This Bipolar Parenting Gig


I’ve been quietly contemplative lately – thinking about my son and being a parent. I know everyone says it, but time really has gone by so fast. I can’t believe my baby will be four next year.

Master D was “easy” from the moment he was born. He slotted into our life and our routine with minimal fuss. He ate well, slept well. He never had long spells of crying. He has always been healthy and happy. He has a knack for accepting change and deviations from his routine. He will sleep at anyone’s house, eat anyone’s food, and remains remarkably cavalier during situations that would stress even the best of us out, (I’m looking at you – 24 hour plane journey). I’m not saying he’s an angel child. He certainly has his moments, just like every child does. But for the most part he has just been….easy.

Master D isn’t the difficult part of parenting. It’s me. I’M the difficult part of parenting.

I’m the one who ends up in hospital, who counts pills every night, who deals with mania and depression and everything in between. I’m the one who catches every single frigging cold and virus that goes around because my immune system is too busy fighting itself to actually do it’s job. I’m the kind of unpredictable crack in the family. I’m the trouble.

I’m determined to be a “good” parent (whatever that is). It’s all I want. If  I never finish my PhD, I never clean the house, I never cook, I never travel, I never do anything else. I want to be the best parent I can to my son.  Ultimately, I want us to have a good relationship throughout his life.

What I don’t want is for him to end up sitting in some therapists chair one day talking about how I was never there for him because I was always in and out of hospital, or dealing with my own issues. I don’t want him, as an adult, to have to deal with my episodes. I don’t want him to grow up and think “Why did I get stuck with this crazy mother?”

It’s a current balancing act, and it can be really hard. I hate taking my sleeping pills at night, because I know I won’t wake up if he cries. But if I don’t sleep I can slip into mania. I hate the fact that I spent five months away from him this year. I wasn’t there for HIM when he needed me. But I needed that inpatient care to recover. I hate how doing the best thing for myself is not always the best thing for my son.

I feel, as a parent with a serious mental illness, I need to over perform to be seen as an acceptable parent. I constantly feel guilty over my parenting. I constantly feel the need to prove myself.  Whether the people I encounter actually see me as a “bad” mother because of my diagnosis doesn’t really matter. It’s self stigma. It’s irrelevant.

And I know that as a advocate for mental illness, and as a researcher looking into stigma reduction I shouldn’t self stigmatise. But it’s not because I am personally ashamed of myself. It’s because I know what society thinks of mental illness. And I’m scared that people think that way of me.

I feel like I can never, EVER, ask for help. Sometimes, on the difficult days, I want to ask Hubster to help me with him – to get him dressed, give him a shower (which he often does without asking – he is a fantastic father and husband). But the words get caught in my throat. Because Husbter did that solo for nearly half a year. Hubster is working full time, studying part time and renovating a house. It’s time for me to step up to the plate. I’m Master D’s mother. I need to do it. I need to prove that I can do it.

I have no idea how to tell Master D that I have Bipolar disorder. How do I know when the best age is to start bringing that kind of stuff up is? I mean, he knows I am sick, he knows I was in hospital, he knows I take medicine. But we told him that I had a sore tummy. Because I did, and three year olds understand what a sore tummy is. They don’t understand the intricacies of mental illness. How do I even begin to explain Bipolar to him?

I don’t want to hide my illness from him. I don’t want it to become this big family secret. I don’t want to feed stigma.  I’m not ashamed of having bipolar disorder, and I don’t want him to grow up thinking it is something to be ashamed of. Besides, he needs to know, because there is a possibility he may inherit it.

This bipolar parenting gig is hard. Damn hard. But no one ever said being a parent, bipolar or otherwise, was easy did they?

Ring of Fire

I fell into a burning ring of fire,
I went down, down, down and the flames went higher.
And it burns, burns, burns,
this ring of fire,
this ring of fire.

– June Carter

During my five month hospitalisation this song was perpetually stuck in my head. Perhaps it was a song that seemed appropriate. Particularly in light of my gastrointestinal distress. Did you know that “Ring of Fire”, was once the proposed advertising song for a haemorrhoid cream? Rather unsportingly, I feel,  the Carter/Cash family refused song rights for the advertisment. I can’t think why.

But on a more serious note I could relate to the song. The seemingly endless fall into an all time low that burned. God! It burned! And worst of all, it burned the ones I love.

This last hospitalisation has scarred me. The scalpels, the IV’s, and, yes, the self inflicted tearing at my skin has marked me in a way I will never be able to explain. My skin heals to shiny silveriness, but it will never be the same. A constant reminder to myself, and my loved ones.

But the scar that burns the most is the one inside my heart. The guilt I have, as a mother, for leaving my three year old child during my hospitalisation. Because it wasn’t just for a week, or a month, but for FIVE months of his little life.

