This is a scary topic. There is no getting around it.
I’ve been gnawing on how to approach this for quite sometime, because I fear the possible repercussions of being an “out-there” parent with a diagnosed psychiatric disorder. Will I be seen as an unfit parent, or worse, will my children be affected by my public speaking? I don’t really know the answer. I only have my truth to hang on to, and my hope to make things easier for others out there who are suffering. Likewise, I want to help promote a world that is accepting of personal differences and unique minds. I want that for my kids.
After a lot of though, I’ve come to the same point I always do. Honesty is the only approach that has any impact, and any hope of raising awareness.
So, here it goes.
There are three events that have occurred in my life for which I am most grateful. They are my marriage to my husband, the birth of my son, and the birth of my daughter. I can say quickly and without hesitation that these three choices created more happiness than I could have ever fathomed. There’s no way to prepare for that kind of enduring, deepening love. And, it just keeps on growing with time. It’s more beautiful than I am able to verbalize.
I tell my children every night before they go to sleep, “I love you more than the moon and stars. I love you more than everything.” It’s our little ritual, and really, the words aren’t strong enough. I simply don’t know how else to tell these small people who live in my house, any more emphatically, how much I care about them.
Even with all the love in the world, parenthood is a challenge.
I have never met another parent (mad or “sane”) who thought it was easy, or a perpetually smooth road. But I’m unique, and I know it. If you add into the mix some interesting thought processes and bouts with depression, well things get more complicated in an instant. I wish I could sit here and compose a piece about my parenting perfections, but that would be a farce and no good to anyone.
There have been stretches of time when I haven’t been the best version of myself. I wasn’t the pillar of stability that I wanted to be for my small sidekicks, or my dear husband. That’s extremely challenging to admit because there is no aspect of living for which I am more devout.
My depressive episodes have affected my family the most. I’m sure of it. That’s the hard truth. Trips to the park become too much to handle. Every ounce of energy I could muster was put into the daily routine, leaving nothing for my wonderful husband. It was at times like running through water, uphill, in the freezing cold.
When I was diagnosed as being bipolar the kids were extremely young (thankfully). I breathe a sigh of relief for this fact alone. But having them at all is what prompted me to consider how I moved through the world, and what sort of an example I was offering them.
I recall a moment shortly after my diagnosis where I saw them playing in our compact living room. I looked at them, hard. A bizarre tactile conviction passed over me, like nothing I’ve ever felt. It was visceral, and profoundly consuming. I thought to myself, “I will take control of this, for you.” I have not stopped fighting to improve and maintain ever since, and that was many years ago.
The one gift I took away from diagnosis was the notion that I was imperfect. Yes, I realize that sounds bizarre, but this concept of being flawed helped me awaken to a state of openness. I finally had a construct that explained a lot of my early twenties, my behavior (which I had previously thought was simply personality driven), and oppressive elements that were not of my choosing like biology at play. I accepted I was broken, and it gave me the chance to evolve. I figured, if I had this “thing” to contend with, why not examine my whole self, and see just how much I could transform into the person I wanted to be for my family.
It was an opportunity.
I feel like anything is possible when you are open to looking at things objectively, even if it hurts. When you can’t be objective, get someone involved who is – namely a good psychiatrist, family, friends, and your community. Support is critical. You can not go it alone, and a long-term strategy is in order.
I was, and am, willing to walk through broken glass in order to be the most stable, loving, and in-tuned parent (and partner) I can be. It’s my reason for every doctor’s appointment, every pill I swallow, every choice I make, and action I commit to.
I’ve got to say also, that as a result, my family is thriving. There is so much love in this house. The kids are developing into these beautiful, caring, silly creatures and I couldn’t be more proud of them. My husband is a rock deserving of some sort of award. Maybe I’ll fly a sign behind a plane someday so everyone knows the kind of man he is, and has been.
So, how did we get here, to this marvelous point? This was a gradual process, where I learned important lessons. First I discovered ways to support myself, then my children, and ultimately I did not accept bipolar as an excuse for anything.
When I was initially diagnosed, this is how I saw the situation, and I was petrified:
Parenthood + Bipolar = Me Being A Lousy Parent
As if the challenge of raising human beings wasn’t enough, I also had to face my own shortcomings, and I was pale at the thought of the damage I could bestow upon my most precious gifts, if I didn’t take control of the situation. It didn’t happen overnight, but with support from my husband, family, and physician, I can now say that I am more stable and happy than I can recall. Surely, my kids are benefiting as a result.
