Michelle is a guest blogger from My Upside of Down writing about motherhood with bipolar disorder.
I have wanted to be a mother for as long as I can remember. I admired my own mother and looked forward to doing the things for my children that my mother did for me. I was the eldest child of a large family and I had the idea that I would know how to be a mother because I had helped care for my younger siblings.
It never occurred to me that motherhood would be hard, or that I would be a “bad” mom. But growing up I also didn’t know about bipolar disorder, or the unique challenges it would present to me as a mother.
Pregnancy with Bipolar
I became pregnant for the first time in 2002, four years after my initial diagnosis. It was necessary to plan my pregnancy because I was on several medications that could cause birth defects. When my husband and I decided to have a baby I worked with my doctor to titrate off of all my medications except one. This was scary for me, but I really wanted to have a baby and it was the only way that was safe for the baby.
A couple months later I became severely depressed and decided that it was too risky to try pregnancy without meds. I went to the doctor to get started back on my medication and was informed after a pregnancy test that I was pregnant. Severe depression was something I would experience at the beginning of each pregnancy.
The pregnancy was a bit of a mixed bag. I had times when I felt wonderful, not manic, just happy. I also had times of paranoia and depression. When I finally gave birth to my first child I remember being so excited and terrified at the same time. I had never felt the kind of love that I did when my daughter was born, and I had also never felt the extraordinary responsibility and apprehension that came along with it.
Struggle and Heartbreak
Three months after my daughter was born I began to experience serious mood cycles and had to go back on my medications. It was a painful physical and emotional experience to wean my daughter cold turkey. It was the first time that I would feel inadequate as a mother. I hated taking medication–it wasn’t very effective for me and the side-effects were often unbearable–but it was the only thing I believed could help me and so I took them.
I struggled as a mother. The mood cycles that I experienced were exacerbated now by the addition of the unpredictable challenges of motherhood. I had a new symptom to my bipolar that I hadn’t experienced before–rage. I remember telling someone once that I didn’t have a temper before I became a mother.
I tried reading self-help books about how to control your anger. I read scriptures and prayed for help. I asked people for advice. Nothing helped. This made me feel like a monster. I would have days when I was struggling in a mood cycle, something would trigger my anger and I would scream at my children. I felt so out of control. Then at night I would cry with a broken heart feeling like I was abusing my children. I hated myself.
During those early years I was also struggling with increasing occurrences of suicidal ideation. I had started to believe that I was ruining my husband and children’s lives and they would be much better off if I was dead so they could find a better wife and mother.
I felt like I failed at everything and that my life had no value. The one thing that I had wanted my entire life was to be a mother and now that I was one I was ruining my children’s lives. The worst part was I couldn’t see how it was ever going to change or get better? I felt total hopelessness and despair.
A Realization and A Commitment
The turning point for me came in 2008 after I had a breakdown, multiple hospitalizations and two suicide attempts. I was at home watching my four-year-old daughter and two-year-old son playing and I had a very clear thought, “if you ever succeed in ending your life it will ruin hers. Your daughter will believe it was her fault and she will spend the rest of her life blaming herself.”
I remember feeling shocked by that thought! I had come to believe so completely the lies my mind was telling me. I believed that I was a failure as a mother and that my kids would be better off without me. The idea that I would ruin their lives if I died never occurred to me. From that moment on my mindset changed. I was determined to find a way to survive for my children.
When I made that commitment to survive I believed that the best I could expect from life was to learn how to suffer well with bipolar. I was willing to do that, though, because I love my children more than my own life.
Surviving to Thriving
As I started to be more proactive in trying to keep my commitment I began to learn that I could live well with bipolar. Over the following decade I discovered the tools necessary to live a healthy, balanced, productive life with bipolar disorder.
It started in 2010 when my doctor and I finally found a supplement that gave my brain what it needed to be balanced. Over the following years I learned how critical therapy is, and I started to piece together a self-care routine that includes mindfulness meditation, yoga, and exercise to help keep me in maintenance mode most of the time.
I also developed a Mental Health Emergency Response Plan (ERP) for myself that enabled me to proactively manage my mood cycles. Using this plan helped me lessen the impact of my mood cycles on myself and my family and shortened the duration of the cycles. Ultimately it smoothed out the massive ups and downs so that they were more manageable and helped me create a more stable and consistent environment for my children.
Finding Joy in Motherhood
As I began to learn how to live well, I also began to learn how to be a better mother and how to help my children heal from the trauma of their early childhood. Finding the supplements helped balance my brain chemistry so that I wasn’t having intense emotional reactions that felt out of control.
Therapy helped me to identify, process and heal trauma, unhealthy thought and behavior patterns and unhealthy boundaries. The work with my therapist eliminated a number of triggers that used to cause mood cycles and taught me how to help my brain work in a healthier way.
I also put my children in therapy for a time to help them begin to identify and work through any trauma and boundary issues they had developed as a result of my disorder. This was a difficult thing to do because it was painful to acknowledge that I had harmed my children in any way. I determined, though, that it was more important to me to help them heal from injuries I may have caused, even if it was unintentional.
Parenthood with bipolar disorder is not easy. It has taken a tremendous amount of work to learn how to care for myself and my disorder effectively. But motherhood has been the most fulfilling thing I have ever done in my life.
I have found myself filled with gratitude for my children–and that I am still here with them–as they experience milestones and little joyful moments in their lives. Whether it is attending my eldest daughter’s graduation, watching my son play volleyball, or teaching my youngest daughter to swim, it all fills me with joy, gratitude and purpose.
I have listened to mothers–and women contemplating motherhood–with bipolar disorder express their fears and anxieties about parenting with this disorder. To each I say, you can do it! It isn’t easy. You must be willing to proactively work to live well.
Motherhood in general is difficult. Motherhood with bipolar can feel impossible. But you can do it! It is absolutely worth the effort it takes. It is the most fulfilling thing you will do in your life. It is absolutely possible to live a healthy, balanced, productive life with bipolar disorder, and you can do it as a mother.
There is hope and there is help!
If you are a mother–or future mother–with bipolar disorder join my Facebook group Bipolar Moms Learning to Live Well.
- Written by Michelle Reittinger
Learn more about Michelle Reittinger in this interview.