Peterson: Stigma explains Jackson’s silence
I wish I remembered more about the onset of my mental illnesses nearly 20 years ago.
I wish I could put a date – or even a year – to it. But I know I was in my early 40s when something wasn’t right. The onset of these diseases is obscured by a dense fog, a loss of memory, the passage of time. Journals and records are packed in boxes.
I have been thinking about those early days, especially so this summer, because of U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. He began a mysterious medical leave from Congress almost 10 weeks ago because of “exhaustion,” which became “emotional ailments,” which became a “mood disorder,” which became “depression.”
On Monday, it finally became “bipolar II depression,” according to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where Jackson is being treated. Jackson, 47, “is responding well to the treatment and regaining his strength,” according to a nine-sentence statement from the hospital.
Millions of people – including myself – have bipolar disorder, a disease that can take people from incredible, sometimes destructive, highs to the deepest lows of depression that push people to contemplate or commit suicide. The mood swings can be extreme and can last for weeks or months without treatment.
Bipolar disorder in its various forms is a treatable disease. People with bipolar disorder can lead highly productive lives – just like anyone else with a chronic illness. People with bipolar disorder, such as those with other mental illnesses, can and do recover. “The expectation is recovery,” the state Division of Mental Health says. “Perhaps the most important single thing to understand about mental illnesses is that they can be treated just as successfully as any other medical condition.”
The Jackson family has been secretive about the congressman’s illness. That is understandable so early into his diagnosis.
“Bipolar disorder is not easy to spot when it starts,” according to the National Institute of Mental Health. “The symptoms may seem like separate problems, not recognized as parts of a larger problem. Some people suffer for years before they are properly diagnosed and treated. Like diabetes or heart disease, bipolar disorder is a long-term illness that must be carefully managed throughout a person’s life.”
But does that mean Jackson is unfit to hold a seat in Congress? Hardly.
He has a chronic disease, not a career-closer. With the right combination of medications and therapy, Jackson can be back on his feet, walking the halls of Congress after Labor Day.
What I have gleaned from news accounts of Jackson’s medical leave is that it has been an evolving issue, playing out long before June 10, when he suffered a “collapse,” becoming “completely debilitated by depression,” his wife, Sandi, told the Chicago Sun-Times.
I have been there. I remember the spring of 2000 when my mental illnesses began to spin out of control. I was not about to announce that I had been hospitalized for several weeks in the now-closed behavioral unit of what was then Northern Illinois Medical Center in McHenry.
My illnesses came at a high cost. I lost my marriage, my home, my possessions, my life savings. I had health insurance, but the policy discriminated against mental illnesses, and I was left with health care bills in the tens of thousands of dollars. Federal law was changed to correct that.
I can empathize with Jackson. When I finally descended into the deepest pits of despair, I wasn’t making public pronouncements about my illness. I could barely keep up with what was happening to me. But I was getting better as days passed. I was recovering. I was going back to work.
I was in and out of hospitals over a period of two years to manage my diseases when they had become too much to bear.
Each time, I left stronger. And I kept my longtime job, leaving it on my own terms in 2007, not because I have mental illnesses. Almost six years later, after Labor Day, I will begin seminary, a rigorous four-year program to become an ordained Lutheran minister.
Without these life experiences, particularly mental illnesses, this door likely would not be opening. Mental illnesses were a setback, but they also were a blessing. I understand myself and others more than I could have imagined. I am happily remarried. I feel stronger than ever. And I think that is because I am so aware of my mental wellness.
Jackson has political problems, too, with House Republicans investigating his role in a $6 million scheme to get former Gov. Rod Blagojevich to appoint him to President Obama’s vacant Senate seat.
I am not a confidante of Jackson, but assuming he is cleared by an ethics investigation, I am confident he will carry on as a member of Congress. He has an opportunity few people are given to humanize a set of illnesses that for too long have been stigmatized by society.
What a triumphant apex for this one-time rising star. It might not be what he imagined, but the good he can accomplish is unimaginable. It is hard right now, but be assured, Jackson is blessed.
• Dick Peterson, who lives in Woodstock, is a mental-health advocate, freelance writer and a former Northwest Herald Opinion Page editor. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.