I never wanted to sign up for Facebook. All of the friending friends, unfriending friends, poking friends, tagging friends…it sounded like a lot of work to me. I wanted to hang out with my friends; I didn’t want to manage them. Nor did I want to disclose lots of personal details (with pictures, no less) to friends who were sort of friends but not really friend-friends.
Nope, Facebook, not for me.
Instead, I published a book. It has my face on it. And it discloses details, lots of details, about my personal life (with pictures, no less). It’s a memoir, the ultimate Timeline.
You would be correct to point out the apparent contradiction. But I didn’t just dash off this book like a Tweet. It took a lifetime to live it and nearly that long to write it. In between, I worked on the shame I felt over my family’s secrets and the fear I felt revealing those secrets in a book.
Secrets cause shame and shame kills the soul. So how to get rid of secrets? Tell them. Then they aren’t secrets anymore. They are just facts, ones that many of us share.
Bipolar disorder affects 5.7 million American adults. I am one of them. So was my mother.
It is estimated that 39 million people in the United States are survivors of childhood sexual abuse. My late sister, Rosalinda, was one of them.
My mother suffered her first psychotic episode as a 22-year-old in 1950. Back then they called it manic depression. When she was manic, she played music at an ear-splitting volume and she talked nonsense nonstop. Once, she threatened to take off her clothes and run outside. When she was depressed (far more often), Mom lay in bed for days until finally she was admitted to a mental hospital, where she lay in bed for weeks.
Bipolar disorder has a strong genetic link. One symptom of the manic side can be heightened sexuality. My sister’s mania manifested that symptom early, when she was a young teenager. My father took advantage. And so, she got hit with both barrels from both parents. Bipolar disorder from Mom; incest from Dad.
Mental illness and incest. I’m not sure which family secret caused me more shame. So I kept both. As the years passed, I could finally say it out loud, but only to those closest to me: “My mother is bipolar. My sister is bipolar. My sister is an incest survivor.” To my relief, my best friend didn’t reject me. My boyfriend still wanted to marry me. I could lead a somewhat normal life.
Then at age 42, without warning, I suffered a psychotic episode that sent me straight to a psychiatric ward. It was followed by a depression so deep I saw no point in living. The diagnosis was clear: bipolar disorder 1.
It took my own mental illness to fully embrace the fact that mental illness is just that—an illness. It’s not something to be ashamed of. Nor was the incest my sister suffered at the hands of our father.
Those who suffer from mental illness and sexual abuse have long been stigmatized. But when their casualties started to break the silence, the stigma began to lift. To eliminate it completely, we must continue to open up. As my mother was dying last spring, she gave me her blessing to tell her story. I know that my sister, who died too young from a degenerative neurological disease, would’ve wanted me to do the same.
That was their gift to others who have bipolar disorder, or who have survived incest (or both). I hope that by telling our family story, others who have similar stories will no longer feel ashamed. Or keep secrets.
I’m on Facebook now. After writing a memoir, revealing a few personal details doesn’t seem like such a big deal.
Cristina Negrón was an editor and writer at Rodale, Inc. for 15 years. Her memoir, So Far, is available on Amazon.