Navigating Through Motherhood With Mental Illness

My Mental Illness Steals So Much From Me And My Son

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Scary Mommy and Oliver Rossi/Getty

I paid $150 to be told that I’m bonkers.

To be fair, I had my suspicions – hitting 30 marked half a lifetime of mental health treatment, so I would have been more surprised to have been told that I’m actually normal.

I forked out the money to take the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2 (MMPI-2), a diagnostic test of 567 true-or-false statements, to receive an updated diagnosis of my mental illness. I took a similar test when I was fifteen, when I was told I had general anxiety disorder and depression.

Then, at age 27, I had my son, and the three years since his birth have marked a sharp decline in my mental state. I suffered from intense postpartum depression, and my psychiatrist updated my diagnosis to treatment-resistant depression when all attempts at regulating my mood with medications made little change.

To say that motherhood has been hard on me would be a massive understatement. I have felt broken for lacking the maternal instinct that seems to come so naturally to others. Every day – even the ones where nothing goes wrong – has been a struggle.

I elected to take the MMPI-2 to understand why I feel so damaged. I needed to name my mental illness in order to get the right treatment from my psychiatrist and therapist. So, I was completely honest on the test that felt like a more depressing SAT – only in this test, it was my sanity at stake. I talked myself through the hand cramps and critical looks at my inner self by reminding myself that at the end, I would have an answer.

Boy leaning against pregnant mother's shoulder in a park
Oliver Rossi/Getty

My therapist didn’t call me crazy (as that word is frowned upon in his profession), but rather used clinical terms in his diagnosis: general anxiety disorder and dysthymic disorder (depression lasting longer than two years), as well as addiction and traits of compulsive and dependent personality disorders. He also diagnosed me with borderline personality disorder (BPD, which is an Axis II disorder covered by a different test) based on what I’ve shared during our sessions.

The four-page interpretive report that accompanied my results laid all my faults bare. It paints a picture of a woman who, in its words, “reflects much psychological distress at this time.” I could have told you that for free.

Still, as alarming as it was to read about myself in such clear, unbiased terms, it was oddly comforting to just have an answer. I wasn’t imagining things – my brain was working against me in many damaging ways.

Reading the first few paragraphs of the report made me feel sorry for myself; however, reading on (and every subsequent rereading) has made me feel sorry for my son. As a parent, you want only the best for your child – what do you do when your best is barely hanging on? What short end of the parental straw did he pull to be stuck with me?

Because once you become a mom, you no longer view yourself as a singular entity. I last took a diagnostic test as a selfish teenager who thought the world revolved around her; now, I literally am the center of this amazing little boy’s universe. I may feel like a black hole, but to him, I am the sun.

And he deserves a mom who shines.

But my mental illness has dimmed my sparkle in every aspect of motherhood. It’s all there in the report: the dichotomy between being high-strung and yet always lacking energy; hopelessness; incapability of solving my own problems and subsequent high dependence on my partner for affirmation. I’m overly competitive and critical, with a short temper and inability to feel joy from life’s regular pleasures. I have high standards for myself as a mother, yet consistently fall short and am burdened with pervasive feelings of guilt and shame. My son deserves the best, and yet I always feel like I fall short of even making it to the middling ground.

But I owe it to him, and to myself, to be healthy. And to do that, I had to break with the standard of motherhood being self-sacrificial and put myself first.

I did just that in December when I voluntarily admitted myself to an inpatient mental health treatment center. Leaving my family felt selfish, but I was in dire need of help. I’m lucky to have an incredibly supportive partner who convinced me that admitting myself was a selfless act to better not only myself, but to also help our family.

My son gave me his little stuffed bear when they left me in the emergency room, and I always kept it with me during my four day stay in the hospital. It came with me to therapy, group sessions, addiction counseling and meals. I used it as a grounding tool when I was overwhelmed with feelings of hopelessness because it reminded me that there was someone who needed me healthy on the outside.

I left the hospital with new medications and the first tentative mentions of BPD. I came home to a house decked out in all our Christmas decorations, and my son proudly told me that he put the angel on top of the tree.

“I put Mommy there!” he said in his adorably broken toddler-speak, and I melted.

Because my son miraculously sees the mommy I want to be. He sees the mom who tries her best, even if she falls short. He brings out my goofy side with his demands for tickles and roughhousing, and he finds my soft side when he curls up on my lap for snuggles. Going to the hospital didn’t leave him with the feelings of abandonment I’d feared, but rather happiness at just having me home.

Getting healthy is a long journey; going to the hospital and taking the MMPI-2 were just a few steps along the way. Now that I have a diagnosis, we can begin treatment. My therapist is very solution-oriented, and we are working on Dialectic Behavior Therapy (DBT), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and hypnosis in our weekly sessions, while my psychiatrist is monitoring medication changes to fit my updated diagnoses.

I’m learning that I may be “bonkers,” but I’m not broken, because my son sees me as whole. Every day is still a struggle, but at least treatment provides hope for the future. I want to be the mom my son sees and deserves, and so I put myself first when I need to and work on healing every day. The journey may be long, but with his little hand in mine, I feel less alone on the walk.

Still, I’ll put the next $150 we save in a fund for him – with a mom like me, he may need therapy, too.