When parents struggle with severe mental illness, their children can fall into the role of caregiver. What is this like from the child’s point of view? How does it affect their school life, their friendships or their worldview?

Today’s guest, mental health advocate and author Michelle E. Dickinson, experienced this firsthand as the child of a woman with bipolar disorder. From a very young age, Michelle remembers her mother’s manic highs and deep lows. She recalls the happy shopping sprees on “good” days, followed by the overwhelmingly sad days when her mother would cry and cry and Michelle would tell jokes and stories to try to get a smile.

Tune in to hear Michelle’s personal story — her childhood experiences, the moment she finally felt safe to tell her friends about her mom’s illness, her own bout with depression, and how it all led to her current work as a mental health advocate.


Guest information for ‘Michelle E. Dickinson- Trifecta of MI’ Podcast Episode

Michelle E. Dickinson is a passionate mental health advocate, a TED speaker, and a published author of a memoir entitled Breaking Into My Life. After years of playing the role of child caregiver, Michelle embarked on her own healing journey of self-discovery. Her memoir offers a rare glimpse into a young girl’s experience living with—and loving—her bipolar mother.

Michelle spent years working to eradicate the mental health stigma within her own fortune 500 workplace by elevating compassion, causing more open conversations, and leading real change in how mental illness is understood in the corporate setting.

She also knows first-hand what it feels like to struggle with a mental illness after experiencing her own depression due to challenging life events of her own. Michelle recently concluded her 19-year pharmaceutical career and she has emerged with a strong desire to positively impact the mental health landscape.

About The Psych Central Podcast Host

Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations, available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author. To learn more about Gabe, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.

Computer Generated Transcript for Michelle E. Dickinson- Trifecta of MIEpisode

Editor’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.

Announcer: You’re listening to the Psych Central Podcast, where guest experts in the field of psychology and mental health share thought-provoking information using plain, everyday language. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.

Gabe Howard: Welcome to this week’s episode of the Psych Central Podcast. Calling in to the show today we have Michelle E. Dickinson. She is a passionate mental health advocate, a TEDx speaker and the author of the memoir Breaking Into My Life. Her memoir offers a rare glimpse into a young girl’s experience living with and loving her bipolar mother, Michelle. Welcome to the show.

Michelle E. Dickinson: Thank you so much for having me, Gabe, I’m excited to be here with you.

Gabe Howard: Well, we are really glad to have you. One of the things that you talked about was that you have experienced the trifecta of mental illness. Can you explain what that means?

Michelle E. Dickinson: Absolutely. Yeah. You know, I didn’t set out to experience it, but that’s sort of what happened. So I grew up loving and caring for my bipolar mother. And that experience shaped me into the woman that I’ve become today. It initiated me down the road of wanting to tell my story. So I gave a TED talk about my experience with my mom. But then it also had me write my memoir, Breaking Into My Life. So that was sort of where I thought it would all stop. I was adopted, so I didn’t feel like I could have her bipolar disorder genetically. But then last year I was experiencing a major life event and I dealt with depression for the first time. Really having me get that nobody is immune to mental illness. Simultaneously to that for the past two plus years. I worked for a Fortune 500 company where we built the fastest growing and largest mental health employee resource group to really eradicate the stigma in the workplace. So that’s my trifecta and how I’ve been affected by mental illness.

Gabe Howard: That is very thorough. You know, many people, they don’t have one. They don’t know anybody that lives with mental illness. They don’t have any mental illness or mental health issues. And of course, they’ve never worked on any sort of advocacy level because they don’t know that they need to. So that’s just a wealth of knowledge. Do you feel that that’s prepared you to be a better advocate or is it just this is the way it is?

Michelle E. Dickinson: I truly do think it’s prepared me. I didn’t invite it, but yet when I was dealing with a depression and then having to navigate my day job with it, I feel like it all turns out that it’s serving me. I got to observe what worked and what didn’t work when it came to programs and efforts that we were doing in the company culture. And that prepared me as to what was effective and what wasn’t in that specific space. I’m so passionate about wanting there to be inclusion for people with invisible disabilities that those experiences, I think further ignited my desire to be an advocate. No kidding. Like my life’s purpose is to make a difference in this space.

