Parents cannot fix a bipolar disorder diagnosis. This leads to guilt and frustration, but once they accept it as a brain-based disorder, they can learn how to help.
Photo: LaraBelova/Getty Images
By Carin Meyer
“I never want to leave you,” I whispered from the air mattress on the floor of our family cabin. I tried not to look under the bed, a worried eight-year old listening to the coyotes yip in the darkness and the beaver’s tail slapping the river’s surface.
“You will want to leave us someday,” said my father. “Trust me, it always happens when kids grow up.”
I stayed awake long after their breathing grew deep and regular. They were the greatest people I had ever known, and, in my mind, they were perfect. Like my dad said, “We are like the center of an atom, made up of protons and neutrons, and our family is the nucleus, the most important part of the universe. Us together.”
I felt strong and safe in that atom, until after I turned fourteen, when the obsessions and the small manias started. As I grew more distant from my parents during my teenage years, I learned that our nucleus had been invaded by an enemy we could not even see.
This enemy came to light when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 21 years old. And my parents—still the center of that atom— had absolutely no idea what to do.
As I grew sicker in my early twenties, I pulled farther away from them. Years before, I had been my father’s little prodigy, but as time passed, I disappointed them over and over again with my wild behavior. Frustrated, they did not understand that the bipolar disorder had become part of me, and that I was battling a physical condition.
They did an intervention. They talked about committing me. They stubbornly held on to the belief that my behavior was situational and the result of my lack of control. At first, they believed everything except that I had a biological disorder.
To accept that I had a true brain illness meant that they may have caused it, that they may have passed down the flawed genes of my paternal grandmother—the sad legacy inherited by myself, my uncle, and several of my cousins. It also meant that they somehow could have failed in some way in my upbringing. They questioned themselves and wondered what mistakes they may have made.
As my parents struggled through the early years after my diagnosis, with what they saw as their own failure, they initially treated me like an unruly child. I avoided them, so they would not see my cycles, and I relied on my sister, who promised not to tell them about the delusions, the suicidal thoughts, and the near-constant manias and depressions.
She told them everything.
And then the brain illness got much worse. When I was 25 years old, it peaked in a series of delusions and psychosis that landed me in the psychiatric emergency room of the local hospital. After my long-time boyfriend dropped me off that day, he never came back to pick me up.
My father, the man who avoided talking about my brain-based disorder and who believed, above all, in reason and free will, was the one who did come to get me. When he walked me out of the hospital, he gently held my arm and helped me, as I was feeling wobbly and confused from the powerful antipsychotics, up and into his truck. As he drove, and even though I still did not understand what had happened to me, I noticed that there was something new and different about him.
He was sorry. He was sorry for what I had gone through. He was sad that I had experienced so much pain, and, after that—after hitting rock bottom—I was my parent’s child again. When we arrived at their house, they made me a bed, and they treated me tentatively, carefully, as a sick child. Like the cherry-flavored asthma medicine I took when I was young, my mother handed me my antipsychotics and mood stabilizers when I woke up and when I went to sleep. Slowly, with their help, I regained my footing and was able to stand on my own again.
Instead of battling me and the bipolar disorder, they accepted it as a part of me that would never go away. They saw the pain it caused in my life, and their guilt and frustration transformed into sympathy and compassion. Although they have never been able to fully understand the reasons behind the bipolar disorder, or why I sometimes act the way I do, they finally saw that I had a illness, like my asthma, and that they could help me by loving me and supporting me. Today, I still call my mother to talk about what I am going through. And she always listens. Although I have my own family now—my own nucleus—I will always remain part of that original atom and remember that eight-year-old girl who once thought she would never leave her parents.
Carin Meyer is a lifelong Alaskan who works in public relations. Her academic writing has won numerous awards and her science writing and other articles have been published in university magazines, newspapers, and other media outlets. She has a blog at www.carinrmeyer.com. She enjoys writing essays about bipolar disorder and mental illness. Carin has drafted a book about bipolar disorder, The Smartest Girl in the World, for which she is currently seeking publication.
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