Since I was eighteen-years-old, I suffered from symptoms of moderate to severe chronic depression. Until I was thirty, I coped with chronic depression using psychotherapy. When I suffered a severe breakdown at thirty, I sought medical help for my symptoms and was prescribed antidepressants. Before becoming pregnant in my mid-thirties, I researched antidepressants to determine which was the safest for use during pregnancy and lactation. With my doctor’s supervision, I transitioned to Zoloft (sertraline). My pregnancy started out easily enough. The pregnancy itself seemed to increase my energy. With more energy, I became increasingly physically active. So much so that at thirty-one weeks gestation I went into preterm labor, was put on bed rest, and gave birth three weeks early. Childbirth was excruciatingly painful (I will never forget it). When my doctor placed our son on my chest, I asked if I could cuddle and nurse him later after he was washed up and I had taken a shower. The hospital kept me and my son for an extra day to make sure that we were bonding and that my son was able to breastfeed successfully.
Breast feeding turned out to be terribly challenging for the first three weeks. Our son was falling asleep during nursing. It was as if he still belonged in utero and was not yet ready to actively feed. With a lactation consultant’s help, we found that massaging his body while nursing made him more aware of his physical separateness and kept him awake long enough to feed. After those initial three weeks, my son was an exceptionally wakeful child. He was not much for either napping or sleeping. Breastfeeding soothed him, and he would fall asleep on my chest.
Home with my newborn son, exhausted and sleep deprived, I experienced flashes of psychotic thoughts. I was shocked at the content of my thoughts. I thought he literally looked edible, succulent, and delicious. I countered the thought with, “No. I am not a cannibal. I do not want to eat my son.” My long-entrenched suicidal thought process took a leap to considering homicide. When I considered killing myself, I wondered, “What about my son?” My mind’s irrational response was, “I cannot abandon him. I have to take him with me.” Once again, I was stunned where my mind went. Luckily all of these thoughts were ego-dystonic. They didn’t fit with my sense of self. “No, I am not a murderer. I do not want to kill my son.” The thoughts and impulses came and then quickly left. They had a profound effect on me, though, for I realized how a mother’s mind could go to that horrible place, the place where she hurts the child she loves.
Finding stay-at-home motherhood difficult and needing a break, I tried working part-time. As my job responsibilities grew, I was unable to balance the demands at work with the demands of mothering an infant. When my son turned one, I quit working part-time and tried to be a stay-at-home mom to an extremely active toddler boy.
When my son was twenty-seven months old, as I drove to and from a patchwork of mothering groups and mommy-and-me classes, I started to experience symptoms I could clearly see were manic. I felt elated and saw myself called by God. First I believed God called me to follow the advice of our Episcopal priest and take an art class. Then, I believed God might be calling me to the local Baptist church that hosted one of the mothers’ groups I attended. I felt euphoric, my senses were heightened, my thoughts were racing, and I found profound meaning in the mundane. I realized that I wasn’t just chronically depressed, but was in the manic phase of bipolar disorder.
At the age of thirty-nine, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder type II and was put on mood stabilizing medication. I thought my son would be better off in daycare. I was afraid of my temper and my mood swings. I was afraid I might hurt my son. I returned to work on a part-time basis, thinking that it was best for me and my son.
When at work, I often had to bring my son sick into work with me. A supervisor told me “to get my sh*t together” and find alternate care for him. How could I not care for him? He was throwing up. As it turns out my son suffered from debilitating migraines. He appeared sick, as if he had the flu, but he had severe migraines triggered by overwhelming external stimuli.
One day I fell apart, crying hysterically in the parking lot of my employer and ended up voluntarily hospitalizing myself. Ever since my hospitalization nine years ago, I’ve been home on disability. I have chosen to reframe my two-week inpatient hospital stay, months of partial hospitalization, and subsequent enrollment on disability. I have been unable to balance work with mothering while living with bipolar disorder type II. I am no super woman. I am a mother living with bipolar disorder doing the best that she can.