Gabe Howard: Thank you so much for all the work that you do. Let’s talk about your childhood and caring for your mother. You were a teenager, you were a minor and you were caring for an adult. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Michelle E. Dickinson: Yeah, sure. You know, and it was my normal. So I didn’t know any different. And it’s just sort of like what you do. Right? Life shows up. And that’s just you navigate it and then you look back and you go, wow, that was so different than most people. So my mom had bipolar probably from the age — I was very, very young — like, I want to say, from 6 years of age, really, really little. And I noticed she was a little bit different, like she would have these periodic moments of sadness and then she’d have this mania, and it was like, hang on for the rollercoaster. There were times she was hospitalized. She had shock therapy. She had all kinds of different treatments, medications, etc. But there were moments when she was just not sick enough to be hospitalized or well enough to be functioning. So she’s very fragile. And those were the moments where I really did have to play the child caregiver like my father could not stay home for more. He was the breadwinner. So he would look at me and say, would you just stay home and be with her because she’s crying. We need someone to look after her. She’s just too fragile. So there was that, there was keeping it a secret at school. You didn’t want anyone to really know that your mom was sick, right? Mental illness even back then was just so people just would make fine. Like, you know, your mom’s crazy. I would keep my friends away from the house. She was too volatile. Like she would act completely irrational. And then I’d have to explain it to my friends and then try to show up to school the next day and pretend like everything is normal. It was definitely hard, you know. And then even as I got older, I didn’t live at home, but I was still sort of under her thumb, like she still always had a hold on me.

Gabe Howard: As you know, being an advocate, what people don’t know is amazing. It’s absolutely astounding to me that we can be this disconnected from our own minds. And I say that knowing that when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I had no idea there was anything wrong. And I think about my career trying to explain it as a 40 year old, you know, here I am. I do this for a living and I think about this a lot. And I just have such a difficult time explaining this to other fully functioning, capable adults. Can you talk about what it was like at ten, twelve, fifteen years old to explain this to other 10, 12 and 15 year olds?

Michelle E. Dickinson: Yeah, there was a lot of embarrassment and shame. Having a mom that was completely different than my girlfriends’ moms. Right? I go to their homes and their mom would be loving, caring, nurturing, not irrational, completely stable. So I didn’t realize that until that contrast was there. And because there was shame and embarrassment, I didn’t talk about it. So I wasn’t telling the ten and twelve year olds what life at home was like. I was embarrassed and I was ashamed. It wasn’t until I actually went to my Catholic youth group and found myself on a retreat weekend where I felt safe enough to share what I was experiencing at home. And I did it under the guise of a conversation that went like this. You never know what someone’s dealing with outside of school. You never know what they’re dealing with at home. Just be nice. And that was my message. And then I shared with them, you know, because I have a mom who’s who’s not well at home and I don’t share that. But when you’re nice to me in school, that makes all the difference for me, because it’s hard at home. And when I had the ability to share that openly with the kids in the youth group at that retreat, it was like a boulder was lifted from my shoulders and I could just be me. And then all these kids got it. And they understood. They understood enough. They didn’t need to know the gory details. They didn’t get into the details. I just said she’s so sad sometimes and there’s nothing I can do. And it was met with just such love and compassion and support that these people became my tribe.

Gabe Howard: When was the first time you actually said to somebody, my mother has bipolar disorder?

Michelle E. Dickinson: Probably when I started to understand the terminology, I would say later in high school, I started to understand it because then at that point my dad and I were strategizing on, OK. So maybe she needs a new med. Maybe she needs to see a different doctor. The medication is not working. Is it that the medication is not working or is she not taking it? So I would strategize with my dad and we would talk about different types of care. And I got really aware of what her illness was so that I could help him. And we would have these conversations. You drive me to school and we’d strategize about, OK, what’s next for mom? What are we going to do? She’s not well. There was nothing you could do.

Gabe Howard: You said that there was nothing that you could do, what were your attempts and how did your mother respond to them?

