Romper

Why I Told My Sons The Truth About My Bipolar Disorder

Courtesy of Jenna Bagnini

I am a mom living with bipolar disorder. My three wonderful boys — ages 11, 9, and 5-and-half — are my world. I love being a mom, but I also work part-time and between that and my illnesses, it can be exhausting to care for them, particularly because my oldest son has some special needs, including high-functioning autism. On top of his needs as well as my other two sons', it's very difficult to keep my own mental health in mind. And to be honest, I'd never talked to my kids about my bipolar disorder before. But I decided, after a particularly sudden hospitalization for my depression, that it would make my life and that of my kids easier if I explained to them the truth about my bipolar disorder. That way, they'd understand my mental health issues and I'd be able to mitigate some of the fear and concern they have if I get sick and needed to go to the hospital and needed to go to the hospital.

As a mom with bipolar disorder, I have to be mindful of my stressors so that I don’t end up in a manic or depressive phase and eventually need to be hospitalized. In the past, I've had to be hospitalized several times for my own safety, when I became so depressed that I was having thoughts of suicide. I noticed that my kids were getting scared when I had to go to the hospital, because their routines would change and they'd often end up spending extra time with babysitters or grandparents. Once, I wasn't able to properly prepare the kids before I had to go to the hospital and they were terribly afraid. In their minds I'd just disappeared without warning. So I decided that I needed to teach my kids about my bipolar disorder so that I could minimize their fear and so that they might better understand what to expect if it happens again.

Courtesy of Jenna Bagnini
I said that sometimes I feel sad, or angry, or scared, and it has nothing to do with them; it's just the result of the chemicals in my brain not working properly.

I had already talked about autism at length with my children because of my oldest son. We talked about all people having strengths and weaknesses, and about how my oldest son’s brain often needs things to be “just so,” because of his autism. I explained to my boys that this is different from other people’s brains, and sometimes he has a hard time because of it. I wanted to make sure that I presented autism without judgment so that my kids would not think that my oldest was any less than anyone else, but just different. I used that same logic in order to tell my sons about my own mental health. What I told them that, just as their brother’s brain works differently, my brain also works differently from most people’s. I said that sometimes I feel sad, or angry, or scared, and it has nothing to do with them; it's just the result of the chemicals in my brain not working properly. I told them that I see a therapist to talk about my problems and that I take medicine from a doctor to make sure that everything inside me is working well. But sometimes the medicine and the therapy are not enough, and I need to go to the hospital to get better when I am sick, just as someone with a physical illness needs to go to the hospital to get better when they get sick.

The fact that I am a person with needs of my own didn't scare them or make them think something was "wrong" with me. It's helped them realize that just like I care for them, I need to care for myself, too. And so do they.
Courtesy of Jenna Bagnini

So far, telling my sons the truth has worked very well. The fact that I am a person with needs of my own didn't scare them or make them think something was "wrong" with me. It's helped them realize that just like I care for them, I need to care for myself, too. And so do they. My 11 year old was pleased to find out that he had something in common with me, and he's often checking to make sure that I take my medication. My 9 year old is a natural caretaker, and he wants to make sure that I am not “too” sad or angry. If he thinks I am, he asks me if there is anything he can do to help. My youngest is still very young, but my explanation seemed to have reassured him that I am not going to disappear for no reason, and that when I have to go to the hospital, I’m always coming back. Although they still don’t like to see me leave for the hospital, all of them are much less afraid now.

They are completely nonjudgmental about other people and how everyone’s brains function differently. As someone living with a mental illness, and their mom, I am so proud of their ability to be caregivers not just to each other, but also to me.
Courtesy of Jenna Bagnini

One of bright sides to being a mom with a mental illness is that it's opened up a dialogue in our home, and the kids are able to talk about people with different sorts of special needs and understand that none of us is better or worse than the rest; we are all just different. They are completely nonjudgmental about other people and how everyone’s brains function differently. As someone living with a mental illness, and their mom, I am so proud of their ability to be caregivers not just to each other, but also to me. Though I was worried about telling my kids the truth about life with bipolar disorder, I'm in awe of how they've handled the news. I wish that more of us could be so accepting, because there is still so much stigma surrounding mental health issues. But my sons see their older brother as a person, and his differences don't make him less than or less normal. Neither do mine. I know that, moving forward, they'll carry this knowledge through everything they do.