My Daughter Has Bipolar, And I've Been Afraid To Tell You

by Annie Shapiro
Originally Published: 
Deborah Faulkner / Getty

We are friends. We are the kind of friends who go out for manicures if we have a few spare minutes before pickup, or as couples, and also as families with the kids to places like the trampoline place or dinner or even that one time we went to a water park all together for a long weekend.

And we have fun together – even when the the kids are being a pain in the ass as they are contractually obligated to be for a certain percentage of the time. Your kids like my kids—they all have fun together. You see how silly and affectionate my son is and how bright and sweet my daughter is.

But then there are all of our seemingly strange restrictions and early bedtimes and demurred plans because we try to explain to you that our kids—and our daughter in particular— “isn’t up for that” or “needs to be in bed early” or doesn’t want to go to the annual Labor Day carnival because she says it’s “too loud” for her.

And she is nine years old. And what little third grade girl wants to bow out on plans with one of her best friends at the last minute, or ensure she’s in bed at a “reasonable hour,” or skip the rides and the games and the snow cones and seeing her friends after a long summer off at a carnival?

My little third grade girl.

And I know you think that we are strict or overprotective—the consummate “helicopter” parents who are just control freaks. And that bothers me more than you know. Because I can’t stand those people. And that’s not the type of parent I envisioned I would be.

But I also never envisioned having a child who has bipolar.

I thought there would be the carefree carnivals, and movies with endless popcorn, and family vacations with friends, and endless play dates and hearing the sweet melody of two girls giggling in the next room. I thought there would be sleepovers and neighborhood bike rides with a throng of little people pouring through our door looking for snacks and juice boxes and cleaning out our pantry.

But there is nothing carefree about our lives. We leave movies early when my daughter becomes emotionally claustrophobic by the idea of being “trapped” in the theater for two hours, or when she is triggered by any number of a thousand different things that could happen in a movie that she thinks may haunt her later.

We don’t go on family vacations with friends because the ridiculous amount of structure we need to be mildly successful would annoy and frustrate even the most understanding of people. She is never asked to playdates because she is so socially stunted and misreads so many social cues from peers that she becomes defensive and combative to the point that she often turns off potential friends before they even have a chance to care for her enough to accept those aspects of her personality.

There are no sleepovers because she cannot bear the thought of having her friends or their parents find out that she needs to take two different medications at night and in the morning or to have them see the elaborate bedtime routines and rituals she goes through to calm her mind enough to drift off. And that’s going on the optimistic assumption that she even could fall asleep within an hour or two without having a panic attack.

So there are no herds of bikes strewn across our lawn and our pantry is full. But we never seem to be short of the figurative eggshells I find crunching under my feet, despite my best efforts to delicately tiptoe around them—around her.

And around you.

Because while we are out at some PTA event, or for coffee, or at dinner with our husbands, and we are all talking—eyes perpetually rolled—about the little league schedule, or how much homework the kids are getting and how stressful that is, I am thinking about the hour-long episode of raging and crying and panic I just watched my daughter go through. I am wondering if the babysitter has a good handle on things or if my little girl is having another panic attack.

I, too, am annoyed that they have too much homework, but have needed to focus my school-related attention on praying that when the phone rings during the school day, I don’t see the familiar three-digit exchange that means the school is calling to tell me that she has tried to run out of the school again, or hit a teacher when she felt cornered, or is openly weeping in the hallway.

And, like I said, you and I are friends. And I want to unburden myself of this secret. And I want to tell you all of this. What we are going through, what I am going through, what she is going through. I want you to know why we seem so regimented, so inflexible, so controlling. Why I have to say no so often with ambiguous and seemingly illogical reasons why.

But I can’t.

Because what if you don’t understand? What if I open up and tell you all of the reasons why we can’t do what we can’t do and it scares you away? Truthfully, it would have scared me away too. And I don’t want you to stop letting my daughter come over because you are scared of her once you hear that word—bipolar. And if I am being honest, I don’t want our friendship to end either. And knowing that I have a daughter with a mental illness may frighten you away too.

But if you knew how crushing this isolation can be, this not being able to honestly talk to my friends about what really goes on in my house and how I feel like I am failing as a mother, as a wife, as a person, about 90 percent of the time, well, it feels as though our friendship is built on lies. It feels like the half-truths I tell you are about as authentic as the vacation pictures I post on Facebook where everyone is smiling and cute and holding hands and splashing in the ocean and no one sees tantrums and anxiety attacks and all of the times we needed to drop what we were doing to make sure that one of us was out there watching my daughter when she wanted to go out onto the balcony of our fourth-floor hotel room to make sure she didn’t try to jump—either because she was anxious enough to be suicidal or because her disease means that she lacks a basic level of impulse control that could rear its terrifying head at any moment.

And so she is a lonely little girl. And she shouldn’t be because her bipolar disorder does not define her. It does not change the fact that she is also whip-smart, and creative as hell, and has a great sense of humor, and that all of her sadness is directly tied to the fact that she is among the most empathetic souls I have ever come across in my life.

And yet I am a lonely mother and woman, despite the friends that surround me. Because I can only show you my Instagram life and not my real life. And I have tried to tell you before. I have tried to drop hints, to tell you about her “anxiety” or how things are “crazy” at our house. I am testing the waters to see how strong your tolerance is for this stuff.

But I am scared. I am scared of losing you. I am scared of telling people her secret and then finding that it’s somehow gotten out and that the crushing stigma of being labeled as “mentally ill” will now color every aspect of how she is seen and thought of and, therefore, treated.

I am scared that you will no longer let your little girl play at our house. I am worried that my little girl will sit alone on the bus. I am afraid that she will have no one to play with at recess and will instead be the realization of my sad vision of a girl bouncing a ball in the corner of the blacktop as she watches her peers playing tag and laughing in that carefree way while she is suffocated by the isolation and loneliness of being left out.

And I am afraid of losing the 40-year-old versions of exactly the same thing. And I don’t know if that makes me selfish or weak or honest or some combination of the above, but it is the truth.

I do not know what it feels like to be nine-years-old and bipolar, but I do know what it feels like to suffer from the knowledge that no one knows who you really are and wonder if they would still accept you if they did.

I wonder if I will ever get the courage to find out.

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