One in six adults and nearly one in ten children in the United States suffer from bipolar disorder. Yet, there remains a stigma associated with being bipolar and being related to someone who is. Never mind that Edgar Allen Poe was bipolar or that President Theodore Roosevelt was too. Or that people with bipolar disorder can lead extraordinary and meaningful lives. Look at Winston Churchill, Virginia Wolf, and Rosemary Clooney. No matter how talented or famous someone is, if they’re in a situation dictated by mental illness, it can at times feel like a runaway train. Jim Carey and Robert Downey, Jr. know what it’s like, so do Robin Williams, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Ben Stiller.
Dealing with a mentally ill family member is anything but a cakewalk. I should know. My mother, a Christian Science fanatic, refused to take medication to manage her sickness. During my formative years, I lived through extremes; from minute to minute I didn’t know what she might do. My childhood was spent being tossed around like a ping-pong ball. At sixteen, a Harvard-trained psychiatrist reluctantly told me to leave home and never look back because I was living in an incurable situation. Sadly, I hit the road, riddled with pot holes, lacking any parental advice. During those formative years I didn’t have a choice, but now, in 2011, things are beginning to change.
I went on to become an actress and later a novelist. I took it to heart when I read that Ernest Hemingway said, “A writer’s style should be direct and personal” For me, it’s therapeutic to write about the disease that robbed me of my mother and stole any chance I may have had to enjoy a normal childhood. I use larger-than-life characters on a backdrop of big oil and big tracts of land to show life on high octane, which, in my experience, is what it’s like to live with the ups and downs of mental illness.
One of my main characters, Olivia Harrison has a history of undisclosed schizophrenia. My novel, Utopia, Texas, shows the terrifying ramifications on a family whose young daughter’s problem goes untreated. Some call the book, which is a stand-alone sequel to my first novel, Trinity’s Daughter, a riveting tale. The character of Maggie Harrison is fashioned after me. Olivia is my mother. Olivia’s mother, Brya, is actually the novel’s protagonist. I use my books as a tool to educate others about what it’s like to live with mental illness, and if not treated it can be devastating to all involved.
As a member of the International Bipolar Foundation, I’m on a mission to try to help erase the stigma associated with this dreaded disease which often goes undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. What’s missing in the equation is proper education, but through advancement of research, medication and support services life can begin to stay on track. Having been one of those children affected, I’m committed to encouraging family members to openly discuss mental illness so that healing can begin.
Currently, I’m working with organizations, such as the Boy Scouts of America and the Girl Scouts of the United States. Through public education, I hope the shame associated with mental illness will be erased. For many, the stigma can be as great a challenge as the disease itself. For people with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, their life is like trying to navigate an unstoppable train-one that’s prone to skipping tracks and changing depots on a quick whim. There is no stopping this locomotive, but it can be slowed down in hopes of reaching a more positive destination.