Michelle Dickinson - Breaking Into My Life

030: Reclaiming Myself After Growing Up With a Bipolar Parent – Michelle Dickinson

Michelle Dickinson who has worked in the pharmaceutical industry for over 18 years and is currently an associate director at Johnson & Johnson. She is the author of Breaking Into My Life: Growing Up with a Bipolar Parent and My Battle to Reclaim Myself. Her memoir offers a rare glimpse into a young girl’s experience living with—and loving—her bipolar mother. After years of playing the role of child caregiver, she embarked on her own healing journey of self-discovery. Michelle is out to raise awareness and compassion for those struggling with mental illness along with those who care for them, so that more people get the treatment and help they need and deserve. She believes that together we can eradicate the mental health stigma once and for all.

In This Episode, You Will Learn:

  • How Michelle’s life was dramatically impacted by her mother’s bipolar condition.
  • The path that Michelle has walked in order to break free and reclaim herself.
  • How you can help a friend or family member who might be suffering.

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Interview Transcript

Michelle thank you so much for taking some time to hang with us today.

Thank you for having me.

We’ve heard about your book and it uses the term “bi-polar”. Everybody has heard that term but a lot of us don’t necessarily know what that means. Could you describe what that disorder is and also, how did that impact your own childhood because of your mom’s condition?

Sure, absolutely. I grew up relating to bi-polar as manic depression. That’s just the term that I was always told as a child, but bi-polar is also known as manic depression. The two terms seem to have been used interchangeably. It’s a mental illness that brings severe highs and lows in the mood and then it also affects your sleep and your energy and your thinking and your behavior.

My mom had everything. She had severe depression. She had extreme mania. She had sleepless nights – many sleepless nights. She had rapid mood and thoughts. There were a lot of different thoughts that would happen that caused her to go in a million different directions. It was just challenging to be with her. I would say that I learned very quickly as a young girl to read her mood and know how I needed to correspond with her.

Is she still alive?

She’s not. She passed away a little over ten years ago now.

At what point as you were growing up did you realize that your mom was experiencing challenges? When we grow up in a home, there’s usually this thought of, “This is just our home. Isn’t everybody’s home like this?” At what point did you realize, “Oh, this is a little different. This is unique”?

Yes, because it was my norm. It wasn’t like I had a yardstick to compare it to, except for when I would go and spend time with my girlfriends and their mothers. And I would be able to see what their family dynamics look like and the relationship they had with their mothers and that it was very different than mine.

So, I was little when I recognized that my mom was crying a lot and wasn’t doing anything in the home. And that of course caused us to have to take over a lot of the responsibilities that she normally would do. And then, when they took her away to the hospital, obviously I knew that it wasn’t normal for my mother to have to be hospitalized and when she appears to be physically okay.

She was diagnosed at some point, was she a single mom? Or do you guys have a father in the home?

Yeah, my dad worked a lot. He was often working 40 or 50 hours a week and so, it was just my mom and I at home. I also had two cousins who lived with us for a period of time. But there would be these times when my father just had to go to work because he didn’t want to lose his job. He was counting on the benefits for her healthcare. He’d ask me to stay with her and that was just something that I would do. I’d stay home from school and look after her because she was at that point where she was too fragile to be left alone but yet, not so severe that she needed to be hospitalized. It was like this in between period.

That’s one of the unique dynamics that you talk about in the book; your role as a caregiver and how that role becomes not something that kids or young people are looking to do, but kind of fall into oftentimes.


How did you care for her and how did that impact you as you look back over the course of your life?

All the experiences of our childhood affect us and shape us. I am no different than anyone else. I’m sure everyone has something in their childhood that has shaped them and mine just happened to be that my mother had bi-polar disorder. So, the way it shaped me I would say is, I was very good at putting the needs of other people first. Suppressing what I needed because always at the forefront of our home was keeping peace and keeping consistency for my mom as much as we could. So, if there was something we needed or if there was some type of upset within ourselves, I learned very quickly to supress that. To not raise my hand and say, “Hey, I’m dealing with something.” Because the needs of my mother always came first. So, that definitely shaped me.

But even at the end of the book, I write how it shapes you in good and bad ways. I write an epilogue where I am able to reflect through many, many years of self-discovery work and therapy and I’m able to reflect on how her illness actually serves me. It serves me in my insatiable hunger to cause change in the world of mental health and that would never have happened if I wasn’t affected by that. I’m deeply compassionate for people. I don’t want to see people suffer. I know what it’s like to wake up every day and not to be able to see the beauty in what’s possible through my mother’s eyes. So, it’s taught me a lot and it’s empowered me. The experiences empowered me to cause real change.

