Why My Kids Know Mommy Has Bipolar Disorder
Chances are it will happen again. Mania will overtake my brain to the point where I’ll need to be forced into treatment. No matter how hard I work at staying mentally healthy, the statistics show that most people who live with my type of bipolar will relapse. This can be due to meds ceasing to work, life events or changes in sleep patterns.
We probably should write down a plan.
That was the advice given to us as we sat in a dreary office speaking with a new psychiatrist one month before I would give birth to our first child. My entire pregnancy had gone so smoothly. My bipolar disorder appeared to be in remission as I indulged in ice cream every night and marveled at my growing belly. I was so happy with how our life was going.
So when my husband Ben and I met with the psychiatrist, I naturally wasn’t focused on preventative measures. Frankly, I was questioning whether I even had bipolar given how well I had been doing off medication. The meeting was meant for us to have someone in our back pocket should we need her in an emergency. My ego ached for her to shower me with praise for how well I had been taking care of myself.
Instead, she focused on the inevitable hospitalization she predicted I’d face. That’s all I heard. “You’re going to fail at mothering with bipolar, so we need a plan for when that happens.”
Well, f*ck you, lady.
Ben didn’t have the same visceral reaction I did. He told me later that he thought it was good she was preparing us to be prepared. We may not have had a plan written down when we left her office that afternoon, but at least we had her card.
Eight weeks later my husband was frantically dialing her number as I frantically reorganized our kitchen. I had been getting by on tiny bits of sleep ever since our son was born, and my brain was starting to unravel. I was unable to sleep. Napping when the baby fell asleep during the day simply wasn’t happening. At night I’d get a few hours here or there, but waking up four to five times a night with a newborn was not conducive to my brain getting any real rest.
So it went haywire.
I could feel the sand in the hourglass beginning to slip through. I began gathering all of my journals which held the glimpses of my story since the initial diagnosis two years prior — piling them all in front of the blazing gas fireplace in our family room as an offering of my legacy. Standing near the flames, I felt the heat build against the back of my legs. In my mind I’d rather go to hell than back to the mental hospital, so why not get a jump on the journey?
I had postpartum psychosis when my son was 4 weeks old. I knew it was coming on from the moment I first held him, but I was too afraid to tell anyone. I was terrified of my thoughts, and yet, even more fearful of saying something. They might take my baby from me.
Thank God my husband didn’t share my same fears. He was anything but afraid of reaching out for help when he realized my mental health had severely deteriorated. He immediately picked up the phone, as painful as I’m sure it was for him. He was my lifeline.
– – –
I heard the kids arguing because they couldn’t agree on a show to watch while I got ready for the day. There was no compromising and so I took the privilege away. Arguing ensued, followed by a whole lot of yelling — ugly, horrible, rage-filled yelling on my part. I yelled with fury at my young children, something I am utterly ashamed to admit. That’s when it happened.
“I’m going to get rid of you, Mommy!” my son threatened, still in his jammies, with all the power and might of his little 4-and-a-half-year-old voice. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, it did.
“Oh, really? How are you going to do that, bud?” I retorted as I pulled my sweater over my head.
“I’ll put you in the trash can!” he screamed as hot tears spilled down his cheeks.
I could feel his anger squeeze my heart and wring it out. I had become so worthless to him that he wanted to throw me away. I couldn’t blame him. If I had myself for a mommy, I’d probably want to throw her away, too.
I knew in that moment that I was failing him as a parent. He and his sister didn’t deserve to be on the receiving end of my raging temper. There was no way I was going to continue to expose them to my hurtful, cruel, pathetic attempt at discipline. I knew I needed to learn to parent them differently so that their memories of childhood weren’t fraught with what I considered this nightmarish scene that I wished I could erase.
Right then and there, in my mind, silently to myself I vowed to make some serious changes. I’d find ways to control my anger. I’d learn how to cope. I’d try harder to manage the symptoms of my illness so they didn’t tear my family apart. I finished getting dressed and then got down on my knees and pulled him to me, wrapping him with all that I had left. I cried with him, and we both whispered over and over again our vows to stop fighting and yelling. Baby girl timidly walked over with open arms and joined in on our big hug.
This is where the healing begins. I dropped them off at school and came home to start writing. There’s something about taking pen to paper, taking the time to write out what happened, that helps me to understand how to do things better next time.
The kids are 7 and almost 5 now, and there are still days when I wish I were better at controlling my emotions. But that morning three years ago was a huge wake up call for me. I’ve learned that self-care does wonders for keeping my rage in check. Rage is a symptom of my illness, that, because of my commitment to taking better care of myself, doesn’t pop up all that often anymore. I’m the first to admit I’m not a perfect parent or wife or friend, by any means. I’m human and I’m flawed. It’s the ability to forgive myself and apply the knowledge gained from mistakes that makes me the mother, spouse and friend that I’m proud to be.
Now, I talk with my kids about my mental illness often. They know Mommy has bipolar disorder.
They know that I take medicine every day to keep my brain healthy. They know that Mommy needs to get good sleep to be a good mommy (don’t we all, parents?). I talk with them about how I’m helping people who live with mental illness to share their stories through my non-profit. I’m teaching my children that it’s OK to talk about mental illness the same way people talk about other medical conditions. My son knows there are illnesses he can see, like his classmate’s broken arm, ensconced inside a bright blue cast, and that there are illnesses he can’t see, like his Poppy’s heart condition and his mommy’s bipolar.
Someday I’ll tell them about the time our son was 4 weeks old and an ambulance and several police cars showed up at our house, and I was handcuffed and taken away from my baby for a week.
Someday I’ll tell them about how I was so over the moon about our second pregnancy that I barely slept for a week. Instead of rest coming at the end of a long day taking care of a toddler, I’d lie in bed for hours after kissing my son goodnight.
Someday I’ll tell them how my daughter was just a 5-week-old embryo in my belly when she and I were admitted to the psych ward.
For now, we talk about it in spurts. Like when my little girl fetches the mail and my Lithium prescription arrives. I remind them that my medicine keeps me healthy. I’ve shown them the bottle and the pills to teach them that medicine is not candy. When I have a bad day and my patience wears thin causing me to yell a little too nasty at their misbehavior, I know that I’m in need of a time-out. Those are the times when I realize I haven’t been mindful of my self-care, and so I get back on track and take some time to myself. Doing so helps me to be the mommy I want to be for them.
There may come a day when I recognize mental illness in one of my kids. I’m not afraid. I know we’ll get through it together. I hope that if they ever suspect it in themselves before I do, they’ll have had enough exposure to mental illness to know how to reach out for help. And they can rest assured that their father and I will do everything in our power to get them the treatment they need to get well.
With this strength, armed with the knowledge of a decade’s worth of experience managing my bipolar illness, it’s about time I write that plan. For my kids. For my husband. For myself.
Just in case.
A version of this post originally appeared on OC87 Recovery Diaries.