This past weekend, my husband and I attended an advocacy training class hosted by NAMI. At one point in the training we were read sample stories, letters and emails in an effort to learn how to be more concise when reaching out to others. One of the sentences sparked a short debate within the class, it was a simple sentence….and one I use often “My son is living with Bipolar Disorder”. When we were asked what stood out to us in the letter, I cited this sentence because they used the word living instead of suffering. The word suffering has become all too common within the mental health community and there are many of use that would love to ban it all together. There were others in the class that did not agree and stated that by erasing the word from our stories, it lessens the struggle we have all gone through. Here is why I no longer use the word suffering in my son’s diagnosis:
My son has wonderful days. Most of the time, he is a happy and healthy 15-year-old boy. Is he different? Yes. He has to take multiple medications daily, he has to see doctors more often than most, get blood work done more often than most, and he needs to recognize when he is in a situation that may cause him lose control of his emotions. These are all things he is learning to do very well……better than a lot of teenagers, if I do say so. Does he have days when he struggles; when the highs and lows of bipolar disorder are so overwhelming he feels out of control? Of course, that is the nature of the illness, but I feel the good days out-weigh the bad.
I believe true suffering is a choice not a diagnosis. I have met people diagnosed with cancer, living with the horrible symptoms of their illness every day, but looking towards life with a positive attitude…..I have also met people with cancer who choose to let the symptoms control their life and their mood. Same illness, same symptoms, but different attitudes had a huge effect on whether or not they emotionally suffered. Mental illness is no different.
People with mental illnesses have days where their world can be turned upside down…….and their families have those days, too. It is how you pick up and move on to the next day that determines if you are choosing to suffer through the illness or live with it. I have made a point of telling CJ that he is not bipolar, he is diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The illness does not determine who he is or how he is defined. Only he can determine that. In the same sense, the illness does not determine whether he is suffering or not…..that choice is up to him.
NAMI is the National Alliance on Mental Illness – a national organization that advocates, educates and supports people with mental illness and their families. For more information go to: https://www.nami.org/