Mental illness is real for many families. But just because you witnessed it doesn’t mean your story is already written.
When I was a kid, I didn’t spend too much time with my mother. The only pictures I have with her are the ones from my birthdays. As a single mother, she had to work a lot to cover her basic expenses. Often, she didn’t have enough time for my brother and me, but that wasn’t a problem since her parents had our backs.
My grandparents always made sure that we had enough, even if enough was sometimes just above the minimum. No fancy toys or new clothes. Holidays? No gifts. Coke? Only at birthdays.
This isn’t to say I had a deprived childhood. The way I was raised made me the young woman I am today, and I cherish many of my childhood moments. However, it was by no means a conventional childhood in a conventional family.
My mother was and is suffering from bipolar disorder.
For people who don’t know what bipolar disorder is, approaching my mother would be a very interesting experience based on her mood.
By no means is there only one way to “be bipolar.” Generally speaking, though, this mental illness involves cyclical mood swings (they can be very extreme, but also lighter) that have manic and depressive phases. It’s also known as manic depression.
One of the biggest challenges I faced while growing up was definitely interacting with my mother without feeling hurt, sad, or fearful.
It was my little brother that reminded me of letting go when it wasn’t her talking, but her illness. On the other hand, my mother always preferred to communicate with my brother than with me, but this doesn’t mean that he never suffered from her condition.
It wasn’t until the end of high school that I learned about my mother’s disease. I knew she was taking medicine, but I didn’t know why. Maybe nobody told me the truth to protect me, but I can’t say if that was the wisest thing to do.
Our relationship suffered during my teenage years. From 15 to 18, we had our worst fights. She could be very mean to me and knew exactly what to say to hurt me. At 15, instead of asking for pocket money to party or to buy clothes like most of my friends, I was trying to save for a driver’s license. At school, I was one of the best-performing students, yet she didn’t seem to care. There was never pocket money, never a simple, “How are you?”.
The more I did, the less I received. When we fought, I couldn’t understand how she went from zero to a hundred in a matter of minutes. I couldn’t fathom how she could say bad words to me without saying sorry after.
Those years were very challenging. At home, my grandma would tell me to relax, to focus on something else because my mom “just isn’t herself when she explodes.”
I wish I felt safe and understood enough to talk about it at school, but as far as I knew, nobody had a similar situation to mine. Why run the risk of being pitied or bullied more than I already was?
After my “turbulent years,” I finally understood why my mother was the way she was.
After growing up and knowing how this illness affected my mother, I learned to recognize certain behaviors, such as the need to constantly shop and buy new things, or the depression that would always hit during the winter, making every Christmas difficult to celebrate.
It wasn’t uncommon for my brother and me to hear, “Now I go to that bridge and jump” during our childhood. We learned what to take seriously and what to ignore.
Despite the unhealthy family environment I was exposed to, talking to my brother and writing gave me solace.
Writing became my therapy: a way to release emotions without being judged. Starting with a personal journal and moving to fiction, writing gave me solace and helped me create alternate universes. In my mind, there were other scenarios where I could be happy.
Beginning to write was like inventing a way out when I couldn’t find any.
Over time, I wondered whether or not to try therapy. I knew that the scars of my mother’s illness made me anxious and hard for me to trust people, and I could see this clearly in my early relationships.
During those times, though, everything had been happening subconsciously.
My mind also played tricks on me, making me believe that because my mother was, I had to be bipolar too. There was a 50% chance, but that didn’t make it certain.
Then, I chose to start therapy and received a piece of advice that I still recall today:
“Whenever your mother’s actions hurt you, try to picture your relationship as a doctor’s/patient one. You know she is ill, and you also know the symptoms of her disease, so try to see your relationship with detachment during those episodes.”
Moving out helped enormously. Whenever I came back home and stayed for a longer time, we had some tense moments, but by observing the situation and fully accepting that I was an adult, I managed to gain some control.
I know how it feels to have an ill parent. The whole family absorbs the illness, in one way or another, and each individual carries it along.
I know also that it’s not only the bad parts of my mother that I might inherit; it’s also her smile, her humor, and her perseverance.
And the same goes for other people having bipolar parents.
We are not our parent’s illnesses, and their conditions are not our responsibility. We can try our best to help, as long as we feel in the right mental space to do so.
You have to help yourself first before trying to help someone else.
The truth is, I’ve always wanted to help my mother, but I’ve never known how. As a child, I had this idea that if I behaved well, I could be noticed. Growing up, after realizing that that strategy didn’t work, sometimes I would start fights to feel noticed. Only when I moved out could I see things from a different perspective.
My biggest struggle has been finding a balance between being involved with my mother and moving on to protect myself. Even though I’m still working on not placing the blame on myself, our communication has improved. Over time, I’ve learned that even the best intentions aren’t enough.
Therapy has given me the courage to think introspectively about my emotions, especially the unpleasant ones. And it was thanks to this that I grew up stronger. It was thanks to this that I began to forgive my mother and myself.