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Mental Illness & Parenting – A revolving conundrum

September 19, 2017


I look back during the many years pre and a couple of years post diagnosis and wonder how my family survived my ever cycling moods and behaviours. The fact that my children have turned out to be well adjusted, strong, independent, compassionate young adults, whom I am extremely proud of, I believe is more to do with the natural resilience of children than my parenting skills. I consider myself very fortunate, given what they were exposed to, my children chose to keep me in their lives, love and support me. Many families are not as fortunate and do not survive the turmoil and disruption to the status quo.


Whilst I was not diagnosed with Bipolar until I was 35, my moods and behaviours started cycling in earnest when I was 14 years old. My children were born into a home where inconsistency reigned increasingly over time, but I was predominantly overcome with bouts of major and suicidal depression in their formative years. The first part of this blog is centred around my experiences throughout depression, then on to mixed states and hypomania.


For me depression presents as lethargy, loss of comprehension and cognitive abilities, I sleep excessively (often more than 18 hours a day), don’t wake up enough or have the energy to bathe or do house work, let alone attend to others. This meant from toddlerhood, my children were left to their own devices. The medication I was on barely kept my head above water and I spent a majority of my time suicidal. Luckily, in the state I was in, I usually did not have the energy to carry out any of my suicide plans, which does not mean I did not try.


Over time I have been able to build a semblance of acceptance that what my children were exposed to through me, is not unusual for someone with severe depression/mental illness. However, having said that, I still have ruminating memories of times when I did not have the ability to parent and I relive the guilt, shame and self-recriminating thoughts and belief that I should have done more, better.


One particular memory is of being woken to the noise of breaking crockery. I struggled out of bed, staggered down to the kitchen to find my 4 ½ year old son cleaning up the mess his 2-year-old sister had made when she tried to get her bowl of cereal off the bench, that her brother had just prepared for her. It was some time after 10am and they had probably been up since 6.30am. Did I thank my son for looking after his little sister? Did I acknowledge his foresight? Did I praise him in any way? No. I was too consumed with the symptoms of depression, too angry at myself, I was full of guilt and shame. I just finished cleaning up, made my daughter a new bowl of cereal and went back to bed.


If that wasn’t bad enough, later that afternoon when I woke long enough and found the energy to rise from bed to check on them, I encountered a disgusting odour when I entered the family room. Here they both were sitting in the recliner chair together, plates with bread crusts on them meaning my son had made a sandwich each for lunch and my daughter was sitting in a shitty nappy. She was still at an age where she had a night time nappy, but not during the day. I had no idea how long she had been sitting in that soiled nappy. I had no idea, when I was up cleaning up the broken cereal bowl, why I did not take her nappy off then. I would have seen the nappy still on her when I was up earlier, but my thought processes did not compute the information and direct me to do something about it.


Again, I felt ashamed, guilty, worthless, useless, hopeless, pathetic and a failure as a parent, which was further compounded by the knowledge that when I was well, I was a good mum. Yet after I cleaned her up, I still needed to and did go back to bed. The house was a pig sty, but I couldn’t even find the energy to care. The next time I met with my psychiatrist I decided to come out of my comfort zone and raise all of this with him. He berated me, telling me “a good mother does not allow her children to be raised by the television, you have to get up and do your duty as a mother and housewife”. If that statement was supposed to be encouraging, inspiring and supportive, it had the reverse effect and made me feel even worse when I could not function enough to parent my children.


Some years later I started to experience elevated, agitated mixed states. With these I become restless, but it is agitated energy. I become inpatient, snippy, caustic, critical, pedantic, controlling, irrational, fixated, uncompromising, easily angered and frustrated. During these times, my family were walking on egg shells, because I could become verbally abusive at the drop of a hat, for some perceived but minor infraction.


My children were in their later years of primary school at this stage. My son was (and still is) very strong willed and oppositional.  If I tried to sit down and explain why he should or shouldn’t do something, he would argue the point and we would have rip roaring arguments, with both our fists clenched at our sides. This was further exacerbated by the fact that his younger sister would listen, take on board my reasoning/examples and adapt/amend her behaviours accordingly. For my son, this was seen as favouring my daughter, because she wasn’t getting yelled at all the time like him.


