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When a Psychiatrist Warned Me Not to Have Kids Because I Have a Mental Illness

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

This article contains spoilers for ‘Joker’

I was diagnosed with bipolar mood disorder type II in 2015, after a mild psychotic meltdown that almost destroyed my (presently dissolved) marriage. At the time, I was under the impression I wasn’t able to carry a child due to my polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), so I wasn’t terribly alarmed when the psychiatrist who diagnosed me mentioned in passing people with mood disorders shouldn’t have children, as mood disorders are sometimes considered hereditary. Since then, I’ve realized how wildly stigmatizing that statement was.

• What is Bipolar disorder?

In 2016, I found out I was pregnant. This “miracle” happened right at the beginning of the downfall of my marriage, but that’s another spiel for another time.

Let’s fast forward through the nine months of emotional agony I endured without my mood stabilizers. Let’s skip over the traumatizing affair my husband had when I was six months pregnant, and bring this narrative into today specifically, because folks … I’ve had it.

My child is a little over 2-and-a-half years old. At present, he’s diagnosed as verbally delayed, with indication that he might land somewhere on the autism spectrum. This predominantly manifests in severe temper tantrums, toddler-sized violent outbursts, struggles with communication of any sort and some vocal self-stimulatory behaviors. Naturally, there are some pretty cool things, like my kiddo’s obsession with dinosaurs (he might not be able to express when he’s thirsty, but he damn sure can point out an ankylosaurus).

My symptoms as a neurodivergent person include severe agitation, disassociation, hypomania and obsessive thoughts. It took me years to recognize I was struggling on the daily with my inability to process emotions, situations and interactions like a neurotypical person. There was a period of time I felt incredibly lonely in the realization none of the people around me processed things the way I did, but I find an interesting sort of solace in the fact my own child experiences similar conditions. Ultimately, I still strongly believe this a major component to our ability to understand each other on a deeper level.

Today, both my kiddo and I woke up with symptoms of an oncoming cold. From the get-go, my kid wasn’t having it. The tantrums have been consistent and intense all morning. I’m currently undergoing a medication adjustment, so I’m not feeling it either. Add a buttload of boogers and two scratchy throats, and you’ve got yourself a perfect storm. Anytime I’ve tried to express my struggles with motherhood in the past, I’ve been met with the same typical response: “Hey, being a mommy is hard on everyone.” Not only is this a harmfully dismissive response, but it’s dead wrong. I literally just can’t handle it (the overwhelming it that is living) sometimes, and I find myself responding to the signs and symptoms of his discomfort with debilitating frustration.

We live in a society that haphazardly rejects the fact that motherhood kind of sucks sometimes, and there is very little attempt to understand how it can be particularly difficult, and sometimes shitty, for parents with severe mental illness. Mental illness isn’t fun to talk about, especially in regards to parenting (unless of course it’s being painted in a negative light). By society’s standards, we’re the mothers who are boiling our children alive “because Jesus told us to.” We’re never painted as the emotionally versatile contributors to our children’s overall development as they grow into persons. For most, it’s a foreign concept that one’s mental illness could actually boost their ability to parent effectively.

For a couple years before my pregnancy, I was a stepmom to my ex-husband’s oldest daughter. Currently, I’m a pseudo-stepmom to my partner’s two children, both under the age of 6. I have always felt my experience with mental illness and childhood trauma has, in one way or another, made me a super parent. My experiences have given me a leg up on identifying potentially traumatizing occurrences for my collective (past and present) children and I’m overly aware of how important it is to give other people (especially children) the space to process their emotions with encouragement. I believe experiencing life as any marginalized person gives you the building blocks to apply your struggles and triumphs to a better parenting plan. As cliché as it is, I believe my mental illness makes me a better person; a better parent.

