Our guest today is Michelle Dickinson. Growing up with a bi-polar mother, Michelle experienced pain, shame and solitude. In truth the woman who raised Michelle from about age 9 months was not her biological mother. Her birth mother had given birth to her at 16 years of age and was under great pressure to give her up.
After being adopted, her mother took in two more children, her niece and nephew who lived with the family for ten years.
“My family and I believe that my adoptive mother had experienced some trauma in her past and when she took in the two added children, it triggered a ticking bomb. We did not know what this explosion was called until much later. We knew that she would swing from times of high energy and explosive amounts of output like being in a Disney film and then fall into an uncontrolled weepy bout. I was about four years old at that time.”
“My mother’s behavior was never predictable. It could change in a day or in an hour from one extreme to the next. When she was in a bad state she would be mean and physically abusive. To me at the time it was normal. It was only when I was a teen-ager and I observed the relationship some of my friends had with their mothers, I realized that my situation was abnormal.”
“I kept my mother’s behavior a secret. I didn’t invite any friends home. Until I was a teenager and joined a church youth group I never shared it with anyone. There, for the first time, I felt safe sharing. I was able to unload my burden that I had been lugging along with me for years.”
“When I was in my early 20’s I decided to look for my birth At the time in New Jersey there was a program that helped adopted children of the state search for their biological parents. After 6 months the program called to tell me they had located her. They called my mother and told her that someone was searching for her and would she want to meet with them. She instantly knew it was me. She had been waiting for me to come and find her.”
“It was closure for both of us. One of the beautiful things about meeting my biological mother was that we forged a completely new relationship. Not as a mother/daughter but as a friend, one adult to another. Sadly she was not physically well. She suffered from many complications of diabetes and died very young. She had quickly become a loving supportive friend in my life.”
“My biological mother had always wanted to call my adoptive mother to thank her. Because of my adoptive mother’s delicate state, I was afraid that it might precipitate a breakdown so she didn’t call her.”
“When I was growing up and being beaten by my adoptive mother I would tell myself, ‘You don’t belong here. She’s not your real mother. I should be with my real mother.’ I think my adoptive mother loved me, but couldn’t help her behavior.”
I went to therapy but it wasn’t until I went to a program my friend Anne-Marie had suggested, The Landmark Forum, where I was able to face my demons. It was there that I learned to separate my mother as a person from her illness. Her actions were consistent with her being bi-polar, but they did not define her. She loved me.”
“It is punishing to love or be close to someone with mental illness. I can’t stress enough the need for caregivers to take care of themselves first. Don’t get lost in taking care of the one suffering with mental illness.”
“I watched the video, The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive by Stephen Fry. It gives vivid insight as what it is like living with this disease. It gave me a better understanding of what my mother was battling.”
“My Dad worked for IBM. He worked long hours. He stood by my mother all the years, but he wasn’t home for most of the day. He left the child rearing to my mother. He never really understood the illness. At times he would tell my mother, ‘Just snap out of it.’ Or he would tell me, ‘ If you would just behave she wouldn’t get upset.’ He was very loyal to my mother and I believe he loved her and she loved him back.”
“I married at 21 to a man that my therapist said was a male version of my mother. I had entered into another abusive relationship. Not physically, but emotionally and verbally. And it was familiar. Five years later we divorced. “
“ Writing my book, Breaking Into My Life, had me revisit many of the painful memories of my childhood. But it was therapeutic for me to go through them and relive them as an adult and see how my mother really loved me; it was her sickness which caused the mean behavior.”
“I have received many amazing messages in response to sharing my story. One of the messages was from a young girl who read my book and she shared that it gave her said hope. I often cry when I read these messages. When people see that I persevered and am on the other side now, they believe that they too can do it. I went through a lot of self-discovery and healing. Understanding the patterns of the illness, having boundaries and understanding what you really want, will bring you to a better place.”
“I was never given permission to want something because my mother always took center stage. Verbalizing and realizing what you want without shame, embarrassment or guilt – make that a priority.”
“The isolation of having to navigate it at night by myself, when my mother was sitting in the other room crying was the worst. Find the support that helps you open up the conversation.”
“My current projects include relentlessly working towards removing the mental health stigma. I want to get the message across that the mind is just another organ of the body. If someone broke an arm, they would go to a doctor have it set, and get on with life.”
“I think the two places we need to focus our mental health efforts are in schools and in the workplace. I am going to Canada for a weeklong workshop to deepen my knowledge arond creating a culture of compassion at work and to learn how to train a peer to peer community within the workplace that is empowerd and equipped to support those suffering from a mental health condition.