Michelle E. Dickinson: As a little girl, I thought that I actually had the ability to impact my mother’s mood. That was a false reality, Ray. But I grew up thinking if I was just a good little girl, she wouldn’t get mad at me. If I was just a happy little girl, I could get her out of her sadness. There was a time that I write about it in the book where I came home from school and she was crying. And I remember sitting on the ottoman and making jokes and trying to make her laugh and telling her silly stories about my Spanish teacher and what she said to me and Marco And I tried so hard to make her laugh, and she just wouldn’t laugh. And I think I think that the greatest impact, because the mania was Disney. The mania was fun. I mean, we were going shopping sprees and she would treat me like the loving daughter and have this snapshot of like a happy mom. And I savored it. It was hard. It was really hard to just watch her cry, you know? And then I had a father, God bless him, did the best I could. But he was even naive to the illness because he would be the one to say, stop acting out. You’re the one that’s gonna cause her to get upset. Or he would say to her, snap out of it. And those are the signs where you just like he really didn’t understand it. So that fed into my belief that my behavior and how I interacted with her could affect her mood and I could actually improve her illness, which was really a hard pill to deal with because that created a co-dependent person. It created someone who never spoke their truth. It created someone who put the needs of other people first. Always. Yeah, it shaped me. Literally shaped me.

Gabe Howard: Everything that you’ve just described is not unusual for adults to say about other adults. I talked to 40 year olds who are working with their adult children. I talk to siblings who are in their 30s, 40s, 50s. And they describe it exactly the same way that you did. But of course, you had the added wrinkle of also being a teenager

Michelle E. Dickinson: Yeah.

Gabe Howard: And also Michelle, not to age you. I don’t want to call out anybody’s age, but you grew up before the Internet, so you couldn’t just Google this.

Michelle E. Dickinson: Now.

Gabe Howard: You and your dad couldn’t sit down on a computer and find out how other families were handling it. You couldn’t e-mail an article to somebody and say, look, I can’t explain bipolar disorder, but I read this account online and this is really what my family is going through. None of that existed.

Michelle E. Dickinson: Yeah.

Gabe Howard: So you were not only a teenager who was already in your own bubble, you were a teenager dealing with mental illness in your own bubble.

Michelle E. Dickinson: Yeah.

Gabe Howard: How did your dad respond to you? Because it sounds like if you were your mom’s caregiver and you and your dad were sort of partnering on how to best handle your mom, was your father doing any parenting? How did that feel?

Michelle E. Dickinson: My dad’s focus was let me just provide. Let me just work hard. Let me make sure that she’s got the health care she needs. Let me create a vacation to take her away from her life for a minute, because I know that’s gonna make her happy. He left her to really, like discipline and take care of me unless things got really upsetting for her. He wouldn’t really interject. It’s very easy to say, oh, well, you know, what did your dad do? What did your dad not do? I look at my dad now with a whole level of compassion, because my dad grew up the alcoholic mother. He had a really rough childhood. And so then he marries a woman who’s bipolar and then he just keeps his head down and just works hard and just tries to provide and take care of. And then he’s got the task of taking her to a mental institution when she gets so bad. As I was like really unpacking my childhood, my heart really went out to him for what he did do instead of what he didn’t do. I think it’s very easy to point fingers and say he could’ve done a better job. He could’ve helped raise me better. He could have reassured me and given me the things that my mother didn’t. But he was doing the best he could. And I have a lot of compassion and respect and love for what he did do

Gabe Howard: You know, this illness is so massive, it’s so misunderstood. It takes years to get under control. And people who have absolutely no knowledge, resources or skillset, they have no preparation for this are on the frontlines of preparing for it. This is our system and I don’t think people believe us. What do you have to say to that? Because there is always that great success story and everybody says, oh, see, it’s not so bad. There’s this person, there’s this person, there’s this person. But sadly, we know how few and far between those stories are.

Michelle E. Dickinson: For me, I came out the other side. OK. Right> To your point, like, I came out OK. And people say to me, oh, my gosh. Like, you’re OK. Like you actually are contributing member of society. Given what you’ve been through. Going back to what you said about the Internet and information and conversations that are happening in celebrities that are talking and speaking out. I think we’re coming into a space now where there’s more capacity to be connected so people don’t have to be isolated and navigating this anymore. It’s a beautiful thing. When I find out a 15 year old girl has read my book, has a bipolar mom and reaches out to me to tell me you give me hope that I’m going to be OK. So I think that more people talking about it, more resources, communities becoming stigma free communities. Celebrities openly disclosing that they went to a mental institution to get help. I want to focus on the positive, because I think that there’s so much good that that’s happening. And we’re just getting momentum. And I think that we’re not going to have as many instances as what I dealt with because we’re in a different time and where people are really ready to talk about it more. So we’re not fully there yet because there’s still a lot that don’t. But I want to really focus on the fact that we’ve come so far and we’re going to go further.

