My mom is one of those rare individuals who is unimpeded in being her true self. She is grounded, confident, sensible, a force for stability in our family and the lives of others.
Winning the confidence of everyone she meets, my friends have made a moral example of her, joking that their personal motto is “What Would Rita Do?” a play on the religious phrase “What Would Jesus Do?” that was popular in the 90s.
She also possesses some savior-like qualities of her own, caring for the sick and dying every day as a nurse.
So it often comes as a surprise to many people that she is on lithium and being treated for bipolar disorder, a manic-depressive condition defined by a pattern of depressive and hypomanic episodes.
My mom doesn’t fit the stereotype of a “crazy” person – the barefoot loon, the violent madman, the deranged outcast. She is a contributing member to society, competent, reliable, loving and wise.
But that’s part of the problem, she often reminds me – the misconceptions that persist about mental illness.
Lithium, like the illness it treats, is also largely misunderstood. Despite its bad reputation as the last resort drug for the clinically insane, lithium is the most effective and oldest established treatment for bipolar disorder.
Not cooked up in a lab, but naturally occurring in rock and salt deposits, it is one of the three original elements of the universe and is found in every tissue in the human body. While in reality it has little to do with the sensationalized imagery of asylums – straitjackets, lobotomies, padded cells – lithium is, nonetheless, a reminder of how serious my mom’s illness is.
Without medicine, one in five people suffering from bipolar disorder will commit suicide.
“On paper, I'm a mess!" my mom jokes as she ticks off a list of all the drugs she is currently taking. In addition to lithium, she's prescribed an atypical antipsychotic, an antidepressant, a tranquilizer, two thyroid medications and a combination of bioidentical hormones.
Mental illness struck my mother in her early fifties when a little genetic surprise decided to shake things up. Extreme weight loss and anxiety marked the beginning of alternating bouts of profound depression and manic highs. After years of not improving, she realized her illness wasn’t a matter of negative thinking or willpower, but rooted in neurochemistry. She needed traditional treatment.
An overburdened and underfunded mental health system, discrimination against mental health patients by insurance providers, and compassionless psychiatrists often made the task of getting better harder. With lithium she finally improved.
One of the paradoxes of the disorder is that the enthusiasm and vigor unleashed in her manic stages provoked an awakening. Over time she became outspoken about her struggle, rebelling against the stigma attached to mental illness.
This awakening, coupled with the kind of existential examination that comes with the anguish of prolonged depression, caused a deep transformation in my mom.
Over the years I watched her respond to her pain by becoming an advocate and resource for anyone struggling with mental illness. I watched her connect her struggle to larger struggles and expand her circle of compassion beyond family and friends, giving money and time to marginalized people and causes. I watched her hone her sensitivity to the complexity of human suffering and respond in increasingly complex ways.
I watched her explode society's stereotypes about the mentally ill that tell us they are dangerous or criminal or violent or all three. Throughout her illness, she excelled at her job and raised a family. She nursed the ill and gave comfort and aid to worried families.
Best of all, she rejected fear and shame, and chose to live in the fullness of who she is – lithium and all.
My mom is proud of her struggle and far from alone, with one in five Americans experiencing mental illness at some point in their lives.
Michelle Ryder is a freelance writer living in Bonney Lake. She is one of six reader columnists who write for this page. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.