Who’s the parent here? Raising kids when you have bipolar

“Are you a bit manic, Mum?” says my 11-year-old suspiciously. OK, so maybe I’m a little… bouncy, although only just elevated enough to be considered clinically hypomanic. But nothing escapes the scrutiny of my children these days.

My last major episode was between 1999 and 2001, when my son was 4 years old and my daughter was almost two. I have absolutely no doubt that the experience was hard on them, especially my son, but I did my best to shelter them from the worst of what I was going through. At that age, it was relatively easy to divert their attention; going to stay with grandparents was fun, being allowed to watch a DVD with a cup of hot chocolate was a treat. They went to bed early, and I was sometimes able to hold out until they were in bed before I hit meltdown.

Fast forward to 2011, and it’s a very different story. When I became seriously depressed this spring, I quickly realised that hiding my difficulties from them was going to be impossible. You can’t put a teenager and a pre-teen on the sofa in front of movie and go about your business. You can certainly try, but they’re likely to abandon it and come looking for you to settle a dispute, ask if they can play videogames instead, or to tell you that they’re hungry (again). These days, and with my meds, they don’t go to bed much earlier than I do, so there’s no more “grown ups’ time” in the evenings. And as they are becoming more emotionally mature, they are increasingly able to read when I’m not OK – even if I say that I am. There’s nowhere to hide now.

During my depression, my 14 year old son surprised by giving me a glimpse of the man he will grow into. He becomes very protective of me whenever I am visibly distressed, sometimes taking over practical tasks when I am unable. I have mixed feelings about this; on one hand, I am proud of his responsible attitude and his caring reaction, but on the other I feel strongly that he is still a kid, and I don’t want him to feel he has to start parenting me. Nor do I want him to see me as fragile. Sometimes he expresses concerns that I won’t “be able to handle” certain situations. I find it hard, knowing that he no longer views me as the person who can do or fix anything.
My daughter found my depression hard. She often asked me if I was “better yet”, clearly hoping for things to be back to normal. She had to miss out on things like having friends over or having me take her to music lesson, because I just couldn’t cope with that level of social interaction. Interestingly, however, she is the person who is most sensitive to even my slightest high. After I went back to seeing a psychiatrist, I sat the kids down and explained to them what bipolar meant, and what my treatment plan was going to be. My daughter used to say things like, “you’re in a really funny mood tonight, Mummy!” – now she’s using clinical vocabulary to comment on my moods.

I suppose I should look on the bright side. Most pre-teen or teenaged kids find their parents embarrassing in some way. How they dress, what their hobbies are, who their friends are, their political beliefs, or their taste in music – anything can be a source of embarrassment when you are young person trying to establish your own identity. I’m sure I’m no less embarrassing than any other parent, but so far one thing they don’t seem self-conscious about is my bipolar. No matter what mistakes I’ve made, if I can raise two young people who go out into the world with no sense of shame or stigma about mental illness, I’ll have done something right.

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