Talking to my daughter about mental illness.
My 12-year-old daughter and I have about a 20-minute ride to her middle school every morning.
We usually fill the time with music as she plays me songs from her playlist on her phone. She laughs when I say I don’t know some of the bands, writing me off as a hopeless old lady. I laugh with her knowing it’s true. Today, she played a song by Halsey, one of her favorite singers.
“She’s so great, Mom,” Vanessa told me. “Did you know she’s bipolar?”
“No, I didn’t.”
Vanessa was quiet for a few minutes as the song played.
“Mom,” she finally said. “Why do you take medication every day?”
“Because I have bipolar disorder, too. Some of the chemicals in my brain are messed up, and the medications help fix it.”
Vanessa considered this for a minute, then continued.
“Do I have bipolar disorder?” she asked.
“You don’t,” I told her. “It mostly shows up in adults.”
I didn’t want to tell her the whole truth, that she has a higher chance of being diagnosed as bipolar because it runs in my side of the family. It’s not a burden I want Vanessa to carry as she grows up, worrying over something that may never happen.
“Mom,” Vanessa added. “If anyone ever made fun of you for being bipolar, I’d beat them up.”
I gave my daughter a big smile. “You don’t have to do that, Vanessa. I’m not ashamed of it.”
“Really, you’re not?”
When we got to the school, she jumped out of the car, gave me a kiss on the cheek and skipped away. I hoped she felt a little lighter as she began her day.
There was a time when I used to be so ashamed. I’d crumble into pieces anytime somebody questioned my sanity or called me “crazy” outright. When a psychiatrist diagnosed me with bipolar disorder after the birth of my second son, I held the secret close to my heart, afraid to share it with anybody. The possibility of being judged by people scared me. Was I less of a person because of this illness? Would people expect “crazy” from me as if that was the only part of me that mattered?
There is a long history of mental illness in my family. My grandfather suffered from depression. My mother had various diagnoses ranging from ADHD to schizophrenia depending on which doctor she saw. We all struggled with substance abuse trying to self-medicate our moods back to stable.
When I was a little girl, I had terrible anxiety. I sometimes hid in my room for weeks afraid to see anybody or do anything. Worrying too much gave me constant headaches and stomachaches. Back then, nobody really talked about anxiety as a mental illness. My family told me to stop being so nervous, not realizing how much I was out of control. It wasn’t something I had the power to make go away.
I see this anxiety in Vanessa at times. She’s a chronic worrier, but it’s more than that. She becomes fixated on her worries until they overwhelm her. There are times when she doesn’t want to invite a friend over even when I offer. I’ve noticed she needs her time alone, especially after school, so she can deal with her stress. Other times, she’s so hyper she gets herself in trouble. She notices it herself and then asks me if I think she’s hyper. I don’t want her to worry that she might be too much like me, a person with mental illness.
I’m still not sure how honest to be with her. It seems like too much information, and yet I don’t want to leave her unaware. I’ve dealt with mental illness my entire life, and I don’t want that kind of life for my daughter. There were times I ended up in a psychiatric hospital with suicidal ideation plus the time I attempted to kill myself. My bipolar disorder accompanied me down the road of drug addiction that almost cost me my life. How much of it do I share with Vanessa? Where is the line between empowering her and overwhelming her?
My first episode of clinical depression occurred right after the birth of my first child. It knocked the wind out of me to the point where I couldn’t take care of my baby. That was when I first took medication, which I thought I’d be able to stop once the depression lifted. It was a terrible mistake that landed me in the mental hospital, where the doctor told me that I actually had bipolar II. It’s the kind of illness where your lows are stronger than your highs, more depression and less mania. The doctor also told me I’d likely try to kill myself if I ever stopped my medication again. I haven’t so far.
Even if Vanessa inherits my mental illness someday, I’m grateful for a world now where more people know about it. She won’t have to worry that something is wrong with her that nobody else understands. Medications have improved with a better success rate. Having anxiety isn’t as mysterious as it used to be.
I wonder about my role if Vanessa ever has a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. I’ll be able to help her since I’ve been through it myself. Maybe what I’ve learned over the years can make it easier for her. She doesn’t have to let it define her. There are so many wonderful things about her besides her brain chemistry. She’s kind and funny and smart and will make her mark on the world one day. I’m proud of her no matter what challenges she faces in life. If she ever needs me, I’ll always be right here.
When I told my daughter I’m not ashamed of having bipolar disorder, I meant it sincerely. It’s not something I am, just something I have. The only way people will learn more about mental illness is to talk about it. Maybe then Vanessa won’t end up feeling stigmatized if it ends up being one of her life’s battles. I stand ready to fight with her whenever she needs me or even if she doesn’t need me at all. Most of all, I want her to know she can talk to me freely without worrying I’ll judge her. That goes for any subject she wants to discuss. I owe her that much as a mother who is not perfect but trying as hard as she can.
I have bipolar disorder and it’s okay. I’m not ashamed. Life is still wonderful, and that’s what I want Vanessa to remember forever. I’ll be here to remind her.
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