During college, at an organization’s meeting during which I was doing a presentation on “bipolar disorder,” I asked the listeners a series of questions at the end. Some of the students in the room were already aware that I had a bipolar diagnosis myself, but others were not. I knew that if I disclosed my condition at the beginning, it would change the manner in which some spoke of the condition, which I wanted to avoid.
One question I asked was [given the genetic component of the condition] whether or not they thought people with Bipolar Disorder should not consider having children. One student made the case that those with severe mental illnesses such as BD should not have children. In this argument, it is seen that this future child’s life would be one of intolerable suffering (i.e. high suicide rate), so it is best to avoid bringing such a child into the world.
Bipolar Disorder isn’t even strictly a genetic condition (having a parent with it does not guarantee that you will get it)… no one in my family has a mental illness, yet I have Bipolar 1 myself! Yet, even the increased chance of having a child with a mood disorder made some students think that someone like myself should not have children. Ever.
He (doctor) stated- as though it were God’s truth, which he no doubt felt that it was- “You shouldn’t have children. You have manic-depressive illness.”… I asked him if his concerns about my having children stemmed from the fact that, because of my illness, he thought I would be an inadequate mother or simply that he thought it was best to avoid bringing another manic-depressive (bipolar) into the world. Ignoring or missing my sarcasm, he replied, “Both.”… [I] told him to go to hell, and left.
-Kay Redfield Jamison, “An Unquiet Mind” p. 191
When I came upon this page in Jamison’s memoir, I was shocked. I know that stigma is a major issue for those with mental illnesses, but I did not anticipate such a reaction from one’s own provider, one who has an extensive background in these conditions. I sincerely hope that patients with bipolar disorder (or similar stigmatized conditions) are not told by their doctors or providers that they are incapable of fulfilling their dreams of being a mother or father.
It was hurtful to hear that argument, made me feel that a life like mine is seen as less valued because it is impacted by mania and depression. My life is just as full as someone’s without my condition. I am a daughter, sister, friend, girlfriend, college graduate, mental health advocate, blogger, dancer, and artist. I am so much more than my illness. I don’t think that having a mood disorder automatically guarantees that I would make a terrible parent, or that my children would have a life full of misery. Whether or not I decide to be a parent should not be based off of a doctor’s stigmatizing remark.