Parenting as a neurodivergent is difficult enough on my side, but adding a neurodivergent child is especially trying. My child reacting when I’m trying to do the “good mom” thing by comforting my screaming child is frustrating enough without my uncontrollable emotional reaction as a person with mental illness. I’d be lying if I said I’ve never gotten into a borderline screaming match with my toddler. Because of my own internalized fear of my mood swings and how they manifest, this has become my mantra: it is my burden that I can’t control my emotions, but it’s my responsibility to control my actions. This is especially important when it comes to my relationship with the person I love the most.

As an advocate, I am obnoxiously self-aware and I discuss my mental illness regularly without discrimination. Hell, I created a website to act as my soap box so I can keep preaching. I have started conversations on the subject of parenting with a mood disorder a handful of times before, and I’ve always chickened out at the last minute. I would say half of the struggle with severe mental illness is the harm stigmatization causes. Even now, I’m cautious in being totally honest with the thoughts and actions that come with being a mother with a mental illness, but I can’t be the only mom who has to comorbidly monitor my own self-injurious ideations and my child’s mental well-being. I can’t be the only person who has to constantly monitor my behaviors so I don’t traumatize my child. There have to be others out there who have to firmly force physical distance from their child because they’re at their wit’s end … and with severe mental illness, our wit’s end can feel terrifying.

Even though it’s taken a gaggle of school shootings (thanks, straight white males) to get society talking about mental illness, I optimistically believe the conversation is moving in the right direction. I can’t stress enough how harmful stigma is to any person with a mental illness. It’s my observation that unlike many marginalized populations, people with mental illnesses have not established a designated culture surrounding what affects us. This could change over time, as we begin to own our truth and join forces to influence the way we’re treated. As we begin to create our own culture, it’s pertinent we address what affects us as parents. It’s our God-given right to have children if we choose to do so, and living in a society where it’s acceptable for a psychiatrist to tell a 20-something year old woman that by having children, she’d be committing a disservice to society is genuinely enraging. As the dialogue continues in the right direction, more services ought to become available to parents with mental illnesses and their specific needs. It should be recognized that untreated (and dismissed) mental illness can contribute to a cycle of trauma in our children.

Being self-aware is always the first step, and being accepting of one’s self is a close second. If society would stop focusing so heavily on the negative side effects of parenting with mental illness, we could potentially reach a point where our unique strengths are recognized as a positive contribution to our children’s overall well being. It’s globally recognized (but overwhelmingly ignored) by professionals that trauma causes a continued cycle of trauma in victims.

This was recently highlighted in Todd Phillips’s “Joker,” starring Joaquin Phoenix. Spoiler alert, but the main character Arthur lives with severe mental illness because (as you later find out) his mother allowed her boyfriend to abuse both herself and Arthur when he was a child. When I watched the scene where this is revealed, I processed it differently than most people I’ve spoken to. Because society needs a “bad” guy, Penny (Arthur’s mother) was designated as the reason Arthur was mentally ill. I’m by no means suggesting Penny was innocent in letting her boyfriend harm her child, but I am aware that Penny’s trauma (which seems to be brushed under the rug by most) is ultimately what contributed to Arthur’s trauma.

Without completely derailing the conversation, I will mention I am a victim of childhood sexual abuse. You’ll hear more about that in later writings. It’s applicable to this subject, however, in that I spent the grander majority of my life being angry (as if any word could summarize that feeling) at the person who essentially ruined my life. It took years of unpacking those feelings combined with deep research into why these things happen for me to come to the conclusion most abusers were in fact victims of abuse themselves. There is a whole thing to be said about how we can work toward breaking that cycle, but my point right now is stigma can cause people with mental illness to bottle up their feelings and experiences, which can result in lashing out at others, our children included.

Ultimately, with self-realization and acceptance combined with the glimmering hope that someday we’ll actually address our global mental health crisis, I optimistically feel we will move in the right direction. In the meantime, continue to check in on your friends and loved ones with mental illness, especially if they’re not only responsible for their own well-being, but the well-being of their children, too.

You can follow my journey on Girl Precarious.

Unplash image by Edward Cisneros

Originally published: December 20, 2019
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