This is the first time I’ve talked in public about receiving a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder last year. While I have been open about suffering from depression, I struggled after receiving this diagnosis in January 2017. I struggled to not only to get stable after the manic attack that resulted in the diagnosis of Bipolar 1 but also to accept this as a new reality for me. I am finally ready to talk about it with my friends and my online community.
I didn’t know I had Bipolar Disorder when I had children. This is a piece I’ve written about how hard it was to embrace the diagnosis and that I’m terrified I’ll pass the illness on to my kids.
Men in Trench Coats | Coming Out with Bipolar Disorder
by Charlotte Kaufman
I try to convince myself that I’m a normal mom handling the daily morning rush but my shame has its own persona and it chants, you are guilty, guilty, guilty. I wipe down the counter after making school lunches and call to the girls to head to the car. On the outside, I project calm, but on the inside I know. I’m not normal. It’s early but my anxiety is already rising. Deep breathing techniques are useless as my thoughts begin to race. Which one of them will get it? Will it be both of them? I take an Ativan because I’m the kind of mom who takes pills to calm herself down.
In the car I buckle them into car seats that fit their age, height, and weight requirements. Their snacks and lunches have adequate protein, fat, veggies/fruits, and carbs. At least in these ways I’ve met the good mother role. Sometimes I can’t get out of bed to make them lunch. Or take them to school. When that happens, my husband takes care of everything. Sometimes I can’t get out of bed for days at a time. The girls open my bedroom door and peer in. I see their large eyes and round cheeks but feel no emotions in response. It sounds like someone else doing the talking when I tell them, “I’m sick. Ask your dad for help.” The door closes. The part of me that’s sick is my brain.
Other times I am wired. I don’t sleep. I make intricate quilts and organize the kids’ books by genre, color, and size. I create webs of connections between the character profiles and storylines of my novels. My husband asks if I’ve eaten anything but I’m not hungry or tired. I talk in run-on sentences. When I get too manic, paranoia sets in and I avoid interacting with friends.
One night my daughter comes upstairs. “What is it?” I ask her.
“Someone was poking me on my back.” The hairs on my forearms rise.
“You mean your sister?”
“No, she’s asleep.”
I swallow hard, pick her up, and carry her to bed. I walk her through the downstairs, peeking in closets and behind the shower curtain. I show her that all the doors are locked. “See, no one is down here.”
She nods and looks up at me as I tuck the covers around her. I smile reassuringly kiss the top of her head. Again I project calm but inside my stomach roils. Will she be Bipolar too?
After being diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder I’ve become terrified I will pass this highly inheritable illness on to my daughters. I obsess about it and over-analyze their actions. One girl seems to not need as much sleep as the other. Is that a sign? The other can be very emotional. I wonder if intense emotions are a harbinger of things to come.
Sometimes I write them an apology letter in my head. The letter morphs into a suicide note, which is what it was all along. I imagine my final apology for when this illness wins. Sometimes the suicidal ideations play in a loop in my brain. Last winter, I couldn’t drive to the big town and grocery shop alone because I knew which part of the road I would be tempted to run off at.
What’s even worse is knowing that they might one day have these thoughts too. Guilt is a relentless hammer. It pounds away, you gave this to them, you did this, you, you, you. On good days, I can distract myself with other thoughts or play devil’s advocate. Would you really not have had children if you’d known? You wanted children so much. You wanted to experience the whole process in your body.
I counter, if I had known how bad this is, how horrible to live through, I don’t think I would have. I would have adopted. My husband suggested adopting. I should have listened to him.
The other part of me sneers. You still would have done it. The ‘you’ in your twenties would never have believed how bad it could be.
I nod, listening, and partly agreeing. I think about the aspects of this disorder that might factor on the positive side of a t-chart weighing the pros and con. There is a high connection to Bipolar and being extremely creative but is artistic talent worth passing onto my daughters when they could also experience the long list of cons from this brain disorder? Major depression, hypomania, mania, psychosis, and a higher risk of addictions, just to name a few. I try not to think about the increased risk of suicide, the demon that has haunted me for over a decade.
It takes me ten months to fully accept the diagnosis. At first I scour the internet for ‘diseases that masquerade as Bipolar,’ and grow frustrated when I find none that apply to me. For months I describe my manic episodes as ‘going up’ because my mouth refuses to sound out even the beginning of the word mania. I stutter over it, “Ma…ma…UP, I’m going up.”
When I become stable on my new medication I tell my husband, “That manic attack was just a fluke, I was overly stressed.” He brings me into a hug and says,
“We went to the E.R. because you thought you were having a heart attack. You couldn’t sleep for three days.”
