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To My 8-Year-Old Son, Who Reminded His Bipolar Mom It’s OK to Cry


It was a Sunday night in early February, a week or so following the fourth anniversary of the hospitalization that led to my type 1 bipolar disorder and anxiety diagnosis.

I had been trying so hard to fight off the mixed episode that hits me every year around this time. I went through every recovery tool I could think of: eating healthier, sleeping more, music, art, going to more therapy, exercising more, upping the dosage of my bipolar depression medication… it was working, but I needed more time. I needed time for everything to kick in, time for the anniversary to pass, time to just get back to being myself, to being your mom.

Like many parents living with mental health conditions, I try to hide the worst of my symptoms from you, sometimes more successfully than others. I have learned it is OK to tell you and your 11-year-old brother that “Mommy’s brain isn’t working great this week. You should really do this every week, but especially this week; can you guys please listen to me the first time and keep the peace with each other?” But I still try to keep the meltdowns and irritably that sometimes comes with my mixed episodes to a minimum.

And then I screwed up… or so I thought.

You and your brother were “asleep” in your bedroom. I sat on the couch in the living room in silence, giving myself time to sit and feel. Sometimes there isn’t time during the day for me to acknowledge all of the emotions I experience. Sometimes I need to let the tears I hold back flow because it gives me relief.

I cried. I cried hard and I cried for a while. It felt good, but I still felt sad. That happens sometimes. I don’t know how long I was sitting there, but I do know I was startled when I heard your voice.

“Mommy, are you OK?”

I couldn’t get words out. I nodded, but you knew I wasn’t OK. I didn’t want you to see me in the shape I was in, which made me cry harder for a moment. Without saying a word, you came and sat next to me and put your arm around me. I tried to compose myself enough to explain you didn’t need to be scared.

“Sweetie, I’m OK. You don’t need to worry.” (Pause to breathe.) “You know how when other people get sick, they sneeze a lot? Sometimes when I get sick, I cry a lot.” (Small sob.) “But I went to the doctor, and I should be OK soon.” (Deep breath in.) “I love you.”

You nodded and you just sat with me. As I calmed down more, the guilt — the kind that so often comes with loved ones having to “deal with” my mood episodes — set in. “I’m so sorry, honey. It’s not your fault.”

This is when you blew me away. “It’s OK to be sad sometimes, Mommy. Everyone feels sad sometimes. I’m going to get you a cup of water.” And you did. And I drank it. And we sat in silence with our arms around each other.

I’m not sure if it was ten seconds or ten minutes, but the tears dried up, we left the couch, and I tucked you back into bed. I told you how much I love you. I reassured you that I was OK, and hoped you believed me as much as I wanted to believe me. And then I went to sleep.

I never want you to feel like you are responsible for me, my mental health or my happiness. You’re not. But in that moment, you were amazing. You said something so powerful and something so many people need to hear sometimes.

It’s easy for me to focus on the negatives you experience from living with a parent with mental illness, but sometimes I forget about the positives: compassion, nurturing and resilience. Those are qualities I am learning as the result of living with mental illness, and ones I forget you are learning too.

Your compassion reminded me it’s OK for me to not be OK. It’s OK for me to have bad days, and to not always hold it together perfectly. And I hope I reminded you that having tough days doesn’t mean they will last forever; it means you do your best, and then you wake up the next day and do your best again.

As the days and weeks passed, you watched me get up and do my best, until finally you watched me come out of the episode, and go back to being the mom who likes to talk in silly accents with you and walking around the house pretending to be a stegosaurus.

And I hope that somewhere deep down, you know you were a part of what helped me get back there. I’ll keep fighting hard to be Mommy, and you keep being you, kiddo.

Photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash