might be confronted by a call from a compassionate stranger explaining that their son has been admitted to the psychiatric hospital for attempting suicide.
Falling into a chair the mother cries out in pain. By the phone is the, Bipolar Insight pamphlet. The words in the pamphlet now seem clearer; bipolar disorder is what you have not who you are. She dials the number.
When parents such as these join the class, they doubt there is anything that can help them or their son. They look around at the 40 or more people attending the class and not believe that the people they see interacting with others could possibly have bipolar disorder. It is a struggle to discern who has the illness and who does not.
Often new attendees are surprised at the atmosphere in the room as the word hope is written on the board. The parents begin to feel their bodies relax as they listen to the message of hope.
Leading the group, I repeatedly state that this is only an illness like any other illness. A routine of medication and self-awareness is utilized and required in dealing with bipolar disorder — just as with all illnesses.
Bipolar disorder is not your fault; you have not done anything wrong to deserve this. Together we can walk this journey to management and balance. At times I will encourage those in a class to look around the room. I remind everyone to think about what initially brought them to Bipolar Insights — personal crisis, a suicide attempt, incarceration or a stay in a psychiatric hospital.
In some cases, those in attendance have lost their families, children and employment. Now, though, they have been given back their lives because they have accepted their illness. Because they have persevered, they have become educated and empowered.
As people leave class, I am often approached and asked if I believe that someone’s son, friend, daughter or husband will really get better. I place my hand on their arm, and always answer, “Without a doubt.” I encourage everyone to keep coming to class, because miracles are seen all the time.
It is sometimes easier to define a family not by what it looks like but by the qualities it displays — caring, supportive, protective and loving.
See bipolarinsights.com for information. Become a fan of Bipolar Insights on Facebook.
The co-founder and facilitator of Bipolar Insights, Marcia Rose, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Weekly classes start at 7 p.m., Sundays at Marshall Medical Health Conference Room 207/208, 681 Main St. in Placerville and on Mondays, in Room 304, Green Valley Church, 3500 Missouri Flat Road in Placerville. The fee is $5 per person.