Author: Melinda Goedeke
I remember when Laura was little staring at me with a mix of defiance, confidence and spunk refusing to walk without her doll stroller. She was 16 months old and could most definitely walk. She knew walking solo meant moving to the “big kid room” at daycare – a room full of fantastic new toys and even her big brother. Though tempting, that room didn’t have Amy – Laura’s favorite teacher. At just 16 months, Laura was smart enough to figure out how to stay connected at the hip to Amy. This was when I realized this kid could outplay me. And to my delight (in retrospect) that is just what she tried to do for the rest of her life.
When Laura was diagnosed with bipolar II rapid cycling, I felt guilty. My first reaction was about me, a true sign of a great mom. What did I do wrong? Was it the Skittles? Did she inherit my depression? Why didn’t I see the signs? Looking back at it now, I can see some indicators…maybe. But when she was carving her own destiny at 16 months old to when she joined the boys intramural football team at Tulane University at 20 years old, nothing struck me as worrisome. I only saw Laura, the perfectly beautiful girl and woman who lived her life with an untamed enthusiasm. She attacked what she did head on whether it was throwing her crayfish out the window because she had already warned it not to bite her or spending hours gluing little clay oars on a tiny clay crew boat ornament she made for her brother. I knew Laura likely had ADHD. I knew she felt some deep sadness. I knew she slept a lot from time to time. I also knew she loved to laugh, had fantastic friends, and could run like the wind. We always joked that Laura had two speeds: off and max. Nothing to question, until after the fact. After a scary suicide attempt, the signs slapped me across my face. She didn’t have ADHD; she had episodes of mania. She didn’t sleep a lot because she was tired; she was chronically depressed trying to escape her world. She had extreme manic and depressive cycles multiple times a month, and I was helpless.
Being diagnosed with bipolar doesn’t have to be any different from being diagnosed with cancer, but somehow it is. I knew I didn’t cause Laura’s illness, and I couldn’t take it away. At least that is what the professionals told me, but I didn’t believe it in my heart. I researched, I talked to doctors, I went to support classes, I did all I knew to do, and still I felt like a failure. I also didn’t cause Laura’s broken hand or her carsickness, but that was different. I could offer remedies in that loving way only a mom can do. “What color cast do you want?” “Here’s a throw-up bucket.” I supported her with a fervor and commitment that most likely was over the top (and may have been a tiny bit smothering). I stayed outwardly strong by her side without judgement and with loving arms holding (maybe suffocating) her so tightly our heartbeats were one. I was her cheerleader, her best friend, her biggest advocate and a failure.
Mothers relish in sharing everything from their child’s diaper rash to a straight A report card, but sharing that your child has bipolar disorder is a conversation stopper. People showed more compassion about Laura’s broken hand than they did about this diagnosis. I loudly heard the unspoken wonderings: I must have been too strict or too lenient or too entwined with her. My distorted perceptions would have gone away with even one kind word of compassion. Bipolar disorder isn’t something to be ashamed of or something that happens to children of careless parents. It is a brain disease.
Today, I have a new reality. It has been 3 ½ years since Laura decided her pain was too deep, and she took her life. That was and still is the worst day of my life, but I AM NOT A FAILURE. I am a champion who ran a marathon beside my daughter feeling every step hit the pavement. We ran through knee pain, ankle fractures, rainstorms and excessive heat. We ran through crowds cheering, balloons flying and music playing. We ran and didn’t stop until she could no longer see the finish line; she couldn’t see that we were winning. I didn’t leave her side. I didn’t fail. In fact, during that run, we laughed, we went on secret adventures, and we lived life the best we knew how tangling our legs in each other sharing our dreams, like owning a cow. Laura helped me become the exceptional mom I was and sometimes believe I still am.
Moms run marathons with children diagnosed with bipolar disorder every day hoping someday a cast, a throw-up bucket or even a cure will be around the next turn. Until then, we keep running, and we buy new running shoes every six months along with some cool running garb. Seems only fair.
Even though I didn’t get to finish my race, it was worth it. I’m the luckiest mom in the world – blistered, tired and full of happy memories of my one of a kind daughter whose race with bipolar taught me about the gifts we all have. I would run the race again. I am a winner.