I shake my head refusing to accept the truth. Then I go down into a depression and soon I am up again. I track my moods. I watch the squiggly line snake its way across my chart. Up and down. This has been my lived reality for so long that I hadn’t realized it wasn’t normal, not the way mentally stable people are normal anyway.
My whole life I’ve thought that Bipolar people are crazy. It is my own internalized belief system about this particular illness, one closely related to Schizophrenia and Borderline Personality Disorder. Now I’m one of the crazy ones and I may pass this on to my kids, just like my mother did to me. My mom doesn’t accept a diagnosis of Bipolar. As a child though, I watched her become immobile for weeks in deep depressions. Back then I didn’t have a term for depression, I just knew that I was the oldest kid in a house of five children and when she got like that I made food for everyone, and did the laundry, and unwillingly fulfilled my father’s physical and emotional needs.
Then she’d go up into mania. I didn’t have a term for that either. She wouldn’t sleep for days. One time I opened our pantry and found it had been reorganized. Everything was in new containers, the food labeled and displayed in Martha Stewart perfection. She had done it in one night while the rest of us slept. Sometimes she would lash out in irritability and rage, her face a cruel mask. As she got older and remained untreated, her symptoms worsened. One time the ‘voice of God’ told her that my husband was going to kidnap our children. I’m happily married but in her delusion this didn’t matter. She told my sister what God had said and begged her to call the police. Instead my sister called to let me know that our mom was crazy.
Guilty. You are guilty.
I keep trying to talk myself out of the guilt. You didn’t know. Your mother gave it to you.
My psychiatrist tries to help me accept the new reality of my diagnosis. “You’re not your mom. The disease manifests itself differently in everyone and you are medication compliant. Find a new narrative with Bipolar. Find people you admire who have it and look to them.” I try but instead I think about the time my mother went out to the road in front of her house and sat down in the middle of a lane, waiting to get hit. I wonder about my friends who knew they were Bipolar before they had kids. How could they have risked passing this on? I’m afraid of offending them so I don’t ask but I want to know.
I can’t bring myself to tell my daughters about the diagnosis. Not yet. Not directly. I apologize frequently. “I’m sick again, I’m sorry.” When they ask about the pink pills I explain, “They’re for my brain. The doctors figured out they help me feel better.” I know I will eventually have to share my diagnosis and the words “depression” and “mania” and “Bipolar” with them. Once I explain they will inevitably ask, “Could I get that too?” And the answer is a resounding “Yes.” It’s a deep, scary, ‘children with one Bipolar parent have a 10-25% chance of getting Bipolar’ yes.
Our daughter points between her eyes. “The man in my head told me I could ride a giraffe.”
My eyes widen and my husband sees I’m upset. He interjects. “We were talking about ego and id and how we have an inner voice.”
“Yeah, he’s always talking to me.”
“She, sweetheart. You’re a girl, so it’s a she.”
“Sounds like a guy to me.”
I don’t correct her again. It’s her own inner monologue. I do want to ask her if she hears more than one man.
What I mean is this: when I was a child almost every night I thought I could hear the footsteps of two men, dressed in suits and trench coats trying to find me. I could hear them walking, always headed in my direction. Step step, step step, exactly in rhythm with my heart beat. Now when I think about those footsteps their echoes sound like:
Guil-ty, Guil-ty, Guil-ty.
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Normally I love to hear your comments! This time please think ahead before you do. If your comments are going to sound anything like these, I’m not interested and have already heard these hurtful-in-the-guise-of-helpful comments before:
1. I’m a little bipolar sometimes too! (Nope. Unless you too have a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder, do not equate your mood swings to my medical diagnosis.)
2. You don’t ‘seem’….crazy, bipolar, unstable or the reverse, ‘you seem so stable, not crazy, not bipolar. This is also connected to, “my [person I know] has Bipolar Disorder and you don’t sound anything like them.” Bipolar Disorder manifests differently in everyone. Thank you.
3. Have you tried: essentials oils? Vitamin D? Sunshine and positivity? Exercise? Meditating? Going for a walk in the Himalayas? Etc, etc. – Please don’t go there with “helpful” suggestions like these.
4. Also please avoid commentary on what else this ‘could be’ like my thyroid, etc. I have excellent doctors (so grateful for that) and we ran the gamut of tests before this diagnosis came down.
5. Please don’t tout your choice to live medication free with your Bipolar Disorder. If that works for you, GREAT. I’m choosing medication compliance.