One of our greatest resources for memories about our childhoods is of course our parents. I asked mine for their perspectives on what my growing up bipolar was like for them. I did not have a diagnosis until I was twenty-one, but showed evidence of bipolar disorder since I was a teenager–in hindsight. Here are their responses:
What was it like raising a bipolar child?
Mom: Confusing! That about sums it up. You have an inkling that something is wrong, but where do you start looking? No professionals–teachers, doctors, social workers–no one said anything. If someone had told me, “you need to look into bipolar disorder,” I would have jumped on that. If someone had told me to read an article, I would have.
Dad: See how it’s a fluid field of study, now. There’s so much more out there than there used to be.
Mom: The first thing I read was that children turned out this way because the mother was cold. And I knew that couldn’t be right.
Dad: But being that you were our first child, you had a lot of attention given to you. Some children demand more.
Mom: Hindsight is 20-20. There’s a lot more out there, now. “Cassandra, bipolar” would have never gone together my mind. Then there’s the guilt, after you find out a diagnosis. You think you could have done something, that you should have known.
Dad: Your mother was concerned by why you weren’t tactile. We didn’t understand the hypersensitivity. But on the positive side, you would wow people with your intellectual abilities.
Mom: Going to school for you was exhausting–completely, physically, emotionally exhausting. You were putting on an act to be normal, and you’d come home and cry yourself to sleep every night.
Dad: There was a pressure to socialize.
Mom: My family and my church family would say, “There’s nothing wrong with her!” But they were completely blind to it.
Dad: Or in denial.
Mom: Yeah, that, too. But mostly blind. There’s a stigma of labeling. One thing I was not prepared for was when you were angry in high school. You were just frustrated and angry with yourself and your world, and I had no time or energy to deal with it. But your frustration was just overwhelming to you and to me. Life had completely gotten out of hand at that point. But during the end of high school and the first years of college, you had these major meltdowns of depression. You were just listless. And you weren’t feeding yourself or taking a shower–you couldn’t!
What does it feel like being the parent of a bipolar adult?
Mom: Extreme relief that you have excellent medical care. And not only that, but that you have a husband who studies and understands each symptom as they crop up. He has no qualms about raising a child with you–about raising two children with you!
Dad: [Your husband] doesn’t say much, so you can’t assume–
Mom: But I see the results. What does it feel like being the parent of a bipolar adult? I worry about you. That’s normal for any child. With all of my children who have a handicap, so to speak, I’ve lowered my expectations. So when they do achieve things, I’m surprised, even more than I am proud.
Dad: She learned that from me.
If I had had a diagnosis, would you have done anything differently?
Mom: Had I known, I would have treated you differently. And maybe that’s a bad thing. I treated you like a normal person because I didn’t know any better.
Thank you, Mom and Dad! I hope these insights will inspire other adults who suffer from mental health issues to talk to the people who raised them, if they have that kind of relationship with their caretakers.