Gabe Howard: I love your message of positivity and hope because in some moments, hope might be the only thing that somebody has and that can very much get you to step one. We’ll be right back after these messages. 

Sponsor Message: Hey folks, Gabe here. I host another podcast for Psych Central. It’s called Not Crazy. He hosts Not Crazy with me, Jackie Zimmerman, and it is all about navigating our lives with mental illness and mental health concerns. Listen now at Psych Central.com/NotCrazy or on your favorite podcast player.

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Gabe: We’re back discussing her memoir, Breaking Into My Life, with author Michelle E. Dickinson. Eventually, you became an adult. You were no longer a child caregiver. You. You left the house. What’s happening with your mom and your dad now?

Michelle E. Dickinson: My mom and my dad have passed away, and when my mom passed.

Gabe Howard: I’m so sorry.

Michelle E. Dickinson: Away, thank you. When my mom passed away, it actually gave me the freedom to write her story because remember, I still believed until I was in my twenties that what I did said or acted impacted her well-being. So there is no way I was writing the story at all until she was no longer here. So I had the freedom to write the story at that point. It’s not without impact. The experience growing up with my mom, you know, I’ve had I’ve been married. I’ve found myself in codependent situations. I’ve found myself muted where I just didn’t feel comfortable raising my voice and asking for what I wanted. I’m still in therapy. The impact of some of the abusive situations and the limiting beliefs. And I’m trying to embark on this entrepreneur world. And I have the voices in my head of my mother telling me, you know, who do you think you are that you can do this? I’m still trying to navigate all this as an adult and make a difference. And that’s where my heart is. So.

Gabe Howard: At the top of the show, you said you understood the trifecta of mental health. One of those was being diagnosed with depression on your own. Did you understand more of what your mother was going through or where she was coming from by being diagnosed with depression? And can you talk about that a little bit?

Michelle E. Dickinson: I think the hopelessness. Like my mom’s hopelessness. I never understood because I be like, God, it’s such a beautiful day that the sky is blue. What a gorgeous day we have in front of us. Right? Until I dealt with depression and it was hard to get out of bed and it was a beautiful day outside. And yet I couldn’t see the beauty in the day. So I think when I finally experienced that and then I wasn’t motivated and I wasn’t focused and I was constantly worrying and I was just not in a good space. I started to really get. You can’t tell a depressed person to snap out of it. You can’t tell a depressed person all the things that they should be grateful for and how beautiful the day is. You can’t do that. They have to feel what they feel and navigate it and deal with it and get the therapy themselves and work out whatever they need to do to just try to get back to normal. Just get back to, you know, an even state. Yeah. Like the hopelessness was definitely something I remember going, god, that’s what it was like for her. But with bipolar, it was a constant roller coaster of that and that hopelessness. And there was nothing anyone could say to me to help me be more upbeat, except for my therapist who would walk me through some situations and guide me. But there’s nothing anyone can really say to you. And I think that there comes a level of compassion that shows up when, you know, there are people around you dealing with depression. The pep talk might not be the way to go. The ear might be the way to go.

Gabe Howard: I love what you said there about when you experienced it. You understood it more. I do think that man, as somebody who lives with bipolar myself, I kind of wish that I could lock somebody in a room and give them all the symptoms in a 24 hour period and then release them into the wild and just watch how kind and considerate and understanding and patient

Michelle E. Dickinson: Yeah.

Gabe Howard: They become. So obviously, I’m sorry that you have depression. Nobody wants to to have depression, but it

Michelle E. Dickinson: Yeah,

Gabe Howard: Got you the trifecta.

Michelle E. Dickinson: It did. Yeah.

Gabe Howard: Let’s talk briefly about the third part, because that’s the advocacy part. And I love the advocacy part so, so much because, you know, you understand it. And that’s fantastic. Michelle understands it. But you’re helping create many, many, many, many, many more Michelles. And you’ve gone into the workplace

Michelle E. Dickinson: Mm hmm.

Gabe Howard: And mental health challenges and issues crop up at work all the time. You started the largest corporate mental health movement.