I can tell you now that the above equation probably doesn’t work, nor can it ever be so simple. So, what does work? I think my actual approach to parenthood, post diagnosis, has looked a lot more like this:
Physician + Family + Friends + Community Involvement + Therapy + Medication + Self-Determination + Rules For Living + Routine + Self-Awareness + Patience + Parent Education + (Love (x infinity)) = Parenthood/2 = Me – Bipolar = Happy Family
Complicated? Yes, but, in reality parenthood is complicated and requires a multifaceted approach. I have also found the need for an awful lot of self-discipline, and education as well, and I can’t really stress these points enough. No one instinctual knows all the intricacies of parenthood. It’s a skill that is very much learned. Likewise, the phrase “it takes a village” really applies to being a mad-mom, in my humble opinion.
Instead of describing the many challenges we all face as mothers and fathers, regardless of psychological diagnosis, I’d rather dive straight into what I have found to be immensely helpful, in my quest to be a purposeful parent. We have to take care of ourselves, if we intend on being top-notch care providers for our kids. That is critical point, which cannot be overlooked.
How I Support Myself:
- Join a cooperative preschool
This was the single best thing that I was ever involved in during my kids’ preschool years. Cooperative preschools are usually geared towards parent education. I learned more here about being a good mother than in any book I’ve ever read. Also, I had other parents, and a gifted set of teachers, to keep an eye on things. They were as much a support to me, as they were to my two offspring. I am deeply grateful for the connections that were made there, and for all the lessons, painful or joyous, easy, or difficult to grasp. I’d recommend you check out your neighborhood co-op. They are usually a more affordable option also when compared to drop-off style preschools and much more supportive of the family as a whole.
- Go to therapy for eternity
This is just what it sounds like. Parents need guidance, and this is especially true if you have a mental health diagnosis. Keep going. Find a therapist that fits your style and don’t stop, because you’re never done being a parent, or growing as a human being.
- Get a life-coach (if you can afford it)
I wish this was covered by insurance, but it generally isn’t. How do you balance it all? What are your personal goals? What makes you happy and feel connected to the world around you? A life coach can help you make an actual plan to achieve what you want in life, and answer some of those questions. That will make you a happier person, and therefore a better parent. It’s completely different than therapy, but not a substitute.
- Remove stress where possible
This is easier said than done obviously. If there are ways to minimize your environmental stress, like making good financial choices (following a budget), or getting a housekeeper, then go for it. We all have different resources here, but asking for help from loved ones is sometimes an option to consider.
- Maintain a routine
Day in, and day out, a routine will give you a sense of order and rhythm. It’s so important for people who are easily swayed into high-energy or depressive modes of being and your kids will feel secure in an established routine also.
- Follow the rules to live by
See my article here for the bullet list: http://blogs.psychcentral.com/bipolar-unbroken/2014/01/why-2014-will-be-a-better-year/
- Check-in with friends and spouses regularly
I often ask my trusted friends, and husband, how they think I’m doing. I’ve also openly invited them all to make it known if they feel like trouble is brewing. Sometimes it’s very hard to hear, and no one appreciates the need for an eye over your shoulder, but I’ve come to realize it’s important and I need to swallow my ego and listen with open ears.
- Take breaks / don’t over commit
For me, this means keeping my scheduled activities at a reasonable level. I don’t plan too much, and I don’t allow myself to be a shut in. I also might take some time to myself in the evening, after my husband gets home, if I need to recharge. If I feel overwhelmed with the chaos in the house during the day, I might take 2 minutes to pause, and collect my thoughts, before I respond to the situation. Slow, and steady, wins the race.
- Connect with others who have bipolar
I have found this to be important. By relating to others who share your condition you can lessen the sensation of isolation. You can also learn a thing or two from connecting with people who share your condition. You’re not alone. There are an estimated 6 million people in the U.S. alone who have bipolar.
- Educate yourself on parenting
Read. Read. Read. No one is a born parent. Parents are made and grown. Ask questions, and get answers.
- Have outlets / hobbies
You can’t work all day, and never play. It’s not good for you, and it teaches the kids an unhealthy habit also. Just like kids have interests, hopefully you do also. Just keep an eye on things, in case you become too engrossed in your hobbies, which might be a sign of mania.
- Be physically healthy
You can’t be at your peak mental state, if you’re denying yourself the basics of sleep, good food, rest, and activity. Keep up with your general physician also. The basics are critical to well being for all people.
- Be grateful, it’s good for you
I have a friend who once told me, “Everyone, has something.” It’s true. In our lives, everyone will have a medical issue. It can’t be escaped. You have bipolar, yes, but you’re also alive and life is full of possibilities! There is so much to be grateful for, and if you’re a parent, you have a very, very good reason for gratitude already.
