Being a parent is enough of a challenge in and of itself, but imagine having bipolar mania I as well. Bipolar mania affects men and women equally, with about 2.6% of the U.S. population diagnosed, and I can only imagine how many of those people are also parents. Bipolar disorder is characterized by having episodes of dramatic shifts in one’s mood, energy, and activity levels. These shifts are more extreme than normal ups and downs and can severely affect a person’s ability to carry out daily tasks. For example, I can go from being overly happy and bubbly to—boom—so depressed I can’t leave my bed or eat a single meal.
Every day is a struggle to not only do what’s best for my children, but for myself as well. One of my favorite sayings is “you cannot pour from an empty cup.” I take this to mean that if I’m not taking care of myself, I cannot take care of my two handsome boys. But with this disorder, taking care of myself is almost impossible. If a wave of depression hits, I can barely get myself together enough to shower, let alone make sure my kids bathe. Thankfully, I have learned skills over the years to help manage and cope. Some I figured out on my own through trial and error; others were taught to me by some great therapists.
The one I use daily is to always put my children’s needs first, no matter how I feel. Quite literally, this mandate has kept me alive during my severe bouts of depression. Just this year, on vacation with my family, my husband stated he wanted a divorce. Now, I know that anyone who is “happily” married would become upset by their spouse making mention of divorce, but for me it was so much more. Divorce would break up my family and leave me alone with two boys. My support system was going to become a man short. With these thoughts swirling around in my mind, I almost instantly went to suicide as the solution. “Till death do us part.”
It made sense to me in that moment—if I died, my kids would be left with the mentally stable parent. The better parent. At least a quarter of people with bipolar disorder will attempt suicide at least once in their lives. By some estimates, that percentage is higher—at 50%. I remember standing on the balcony of our suite, which was on the 19th floor, looking down and wanting to jump. Maybe it would feel like flying. Maybe it would free me from the grips of sadness. I took a step back, and thought of my newborn son napping in the very room I wanted to leap from. I knew in that moment that my selfish thoughts of ending my life would destroy the lives I brought into this world. I took another step back. I continued to use my children’s wellbeing and the thoughts of their futures to pull me from the edge of darkness that was clouding my mind. No, these thoughts did not make my depression recede, but they did help me keep a grip on the practical reality of my responsibilities as a mom.
After that, the real challenge was taking care of my boys with this cloud over my head, and doing it alone. Everyday I would get up to get my oldest son ready for school, all while neglecting my own needs. My hair was matted, and I still had on clothes from three days ago, but if you looked at my kids, you would never have known that I was struggling. I was determined to not allow my illness to spill over into my kids’ lives. Not only did I not want them to see their mother like this, but I also didn’t want them to be my crutch or caretaker. They were my motivation to go back to therapy.
Being a parent with this disorder is a struggle, because it would be so much easier to only deal with your own needs. Many people who are bipolar don’t have kids. It’s a struggle for me every day to make sure I’m not “pouring from an empty cup,” but knowing my boys need me to keep going helps me get up and fight the lows — and even enjoy my highs more.
Keeping my kids in mind and cultivating that mindfulness is a great way to cope with the lows, but this coping mechanism does nothing for when I become angry. How I manage my anger requires a separate discussion, so stay tuned.