Last week, my partner and I tragically ran out of Bob’s Burgers episodes to watch on Netflix.
As they scrolled through our replacement options and came across Lady Dynamite, I remained critical. A fan of Maria Bamford, they put it on in the hopes that we would both be impressed by her Netflix Original show. I was resistant; not because I don’t like the comedian (to be quite honest, I had never seen any of her standup), but because my general stubbornness regarding change was combining with my bitterness over the loss of another well-loved show. But I quickly revoked any questioning and whining once we got into it. Because the show’s generic info section forgot to mention one very important thing: it’s about bipolar disorder.
The show chronicles the main character Maria’s assimilation back into her life and career after some time spent away in a mental hospital. Now properly medicated, Maria embarks on a heart-warming and positive path toward wellness and self care as she bravely faces her mental challenges. And with the show’s many flashbacks to the time in her life where Maria was either unmedicated or misdiagnosed, it cultivates a narrative where she reflects on her past with greater awareness and sets out to create a more stable lifestyle for herself. This includes weeding out old dynamics that were harmful to her wellness, and bravely seeking out new ones. As someone with bipolar disorder, and as someone who has never seen a positive or hopeful representation of the disorder in the media, I was thrilled.
Living with bipolar, self love has been a tricky mission for me to accomplish for a number of reasons, including the stigmatization of mental illness. But much of this boils down to my relationship with my dad, who has bipolar but refuses to admit it.
When my father was 19, he had such an intense manic episode that he didn’t sleep for three days and spent all of his savings on a small business he had thought up in that short period of time. Concerned for his health, my grandfather brought him to a mental hospital where he remained for weeks, receiving various (and some completely archaic) treatments for bipolar disorder. The experience was traumatizing and so my dad denied help in the years following, never truly accepting his condition. By the time my parents had me, my dad was so unstable and angry that I would literally shake every time he’d walk into a room.
Most of my early childhood is characterized by my parents’ aggressive fighting as I desperately tried to self-soothe. As I grew older, he managed to get better control over his anger but continued to emotionally abuse and manipulate my mom. And then I noticed other things: He acted like a child to get attention from us; he obsessed over every little thing, and seemed to be in a perpetual state of extreme anxiety; he constantly put me down and continuously fed my already-existing anxiety disorder; and he was never able to understand or listen to the perspective of others, so much so that he’d experience blackouts as he forgot any emotional breakthrough we would make by the next day. But despite all of this, he has refused to take medicine time and time again, besides the short stints he’d have with mood stabilizers he didn’t think he needed. This has all put such a strain on our relationship that I can hardly go home without getting triggered by my child of a father.
So when I started noticing similar symptoms in myself, I refused to acknowledge them. Since my dad is so negative and impossible to be around, the last thing I wanted to do was be like him. And I thought since we both have bipolar, this commonality would automatically turn me into him. The example he set for me of denial and self-neglect was further reinforced by his inability to hold himself accountable for the pain he inflicted on us. He, by his example, made me believe that this was the only way bipolar could manifest. It made me believe, that if I had bipolar disorder, I would be a hopeless case, a burden to my loved ones and abusive to my family. The lack of positive representation of bipolar disorder in the media only further perpetuated this feeling. Admitting to myself that I had inherited my dad’s mood disorder felt like a death sentence.
But Lady Dynamite showed me something I had never seen before in my family or on TV: that leading a healthy life with such a diagnosis is possible. My dad’s refusal to keep trying meds made me fear I could never find anything to help my own imbalances, but Maria Bamford’s character showed me that finding the right med combination is possible. She showed me that lack of awareness and progress is a choice that my dad made, not something that all people with bipolar disorder are destined for. And, most importantly, she taught me through her candor and genuine commitment to loving herself that I don’t have to be ashamed of my disorder or avoid talking about it with others.
Because of Lady Dynamite, I’m no longer afraid of the idea of pursuing meds. I want to take care of myself, and be out to the world about a condition that I formerly shrouded in shame and secrecy. As Maria Bamford exemplifies, there’s definitely some humor in the way I get overly manic or the way the smallest things anger me or the way an advertisement can make me weep like a baby. But even when it’s not funny, even on my darkest days, I deserve to love myself and to be loved. And if medication will make my days less tiring, if talking about it helps me love myself more, then I’m ready to get started.
Image courtesy of Getty Images.