For years before my son was born I suffered from rageful outbursts; I was never violent, but my angry emotions got the better of me and I had no control over them. I would fly off the handle at the smallest of inconveniences and couldn’t be reasoned with. I lost friends, family, and jobs but I never understood why. These bursts of anger also came with days of deep, dark, depression. There were too many days I couldn’t even leave my bed; it physically hurt to do so, that’s how fierce my depression would cut me. My general physician, who really was just trying her best but ultimately didn’t know how to handle me, threw prescription anti-depressants my way, an attempt to put out the flame each fire within me caused. She didn't know I was suffering from bipolar disorder. No one did. And with each prescription came a laundry list of side effects that had me wondering whether it was even worth taking them: anxiety, stomach pain, headaches, nausea, dizziness, and the list goes on.
It wasn’t until 2013 that I saw a psychiatrist and was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder: a brain disorder that causes shifts in mood that can range from manic behavior to severe depression. At that point in my life, my son was 2 years old and my husband and I were living in my parents’ basement. One of the things not many people realize is that with bipolar disorder, excessive behavior (which can include sex, spending, an increase in talking, lack of rational thinking, etc.) plays a major role during manic phases. And we were living at home with my parents because I had essentially put my tiny family into so much debt that we couldn’t even afford our own place to live. In those early days, before and shortly after my diagnosis came, there were times I really thought my marriage would end and that I’d be left alone, sick, and a danger to myself.
Bipolar disorder is treated with a “cocktail” of different drugs, and it’s only now, in 2016, three years after my diagnosis, that I’ve found the correct medications with the right dosage. My brain isn’t fixed, but it’s less likely to cause manic or severe depressive episodes. Sadly, because of the frequent medicine changes and the effects they cause, I don’t remember a lot of the last few years. That means I’ve missed a good chunk of my son’s toddler life; a part I’ll never get back. Some days I understand that I can’t change the past, and I try to appreciate the present; other days I fall into a deep hole of guilt, one that traps me into thinking I’m a negligent, unloving person.
Thankfully, I had (and still do) a wonderful support team to help me with my son, but that doesn’t erase the guilt and sadness I feel about those lost years.
When I wake up in the morning, I never know if I’m going to be stable, manic, or depressed. This constant fear of the unknown causes anxiety, which oftentimes can be distracting as a parent. When something unexpected happens in my life, I have to work extra hard not to have a meltdown.
There’s a certain taboo associated with any mental illness, bipolar disorder especially. When celebrities act out and wreak havoc on their own lives, everyone is quick to call it bipolar disorder, not realizing that bipolar disorder isn't just a catch-all phrase. I’m not like Charlie Sheen, Britney Spears circa 2006, or any other random celebrity who acts out. I am one woman; a mother, wife, daughter, and most of all, human. And I am living with bipolar disorder. It isn't an act or a phase. It isn't because I'm spoiled or not used to getting my own way. I try my best everyday to fight the demons while raising a tiny little man. It’s difficult to fight against the perception that everyone has of the disease. I constantly feel like I have to prove I’m not the stereotypical image they have in their head.
Every day brings new challenges. When I wake up in the morning, I never know if I’m going to be stable, manic, or depressed. This constant fear of the unknown causes anxiety, which oftentimes can be distracting as a parent. When something unexpected happens in my life, I have to work extra hard not to have a meltdown. I don’t want my son to witness anything a kid his age should not have to see, and my past behavior is always in the back of my head; a constant reminder of what I don’t want to be now. Years ago, if something didn’t go my way, I’d most certainly become ragey; I’d scream and yell until I got what I wanted, like a child who’s undeveloped brain can’t comprehend negotiation or the world around them. As any parent knows nothing really ever goes your way when you have kids. It’s been a learning experience to deal with life, motherhood, and my own mental health.
During mania, I have trouble standing still, talking at a natural rate of speed, and just acting “normal.” I was terrified the doctor would think I was high on drugs and take my son away.
When life doesn’t happen the way I want it to, I have to remember to breathe; I have to remember that the situation I’m in is only temporary. Raising a toddler is a hard business, especially when they tantrum, so I constantly have to reassure him as well as myself that it’ll be OK. I have to always be aware that I’m sick, and that if I need assistance, not to be afraid to ask.
Often times, the anxiety that comes along with mania can be debilitating. My son had an important doctor’s appointment — one that would determine a diagnosis we needed in order to proceed with additional care for my son. During mania, I have trouble standing still, talking at a natural rate of speed, and just acting “normal.” I was terrified the doctor would think I was high on drugs and take my son away. As hard as it would be on my husband, I had to ask him to go alone to the appointment; he had to take on the hour drive and endure the 40-minute wait with a screaming child, and then the torturous examination by himself because I wasn’t capable of any of it.
Now, the depression is even worse because I know I’m missing out on moments I’ll never get back while I lay in pain that no amount of medicine can cure. Moments at the park, the family picnics I can’t attend, the small yet big milestones my son achieves while I’m having an episode — they all happen without me.
Though my diagnosis and treatment have provided answers and help, I’m not "cured." When my son acts up, it takes every fiber in my body not to have my own breakdown. There are days I still can’t get out of bed. Luckily my husband shoulders a lot of the burden and takes over on days when I am unable. Unfortunately, these still happen with alarming frequency. Before I had my son, my depression was one kind of beast. Now, the depression is even worse because I know I’m missing out on moments I’ll never get back while I lay in pain that no amount of medicine can cure. Moments at the park, the family picnics I can’t attend, the small yet big milestones my son achieves while I’m having an episode — they all happen without me.
Anyone who believes I want to miss out on my son’s life or not be with my husband is missing the point entirely. Being a parent is hard enough without having to deal with a chemical imbalance of your own.
Not only does my bipolar disorder affect my parenting, it affects my marriage. There are days that go by I barely even see my husband or son, locking myself in our bedroom, not wanting to face the day. Parties and playdates have passed us by because I couldn’t attend; we missed out on vacations because of my spending habits; and simple, ordinary life event others take for granted are things I’m unable to do. These things weigh on my marriage and my head, but I'm thankful to have an understanding, considerate partner who understands my body's limitations are not in any way a reflection of how I feel about him. I know there are people out there who likely will think I'm a brat, someone who can’t get her way so she cries in her bed like an infant. But anyone who believes I want to miss out on my son’s life or not be with my husband is missing the point entirely. Being a parent is hard enough without having to deal with a chemical imbalance of your own.
Though I know that things could be worse, life is very difficult for me as it stands now. Bipolar disorder isn’t something I will grow out of and there is no magic cure. It’s a lifelong disease that my family and I will always have to suffer with. My husband and son don’t hate me for my disease, and I know I’m incredibly blessed to be loved unconditionally. It's a lifelong disease my family and I will always suffer with, and I hate that. But I will never let my disability define who I am. I am a daughter, a wife, a mother, a writer, a friend, a partner, a person with a disability. I am not the disability. My bipolar disorder may be a beast in my brain, but I am not the beast. As my life progresses and each day passes, I learn a little bit more about who I am and how to handle my triggers. In the end, I am stronger because of that. Braver.