Help! My Parent Has Bipolar Disorder

By: Leslie A. Lindsay 

Hi, my name is Leslie. My Mom can be sometimes happy and other times sad. She sometimes forgets to take care of me because she is busy sewing, sewing, sewing. And smoking. She’s say, “Just a second,” with her brows pinched together, her eyes focused on a seam, smoothing the fabric through the Bernina sewing machine, her foot on the pedal, humming and stitching. My Mom gets exasperated, which is a big word that means, she’s had it. When she’s not doing those things, she’s got a migraine and needs to lie down for a rest, which means she needs a break.

My mom has bipolar disorder. She’s probably had it all her life, before I was even born; I did not cause her to have bipolar.

I am now a mother and wife and also a child/adolescent psychiatric R.N. I’ve been in the middle of my mom’s manic episode and a depressed one, too. I’ve seen symptoms of psychosis, too when she thought maybe I was the devil and voices told her to hurt me.

I’ve heard her say things like, “I didn’t mean to kill the postman” and “Did I kill that little girl across the street?” She didn’t, but her mind thought she did. She used to believe she would die of cancer on her thirtieth birthday. Her birthday came. She was still alive. She did not have cancer. Once, she thought was an angel and could fly. She believed God selected her to be His helper on earth.

That was scary.

One estimate says 5.7 million Americans live with bipolar disorder; that’s 2.6% of the population. You and your parent are not alone.

If you’re like me, you have questions.

Let’s start by defining bipolar disorder.

Definition: Bipolar Disorder is a mental illness (just like a physical or medical condition like diabetes or heart disease). The difference is, bipolar is an illness of the mind. Bipolar disorder can change the way a person thinks or acts. Sometimes those ways are scary and confusing.

The key characteristics of bipolar are: mania (“highs”) and depression (“lows”). They run in cycles, back and forth. Sometimes a “high” can last weeks or just days. Usually a low follows, but not always. A person might have a low first and then a high; there’s no way of telling how it might look for your parent.

Mania (or “Highs”) can look like this:

· S/he stays up late finishing projects (or starting new ones). My mom sewed draperies and clothes. She couldn’t get enough.

· S/he might NOT be able to sleep even when in bed.

· S/he might talk quickly and frequently. (This is called ‘flight of ideas’).

· S/he’s constantly on the go.

· Every idea s/he has is “super-great;” s/he wants to do them all;

· S/he has the energy to tackle every project.

· S/he’s easily distracted; but may be overly focused on the yard or some other hobby.

· S/he wears colorful clothing and spends more time ‘getting ready.’

· S/he wears a full face of make-up.

· S/he laughs more; everything is funny.

· S/he might think of doing inappropriate things like walking through public fountains or putting the top down on the convertible when it’s raining.

· S/he might have really strange thoughts about being God or an angel or even hear voices that aren’t real. This is called psychosis. It is not always part of bipolar, but can be sometimes. Psychosis is very worrisome.

Depression (“or lows”) can look like this:

· S/he can’t get out of bed.

· S/he sleeps too much.

· S/he’s quiet.

· S/he cries.

· S/he might not go to work.

· S/he is unresponsive to things that excite his children, friends, wife.

· S/he is irritable and might ‘snap’ at others.

· S/he pulls away from his friends, family and work group.

· Her/his movements are slow and sluggish.

I know you have questions and concerns. In Part 2, I will cover some common questions that arise from having a parent with bipolar disorder. 

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