Was there someone as you were growing up that you were able to talk to about this? Was it your dad? Or were there other people that you could confide in and process? Or, did you feel alone in the journey?

A lot of the times when I was really young, I did feel alone. Although my godmother and my grandmother were two people who constantly checked in on me, I wasn’t completely isolated. But I saw them maybe once a month at best. They would pull me aside and say, “How are you doing? How’s mom doing these days?” And you know, I could share with them what I was dealing with and how she was doing. But it wasn’t until I was in junior high when I found my youth group and I write about this in the book.

I write about my Catholic youth group because it was there that I found a judgement free community of friends who I felt safe disclosing this secret to. Kids can be mean and I kept this as a secret. I didn’t want anyone to know about it. I found myself on a retreat and I found myself talking about it and I found the outpouring of love and support from this community. I just felt this huge boulder release because at least now people understood what I was struggling with when I went home.

Oftentimes as young people, we do want to hide those things that we feel awkward about or don’t know how to talk about, but that carries over into mental health in general. We’re becoming more and more aware of a need to become open about these things, but how do you see that impacting the young people that you are talking to? What’s the impact if somebody’s not being able to talk about either someone in their family who has a mental challenge or if they’re having challenges? What’s the result of not talking about it?

I think people tend to think that they’re strong enough and they will muscle through it on their own. That isolation and that fear of judgement and that shame associated with having mental health is really the worst thing that we can do. So, we need to encourage our young people to talk about it.

When I get the opportunity to talk to young people, the first thing I say is, “Own your wellbeing. Raise your hand and tell somebody. It doesn’t have to be someone you don’t feel comfortable with, but find that teacher, that counsellor, that parent. Maybe it’s your girlfriend’s mother.” I confided in my girlfriend’s mother all the time. I felt safe with her. But keep talking and know that it’s okay. I also encourage them to look out for each other because they know their friends and they can tell if things are not quite right. They need to know that they can raise their hand and say, “I think my friend is struggling,” and really support each other.

When we’re talking about mental health, there’s a wide range of challenges that we can have. You’re talking about a pretty severe issue of bi-polar, but there’s everything from obsessive compulsive disorders to depression and many other challenges. I have two teenage kids; they are 16 and 19 and they go through those challenges and we have found that therapy is a huge help. We’re big proponents of therapy in our family. It’s a great place to talk to somebody who’s a third party that’s trained in this area and also just as a safe place outside of the home.


But there are a lot of different things that people can be experiencing, not just high highs and low lows.

Exactly. There’s anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, bulimia, anorexia. There’s so many and they’re all debilitating and they all need to be discovered and addressed so people can reclaim their joy and enjoy their life.

Over eleven years ago I went through a rock bottom kind of experience in my own life and I ended up choosing to check myself into a mental health facility for three days. It was extremely humbling, but I ended up getting stabilized to a place where afterwards I went and got a brain scan through the Amen Clinic. Dr. Daniel Amen wrote a book called Change Your Brain, Change Your Life and they do an FMRI which looks at the activity levels of your brain. They noticed that my basal ganglia was off the chart; they do a plus four to minus four system in terms of plus four being overactive and negative four being super underactive. And mine was a plus four and considered off the chart in terms of fight or flight and in terms of that type of anxiety. So, I wasn’t experiencing anxiety with a panic attack or something of that nature, it was more like if negative information came my way, I would want to retreat or amp up really strongly.

Then with my cingulate, which is sort of like a gear shifter in your brain, I was at a plus two. So, I have this insane ability to focus on things and they talked about in the process  that I have the brain of an entrepreneur but yet it can be really detrimental to relationships because of that overworking and that anxiety. I actually started taking some low-level anti-anxiety medication ten years ago and it allowed my brain to slow down. My wife said, “You’re never going off that, ever, ever, ever.” Because now, I can be present in a conversation without thinking about all the other things in the back of my mind that I have to do. It’s absolutely amazing and I tell people all the time, “Yes, I’m on meds. Yes, it has transformed my life.” That’s not for everybody, but it’s definitely helped me.

You know, that’s great because I think a lot of people have a false understanding of the medications that are available. I do want to mention and it’s amazing to me, the treatments that my mother had years and years ago were so different than they are now. The side-effects were so discouraging that my mother would take herself off of medications. The medication and advancements that have happened over the years, I think people need to not be afraid and just raise their hand and say, “Hey, what’s available now that could help me?” And you know what? There’s meditation and other things…


Yeah, it’s not only medication but there are other vehicles that you can leverage and I think more people need to be aware of that and not just think, “Oh, I’m going to get this horrible treatment that’s going to be negative.” I think your example is a good one.

