What My Dad Taught Me About Love in the Midst of My Mom’s Mental Illness
My mom’s mental illness diagnosis taught me an important lesson: Everyone deals with grief differently. Back in 2009, when my family first got the diagnosis “bipolar disorder” for my mom’s illness, I didn’t understand this truth.
I was 18 at the time and for me, my mom had always been my mom, nothing short of a superhero. She was the woman who spell checked all my papers or who, when I got a good grade, put it on the refrigerator. She was the person who fixed broken hems and replaced missing buttons. She was the person who made sure my brother and I were at church every Sunday and that we said our prayers before bedtime. She is the person who made every meal and left notes in my lunch. I didn’t know anything about bipolar disorder back in 2009, but I knew who my mom was.
It seemed like her mental illness came suddenly, almost as if it crept in through the night and my whole family missed it. The truth is we probably just didn’t know what signs to look for leading up to my mom’s first major episode. Neither my brother, my dad nor I knew anything about mental illness or what it looked like.
My mom’s first, full-blown bipolar episodes went on for a few months before my family ever sought medical help for her. My mom would experience the highest highs in her manic phases and the lowest lows in her depressed stages. It all felt so sporadic and scary at times. You never knew what you might come home to.
My initial response to the signs of my mom’s mental illness was shock, then fear, then grief. After that it became, “What are we going to do to help her?” I went into fix-it mode, but for awhile, my dad denied it. He tried to overlook my mom’s erratic behavior. I resented this at first, wondering why my dad wasn’t doing anything, as I saw it, to get my mom help. What I came to realize later, is that everyone handles hard situations differently. While it was hard on my brother and I to watch our mom go through this, my dad, my sweet dad, he took it the hardest.
Looking back now, I see that. While my mom is a parent to my brother and I, to my dad, she is his best friend, through sickness and in health. I now understand how mental illness can affect an entire family, wife, husband, daughter, son. It literally shakes the core of a family, but it doesn’t have to destroy it.
Since we first heard those words, “bipolar disorder,” I’ve seen the insides of mental clinics, seen cop car sirens looming in my front yard, sat in court rooms as a judge stripped my mom of her ability to make her own medical decisions, visited her behind glass doors of in-patient units, watched her lose weight from her medication, cleaned up after her as she got sick from that same medication and sat beside her in the ER room. Through it all, all the many highs and lows, one thing hasn’t changed: My dad standing faithfully at my mom’s side.
My dad has shown me so much over the last few years about what love and faithfulness looks like. It doesn’t leave when it’s hard. It stays, and although it’s been impossibly hard for my dad to watch his wife struggle at times with an unrelenting illness of the mind, he still finds joy. He still comes home to a bowl of ice cream each day. He still watches his baseball games. He still brings my mom Valentine’s Day flowers. He still puts up the Christmas tree.
My mom’s mental illness changed my entire family. A lot of it was hard and not what some would call picture, perfect. A bipolar disorder diagnosis, what could be viewed as a terrible, dark, ominous thing, brought out the best and worst in my family, but mostly the best. My dad taught me so much without even meaning to, just by loving my mom in sickness and in health.