Why I Talk to My Kids About My Bipolar Disorder
“Mom, when are you going to get better?”
My 8-year-old little boy scrunches up his nose at me, the way he does when he’s asking a real question in the middle of the driveway with his backpack high on his shoulders and the car door wide open, when we are already late for school. I can feel his daddy, who didn’t hear the question, staring at us from the driver’s seat, willing him into the car, wondering what in the world is the holdup.
I pull my pink leopard print bathrobe a little tighter around me and stare down at the chipped red nail polish on my bare toes, grasping at how to answer my sweet little boy, at what to give him so he can have just a little bit of peace on his way to school this morning.
“OK,” I say, as I hand him his lunch. “I went to the doctor yesterday. He says I’m on 200 milligrams right now and when I get to 400 milligrams, I will start feeling better. So we just have to get to 400. Sound good?” His face breaks out in a smile, his freckles dance. I feel my heart wax light for a moment. I kiss his sweet cheeks, help him into the car and wave my family goodbye.
Then I ease my way back into the house, wondering how my life has gotten to the point where I am standing in the driveway at 8 a.m. discussing my medication schedule with a third-grader.
A year ago, I drove my kids to school every morning. But after being stable for many years, I experienced a major bipolar disorder recurrence. Suddenly, instead of my “normal,” manageable medication routine, I started taking drugs that made me sleep 14 hours a day. I couldn’t perform my regular duties as a mother, and I had to quit my job. My husband altered his work schedule to start taking our children to school.
Our kids asked us why, and we explained to them that Mama’s brain was sick and needed some medicine that made her sleep a lot.
We kept talking with our boys about what was happening to Mama. We explained that the same medicine that made Mama tired made her really crabby. I apologized profusely to my kids when I could not control my temper and snapped at them, explaining to them that my changes in behavior were because of what was going on with me, and not because of anything they did.
Still, every once in a while, one of them comes to me and asks, “Mom, did I do something wrong?”
Every time they ask me if my illness is their fault, I have to take a deep breath and I try to hold myself tight so I don’t escape outside of my own skin. The very thought that my illness brings them to self-doubt makes me want to curl into a cave of self-harm. Instead, I look them in their eyes so I know they hear me and I recount all the reasons why Mama’s medicine makes her tired and why Mama is not able to do all the things she used to do and, why, at times, Mama is very hard to deal with. I tell them how sorry I am and how much I love them and how special they are and how “It’s never you.”
They take a deep breath, and say, “It’s OK, Mom, we know it’s your special brain.” And I hold them tight and whisper in their ear, “And it’s never you.”
The thing I worry the most about this last year with my kids is that they won’t keep coming to me with their questions. So I make a point to walk into my little boy’s room later that same night, which honestly scares me because I am physically and emotionally weak right now from the meds I am taking. I am worried, as I walk up the stairs to his room, that he’s going to ask the hard things.
I open the door to his room and I ask him, “Why did you ask me if I was going to get better this morning in the driveway?” He answers, with eyes welling, “Mama you just look so sick, you just look like you’re going to die.”
I breathe deep and say, “Oh sweetheart, your mama’s not going anywhere. Do you know what Joan of Arc said?” He nods his head as I continue, “I’m not afraid. I was born for this. Your mama’s been doing this for a long time. I can do this. That ‘s what I keep saying to myself. That’s what you have to remember. Your mama can do this.”
I climb into his bed and we talk about being afraid and how to know God is with us. We pray funny prayers and we giggle and I tell him not to worry about his ol’ Mama.
And we’ll keep talking. And I’ll keep opening it up and keep asking, even if it’s hard, and even if I can’t always be the everything I want to be for him. Because I want him and his brother to be whole and have the answers more than I want to feel like I have it all together. Obviously, I don’t. But I am their Mama, and that has to count for something.
If you struggle with self-harm and you need support right now, call the crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.
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Photo by Liana Mikah on Unsplash