[…] Motherhood transformed me. My identity changed. Now it changes again. I have constantly reinvented myself over my lifetime. […]
[…] to balance work with motherhood, I failed miserably, and ended up hospitalized in a psychiatric unit with rapid cycling and mixed […]
[…] Motherhood While Depressed and Bipolar […]
[…] Motherhood has been transformational for me. I am NOW building a new foundation. My identity changed. Now it changes again. I have constantly reinvented myself over and over during my lifetime. Going from majoring in biochemistry as a pre-med student at UCLA, where I was miserable and suicidal, to studying part-time at a community college as I bided my time and tried to find my direction, to finding my place as a legal studies major at UC Berkeley, I tried to reconcile my inner turmoil with very high professional aspirations. First I worked as a legal assistant, then went to graduate school, earned a master’s in psychology and became a psychotherapist, only to crash and burn. Recovering from that breakdown, I re-entered the workforce as a temporary file clerk in the commercial real estate industry where I had ten years of success. Trying to balance work with motherhood, I failed miserably, and ended up hospitalized in a psychiatric unit with rapid cycling and mixed symptoms of bipolar disorder. After months of partial hospitalization, I became a reluctant stay-at-home mother on disability. What does an overeducated and reluctant stay-at-home mother with a recurring sense of religious calling (or a manic and delusional symptom of bipolar disorder, depending on one’s perspective) do with her mind? Why attend seminary, of course, which I did on two separate occasions and on two separate occasions had to quit. […]
Thank you so much. Parenting is difficult enough as is, adding mental illness to the mix makes it even more difficult. Thanks again. I truly appreciate it.
It must have been incredibly hard to share your story. I believe all us bipolar mothers realize we have to work harder, be stronger, because we have more to overcome. For the sake of our children and I believe you are a GREAT parent.
Thanks so very much, Kitt. I DO believe in prayer and thoughts and will add you and your family to my list. You are a very giving person and I really appreciate your kindness. Things have been far worse at other times but now a little bumpy. Thanks again and I can see that you must be a wonderful mother and therapist!
Sending you (((hugs))) and keeping you in my thoughts and prayers (if you believe in such things, otherwise know that what I am saying is that I send you love) as you go through your hard time. May your struggles lessen.
Thank you, Stockdale.
I think you are very high functioning, Kitt. And I think, if I am not mistaken, you are Bipolar II. The early intervention and therapy clearly helped you and hats off to you for all you have accomplished. I agree with all you say about forgiveness and there being love in the most dysfunctional of families. Right now I am just having a bit of a hard time. Your writing is great– so clear and insightful. It is with pleasure that I read your posts but understand that you have to cut back for many reasons. I will look forward to your posts when they come out. Thank you for what you do to sort out the problems Bipolars face!!
Forgiving yourself is very important and quite healing. One of my major achievements in life was overcoming perfectionism. I still struggle somewhat to balance that part of me that was and still is an academic overachiever and that part of me that must relax, be patient, and understand that life has seasons. Each season requires something different. I cannot do everything all at once, and I cannot be everything to all people. Somethings must wait. Of course, that means that I must live a very long life. It helps, too, to be fifty years old. My expectations of myself and of my life when I was in my 20’s and 30’s differed from my expectations now.
It was very interesting to hear your own experience with bipolar and the level of awareness that you had while in a manic episode! The last paragraph moved me. You are kind to yourself… something that I’m currently struggling with.
Thank you so much.
Regardless, it still takes a lot of courage dear Kitt. Don’t sell yourself short! And perhaps sacrificing something out of respect for your son is not a bad thing
Sending all my love 🙂
I wasn’t being defensive, just boasting. When someone is untreated and in denial, the results can be devastating. I know as a child of alcoholism (I’ll leave it at that since they are still alive and I love them dearly) and as a former psychotherapist of troubled children and their families. I send you my love. Understanding that your parents were ill helps a great deal in your own growth and healing. Forgiveness can be powerfully healing. As a young psychotherapist, I found that even in extremely dysfunctional families – families rife with incest, physical and emotional abuse – there was a sort of love. The parents were desperate and often trying to do their best, even if in so doing they hurt their children. Seeing their love for their children and then recognizing my own parents very deep love for me helped me immensely in my own healing. That, and medication. Having ME get a psychiatric diagnosis and medication helped my parents, no doubt. Made loving me easier. Human relations can be quite complex.
You, and he, are very blessed. I never meant to say you were not good parents. You are probably better than NTs. But certainly in my family, things did not come out so happily. But then I had an undiagnosed Bipolar mother and an alcoholic and whatever else father. They were both loving but lots and lots of problems because they were undiagnosed, untreated and in total denial with zero insight.
Thank you so much for your kind words, Susan. I agree with you wholeheartedly. God bless you.