I assume that you wrote this book because it was a cathartic and healing experience?


What are some of the other reasons that you wrote the book?

It started off that I wanted to write the book to tell my story. I had always wanted to tell the story since I was little. I think I was probably in my high school years and I said, “I’m going to write a book.” But I always wanted to write it because I knew people just wouldn’t believe it, first of all. I was like, “They’re never going to believe this. I can’t believe I survived this and that I’m okay.” So, I wanted to write it from that perspective but then as I started to write it and I started to relive those experiences, it became incredibly cathartic. More cathartic than I ever thought it would because I had a great writing coach who would really force me to vividly recall experiences that I had chose to put far, far away. But I had to relive them in a sense be able to heal during the reliving of them.

Then as I’m finishing the book, I’m getting even more and more motivated and inspired to use it as a platform to cause real change. Kind of like that saying, “Take your mess and make it your message.” I started thinking, “If this book can really help cause and make a difference and we can move a step away from a stigma that prevents so many people from getting care they deserve, I’m going to use it as much as I can.”

On the cover of the book there are these beautiful butterflies and I see butterflies in your office behind you, tell me about your love for butterflies.

It’s the whole metamorphosis and transformation. The hands on the book are reaching up for a reason and the hands being tied, I think that you have a choice in your life to be shackled by your past experiences and allow them to define and dictate how your future goes, or you have a choice to let that be the past and create a beautiful future. So, when I think of a butterfly, I think of a beautiful transformation of someone who is basically in this incubation period for so long. I’m 47 now and I’m finally feeling like I can break away and do something with everything that I’ve experienced in my forty-some years on this planet. It’s all about the metamorphosis and about the transformation and the beauty of it and what’s possible.

I love that. So, you work for Johnson & Johnson as your day job and you are part of their Mental Health Diplomats Program.


That’s a mouthful; The Johnson & Johnson Mental Health Diplomats Program. What is that all about and how does that play a role in the world?

It’s an incredible group and it was born out of one of our leaders. We have a TEDxJNJ platform at J&J. So, one of our fearless leaders courageously told his story of his daughter and her attempt at suicide and from that came a groundswell of employees raising their hands and saying, “I know someone,” or “I’ve been affected by mental health,” “I have a loved one who’s got mental health issues.” We need to talk about it. We need to eradicate the stigma within our own walls and create a space for employees to really bring their whole selves to work and be authentic and have leaders who are compassionate and understand that, just the same as a visible disability, there are invisible disabilities as well.

So, this is a grassroots self-voluntary employee group within. It’s an employee resource group. We have several of them at J&J, but this is an employee resource group that’s global. We have members from across the globe who have raised their hands to say, “I want to be part of the change. I want to be part of building a community of support and causing real change within J&J so we don’t have a stigma where we work.”

What are some of the things that you guys do to help drop that stigma?

World Mental Health Day is a very big day for us. We have chapters across the globe and we raise awareness at our campuses. We share our employee assistance information so that people know where they can go and get help and support. We share our own stories. We have many employees who’ve courageously started to come out and say, “I live with depression and this is my life.” It creates an immediate relatedness with each other. It’s so powerful. People really get that they’re not alone and that their own peer is struggling and they get to see what happens when we come together and we talk about it and we can support each other.

And then we have subgroups. So, all of us are affected by mental health. I think the statistic now says that we will all be affected by some type of mental health challenge in our lifetime. So, we have these subgroups. We have everything from depression to PTSD and eating disorders. Within these subgroups, you can connect with other employees who’ve navigated this and who have navigated our employee resources and navigated their own personal experience. You can plug into that group and you can get additional support if you need it. It’s a really powerful thing and I’m so proud to be a part of it because we’re really helping each other.

That’s so great. I know you also have written what you call, Perfect Just the Way You Are. It’s a program that you’ve developed for students. Tell us about that program and how you are seeing that implemented.

I created Perfect Just the Way You Are out of my own deficits of my own childhood. One of the things with having a mom with a mental illness is that she’s absent from being your supporter and reminding you that you have potential and that you have the ability to do whatever you want and that you’re perfect just the way you are. So, I found myself in a leadership development program with Landmark Education and I was developing the framework to this program. The question was, “If you could change the world, what would you do?” And for me it was, “Gosh, I would want kids to know that they were perfect, whole and complete just as they are and they could do whatever they want.”

