When I was 32, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It had come on relatively late in life, and took me completely by surprise.
I had been a happy child with a giant imagination and an inquisitive mind. My childhood was quite traumatic and unsettled at times but I always made the most of the opportunities that my family afforded me.
My family were not academically inclined, so when I won a scholarship to study education at a prestigious university, it was unmarked terrain for us all. I thoroughly enjoyed completing my undergraduate degree and had an insatiable thirst for learning. In the eight years following my graduation from university, I worked full time for six years and completed a master’s degree and PhD.
I married young – aged 20 years in fact – and my husband and I bought our first house when I was 21. My 20s were a time of discipline and constant planning of new goals and life accomplishments. I was able to achieve every goal I set as a result of diligence and hard work.
I had my first son at age 26, and my second 18 months later. I was a caring and conscientious mother who felt incredible guilt at not parenting in the perfect manner that I aspired to. When my second son was a year old, I started to see the signs that my mental health was deteriorating.
After a 13-year relationship, I decided to get my husband to leave the family home. We had rarely had an argument, but I decided that I was now a different person and that he didn’t fit with my new style. Upon reflection, it is now clear to me that I was manic at this point in time and showing signs of psychosis.
After leaving my husband, I embarked upon the steepest learning curve of my life – I had to learn to be independent with two small children. Although I had sought a diagnosis of bipolar about a year earlier when I first noticed a major shift within my mental health, I was told several times that I was very functional and that emotional changes were normal. After six months away from my husband, I hit rock bottom. I cut my hair every day in a type of self-mutilation until I had very little hair left. I was struggling to manage the demands of being a mother alongside working and completing my PhD. My ex-husband convinced me to come back and live with him. I felt so relieved at the idea of him looking after me and taking the burden off that I returned.
I was in hospital for about five days, but the psychiatrist discharged me when I agreed that I would not be returning to my husband’s house.
“If you are going back to your new home you are free to leave,” he said. So I did.
He had diagnosed me as having Adjustment Disorder, despite me raising once again suspicions of having bipolar. I was medicated with an antidepressant, which I took for the following three years.
Antidepressants and bipolar disorder generally don’t go well together. As a result, my mood remained a constant mix between manic and very depressed. I worked four jobs, raised the two boys, renovated a house, moved four times, slept very little, and exhibited some extreme aggravation and anxiety. Those three years were the long haul for me in terms of dealing with my life-long condition. I was earning a reasonable amount of money which fuel constant spending, credit cards, loans and a great deal of debt. These debts still haunt me five years on. I ended a very important relationship for no decent reason at all; my husband had been so supportive of myself and the children then one day, a few months before my diagnosis I decided that I would throw away our relationship for someone else. This new person that came into my life was not a solid choice at all. My husband and I had been a month away from the settlement of a beautiful new property and I just decided that the relationship was over.
As a result of this, I had a breakdown and was hospitalised. During that time, my children went to live with my ex-husband during the week and I had them on weekends. This was in their best interest as I had to sell our home and needed to recover from the recent episode of depression that had lasted some months.
Deep grief overtook me when I had to adjust to not being the primary carer for my sons, and it is something that I continue to struggle with daily. They are so well cared for by their father and are thriving, but I wish so much that my mental health had allowed me to care for my children independently – as I had imagined I could for many years. My children now know that I have bipolar, because I have had to explain to them why they have sometimes been affected by bad decisions that I’ve made. Sometimes I cannot control how much I cry. There are even times when my tears are not attached to an emotion – I will just cry for a couple of days. But now, my children just hold my hand and say “it’s ok Mum.” They are not visibly afraid of my emotions anymore like they used to be.
Soon after my diagnosis, I began a relationship with Jesse. He was the love of my life, but he was much younger than me, and I know that I would not have let this relationship begin had I not been unwell. At the beginning of my recovery period, I had been living with Jesse for a year, and accidently fell pregnant.
The pregnancy was the beginning of a new journey of juggling my mental health and parenthood. I had to immediately change the medication that I took, and didn’t even take any for a few months. However, despite this I was relatively well balanced throughout the pregnancy. I was closely monitored by a psychiatrist and given an extended stay in hospital to monitor my sleep and signs of post-partum psychosis, which is very common in sufferers of bipolar – I was told that I had a 50% chance of going into psychosis after giving birth. This was a daunting prospect!
I had a lot of difficulty sleeping towards the end of my hospital stay. Some days I was lucky if I got 30 minutes of sleep, even with the sedatory anti-psychotics! I was near catatonic. I remember having engorged breasts as I couldn’t have my baby with me to breast feed. I spent a week alone in a hospital psych ward until I was offered a room in a Mother and Baby Unit where my son and I stayed for two months. This was an extremely debilitating time for me. I was isolated from all my family and friends because of the rules of the unit. I was not able to contribute to the household and regain some of my work-from-home options that we were reliant on. I thought that the staff were constantly judging my parenting ability, and left that unit severely lacking confidence. This was strange, as I already had two sons who I had looked after well since birth.
I took another massive blow when Jesse died just over a year ago. Four months after his death I hit a wall, and I suffered depression to the point where I asked my mother if she would take care of my youngest son for me. My mother had always been offering to care for him, and he had the additional complication of an autism diagnosis prior to Jesse’s death. Mum could see that she could provide more stability for Jesse Jr. than I could; although I wanted what was best for him, I knew that I would not be able to rebuild myself whilst trying to look after both of us. This was incredibly difficult for me to do considering that I was also not the primary carer of my other sons. Soon after my baby went to my mother’s, I tried to commit suicide for the first time.
When I awoke from an attempted overdose, I realised that I had survived because my children couldn’t have lived through the loss. I couldn’t abandon them, despite how insignificant I felt as a mother who couldn’t care for them in the way she wanted to.
I was hospitalised once more. Following my discharge, I made some changes in my life and was able to begin to heal by myself. I managed my trauma well enough until career stressors became too much and tipped me over the edge once more, resulting in another suicide attempt.
This forced me to move near my family where I could have more support. It is very hard to feel like I keep becoming more dependent on others, but I have come to realise that living with bipolar constantly jeopardises a person’s ability to reach their goals.
It can set in when it is completely unexpected, not drug related, with very little family history. I have had to reshape my life so many times just to be able to continue in a positive manner, to try to keep rebuilding and hoping that there will be a light at the end of the tunnel. I want to be strong and have a well laid foundation and lead to a peaceful life but I am not yet convinced that I can obtain this for myself as I struggle constantly. I don’t want to let my children down again.
By Britt Andrews