My Kids Know Mommy Has Bipolar Disorder
We don’t have a plan.
Chances are it will happen again. Mania will overtake my brain to the point where I’ll need to be forced into treatment. No matter how hard I work at staying mentally healthy, the statistics show that most people who live with my type of bipolar will relapse many times. This can be due to meds ceasing to work, life events, or changes in sleep patterns.
We probably should write down a plan.
That was the advice given to us as we sat in a dreary office speaking with a new psychiatrist one month before I would give birth to our first child. My entire pregnancy had gone so smoothly. My bipolar disorder appeared to be in remission as I indulged in ice cream every night and marveled at my growing belly.
Not even the loss of my laid back, corporate recruiting job, the same month we closed on our new house, rattled my mental health. We had conceived, sold our townhouse, found a new place to live, packed and moved, went through my job loss, and I was still okay. I was more than okay. I was so happy with how our life was going.
So when Ben and I met with the psychiatrist, I naturally was not really focused on preventative measures. Frankly, I was questioning whether I even had bipolar given how well I had been doing off medication. The meeting was meant for us to have someone in our back pocket, should we need her in an emergency. My ego ached for her to shower me with praise for how well I had been taking care of myself.
Instead, she focused on the inevitable hospitalization she predicted I’d face. That’s all I heard. “You’re going to fail at mothering with bipolar, so we need a plan for when that happens.”
Well, fuck you, lady.
Ben didn’t have the same visceral reaction I did. He told me later that he thought it was good she was preparing us to be prepared. We may not have had a plan written down when we left her office that afternoon, but at least we had her card.
Eight weeks later my husband was frantically dialing her number as I frantically reorganized our kitchen. I had been getting by on tiny bits of sleep ever since our son was born, and my brain was starting to unravel. I had a grocery list notepad filled with scrawls and scribbles documenting the baby’s nursing stats. 20 minutes – Right, 15 minutes – Left. How much he slept in between. There were even notes kept on the contents of his dirty diapers. To say I had a touch of OCD probably wouldn’t have been inaccurate.
I was unable to sleep. Napping when the baby fell asleep during the day simply wasn’t happening. Despite the serious lack of shut-eye due to breastfeeding, which turned out to be incredibly hard, I felt dizzy with momentum, and found tons of “urgent” things to attend to while my son napped. At night I’d get a few hours here or there, but waking up four to five times a night with a newborn was not conducive to my brain getting any real rest.
And so it went haywire.
I could feel the sand in the hourglass beginning to slip through. I began gathering all of my journals which held the glimpses of my story since the initial diagnosis two years prior — piling them all in front of the blazing gas fireplace in our family room as an offering of my legacy. Standing near the flames I felt the heat build against the back of my legs. In my mind I’d rather go to hell than back to the mental hospital, so why not get a jump on the journey?
I had postpartum psychosis when my son was four weeks old. I knew it was coming on from the moment I first held him, but I was too afraid to tell anyone. I remember being completely and utterly exhausted, yet I couldn’t take my eyes off this precious, tiny life. I was in awe. Maybe even in shock a little. I felt the exhaustion begin to curl and twist into the exhilaration of hypomania. How could it not? I was on cloud nine having just given birth to our first baby.
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Adjusting to life with a newborn was harder than I ever imagined. Our days and nights revolved around feedings, diaper changes, and laundry. However, my days and nights also included auditory and visual hallucinations, that started three weeks after coming home from the hospital with our newborn. At one point I remember being on my cell phone with my dad, and suddenly I felt like he was so far away — like on another planet. And I believed the CD/radio player in my son’s nursery held the frequency to beam me up to that planet my dad was calling me from. I was terrified of my thoughts, and yet, even more fearful of saying something. They might take my baby from me.
Thank God my husband didn’t share my same fears. He was anything but afraid of reaching out for help when he realized my mental health had severely deteriorated. He immediately picked up the phone, as painful as I’m sure it was for him. He was my lifeline.
