Why My Kids Know Mommy Has Bipolar Disorder

Screen Shot 2015-12-29 at 11.28.56 AM 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. 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. I was so happy with how our life was going.

So when my husband Ben and I met with the psychiatrist, I naturally wasn’t 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, f*ck 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 was unable to sleep. Napping when the baby fell asleep during the day simply wasn’t happening. 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.

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 4 weeks old. I knew it was coming on from the moment I first held him, but I was too afraid to tell anyone. 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.

– – –

I heard the kids arguing because they couldn’t agree on a show to watch while I got ready for the day. 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.

“I’m going to get rid of you, Mommy!” my son threatened, still in his jammies, with all the power and might of his little 4-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.

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 7 and almost 5 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 I’m 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.

Now, 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 OK 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 4 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 5-week-old embryo in my belly when she and I were admitted to the psych ward.

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.

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.

A version of this post originally appeared on OC87 Recovery Diaries.

The Mighty is asking the following: If you’re a parent with a mental illness, tell us about a time you tried (either successfully or unsuccessfully) to explain to your children about your mental illness/mental health issues. How did they react? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Share Your Story page for more about our submission guidelines.


The Difference Between a Broken Leg and an Injured Mind

In college, I broke my leg ice skating. A failed attempt at a pirouette landed me in the ER with a not-quite compound fracture. The pain was unbelievable, and I had to undergo emergency surgery which kept me in the hospital for a few days.

When people asked about me, wondering where I was, everyone responded, “Rachel broke her leg and needs surgery. But she’s in good spirits! What an adorable klutz.”

After I was discharged and finally figured out how to use my crutches, I returned to my classes where everyone was overly nice and overly willing to share their lecture notes. Everyone smiled. My broken leg signified that I was pretty clumsy, but that’s normal for a lot of people. Some people are just clumsy — and they probably shouldn’t be taking ice skating lessons.

In college, I was hospitalized twice for psychotic episodes. One suicide attempt and two weeks spent staggering under delusions and paranoia landed me in a psych ward. It was completely terrifying. The intensity of these episodes was like nothing I had ever experienced before. I lost myself to psychosis and even after the hospital brought me back, it took quite awhile before I felt safe again.

When people asked about me, wondering where I was, nobody said anything. Because nobody knew. I was ashamed and embarrassed. I didn’t want anyone to know that I had bipolar disorder because by definition that made me abnormal. After I was discharged I struggled to reestablish my routine. My illness and subsequent stays in the hospital haunted me and I was ravaged by feelings of emptiness. When I finally returned to my classes I sat in the back by myself. Everyone smiled, but it didn’t feel like they were smiling at me. Or with me. I felt sick, broken and like I could never tell anyone.

Breaking my leg until the bone practically showed and experiencing psychosis were both incredibly painful experiences. The significant difference was that after one injury, I felt like I could share the experience with others. That we could chuckle about my clumsy antics and that it was OK. I was OK.

After the other injury I felt utterly isolated, struggling to hide a part of myself I vehemently hated. Bipolar disorder was not OK. I was not OK. The underlying problem was that while I had the vocabulary to explain breaking my leg, there was no unprejudiced language I could borrow to share my battle with bipolar. The silence of stigma left me feeling worthless and worthy of quarantine for years.

My fibula healed a lot faster than my heart.

This is why I talk about my mental illness. The quicker we discredit stigma the sooner we can all start to heal. No one should have to do this alone.

Follow this journey on Rachel’s blog

10 Reasons I Wish I Could Be More Open About My Mental Illness


Living with bipolar disorder type 1, I have to deal with severe mood swings, chronic anxiety and occasional psychotic symptoms. Every few years I’m hospitalized due to my illness. I wish I could be more honest, both at these times and every day, about what’s happening to me. Despite the chronic and serious nature of my disorder, I do spend a lot of time and energy hiding aspects of it from those around me.

Here’s why I wish I could be more open:

1. So people could help me recognize the warning signs.

I’m slowly getting better at recognizing when I need help. When I start getting depressed I become less sociable – I ignore phone calls, I stop going out, I don’t want to see anyone. I can often see these things starting to happen, but I feel like I can’t share them with others until it’s too late.

2. So I would feel less ashamed. 

Some of the people I love don’t know anything about my illness, but most of those who do choose to ignore it. It’s the “unmentionable.” The hospital is “that place you went.” It makes me feel ashamed — like my illness is something I shouldn’t talk about. People feel awkward because they don’t know how to approach the subject, but being more open would help so much.

