My childhood dream had always been to be a mother. I had it all planned out. I had names, nursery themes and even the year that I wanted to have my children. But what I didn’t plan for was having multiple mental illnesses. In fact, I didn’t come to the realization that anything was wrong until I was 30 years old.
I had three children and a happy marriage. I was elbow deep in the career of my dreams — a behavior therapist. But, I was completely unaware of the chaos that surrounded me. Then, it happened. I had a manic episode and in June of 2015, I lost my career and my education came to an indefinite halt.
My diagnosis was bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder. My life became a cycle of med trials and error, therapy, self care and trying to cope with my symptoms. As my semi-hibernating mental illness came to the surface, my symptoms of paranoia became worse as well as my depression, anxiety, panic attacks and my phobia to vomit (emetophobia) grew out of control. I was in and out of the hospital, I refused to leave my bedroom and I became a shell of a person.
Meanwhile, my children stood by. When they asked where I went while I was at the hospital, they were told that I was being watched by doctors. They were told that Mommy has something wrong with her brain. I described the way it feels to be sad for no reason. I told them that sometimes I get scared of little things or even nothing at all. They made me handmade cards and colored me pictures. But they saw me. They saw me fall apart and they saw me lose my will to live.
Mental illness is no stranger to my family, and it is known that my great-grandmother had to help raise her siblings because her mother had severe depression and was bed bound sometimes. Just like mental illness running in my family, anger and resentment are also present. As the mother with a mental illness became more ill in her 20’s or 30’s, she had children to care for.
These women of my family had little resources and while some tried treatment like electric shock therapy, they were still very ill and unable to adequately care for their children. So the oldest child raised the younger siblings, even “combing the girl’s hair with a fork” at one time. The oldest child began to resent the mother and over time an ugly relationship formed of a neglected daughter and a mentally ill mother. The unhealthy relationship between the mother and children (especially the oldest child) grew well into adulthood and continued throughout their life. My grandmother still has few words to say about her mother besides her struggles with depression and anorexia.
One year ago, my ex-husband called me. Our two daughters were afraid to ask, but they had their eyes set on a private school near his house, in his town. This school had always been a topic so this was not a new idea. We had talked about it before. I thought for a while. I weighed my options. After 9 months of going back and forth, I finally agreed to the change. I would go from having them 70% of the time to a mere 30% of the time. While they used to live at home Monday through Friday, they now visit on the weekends.
I knew that making this decision would mean sacrificing 70% of their childhood. I knew that I would miss out on Tuesday night homework and Wednesday morning ear aches. My chances of being present when they start their first period are 2 in 7. I know I will miss a lot.
But I also knew that they saw a lot. They saw me break doors off of hinges and they watched me walk into the suicide crisis center far too many times. They saw me cry for no reason and have an anxiety attack because I felt nauseous. They’ve watched me struggle to climb out of a hole and they watched me fall back in several times.
I knew that I had put in the effort to be an active parent in their life. I tried Girl Scouts once, but I volunteered to be a troop leader which turned me into a manic catastrophe and it ended with me ignoring phone calls and emails and the whole group falling apart while I was depressed in bed. I wanted my children to experience the childhood that my parents had given me. I wanted them to have extracurricular activities, friends, safety, security and most of all, a stable parent. As much as I tried, I could not give them stable. Instead, I gave them a mother who spent weeks in bed and has sobbing fits like a hormonal teenager. I showed them how to not react when you are angry. I showed them how to fall apart.
So when this decision was presented to me, I immediately considered what was in their best interest. Of course they wanted to attend the school but they were good students and I knew they would excel in any environment. Having them on the weekends would mean more leisure time and family trips. We would also have them for every holiday too. But my only concern was them and my mental health.
As they grow older and become more aware, the little things will leave an impression on them. I knew they would watch me struggle and scramble trying to care for myself and them as well. I knew I would fall on my face and they would suffer. I would become my great-grandmother and my great-great-grandmother. I knew that I would be laying in bed and one day my daughter would have to use a fork to comb her sister’s hair and I knew that the family tradition would continue.
It has been almost a year since we changed schedules. Some days I’m okay with it. I’m thankful for the time to go to therapy, support groups and to focus on my well-being. I’m thankful for the opportunity to take care of myself, so I can be a better mother for them. But there are also the nights that I crawl into their little bed and I sob until my eyes burn. I question my decision constantly and I am stuck in the endless cycle of not wanting to harm them but also wanting to maintain a healthy relationship with them despite being mentally ill.
At times, my anxiety keeps me home, but I try to attend every competition, ceremony, play and recital. We send pictures to each other and I am creating a scrapbook of memories for them to keep at their house.
I don’t know if I will ever be settled with my choice, and I feel like I will always be in turmoil over my daughters and this decision. I pray that they forgive me when they are grown and I hope that my phone calls and cake baking moments are enough because that’s all that I can give them. Well, that and couch cuddles and Friday night pizza.
I did it for them.