The Moment I Opened Up to Someone About My Mom’s Bipolar Disorder for the First Time


The first time I told someone my mom has bipolar disorder was my freshman year of college. I was sitting in a cafe on campus, bags under my eyes, hair in a disheveled bun, my clothes wrinkled and oversized from all the weight I had lost. From working part-time to going to school full-time to managing visits to inpatient care, the ER, courtrooms, police stations and therapists’ offices, I was more stressed than I had ever been in my 18 years of life.

I remember feeling tension in my chest to such an extent that even inhaling hurt. I never knew what anxiety felt like until my mom’s illness. For much of the first year of her diagnosis, my mom’s mental illness was our immediate family’s “not so little” secret. We began telling my mom’s sisters and best friend in increments. We knew we couldn’t hide it forever.

I had never told anyone about my mom on my own. My mom’s mental illness was something I carried on my shoulders. I was there to support my dad and to see my mom got the help she needed, but it was a quiet secret. It was like living a double-life, where I’d go to school and work as this seemingly happy girl and then go home to uncertainty and fear of what would happen next.

I remember the day I told the first friend of mine about my mom. I remember the words pouring out of my mouth like hot lava. I remember the fear of being judged or looked at differently. I remember the longing to not feel so alone in caring for a parent who was mentally ill. I remember the desire to be seen and known by a friend, to allow someone into the more secret corridors of my life, to not feel so alone.

The moment I opened up, I felt as if a balloon burst. All the pressure pent up in my chest immediately released. Luckily for me, the friend whom I first shared my “deep, dark secret” with met me with understanding, grace and a listening ear. I will never forget that moment or that friend.

It was because of her and her acceptance of not only my mom, but me, the daughter of someone with a mental illness, that I grew the strength and courage to be open about my mom’s story in college and long after. The more I shared my story and my mom’s story, the more I found people who either had a mental illness or knew someone with a mental illness. The more I shared, the less alone I felt.

My first college roommate shared with me about her stepbrother with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. One of my oldest childhood friends told me her aunt has bipolar disorder. I had known her since we were 13 and didn’t find this out for another seven years into our friendship. The president of my sorority shared her story of having a mom with bipolar disorder. The list goes on and on.

It’s funny. So often we are afraid to be honest, to be candid, to be real. We fear sharing our struggles and our hurts out of fear of being judged or treated differently. The more I share my story and my mom’s, the more I see her story, our story, isn’t so rare. The more I share, the stronger I am and the more I heal from my own hurt. It’s a powerful thing: honesty, vulnerability, transparency.

Once, I sat in a support group for children and family members of people with mental illnesses. I was the youngest person there. Everyone in the group was likely my parents’ age or older. They were surprised someone so young would be at a support group, but even more so, I think they were surprised I was sharing such a hard story so openly.

I have come to terms with the fact that I will never know the, “Why?”

Why my mom? Why my family? These are questions I used to ask. Instead, what I now choose to ask myself is: What will I do with this? What will I do with the hand that has been dealt with me? I’ve decided not to let it eat me alive. I’ve decided to share with other people as a means of learning from their experience and perhaps to help them by sharing mine.

It isn’t easy. I have learned just because a picture isn’t perfect doesn’t mean it doesn’t still have beauty in it. My family is different. My story is different. My mom has a mental illness. I don’t have all the answers, but I know I am stronger because of what I’ve been through. I am more brave having learned the power in sharing my story.

Image via Thinkstock.

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