Saturday, November 23, 2013

Four C’s of being a Parent with a Mental Illness

I was driving my ten-year-old daughter home from her friend’s house one cool summer night. The car windows were down, and the wind whipped through our hair as the radio blasted one of her favorite songs. We sang along at the top of our lungs, laughing and screaming with delight. Just behind the excitement in her eyes I saw a touch of hesitation, a worry, and rightly so. I was manic, and while she didn’t know specifically about my bipolar disorder, on some level she recognized the signs, and it scared her.

It scared me, too, because after the highs always came the lows. My lows involve many hours in bed, many days or weeks of irritability, migraines, and emotional shutdowns. Sometimes I fear that my kids may look back on their childhood and remember mom always being in bed. But, then I remind myself:  I am doing the best I can with what I have. I didn’t ask for this mental illness. It’s not a matter of whether I deserve it or not. It can’t be cured or wished away. It is a fact of my life, and like it or not, it is a fact of my children’s life.

Now, what to do about it? Roll over and die? No way! Here are some of the things I have done that have helped me deal with being a parent with a mental illness.

1. Care for myself

I believe the best thing I can do for my children is to take care of myself. This includes taking my medications as prescribed, abstaining from alcohol and drugs, going to scheduled doctors’ appointments, seeing a counselor on a regular basis, and asking for help when I need it.

I didn’t always feel this way. I used to drink excessively, which lead to many dangerous mood swings and extremely reckless behavior. And I never asked for help, which is how I ended up in an inpatient psych unit a few years ago. Neither scenario left me able to care for my children, so I have learned the hard way that I must care for myself in these ways before I will be able to care for them.

2. Control my environment

Another thing I have learned as a parent with a mental illness is to not over-schedule my family’s activities. This means my kids don’t play every sport that their friends are playing or join every club they want to. This means they get to have one friend sleep over instead of three, and that they eat McDonald’s a few more times a month than I would like them to when I’m not feeling well enough to cook dinner again.

By decreasing the physical and mental demands I place on myself, I am able to be more emotionally available to my kids even when I am somewhat depressed. It’s a trade-off for them, but one that I believe is worth it. I would rather them remember a calm mom reading them a book each night than a road-rage mom driving them to practice every day.

3. Communicate by words and actions

I try to make sure my kids know that my behaviors, whether manic or depressive, anxious or otherwise, are not their fault. I tell my younger school-aged child that I am not feeling well because I get sick sometimes, and that is why I take medicines and go to the doctor’s every month. As my other child, who is now is middle school, grows older, I am able to tell her more about the specifics of how a mood disorder works and how it affects the chemicals in my brain.

When I am depressed, I try to be easy on myself; model healthy self-care behaviors like sleeping when I need to or taking a hot bath, so that I am teaching my kids good habits even when I am sick. I have also taken them to counselors over the years to get their emotional and psychological needs treated, because when my behavior is disordered so are theirs.

4. Cherish my children

I think the most important thing I do for my kids, and for me, is to hug them and tell them I love them every day…every, single day.

What have you found to be the most challenging aspects of being a parent with a mental illness? How have you overcome them?

Wil is a mental health writer and mother with Bipolar Type II and Anxiety Disorders, and BPD traits. She is the founder and editor of Turtle Way, an online literary art journal for those with mental illness. She blogs at Write into the Light. Find her on Facebook and Twitter @writen2thelight.