I developed that program and then brought it to J&J and they took it on. So, it’s designed to be an afterschool program or a Wellness Fair and we teach children how to nourish their body, how to nourish their minds and then we teach them leadership skills. So, everything from bolstering self-esteem, teaching the importance of having gratitude, bucket-filling, having empathy and compassion for one another, the importance of good nutrition and exercise and then leadership skills and the sense of team and all of that good stuff. It’s been running for several years. We’re excited. It keeps growing.

If there’s a school; a teacher or a principal or even a parent who’s listening that wants to bring that program to their school, how might they go about doing that?

They could reach out to me through my website and I’d be happy to connect with them. The website for my book is where they would go, it’s www.breakingintomylife.com and you can connect with me there.  You can also get a free except of my book if you’re interested in reading a little bit about what I share in that story.

We will definitely list that in all of our show notes and on social media.

You have a sign behind you, not that I’m snooping, but it says, “She created a life she loved.” So, I’m not sure you loved your life back in the day, but as we continue to love our lives, what do you love about your life right now?

I found my purpose more than anything. There’s such a peace and a tranquility that comes with knowing that you finally found out what your purpose of being on this planet is, and mine is to make a difference around mental health. I think the motivation and ambition I have to drive that forward every day.

How do you manage having more than fulltime job and then also this purpose that you’ve discovered or uncovered in your life? Not to say that those are mutually exclusive, because they’re connected. How do you manage that? Because a lot of people will say, “Well, I’ve got to pay the bills and I haven’t been able to leverage my newly discovered purpose into paying the bills.” How do you kind of process that in your mind?

Well, you know there’s a lot of hours outside of work. There are weekends. There are evenings. And there’s early mornings. So, I try really hard to work on my initiatives for my passion outside of my working day. I love my company and I love the people I get to work with and I love so much of the mental health conversation that’s happening within my company. So, there’s an intimate connection there too. It’s not like I see these as totally separate.

The saying is true; if you want something and love something, you will find the time. And I find the time. If it means an entire weekend of working on scheduling the podcasts or whatever I’m working on, then that’s what I do. I’m building a website right now, so maybe it’s that most of the time but you make the time. You do what you have to do. I think you get energy from it. Personally, I get energy from that. It’s not like it’s a drain.

Last question, if somebody is experiencing some challenges, whether it’s their own challenges or someone else’s challenges, how would you encourage them to take action today somehow?

First of all, it’s so easy to keep people at arm’s length and to say, “They’ll work it out. I’m just going to go over here.” Your gut is telling you, “Maybe you should do something,” and you look away. Don’t look away. They love you and you love them and you know that they need support. If it’s for yourself and you’re not quite sure, because a lot of people will say, “Oh, I’m struggling but I’m not that bad.” Check out the NAMI website and get clear if you’re struggling with signs and symptoms of something like a depression. They have a checklist for that. Start to evaluate yourself and then if you feel like you need help of some sort, just keep the conversation alive.

This goes for if you’re caring for someone or if you think it’s yourself, keep talking. When I say, “Keep talking,” people right away say, “I’m not comfortable talking to someone I love.” There’s a great resource I’m going to share called www.18percent.org and it represents 18% of American’s struggling with a mental illness. It is a free online peer to peer community. You can put on your phone and you can login anonymously and you can just engage in a conversation with people who may have struggled with what you’re struggling with and you can learn from them what they did. If they decided to seek treatment. If they decided to talk to someone. What did they do to navigate that? It’s a great place to go so that you don’t feel so isolated and alone. I think that’s the first step that you could do, just start talking and start connecting and you might get more comfortable with the idea of actually seeking treatment if you’re not there yet.

And if there is someone that you care about but you don’t know how to approach them, I will be the first person to say, “Create a safe space for them. Just be with them. Just listen to them.” Maybe share something about a time when you were depressed or had your own anxiety. Create an opening for them that if they want to share, they will. And be courageous and ask, “How are you doing?” As simple as, “How are you doing?” People need to hear that and need to know that they’re cared for and feel safe and willing eventually to talk to you.

Michelle, thank you for sharing about your book and about your life and your story. I admire what you’re doing and it’s so awesome what Johnson & Johnson is doing and that you get to be a part of that. We will definitely point people toward your book and your website, www.breakingintomylife.com. We’ll also put the other resources down for the NAMI website as well as the 18 Percent. Thank you so much, Michelle. I really appreciate it.

Thanks for having me, I appreciate it.

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thank you!