My four children know that I suffer from bipolar II disorder and an eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS). Their ages range from 12 to 20 years old. Although my children are fully aware of my EDNOS and the part it plays during our meal times, my bipolar disorder, which was diagnosed almost three years ago, has been a little more difficult to share with my kids. Unfortunately, they’ve learned to recognize the illness via my fits of anxiety where I lay shivering on the couch, panting for breath; the depression which is such a common occurrence that my kids don’t even recognize me without a blanket draped over my head – I’ve become Miss Havisham except with gel nails and a pedicure; and the hypomanic episodes during which I’m usually spending the last remaining credit from my credit cards on stuff for them, so they’re like, “Cool. More stuff.”
Dialogue about mental illness has only recently become somewhat commonplace in our society. It was never a topic that fit simply into daily conversation in my family. This is one which requires that a specific time be set aside to openly delve into what it means to be caught in the web of mental illness and the ways in which it weaves throughout our family dynamics.
My sons have been pretty accepting of my diagnosis and the somewhat odd behaviours I exhibit as a result of it – case in point, the bedding wrapped around me like a cone of silence. My older sons, 18 and 20, don’t really talk about it much, but if it comes up in general conversation, such as, “You can’t be sarcastic like that around me. I’m bipolar. I can’t tell if you’re being funny or mean,” they look up from their video games, nod, say something to the effect of, “Hold your fire! Hold your fire!” which I can only assume is meant for the other player. And then we don’t make eye contact until they need to be fed.
My 16-year-old daughter, however, is a whole other animal. Since the very first day I took her in my arms and explained in great detail that I had a sickness that caused me to cry a lot and to be very sad, she has never really looked at me in the same way. It’s been heartbreaking. Any mention of my bipolar disorder has caused her to leave the room, roll her eyes, or remind me, “Not everything is about you, Mom.” By the look of dread in her eyes and the long sigh of defeat that is breathed out in a heavy gust of annoyance when I share any mental health related news, my daughter is unsure as to how to express herself during this time of adjustment. I’d like to say that she’s ashamed of me, but honestly, I’ve given her far more valid reasons to be ashamed of me over the years. I’m that person that would carry a small dog in her purse if I had a small dog. I love the colour pink far more than is healthy for a 47 year old woman. And I sing out loud to Justin Bieber songs, ending them all with the comment, “Bring me to his concert with you. Please?)” So being bipolar…meh…I don’t think that’s the worst thing that’s happened to impinge upon my dignity.
But then my daughter’s friend began exhibiting symptoms which were all too familiar to me. “Karen cries every single day,” my daughter said to me. Karen has been her best friend since they started high school. Now, in grade 11, they are navigating the eye of the storm of adolescence, and Karen seems to be grappling at any life raft that she can. I’ve been hearing a lot about Karen this year. At first I made excuses for her, explaining to my girl that perhaps Karen’s parents were stricter than I was about grade point averages. In our home, with two boys who I was relieved actually graduated from high school, my mantra is “Cs get degrees”. I’m not big on my daughter’s identity being defined by her academic score. But when my daughter once again described an episode of Karen breaking down during a math test, tears streaking her cheeks, my throat became tight and a shiver of recognition shot through my frozen nerve fibers.
“She was crying last semester too, before we even got started on the hard courses. She cries about everything.” It was those words – she cries about everything – which caused my shivers to morph into icy memories of a recent past. I was recognizing in Karen the same feelings I had recently experienced a few years ago right before my depression was diagnosed. My stomach clenched in an eerie familiarity. Without hesitation I said to my daughter, “Karen is suffering from depression and anxiety.”
“How do you know?” she asked.
“Because I suffer from those as well.” And finally, finally, I got my kid’s attention. Because now it was touching her friend’s life. Who cares about your old mother, right?
I’m okay with this adolescent mentality, because in a moment I will never forget, she actually turned to me to ask, “What do I do if she is depressed?”
“Be there for her. Talk to her. Tell her you get it,” I said. “She may not talk back, but maybe she won’t feel so alone.” I recommended that Karen speak to the school counselor. I urged my daughter to try to convince Karen to speak to her mother about the constant crying and her incessant feelings of failure.
Who would have that my mental illness might equip my daughter with the strength to throw Karen a rope if she should slip down the precipice, into obscurity engulfing her vision. If this does in fact occur, I can only be grateful for a mental illness that I myself have cursed from its inception.
About Sandra Charron
I'm the mother of four children working as a registered nurse on a postpartum unit. I was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder two years ago, and in my constant search for information as to how to handle life with this illness, I write whenever and wherever I can in an effort to advocate to end the stigma associated with mental illness. I speak for those who are unable to speak for themselves.