This Is What It's Like To Be A Mom With Bipolar Disorder

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
Helena Pogreb Carter photography / Getty

I didn’t know I was sliding towards a low as I got ready to leave for a long weekend trip. In the flurry and excitement of getting ready, I wasn’t paying enough attention to my mood, wasn’t monitoring. But I should have realized.

I was snappy with the kids: they could do nothing right. The next second I was consumed with remorse, weepy for them: is this how they would remember me? I felt nostalgia for them as they stood right there. I still have the photos I took, sobbing, as they stood smiling at me in our kitchen before my five-thirty drive to the airport. My four-year-old wears his triceratops hoodie and grins ear-to-ear. My six-year-old stands just shy of a smile in all black; my eight-year-old holds my water bottle and grins ridiculously. I cried over those pictures in the airport.

That my children could muster those genuine grins while I cried is a testament to, well, how often I cry. This was just Mama being Mama, and Mama sometimes cries a lot. It’s just part of the scenery. I’ve managed to convince them of that, at least. Because I have bipolar disorder, formerly known as manic depression.

When I’m spiraling down, I might cry out of frustration when the youngest cries incessantly. I might cry when the day isn’t going as planned and I burnt lunch and I don’t know what to feed my family. I might cry when I can’t figure out what to wear. I might cry when I see A Wrinkle in Time in Target and I remember that a black girl is playing Meg and this is groundbreaking and amazing and my sons will always know Meg as black.

These are all signs I am slipping downward.

Our family talks a lot about me being sick. A lot about why I cry — because I’m sick — and how I take medicine, but the medicine doesn’t always work all the way, so sometimes there are tears. And that tears are okay and harmless.

I hide the worst parts of my bipolar downs from my kids. I hold it together by sheer will and Octonauts until my husband gets home, then retreat to the bedroom to sob and sob and sob. They will watch too much TV while he takes care of me, while he rubs my back and I tell him how worthless I am for an hour. Eventually, I will fall asleep. Then I will wake feeling better. When it gets really bad, I will think of suicide. Then I will think of my kids. They will snap me back from the brink.

Then there are the manic phases.

We do crafts. We do lots of crafts. In my natural state, I am a Pinterest enthusiast. My kids build models of the human heart and gold lamé thunderbolts to symbolize Zeus. All that in just two days. We march through our homeschooling plans every morning and then go on outings every afternoon — to the park, to Target, to a friend’s house.

But there’s a darker edge to the mania.

I spend too much money online and at Target, though that doesn’t really affect my kids, other than to show them that I buy things we don’t need — random Valentine’s Day tablerunners! Unicorn window clings! But when we get home from our marathon outings, I abandon the kids to their own selves. I tell them it’s in the name of free range play, and partially it is. But then I start sewing. I sew, and sew, and sew. When my husband comes home, he parents while I sew some more, and I keep sewing until bedtime with maybe a break for dinner.

During these times, I am fun when I’m with my kids. I am bubbly. I read The Book with No Pictures and squirt whipped cream in their mouths and listen to them talk about watering plants and produce more construction paper for the four-year-old’s endless art projects. Our house might not be clean, but they are happy, and they do not have to see mama cry at the sight of a paperback book.

I am medicated. My bathroom cabinet is a pharmaceutical wonder, a veritable drugstore. Drugs for physical conditions nonwithstanding, I have meds for general depression, downers for anxiety, uppers for ADHD, a small dose of an atypical antipsychotic, and, my savior, the old school treatment for bipolar disorder — lithium. I need these meds to live. Once I started lithium, at age 33, my life evened out for the first time. Before that, I had cycled constantly, tending toward short manic cycles punctuated by long downs, which made it look like I had depression. Now we know to recognize the signs I’m sliding down and can adjust my medications accordingly.

This means lot of doctor appointments. Which I usually schedule at the same time my husband gets off work, so he meets me at the doc’s, we switch cars and kids, and he drives them home. They complain about my appointments, because it’s really a drag for them, and we explain that in order for their mama to feel okay, to be happy, I need to go to the doctor. The same thing happens with our regular cross-town trek to the pharmacy. “The medicine keeps Mama from getting sick,” my husband will explain.

That’s how we frame it. I am sick. I am chronically sick. Mama is not crazy. Mama is not bad, or wrong, or overly emotional. Mama might cry sometimes, but it happens and she can’t really help it.

Some days, it can be hard, all alone with three kids and a monster roaring in my head. I call friends. I call my husband. I turn on the TV, the parental path of least resistance; we listen to Hamilton.

But most days, the majority of days, I’m fine. “I didn’t know you had bipolar disorder,” a friend said to me recently. That’s because my manic highs often just look like enthusiasm. My lows I keep hidden from most people. My kids see them, God bless them. But they’ve learned to cope. I hate that, more than anything. I hate that they’ve had to cope and adjust. But they’ve learned. I hope that, while it’s certainly taken some innocence from them, it’s taught them compassion. Then it will have been — maybe not worth it — but even-steven. A trade of some kind. A shitty trade. But a trade nonetheless.

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