It’s hard for him to talk about my manic episodes. I can feel the trauma left in his eyes when I try to encourage him to open up about those four times he had to have me hospitalized. It’s like he wants to erase those memories. I don’t blame him. I probably would feel the same if the roles were reversed.
I looked up from the sandwiches and fruit I was tossing into lunch sacks for the kids to check the time. 8:15. From the other room, I heard her big brother giving a lesson on Lego firemen and how they help people in trouble while sister “ohhhed and ahhed” and asked questions here and there. For the most part, they were playing happily together while I rushed about the kitchen assembling healthy lunches. I was grateful in that moment. With the lunch task completed, I ushered the kids upstairs so that we could all get dressed and ready and out the door.
The kids couldn’t agree on a show to watch together on the iPad while I got ready. He wanted Lunar Jim and she wanted Calliou. There was no compromising and so I took the privilege away. Arguing ensued, followed by a whole lot of yelling — ugly, horrible, rage-filled yelling on my part. I yelled with fury at my young children, something I am utterly ashamed to admit. That’s when it happened.
My little man told me, in the middle of our angry, rotten argument over the fact that I took the iPad away, that he was going to get rid of me. The kids were still in their jammies, I had no time to take a shower, and it was apparent we weren’t going to get there on time. I should have just given up on trying.
“I’m going to get rid of you, Mommy!” he threatened, with all the power and might of his little four-and-a-half-year-old voice. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, it did.
“Oh, really? How are you going to do that, bud?” I retorted as I pulled my sweater over my head.
“I’ll put you in the trash can!” he screamed as hot tears spilled down his cheeks.
I could feel his anger squeeze my heart and wring it out. I had become so worthless to him that he wanted to throw me away. I couldn’t blame him. If I had myself for a mommy, I’d probably want to throw her away, too.
I knew in that moment that I was failing him as a parent. He and his sister didn’t deserve to be on the receiving end of my raging temper. There was no way I was going to continue to expose them to my hurtful, cruel, pathetic attempt at discipline. I knew I needed to learn to parent them differently so that their memories of childhood weren’t fraught with what I considered this nightmarish scene that I wished I could erase.
Right then and there, in my mind, silently to myself I vowed to make some serious changes. I’d find ways to control my anger. I’d learn how to cope. I’d try harder to manage the symptoms of my illness so they didn’t tear my family apart. I finished getting dressed and then got down on my knees and pulled him to me, wrapping him with all that I had left. I cried with him, and we both whispered over and over again our vows to stop fighting and yelling. Baby girl timidly walked over with open arms and joined in on our big hug.
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This is where the healing begins. I dropped them off at school and came home to start writing. There’s something about taking pen to paper, taking the time to write out what happened, that helps me to understand how to do things better next time.
The kids are seven and almost five now, and there are still days when I wish I were better at controlling my emotions. But that morning three years ago was a huge wake up call for me. I’ve learned that self-care does wonders for keeping my rage in check. Rage is a symptom of my illness, that, because of my commitment to taking better care of myself doesn’t pop up all that often anymore. I’m the first to admit that I am most certainly not a perfect parent or wife or friend, by any means. I’m human and I’m flawed. It’s the ability to forgive myself and apply the knowledge gained from mistakes that makes me the mother, spouse and friend that I’m proud to be.
My husband and I met at the age of 18 as college freshman. I had this weird intuition that he’d be my husband someday. I’m sure he never dreamed that only two years into our marriage he’d be watching me sleep in a psych ward, holding my hand, tears streaming down his face. Or that he’d have to make the decision to hospitalize me three more times. No one ever warns you about these things when you decide to put a ring on it.
Ben is the most calm, loving, honest, loyal, and intelligent man I know. He’s so humble that I never know he’s received a raise at work until it hits our bank account. And we complement each other perfectly. I’m driven, he’s laid back. I’m more serious, he’s funnier. I get stressed out, he’s cool as a cucumber. Through it all, his gentle support has been the force behind my ability to recover and rejoin society after each manic or depressive episode.
