What Impact Does Bipolar Disorder Have On Your Family?

By: Diane Dweller

Parents, siblings, and spouses have written numerous books, articles, and blogs about family members coping with bipolar disorder. Hundreds of books on this manic-depression illness have been written by medical professionals and counselors. Many patients write about their challenges of living with mood swings.

  1. Who does not write about the impact of bipolar disorder on their family?
  2. The children of a parent living with bipolar illness. 

I am the daughter of a mother diagnosed at age 66 with bipolar disorder, especially mania.

Currently I am aware of only eight books in print, including mine, written by a child of a parent who has manic depression. Our voices need to be heard too. Learning how to cope with our parent’s illness is critical to our own wellbeing.

A catastrophe triggered me to begin writing. My elderly mom got food poisoning and began throwing up. She was found hours later in a coma and was not expected to live.

During the two weeks Mom was in the coma, I got mad–at myself. I had planned for years to ask her about some devastating memories from my childhood. Angry at myself for waiting to have this conversation, I started writing down the incidences I would have asked her about.

Mom did recover from the coma, but many memories were gone. I assumed it was too late for any serious discussion, too late to heal old wounds, to find forgiveness, or to improve our volatile relationship.

I was wrong. Valuable lessons learned over the next five years changed both Mom and me. Before she died, a startling event I call a miracle, occurred. That is when I decided to write our story with the hope it would help other families mend their dysfunctional relationships.

What should I include in this memoir? I recalled the many ways Mom’s illness had affected my life as a child, teen and adult. There were many frustrating challenges. For example, my sister and I pleaded, begged, and scolded Mom for twenty years, trying to get her to stay on her stabilizing medication. These approaches failed. Off she would go–again and again. The result: another manic episode requiring us to undo, fix or stop a disaster, like the time she got mad and cancelled her health insurance. Fixing that was expensive.

I finally tried a different approach to her noncompliance with her pills. Waiting until Mom was in a stable period, I used the Socratic Method of asking her a series of probing questions like, “What happens every time you stop your pills?” And, “Is your medication a stabilizer or a cure?” I compared her illness to another that also has no cure and requires daily medication. It worked. Mom finally accepted her illness and took her medication faithfully for many years.

I decided my memoir should include anecdotes about what worked–but also what didn’t. And it could only be a story about Mom if it included some amusing anecdotes. Mania does result in some unusual behavior.

To start writing, I noted a couple of key words on recipe cards for each memory that could become a scene. Soon I had a large stack of cards. After reorganizing them several times, I decided to start our story with my arrival in Texas for my father’s funeral. This was when the responsibility for Mom landed on my sister and me. We had no idea how to help her during her ‘spells.’ She had not yet been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

I joined a writing group and researched how to write a narrative nonfiction memoir–how to tell a true story that reads like a novel. I wrote. I rewrote. I deleted. It was not an easy, or fast, task. I stopped more than once. But at last I had a manuscript.

Now published, the years it took me to complete Mom, Mania, and Me have been worth the effort. Reading comments on book websites about how our memoir is helping one family to heal, and another reader to understand his difficult father’s mood swings, has made all that effort worthwhile. I also discovered writing is a great way to release bottled up feelings. All my angst is gone.

If you are the child of a parent who is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, how are your parent’s mood swings impacting you? Your family? What can you share that could help others in similar situations?

We, the children of parents with this disruptive disease, need to tell our stories, to help each other to cope, to heal. You don’t have to write a book. A comment below can be a great place to start.

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