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Parenting with Bipolar Disorder

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Mental Health Awareness month is in May, and World Bipolar Disorder Day is March 30th. You may notice that it’s not either of those dates. Surprise! I love you guys so much that I’m celebrating early!

It’s been about six months since I received my diagnosis of Bipolar II Disorder. I started my treatment plan about six months ago, and, while I’m not good yet, I’m better. Parenting with an undiagnosed and mistreated mental illness was tough. Parenting while sorting out treatment for Bipolar Disorder II has been… tougher.

I think in part because I had five years of coping strategies in place, and only some of them are working now. The antidepressant that I was taking to treat the depression that I didn’t have was causing me to feel mostly numb. I couldn’t really feel much other than irritation or anger. Not ideal, but after years of that feeling, one adapts.

But now that I’m not on that medication anymore, I feel like one big walking, oozing feeling. My psychiatrist likened it to stepping out of a dark cave into bright sunlight. She comfortingly said, “You’ll adjust,” but I (half-) jokingly asked her for my old drug back a couple of days ago because feelings suck. How do you regular people walk around in the world like this?!?

One of the hardest parts about waking up from years of numbness and, you know, having feelings again, is that I care quite a bit more now about the people around me. I mean, it’s not like I didn’t care before, but really feeling that feeling is new. And you know what? I feel so sorry for my family. I feel guilty for the effect that my illness has on their lives. I know that mental illness is truly a type of physical illness, and I know that I’m working with a fabulous team of people to work on getting healthy. I’m not going to beat myself up for being sick. I’m not going to act as if I’m lucky that my husband is willing to “put up with me,” or that I’m the lesser person in our relationship, somehow undeserving of love. Although, I am extraordinarily grateful to my husband for standing by me as I have apparently gone through the first years of our lives together with undiagnosed mania followed by depression, followed by… nothingness, and moving now into a dogged determination to get better and be the best partner I can be, given the limitations I’m currently working with.

I’m not going to spend my time in a shame spiral about how my mental state and my resulting behavior affects my daughter, although I do worry about that, quite a bit. What I will do is give as much as I can to her when I can. I will recognize that parenting with a mental illness is damn hard. I will communicate with my partner, and I will talk to my daughter about what I’m going through.

I hope you have taken the time to see Disney/Pixar’s Inside Out. There is a special place reserved in whatever afterlife/reward system you believe in for every person involved in its creation. For years, that movie has been the most remarkable tool for trying to explain to my daughter what’s going in my head in an age-appropriate way; it’s definitely a tool that’s carried over into my current experience.

My daughter is well aware that Sadness (depression) and Anger (mania, because I don’t have “fun,” “exciting” mania) spend a lot of time fighting over Momma’s Control Panel. For years, we’ve had special games to play when Momma’s emotions are sleepy (they’re actually some of our favorites!). I’m totally honest when I suggest extra screen time because I’m tired or grumpy. As I type this, I laugh as I think about being furious—over absolutely nothing—and forcing myself to cheerfully say, “I’m in a grouchy mood and I don’t feel like playing. How about we watch a silly movie?” Eh, bipolar or not, you do the best with what you’ve got, right?

Fortunately, my daughter is both empathetic and generally pretty good at rolling with things, but that doesn’t make it any easier when I see her friends’ families out having adventures. And by “adventures,” I mean things like going sledding, or to the park, or bowling, or for a hike, or having a playdate—you know, stuff like leaving the house. I feel like she’s missing out on so much because I just can’t right now.

I’m hoping that the strategy that we’re employing as a family of parenting as partners will help our daughter to help her understand why our lives may look a little different than some of her friends lives. And I hope that my sharing appropriately about my struggles and my healing will help her to be okay with that. It’s a tall order because goodness knows that I’m not always okay with it, but like any parent making their way through this journey, I’m learning as I go.

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