My Sojourn through Bipolar Illness – Family Then and Now (part one)

That I have felt loved by my family of origin as well as my family by marriage including my in-laws who put up with a lot of crazy behavior from me in the postpartum period has made a huge difference in my ability to move forward in my prognosis.  Although it felt at times I was going it alone, in reality I have had and continue to have huge support from my family – as much as they were capable of providing given knowledge of the illness at the time.

Throughout my twenties and thirties, I seemed to pivot back and forth between the two models of successful marriages that I knew.  At times I would fall for a guy who had no delight in earthly things (more like my Dad).  At other times I would fall for a guy who was very established in his career and financially secure (more like my stepfather).  This back and forth continued through the time that I met my first fiancé and ended when I met my current husband.  My husband James was a perfect blend for the most part of the values of my Dad’s remarriage and the values of my Mom’s remarriage.

When I met James, he was very informed for a lay person about bipolar illness.  He was successful in his own recovery from addiction and had heard many stories of bipolar illness in that context before hearing mine.  Most of my prior boy friends had little if any experience with bipolar illness.  In addition to his familiarity with my illness struggles, another aspect of our relationship was that we tended to fight well.  Regardless of the topic, our fights were usually brief and seldom fell into the same old rut that marriage disagreements often follow.  We continue to fight well today although we do have our marriage ruts to get through.  The third aspect of our relationship which seems to help a great deal is that we share a faith journey.  This faith journey has shifted in the past year due to a situation at our church which caused a massive leadership change. James and I still stay vested in helping to develop a faith journey for our daughter even though we as a family are not in a church right now.

James’ and my shared goal right now is for me to be volunteering or working a stable but not particularly demanding job preferably part-time.  We are in agreement about what this goal is and what the desired future looks like. We continue to fight about money from time to time but in general our goals are on the same page. 

My Sojourn through Bipolar Illness – Family Then (part two)

As an additional exception to the “normal life” rule, my stepmother and my father died respectively in 1988 and 1989 of cancer.  I did not have the opportunity to work through the bipolar illness with them as their deaths were within a few years of my diagnosis.  I remember feeling secure in the fact that I was able to survive my father’s illness and death without a major hospitalization or illness breakthrough. 

On the other hand, my mother and step-dad were quite present in my life from 1985 forward.  Over the next 30 years until my stepfather’s death in the spring of 2013, I would continue to develop relationships with each of them as individuals and with both of them together as parents.  Granted, they did not always know what to do to help me through my bipolar episodes.  Quite frankly, no one did.  But they never stopped trying both as a couple and as individuals.  In any case, I always felt loved if not understood. 

My sister Jane in particular was a huge help during the early years of my illness and always provided an open door for me when I was ill.  This was when I was in my mini-break period from about 1988 to 1995 and stayed with her and her family for 3 to 7 days at a time about twice a year.  This time with care in a family environment gave me the confidence to begin to seize control of my illness outside of a hospital environment but still taking meds.  

Later throughout the difficulties of the postpartum period and forward, my Mom and Step-Dad played an integral role in supporting me through my illness.  After two years into my daughter’s birth, my parents moved back to Augusta to be present in her life.  Weekly dinners together helped form bonds that were stronger than the bipolar illness itself.  My relationship with my Mom grew and grew as she became more involved as a grandmother and I had the opportunity to witness the development of that relationship.  Since the death of my step-father seven years ago, we continue to get together with my Mom on a weekly basis, sometimes more often.  Covid-19 has changed this frequency some – so we talk by phone at least once a day.

My Sojourn thru Bipolar Illness – Nothing in Common

My postpartum depression was off the charts.  It is impossible to relay in this text the gamut of emotional experiences I endured during the first four years’ of my daughter’s life.  Whatever you have heard about postpartum depression stop and multiply by ten.  My meds after fifteen years of being pretty therapeutic stopped working.  I was put on several new meds one after another with no clinical break-throughs. I would later come to understand that the anti-depressants that were augmenting my other meds were causing me to revert into full mania in a repeat pattern every four to six months.  The anti-depressant rather than helping me with the postpartum was catapulting me to the opposite extreme of mania.  This was mania like I had never before experienced.  There were times I felt that my medication had been laced with an illicit substance.  There were times when I felt like all members of my family were dead or in comas and on some sort of life support system overseas at the Swiss Hotel.  There were times when I was prompted to act in manners unsafe for my own well-being. 

Besides the anti-depressant issue which was huge and impactful to me on a daily basis, the overall upshot of this postpartum period was a huge sense of isolation and of fear.  How on earth could I carry on a discussion with other mothers about their child’s potty training or their child’s teething or their child’s pre-school years when I was obsessed by potential terrorist take-overs in the Himalayas? 

With a child in diapers, I and my thoughts were focused on the threat of a nuclear meltdown over the existing power grid, and the threat of nuclear water contamination east of the Mississippi and the threat of terrorists living their daily lives among us.  Thoughts of national security consumed me on a daily basis.  What’s more is that these thoughts of national security also prevented me from being a Mom and talking to other Moms about their kid or their kids.

I felt unable to connect with other young mothers largely because my thoughts continued to soar toward global safety and security in full-blown paranoia.   At one point, I imagined that the United States was undergoing a Civil War and had to address some Constitutionality gap and it was up to me to help do that.  At another instance, I believed that my husband was being cloned at his place of work and it was up to me to stop the cloning.  At another instance, I believed that I or friends and relatives were being cloned at the hand of terrorists.  At another instance, I believed that Lithium was the cure for HIV/AIDS.  At another instance, I believed my brain was implanted with a computer device that was controlled by terrorists or those who were seeking vengeance on me and my family.  At another instance, I believed that I was engaged in some sort of computer “fight-off” where I had to survive some form of computerized attack.  At another instance, I believed that my sister (and not myself) had brain damage from an accident sustained as a child and this somehow made her, and not myself, responsible for my symptoms.  These thoughts and obsessions and paranoid delusions made it nearly impossible to maintain family relations or to develop peer connections surrounding motherhood and being a Mom.  It also kept me feeling isolated in relationships including my relationships with my husband, my rapidly growing up daughter and just about every other person in my family.

In many ways all these fears left me unable to connect to my daughter’s peers and peers’ parents in the first 2 to 4 years of my daughter’s life.  Even today, I have to remind myself of the role of un-therapeutic meds during this extremely vulnerable time.  The use of anti-depressants given my bipolar condition was a huge mistake and one for which my family and I paid the price.