He now has a acquaintance with hospitals that I never wished for him to have. If I slip, and mention that I need to see the doctor, he worries, immediately asking if I am ok, If I will go back to hospital again. I have to reassure him that I am not going anywhere and then he climbs up on my lap, ever so gently, telling me that he won’t hurt my tummy. He kisses me and tells me “No more hospital Mummy. You are doing SO well.”

I often say that he was the one who saved me, and this is the honest to God truth. If I didn’t have my son to motivate me into recovery, I don’t know where I would be. But then I think; what a responsibility for a toddler to hold! I never wanted my illness to affect my son, yet it did, from the moment he was born. Unintentionally, I have exposed my son to the ring of fire. And I burned him.

I know…I KNOW that I had no choice. I know I had to get myself better to be there for him. I know that I was “caring for my child by caring for myself”, or whatever it was that the doctors told me to try and make me feel better. But the fact was that I wasn’t there for him. For nearly half a year. I wasn’t there to watch him play. To cook him dinner. To take him to the park. To pick him up from daycare. To kiss him when he fell. To hold him when HE was sick. For nearly half a year.

And of course he takes it in his stride. Because that’s what children do. He loves me no less than he did before.

But this scar over my heart will never heal. How can I forgive myself for putting myself first, when the whole purpose of parenting is to protect your young before yourself.

I fell into a burning ring of fire.

And I took him with me.

Baby Steps

My doctors have indicated that I may have to learn how to manage two illnesses that interfere with each other for, what is likely, the rest of my life.

When people ask me why I am in hospital I barely know where to start. I often find myself telling people I have an “autoimmune disease”. Which of course I do. But those two words are easier to cough up than talking about the nasty, dirty, reality of psychosis, continual diarrhoea, vomiting, bowel pseudo obstructions, suicidal ideation, urinary catheters, depression, involuntary detainment, ECT, stomach pain etc etc. No one wants to hear about that (excuse the pun) shit.

And the biggest problem is these diseases love to mess with each other. My entire (almost) five month hospital journey was due to three major reasons:
1: malabsorption of my psychiatric medication due to excessive vomiting and diarrhoea.
2: taking Prednisone to counteract my OG, which instead increased my psychiatric symptoms.
3: mismanagement by poor communication between psychiatric, surgical, and gastro medical teams. Probably because no one knew what to do with me.

I trailed around psych wards with an IV and catheter. On medical wards i required my own psychiatric nurse. Medication for my bipolar negatively impacts my gastrointestinal symptoms. Medication for my OG negatively impacts my psychiatric symptoms.

In other words, it is a big fat mess.

I’m so afraid of what people will think of me when I am discharged. Am I bad mother for spending so much time away? A bad wife? Family member? Friend? Graduate? Employee? I think of some of the stuff I have done and cringe. I’m ashamed.

Years ago, in a psychology 101 lecture we learned that the true madness was defined when despite evidence to the contrary, you believe yourself to be sane, and those around you to be crazy. Indeed, the greatest difference between a locked and open ward seems to be that those in an open ward agree they are unwell and wish to change. Often those in a locked ward don’t believe they are unwell and turn against the doctors and nurses who suggest otherwise. I did this.

I was crazy.

After a brief visit home (and a good 600 or so new emails) I realized that the world had moved on. My friends who had only just announced their pregnancies before my admission had grown an entire baby during my absence, and given birth to new life. My loved ones had moved on with their lives with new jobs, hobbies and hairstyles.

What have I contributed to my family, friends and society in the last five months? All I have done is become a burden, not only to my loved ones, but to the community in general.

Today in group I expressed these concerns. Afterwards, to my surprise, one of the group members, Lyla, sat next to me at lunch. After some small talk she looked at me and said;

“Your memory will come back…my husband has Bipolar disorder too and needed ECT. It took time, but it came back.”

I wasn’t sure what to say, other than “Thank you.”

“Also,” she continued, kindly, ” I have seen my him through everything. I had to stop him jumping off a roof top. But I still think the absolute world of him. He is my everything.”

My eyes welled up with tears.

“And our son, he was five when all of this happened. He can’t remember much, and he would never want another Dad. Kids are so resilient. You are the best mum in the world for your son. And you are trying to get better. You will get better. And that is all anyone can ask. The people who love you will continue to love you…and those who don’t understand…they are not worth worrying about. You will get there. Baby steps.”

I nodded tearfully and whispered “thank you,” again.

It was when I got back to my room I realized that I didn’t need to close this chapter of my life forever, and jump back on the moving train. I didn’t need to pretend nothing had happened, and one by one answer those 600 emails. Instead I could look at it as a leaning experience. These ailments, it seems, may always hum away in the background. Something I need to accept as a part of myself rather than try and forget. Hubster even suggested, humorously, that I could look upon this experience as anthropological field research for my PhD topic. Laugh as we did, if anything this experience has taught me that stigma towards mental illness is still rife, and a topic that is important in contemporary society. One day, hopefully, I can pay back society with some solid research.

But first of all, I need to let go of the guilt that wakes me up at night, and realize that there was precious little I could change.

Baby steps, baby steps.