Michelle E. Dickinson: Mm hmm. Yeah. So at the time that I had released my book, the company was really starting to get connected to the importance of creating a culture of inclusion for people with invisible disability. That really is the last piece of inclusion when you think about diversity and inclusion in the workplace. If we can accommodate a physically disabled person with a wheelchair ramp, we should be accommodating someone with a mental illness. But the challenges is we have so many people who don’t feel like that’s something they ever want to disclose at work. They put their game face on, they go to work. They are dealing with what they’re dealing with. And then the additional stress and strain of having to conceal that in the workplace just compounds their mental illness. So when I was at my Fortune 500 company, my book was released. I was using my book to initiate conversations. Well, let me tell you my story. Let me tell you my experience. Let me humanize mental health for you. If you have no relationship to it, I want you to understand what it’s like. So maybe maybe you don’t feed into what the media portrays as mental illness and you start to understand it a little bit better and not fear it and maybe cause a conversation that wasn’t going to happen as well. So I was part of a team that initiated the largest mental health employee resource group, and it was so cool to watch that.

Michelle E. Dickinson: When you kind of build it, people will come right. People started to come out of the shadows and go, wow, I want a stigma free environment. I want my people in my immediate departments to feel comfortable that if they’re dealing with something, they share it and they know that they’ll get the empathy and the support that they deserve. So it was incredible. It was really incredible to just see so many people. You don’t realize how many people are either serving as a caregiver, have dealt with it themselves or just genuinely have compassion for others who they’ve witnessed having to deal with it. So it was a great experience. I mean, two thousand employees across the globe joined. It was incredible. Groups were having conversations, roundtable discussions, TED talks were happening around their experience with a loved one who maybe dealt with depression, PTSD, attempted suicide, whatever it is. Those were conversations initiators and it helped employees not feel isolated and be like I see myself in that story. Let’s have a conversation. So it’s powerful when you can create a resource group within your company that aligns people with something that is so taboo to talk about. But at least you have a core group of people talking about it.

Gabe Howard: And once people talk about it, as you pointed out, they get the correct information. They feel connected and they feel a lot more empowered. And obviously, if you feel alone and isolated and you don’t get the help that you need, you miss more work. If you miss more work, because it’s not only a problem for you as the employee, but it’s also a problem for the employer.

Michelle E. Dickinson: Yeah.

Gabe Howard: They hired you for a reason. So I’m desperately avoiding jumping up on a soapbox. But I wish that employers and employees understood that they have a symbiotic relationship.

Michelle E. Dickinson: Absolutely.

Gabe Howard: Right. If the employees are calling in sick because of mental health issues, the employer is not getting their needs met. And obviously, the employee is also not being paid. They risk their health insurance,

Michelle E. Dickinson: Yes.

Gabe Howard: Et cetera, which, of course, they’re not going to get well from whatever mental health and or mental illness issue that they have. So working together to resolve these issues really does make life better for the entire company on all sides.

Michelle E. Dickinson: Aside from it being the right thing to do for employers to care about mental health, mental disorders are the single most expensive category of health costs for many employers across all industries and sizes. 17 billion U.S. dollars is lost annually in productivity in the US because of unaddressed mental health concerns. There’s a disability expense that every company has, whether or not they choose to look at what the percentage of that that is mental health. When you lie and say, I’m gonna go because I have a stomach ache, I’m going to take off a work. There’s so much that could be done proactively to prevent people from checking out and just not being the best they can be in their job. So it’s time we meet employees where they are.

Gabe Howard: I love that. I am glad that you were here. I appreciate having you. Where can folks find you and where can folks find your book?

Michelle E. Dickinson: Sure. Sure. So you want to go to my Web site. I would love to hear from people. I love love hearing from people. It’s MichelleEDickinson.com. That’s my web site. You can learn about my programs that I bring to corporations, my children’s well-being program, other services that I offer. And then you can also get my book on that page as well through Barnes & Noble or Amazon.

Gabe Howard: Wonderful, thank you so much for being here, we really appreciated having you.

Michelle E. Dickinson: Thank you for having me, Gabe.

Gabe Howard: You’re welcome. And listen up, everybody. We have our own Facebook group. All you need to do is join and you can find it by going to PsychCentral.com/FBShow that’s PsychCentral.com/FBShow. And remember, you can get one week of convenient, affordable private online counselling anytime, anywhere, simply by visiting BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral. You’ll also support our sponsor and we love that. We’ll see everyone next week.

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