3. So people could learn more about me.

This is me! Bipolar disorder is part of my life. It’s like a friend who’s with me always, but who no one bothers to talk to or get to know. They’d rather ignore her. Being more open would help me heal – I could relax and just be myself without having to hide such a big part of myself all the time.

4. So people can learn about mental illness and disability.

Not all disability is obvious and visible. It doesn’t need to be a scary or intimidating thing to talk about. No one is a better advocate than someone who’s going through it. The more positive exposure there is to mental illness and disability, the better for everyone.

5. So I could explain why I act strangely sometimes.

Sometimes my illness gets the better of me and I don’t act in a way I like. All those times I’ve withdrawn and been a bad friend isn’t because I don’t care, but because I’ve felt too depressed to even get out of bed. I’ve done some silly things that have made people angry with me, but I’ve never had the opportunity to explain why it happened. I never meant to do those things; I just get so unwell sometimes.

6. So I could be honest about why I don’t work.

“So what do you do?” is the question I fear the most in social situations. Despite trying many times to work and to join in society, I’ve always become extremely unwell and often ended up in hospital. It’s hard for me to accept this is my future and I will continue trying as time goes by. I’m not lazy or afraid of hard work — I just find it so stressful I often relapse. It’s just as frustrating for me.

7. So I would have more to talk about.

Sometimes it feels like my whole life is the bipolar. If people ask me what I’ve been doing and how I am, it’s hard to answer without mentioning my mental illness. “I’ve been sitting at home a lot feeling depressed and anxious…my psychiatrist is working on a new cocktail for me…I’ve been trying to go for walks to combat the weight gain but the anxiety is stopping me from going too far from the house.” If only I could really say what was going on.

8. So I don’t have to pretend it’s “just” depression

Sometimes I provide an explanation by using a “lesser” mental health condition as an excuse. Not lesser as in seriousness, but in the reaction I get. Depression and anxiety are more common in the people I come across, and they seem to be more accepting if I say I’ve been feeling depressed. I do feel like I’m cheating sometimes.

9. So I don’t have to lie on my resume.

Every job I’ve had has ended because I was seriously unwell, so I have a lot of gaps in my work history. I’m not currently looking for paid work, but they often ask for a resume even with volunteer work. I never know how to explain all those gaps. I feel like I can’t tell the truth.

10. Because it shouldn’t be my doctor who knows me best.

We talk about my relationships, my activities, things that have gone well or wrong, my thoughts and emotions. Sometimes we talk about very personal stuff like sex or suicidal thoughts. She gives me medication. Twenty minutes once a month on average we talk, and she knows me better than anyone else. If only I could be this open with the ones I love.

The Mighty is asking the following: Create a list-style story of your choice in regards to disability, disease or illness. It can be lighthearted and funny or more serious — whatever inspires you. Be sure to include at least one intro paragraph for your list. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Share Your Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

 10 Reasons I Wish I Could Be More Open About My Mental Illness

When Having a Mental Illness Is a Full-Time Job

Growing up, I had plenty of aspirations — and it looked like I would achieve them all. I was going to complete my bachelor of nursing, do an honor’s degree, do post-graduate studies in critical care and eventually move into academia and education.

Now, my only aspiration is to remain well.

Let me tell you a bit about myself: I’m 25. I have a bachelor’s degree in nursing. I’ve worked as a nurse for four years and I’m currently completing an honor’s degree. I write for several blogs and online magazines. I volunteer as a Youth Presenter and Community Presenter for a mental health organization. I also receive a disability pension for my mental illness.

2013 was a big year for me. I landed my dream job in the emergency department, was doing well with my studies and was on track with my career plans. That year, I was also diagnosed with bipolar disorder and my world turned upside down. I was 22.

Bipolar disorder had taken over my entire life. My career was not only put on hold, but it crumbled before my eyes. I was hospitalized three times due to episodes of mania and depression. In a 14-month period, I had spent roughly five months in a psychiatric hospital.

In between my hospitalizations I did return to work, but the work wasn’t good for my mental health. The late nights, early starts and night-shifts either fuelled my mania during times of elevation or were impossible when I was depressed. I was constantly swinging from one mood state to another. Eventually I had to resign from my position because my work couldn’t accommodate my health needs. I worked casually as a nurse, but I didn’t get many shifts. My mental health still suffered. At the start of this year I ran out of money and had no choice but to apply for a disability pension.