- Have a back-up plan if it all goes south
I can’t stress this enough. If all else fails, the children need to be cared for, regardless of where you are in your state of recovery. Who will take care of them if you need to be hospitalized? If you cannot provide for them on a basic level, you need to contact help immediately. The children deserve care and if you are unable, even if it tears your heart out you, you need to address this and call in back-up. Temporary separation might be the best thing for them, and you. Kids first. That’s the rule. Even if you are feeling great, have a plan. It’s just part of being a responsible parent.
- Never, and I mean never, consider giving up
If you remove the option of surrender from your mind, then the idea of perpetually addressing bipolar will become second nature. It ceases to be a chore after a time, and becomes simply, your way of life. Your kids need you for a lifetime.
In an ideal world we all have access to the support we need, and all the resources possibly available. I, sadly, understand this isn’t true for everyone. Make the best of what you have, and ask your doctor about possible access to what you’re missing. They might have some great community programs that are within your grasp.
Now we have reviewed how to support ourselves, but how can we support our children directly, while facing our own mental health challenges? Here are some of the tactics that have really worked for me thus far. I am certain there is much I can still learn, without question, and I hope this list grows over time as I do.
How To Support The Kids:
- Join a mother’s group when they’re infants
Enduring the rigors of the first days and months of parenthood can challenge even a seasoned veteran. Couple this fact with sleep deprivation, and a mental health issue, and things can quickly become more complicated. Staying connected and finding peers during this time can be really helpful. You may find it of benefit to compare notes with other new mothers and fathers, to determine if you’re having a significantly harder time coping than they are. At the very least, you might figure out a way to get out of the house faster or to calm a crying infant using hand puppets. Sunshine and play dates are often good for the whole family.
- Join a Co-Op when they’re of preschool age
I touched on this in my previous article, because a cooperative nursery school experience was astonishingly positive for my entire family. The community we built through that process supported our children’s development, and our parenting, in a brilliant manner. I would highly recommend being involved with their preschool experience as much as is possible for you. Being connected to a community in anyway is a powerful and therapeutic action in itself.
- Be involved in their classroom when they’re in grade school and beyond
By knowing how your children are integrating into their school classrooms you’ll likely get an idea of how well they are doing overall. If a child is wracked with anxiety, for example, it’s possible that they need additional services. Your involvement demonstrates to your child that you’re invested in what their doing. Likewise, a regular homework routine can offer you both some relaxed bonding time, while giving you cues about their academic progress.
- Maintain a routine
People with mental health issues, and children, can both benefit from knowing what is expected of them during each day. Removing as many surprises as possible allows for a more relaxed and manageable day for everyone. You might consider making your kids visual calendars. When my kids were smaller I had a schedule for each day for them to examine. It’s all about stress reduction, and simplicity, for the sake of the whole family.
- Check-in with teachers, physicians, and care-givers regularly
Most of us aren’t trained experts in medicine, teaching, or child development. Given that, it’s probably best to confer with the professionals about your child’s progress. You want to make certain that they are getting all the support they need in a variety of areas. Knowing they are on track developmentally allows you to use your energy where it is needed, by engaging with your kids, and taking care of yourself.
- Do fun activities together, and separately
Activity times can strengthen your bond, there’s no question of it. They show your child a level of engagement that builds confidence. Likewise, activities that are independent of you can offer some respite time for mothers and fathers to recuperate. There’s a great big world out there, and so much to discover, both together, and independently. Just don’t over commit your schedule, or take on anything too grandiose (I should take my own advice here).
- Don’t over burden them with adult problems
I’ve spoken with a great number of people about how much to share with your kids about bipolar, or on the contrary, what to shield them from. I find this to be a very age-specific conversation and plan on making this topic non-taboo in our household when the time does come. That time is not now, for us. I have personally chosen to only share the fact that I take medication with them, as they are still far too young to have a more in depth conversation (they simply saw me doing this, which prompted a conversation). I see having an in depth conversation with them as serving no purpose at this juncture except perhaps to alarm them. At times when I haven’t been feeling my best, I simply removed myself from their line of sight, or called in the backup squad to help me. I feel it’s my duty to shield them from any notion that I am in danger, or unreliable. Of course, everyone handles this differently, which I respect. I guess I would ask myself, what is the motivation for explaining bipolar to a young child in any detail? I would confer with your psychiatrist about how to approach this topic if you feel the need to do so. Obviously older kids need to be educated about what signs and symptoms to look out for, when it comes to their own health, as bipolar is correlated with a genetic factor.