I’ve asked him before if he ever felt like leaving me when I got sick. “Never,” he said. But how did you do it? How were you able to stay? I was a miserable wreck. “I love you, honey. And I knew you’d get better.”
I talk with my kids about my mental illness often. They know Mommy has bipolar disorder.
They know that I take medicine every day to keep my brain healthy. They know that Mommy needs to get good sleep to be a good mommy (don’t we all, parents?). I talk with them about how I’m helping people who live with mental illness to share their stories through my non-profit. I’m teaching my children that it’s okay to talk about mental illness the same way people talk about other medical conditions. My son knows there are illnesses he can see, like his classmate’s broken arm, ensconced inside a bright blue cast, and that there are illnesses he can’t see, like his Poppy’s heart condition, and his mommy’s bipolar.
Someday I’ll tell them about the time our son was four weeks old and an ambulance and several police cars showed up at our house, and I was handcuffed and taken away from my baby for a week.
Someday I’ll tell them about how I was so over the moon about our second pregnancy that I barely slept for a week. Instead of rest coming at the end of a long day taking care of a toddler, I’d lie in bed for hours after kissing my son goodnight.
Someday I’ll tell them how my daughter was just a five-week old embryo in my belly when she and I were admitted to the psych ward.
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For now, we talk about it in spurts. Like when my little girl fetches the mail and my Lithium prescription arrives. I remind them that my medicine keeps me healthy. I’ve shown them the bottle and the pills to teach them that medicine is not candy. When I have a bad day and my patience wears thin causing me to yell a little too nasty at their misbehavior, I know that I’m in need of a time-out. Those are the times when I realize I haven’t been mindful of my self-care, and so I get back on track and take some time to myself. Doing so helps me to be the mommy I want to be for them.
There may come a day when I recognize mental illness in one of my kids. I’m not afraid. I know we’ll get through it together. I hope that if they ever suspect it in themselves before I do, they’ll have had enough exposure to mental illness to know how to reach out for help. And they can rest assured that their father and I will do everything in our power to get them the treatment they need to get well.
My mental illness told me I wasn’t strong enough to handle motherhood. “How will you take care of both of us? I control your life now, and a new baby will demand everything of you. You won’t make it.”
I wasn’t willing to let my illness stand in the way of my dream of having babies, having a family. I spent a long, hard year working closely with my psychiatrist and therapist, trying many different meds and combinations of meds until I found one that worked for me. And even then, I knew finding the right med was only one piece to the puzzle.
There is no magic pill to banish one’s mental illness. Meds only assist in the journey to recovery. The other pieces which needed to come together for me were my support network, protecting my sleep, monitoring my stress level, and eating well and exercising regularly. And they didn’t all link up at the same time.
My heart wanted children more fiercely than my illness had control over me. It was at that moment when my husband and I decided to go for it. We took a leap of faith and never looked back. Were we scared? Of course. Was it worth it? A million times yes.
My mental illness hid under my veil of joy and anticipation for the new life growing inside me. So much so I questioned the disorder was ever really there. Maybe those first two episodes were simply excruciating nightmares brought on by lack of sleep and the stress of a demanding job? Only the game of hide-and-seek didn’t last long. Fighting for my recovery during my early years of motherhood wasn’t what I envisioned as a new parent. My passion for advocacy has developed as a result of my experience, and if I had the ability to wave a magic wand and dissolve away my condition, I’d have to take a pass. My life, my kids, my family — have all become richer and full of empathy because we’ve been touched by mental illness. An illness which has taught me how to protect and cultivate my mental health.
Being a mom who struggles with mental illness was never something I expected out of motherhood. But as author Alexandra Elle has said, “I’m grateful for my struggle because without it, I may never have found my strength.”
With this strength, armed with the knowledge of a decade’s worth of experience managing my bipolar illness, it’s about time I write that plan. For my kids. For my husband. For myself.
Just in case.