When I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, it was suggested I go on a disability pension. I refused because I didn’t want to be a societal burden (the stigma attached to receiving government payments); I wanted to contribute to my community by working. But managing a mental illness is a full-time job — only you can’t clock-out and don’t get weekends off. It’s around the clock, seven days a week. I can’t hand off my symptoms to someone else after eight hours. My bipolar keeps me up at night or keeps me bed-bound. It can make me psychotic, paranoid and suicidal. Keeping myself well and working hard to avoid the deadly consequences my disease can bring takes a huge amount of my energy and time. Believe me, I would love to be able to work like most people. It would mean there was nothing wrong.

The application process for a disability pension was not easy. It took over 100 days before my paperwork was reviewed. It took many more weeks of degrading meetings and appointments so they could assess my “level of disability” (despite many medical certificates from my psychiatrist, psychologist and general practitioner) until it was approved.

If it weren’t for my parents I would probably be homeless. They provided me with a roof over my head and food (and continue to do so). I’m in financial debt to them because they made my necessary payments when I didn’t have the money. They did a lot of the groundwork for my disability pension because most of the time I was too unwell to deal with it myself. I shudder to think how people without support systems cope. I’m not sure they do.

So what do I do with my time? I keep myself busy by working on my thesis, volunteering and writing for online sources. Most importantly, I keep myself well so I can become independent. I just recently stopped grieving the career I had planned.

Though I’m fortunate receiving government payments will probably only be temporary for me, many others can’t say the same. Relying on government payments is not fun. It’s a hard battle to stay afloat, and I’m sure many would agree they’d rather be making their own money. For me, being on a disability pension reminds me of my mental illness and my lost of potential. Still, I work hard everyday to establish a new future – a future where I won’t be on a disability pension. And I’m grateful to say that future is probably not far off.

Note: Since time of writing, I’ve returned to do weekly/fortnightly casual shifts as a nurse in my emergency department. However, I’m still dependant on my disability pension for financial support.

Before My Diagnosis, They Called Me 'B*tchy'

So far this year I’ve gotten married, traveled on my first plane, bought a house, started a new job, adopted my second dog and applied to graduate school. Sounds amazing by most standards. A lot of people looked at me and wondered why I wasn’t happier.

You see, with all the good that happened this year, there was a cloud I couldn’t shake — a struggle within me that was so profound and exhausting, eventually I couldn’t hide it anymore. My behavior took a drastic turn.

I spent most of my time on our couch, avoiding human contact as much as possible. I slept as often as I could, whenever I could. Even the most menial tasks took all my energy to complete. On top of it all, any small trigger sent me through the roof. My poor husband was the target of my rage almost 100 percent of the time. After hours or just minutes of blackout rage, I would then cry myself to sleep and wake up like nothing happened.

Then, after days or weeks of this behavior, I would suddenly get bursts of energy. I would clean the house or go shopping for things I didn’t need, but bought anyway. I couldn’t make decisions and my thoughts came a mile a minute. I had the biggest and best plans ever that needed to be done right then and there, but the next day all motivation would disappear and I was back on the couch. I was back in my regular routine.

It was after these “up” episodes my doctor finally suggested I may have bipolar disorder. My heart stopped. It wasn’t so much the diagnosis. As my sister says, “It’s just a label. It describes what you have but it doesn’t define you.” What stopped me in my tracks were the years of mood swings and erratic behavior that came flooding back from my memory.

Ever since I was a teenager people have called me, “hormonal,” “moody,” “b*tchy,” “Jackal and Hyde,” you name it. I’ve lost friends and I’ve screamed horrible things to my loved ones over things that I can’t even remember. Even with my husband, I’ve screamed at the top of my lungs over a misplaced fork only to beg him to spend time with me an hour later. People grew to think that was just who I was. People saw me as those adjectives because that’s how I’ve always acted.

Screen Shot 2015-12-18 at 3.30.19 PM
Katie and her husband.

What they didn’t understand was how much it broke my heart to hear those things. What they didn’t understand was how often I would regret the things I had said or done. But I didn’t know how to apologize for something I didn’t have any control over. I couldn’t describe what made me upset. I couldn’t describe what I was feeling. There were no words for what was going on inside me. How do you apologize for poor behavior when you don’t know the answer? How do you apologize for poor behavior when you feel like you don’t have any control over your body?

Bipolar II disorder. Some may be upset, some may be sad — and I was too, at first. But deep down, I was also relieved. I felt a weight lifted off my shoulders. All those years of unexplainable behavior made sense. All those moments lost to rage, depression and manic behavior were now explained. I was relieved.