- Keep children away from medications
This is a no-brainer. Just as we keep children away from hot stoves, you should also have a locked cabinet for your medications, if you take any. Actually, the only fact my kids know about my bipolar, is that I take medication. They have no earthly idea why. My older child did ask me about it one day, and I simply told him, “My body needs some medicine to be healthy. I have to take this everyday, but then I feel great. If you were to swallow my pills though you would be very, very sick – so please, don’t ever touch it, ok?” This was enough of an explanation to satisfy the curiosity, but it also helps me teach them to think for themselves and avoid life-threatening situations. Still, as I said, I don’t tempt fate, and keep everything out of reach in a locked cabinet.
- Teach them to identify emotions + express them
It’s so powerful to teach a kid to identify how they feel. Ask them questions. Teach them names for frustration, anger, happiness, disappointment, and beyond. This will serve them well throughout their lives, and help them develop self-awareness. Self-awareness of your mental state is the most powerful behavioral cognitive skill you can have, when fighting something like bipolar. I’ve tried to teach my two children some ways to calm themselves also, and to express how they feel in a constructive way (e.g. without throwing things or screaming). This is a challenging skill for many people to master, so be patient. It’s a life-long process.
- Tech them how to keep themselves physically healthy, and later, mentally fit
I think most people try to keep their kids healthy, in a general sense. We are laying the foundation here with information about the basics of good food, exercise, proper sleep habits, and hygiene. But in the future, when they are older, I hope to build on this by making the leap towards taking care of their mental health. It’s all about stepping-stones.
- Model the behaviors you want them to possess
If you want your children to communicate with kind words, and reasonable reactions to stress, you need to demonstrate how to do that yourself. They are always watching! We need to be very careful how we present ourselves, as people who gravitate towards extreme emotional states. This is a massive challenge, no doubt, but it’s always in the back of my mind. Think before you speak.
- Be willing to say you’re sorry
I have never met a perfect parent, let alone a perfect person. If I over-react or realize I had a poor approach to a situation, I am the first to offer an apology to my kids. It’s about respect. I don’t have to beg for forgiveness on bended knee, but I do feel like it’s ok to say, “I was thinking about… and I wish I had done…instead. I’m sorry about that, but I think I understand things better now.”
- Remind them (too often) how loved and safe they are
This is the easiest, and potentially the most powerful item you have in your parenting tool belt. Tell them everyday, how much you care. Love needs to be expressed, and children are especially prone to being aware of how safe they feel. Telling a child you love them only reinforces the notion of security, and belonging, in this big confusing world. No matter what happens, I end each and everyday with an “I love you.”
And now, in conclusion, I would like to address the following:
What I blame bipolar for as a parent:
Being a parent was very much my choice, and I took on that responsibility without any caveats. Being bipolar wasn’t my choice, but it doesn’t make my children’s needs any different. Clearly, being a parent with psychiatric challenges, doesn’t make things simple, or easy, by any stretch of the imagination but it doesn’t change the facts.
My kids need a stable, loving, fun, and engaged Mom, and that’s what they have today. I’m not perfect – not by a mile. But I can say with all honesty that I’m doing everything I can think of to try and support my family, and myself. I work at it everyday. In return, I get to see them grow, thrive, and fill me up with their love and goodness. It fuels me to stay well, and on-top of whatever ugliness bipolar tries to throw my way.
If I were a diabetic, I wouldn’t leave the house without my testing meter, and insulin. Well I have bipolar instead, but I consider it similarly.
I get to see my children belly-laugh, learn new skills, and wonder at the marvels of the world around them. What greater gift is there than that? I can’t think of a single thing. There’s nothing besides the love of my family that I would fight this hard for.
Likewise, if it is needed, I’ll remove myself (temporarily) for proper treatment should it come to that. I won’t subject them to any extreme states – I believe it is entirely possible to commit to this notion. It is my responsibility to put into place systems for dealing with a potential crisis. It is my responsibility to be self-aware of my progress, and to ask others to keep a guarded eye on me. It is my responsibility to address bipolar head on, and not make it my children’s burden.
If you think mental illness disqualifies you from parenthood, I say think again. You just have to be willing, and committed, to going the extra mile to ensure you are exactly what they require, and deserve, as often as humanly possible. I believe in the power of the human spirit and the power of parental love, to overcome adversity. It simply requires dedicated effort and the right support systems in place. We can raise a more self-aware and healthy generation of young people, and we can have an incredible amount of fun doing it.
Wherever you find yourself in your parenting career, I hope we all remain open to change and evolution. No one is ever done learning, or developing. There are always things we can improve upon, but remaining open to that possibility is what makes it all possible. I hope you other parents out there, hug your children tonight, and fill their ears with silly thoughts.
Life with kids is joy incarnate. I wish you all a house full of love and happiness.