Now before I go on to the next example, I want to share that I have read that 93% of people with a mental illness ARE NOT VIOLENT! (I don’t remember where I read it, it was a long time ago. I can’t attest to its accuracy, but if you know the current statistics, please email them to me) I, before I started medication, was one who fell into that other 7%. Having said that, I would have to say that over 90% of the enraged, agitated, aggressive states, with violent thoughts, I didn't progressed to actual physical violence. Sharing the following with you is pushing me waaaaay out of my comfort zone; but that is something I will have to get over in my attempt to help other parents see they are not alone and provide lay persons with true, uncensored insight into my experiences, in hope that they can go away with a better understanding of the complexities of the different states of mental illness.


One day when my son was about 11 or 12, he lashed out at his sister in anger and physically hurt her. The physical fights between my son and daughter were not unusual, but this time he was particularly brutal. I grabbed him by the upper arm so tightly it left bruises, dragging him to his bedroom. I pulled down his pants, put him over my knee and started spanking him. These were the days in which smacking your child was expected of parents. However, I didn’t just give him two or three smacks. Once I started smacking him I couldn’t stop and didn’t stop until my husband came storming into the bedroom and stopped me. I would have to have given him at least a dozen smacks by that time and they were not taps. Of course, WallE gave me a dressing down and I went from enraged to feeling remorseful and guilty. I went to my son’s bedroom to apologise and see if he was alright. His response to my apology was “I can get you into a lot of trouble with the police for doing this to me”. This set me off again, although I did not touch him this time, I told him that if he did report me to the police, they would send him to live with his father, stating “at least I only use my hand to smack you, would you prefer his belt?” Then I stormed out of his room because I felt I was on the edge of no return again.


These bad times were always exacerbated by the knowledge that when I was well or hypomanic, I was a good mum. When I was well or hypomanic I played and spent time with my children. They were well fed, clothed, sheltered, supported, loved and hugged. With all my extra energy, I would bake healthy meals, home-made biscuits, cakes, slices and special treats for their lunch boxes. I would take them to the park, have a kick of the football, to the school basketball court to play a game, go roller-blading or bicycling with them. I would make the time to listen to them reading, appreciate the drawings/paintings and other work they bought home from school, encourage and support them in their pursuits of the latest fads. Things just ran smoother all round. In my mind’s eye, I can still see their smiles during these times and how their smile reached their eyes; with no hint of the harrowing time I had put them through only two weeks beforehand.


About a year after I was diagnosed with Bipolar and commenced medication, my moods had slowly levelled out somewhat. For the first time ever, my children were experiencing a level of consistency in my parenting of them, which was both good and bad for them. You see, they had both learnt that when I was depressed, they could get away with just about anything, because I didn’t have the ability to supervise, guide or berate them. I would say yes to just about anything, just so they would leave me alone to sleep. Alternately, they were glad to escape the ever vigilant, micromanaging, quick to reprimand, critical and aggressive mum experienced during my mixed states. But they also missed the hypomanic mum who couldn’t do enough with or for them. But again, children are resilient and they adapted once again.


You know how sometimes you look back on things and shake your head at the memory. Around the same time as I levelled out, my son stopped triggering my mood swings with his wilful behaviour; or so I thought. Looking back, I now see that his behaviour and interaction with me changed at the same time. But I didn’t realise this until one day when he came to visit, he unbeknown to me, did some stuff that triggered me, intentionally! When I started to lose my control, he laughed and said “take a chill pill mum”. He still does this every so often and I fall for it every time.


Children understand much more than we give them credit for. In hindsight, I would do things different now and explain in basic terms, that I was unwell. Thankfully, there is much more available out there to assist with parenting than there was 20+ years ago. I reached out to the local shire council family support services once, hysterically explaining that I couldn't cope; they advised someone would be out to see me that afternoon. No one turned up, no one called, no help was forthcoming.


Please, if you are not coping, reach out for help. Both to family support services and mental health support services. That is what they are there for, to help! You are not a failure, you are not useless, unworthy, incompetent or the myriad of other negative terms our thoughts transmit to us when we are unwell. What you are, is unwell and when you are unwell in any other form, you would go to the doctor, seek help to get better. You have a brain illness, give it the same level of importance as you would any other illness, get help, please.


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