I wish I could point my finger at the mistakes I’ve made in the past, at the hurtful things I’ve said or done, and say, “It was bipolar. It wasn’t my fault!” I wish I could take back the last four years of my relationship with my husband and show him there’s a different me underneath the symptoms of bipolar disorder.

I can’t change the past and in a way, that’s a good thing. I wouldn’t be as strong as I am today. I wouldn’t be with a man who truly loves me unconditionally. I wouldn’t be surrounded by family and friends who truly support my journey. Most importantly, I wouldn’t have learned how important it is to communicate about mental health.

If you’re struggling, please talk to someone. We are not our diagnosis. We are not mental cases. We are people.

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Finding ‘Sorority Sisters’ in the Psychiatric Unit

I sat with three other moms on ugly green wedges of modular seating in the lobby of the hospital’s psychiatric services building. It was a Tuesday evening and we were waiting for our daughters to finish their first session of group cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for kids with bipolar disorder. At first, we wrapped ourselves in cocoons of awkward silence. Our eyes bounced from our phones to the clock on the wall or – whenever it dinged, rolled back its heavy doors with a groan and deposited someone into the shadowy room — the elevator.

I glanced at the pretty Asian woman sitting next to me. I remembered her kind smile when we’d all dropped off our girls – who ranged in age from 11 (Sadie, my daughter) to 15 – in the stuffy, windowless conference room on the third floor.

“Does your daughter have bipolar disorder, too?” I asked, tentatively, feeling like an idiot as soon as I did. Duh. Why else would she be here?

She nodded. In a soft voice she told me that Lily, 15, had only recently been diagnosed. But she’d had problems since she was 12 and had been hospitalized four times. Thanks to lithium, Lily was doing better, although the drug made her lethargic and slow. Her father also had bipolar disorder.

“He passed away a few years ago,” Lily’s mother whispered. Tilting her head back, she pantomimed raising a bottle to her lips. “He drank a lot,” she said, lowering her arm. “He didn’t know he was bipolar.”

The matter-of-fact way she delivered this news hit me like the jolt of plunging into an icy lake. I was reminded, once again, just how deadly this illness can be. And how lucky we are that, in spite of her struggles, Sadie isn’t much sicker and is getting the help she needs. Lily’s mom asked how old Sadie was when she was diagnosed. Her eyes widened when I said 6. The woman sitting across from us leaned forward, listening intently to our conversation.

“How old was your daughter when you knew something was wrong?” I asked her.

“Right away,” she replied, grimacing. “Amy cried all the time when she was a baby.”

Her husband’s denial about their daughter’s condition led them to divorce. She sighed and folded her arms tighter across her chest. “Amy just goes into a really dark tunnel sometimes” she said, shaking her head.

The rest of us nodded. We all knew that tunnel. We knew how the strain of raising a child with a mental illness could chip away at even the most solid marriages. We knew what it was like to watch our girls flounder in school and lose friends. We’d felt the sting of skepticism from our own friends, relatives and others when we uttered the words “pediatric bipolar disorder.” We knew about clinging to the hope that each new medication would be the one that would prevent our child from ever crawling back into that tunnel.

The only mother who hadn’t yet spoken, a blonde woman with tired eyes, rose from her seat. She shared that her girl, Kylie, who was 12, had originally been diagnosed with ADHD. “I sobbed when the doctor told me she had bipolar disorder,” she said.

The illness had ravaged her sister’s life. More nods. We’d all seen adult family members sidelined by bipolar disorder and robbed of their potential. We’d watched them succumb to addiction and push away those who love them with their erratic moods and behavior. And we knew how the lure of suicide, with its promise to end their pain forever, always clouded their futures.

Our formerly subdued group was suddenly chatty as a gathering of sorority sisters — which, in a way, we were. Talking over each other, we swapped stories and compared notes on symptoms and medications. We didn’t slow down until the elevator chimed and one of the older girls from the group swished past us in her long bohemian skirt, signaling the 90-minute therapy session was over. Sadie was the last one to pop out of the elevator.

“How’d it go?” I asked as we headed to the parking lot, though the grin on her face answered my question.

“Really good!” she said. “But it went by so fast.”

I knew how she felt. I was pretty sure spending time with other girls who had bipolar disorder would help her.

I hadn’t anticipated how therapeutic it would be for me to hang out in the lobby with their moms.

The names in this story have been changed to protect identities. 

Dorothy and her daughter.

This essay was originally published on Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers


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