Thank you so much, Stockdale. By the way, I am actually a pretty damn good mother, if I do say so myself. My son is my pride and joy. Parenting can be done successfully, even if the parents are mentally or neurologically different. My husband and I apologize when we make a mistake. Most parents do not. I believe that empowers a child to accept imperfection in himself and others, to be compassionate, and to be his true self, not to hold himself up against some idealized societal norm of what he should or should not be. That said, and here I boast proudly as only a parent has the gall to do, my son is gorgeous (so handsome) and smart as a whip. Yes, I’m very proud of him. My husband and I look at him and wonder, “He came from us? How? and, Wow!”
Kitt, you are a remarkable woman. The closer I get to revealing my own journey, the more courage you give me. It is so important we remain supportive of one another in our vulnerability while fighting the stigma that accompanies the disclosure. Bless you for the light and love you spread.
My son is a fabulous young man (teenager). He’ll be turning 14 next week. I adore him. Parenting is NEVER easy – whether or not you live with a mental illness. It helps to have support, but women with bipolar disorder do it successfully on their own. What helps: self-awareness into your symptoms and behavior, treatment (whatever works for you), a support network, and for me – a loving and supportive husband (partner).
Check out The Bipolar Parenting Project: http://bipolarparentingproject.com/
Check out this great post on stigmama.com:
MOTHERHOOD AND BIPOLAR DISORDER: TRUSTING YOUR SYSTEMS WHEN YOU DON’T TRUST YOURSELF
http://wp.me/4oFVJ (short link)
I am bipolar. I think about having kids and the thought overwhelms me. I hope by following your story I can see it can be possible. Even if it is difficult it is possible.
Well, your honesty has helped me and, I am sure many others, who did not have the psychological knowledge, insight, background you had. Thank God you did. I took on the negative self-image. Of course I understand you editing out the thoughts– it is still a most honest and, therefore, such a worthwhile and courageous post!
Check out the bipolarparentingproject.com if you want more perspectives on just parenting while living with a bipolar diagnosis.
Bravo for your willingness to share your real world experience. I’ve never had the opportunity to talk with or read a true account of what it could be like to have a child and be bipolar.
Absolutely, Kitt!!!! Intrusive thoughts are way more prevalent than most people realize, I believe. If that form of mental illness cannot be openly discussed in a safe environment, then needless suffering and tragedies will continue.
Thank you so much Phoenix!
Now that I revised it, go ahead. I do want to write more about intrusive postpartum thoughts, though. I find it upsetting that we as a culture accept maternal depression, as if it is okay for a mother to want to hurt herself. As soon as symptoms involve thoughts of harm to others, sympathy goes out the window. Mental illness is mental illness.
Someone I personally look up to with full admiration and I know we have never met. Thank you Kitt for sharing.
Reblogged this on Birth of a New Brain and commented:
A heartrending, powerful and brave recollection by Kitt O’Malley, one of my favorite bloggers.
You are an inspiration. I applaud your candor about such heartrending times in your life. Your writing has such clarity, and I appreciate the details incorporated throughout this piece. As a mother with bipolar one, it helps me to read about other mothers’ experiences with any classification of the bipolar spectrum. Thanks to your vivid recollection, I feel less alone with my pain and shame. You also give me hope that I too can re-frame certain epochs in my life including traumatic experiences and my choice not to work.
I would like to reblog this moving post!
Forgive me for editing your response. I decided to remove one of my thoughts and impulses out of respect for my son. Recognizing irrational thoughts is important. Obviously, my thoughts and impulses were fleeting and did not jive with my sense of self. I had been a child psychotherapist in my late twenties, had worked with battered women, pregnant and parenting teens. I saw myself as a good person with fleeting, freaky, taboo thoughts. I knew those thoughts were not me. But I had years of psychotherapy from the time I was 18 to 35 before I became pregnant. I had a masters in psychology. I was licensed as a Marriage Family and Child Counselor (now a Marriage and Family Therapist), so I had done a lot of work before I experienced these thoughts. I recognized the thoughts as not just abhorrent, but as aberrant to me, to my sense of self. Instead of taking on a horrible self-image, I realized how someone’s mind could go to horrible places. There was no emotion behind these thoughts and impulses, they were intrusive, and I recognized them as such.
It has been almost 14 years since my son was born. He is a wonderful young man. I am quite proud of how he has turned out.
Actually, I decided to remove one disturbing thought out of respect for my son, but I still think it needs to be said.
I admire you for putting this out there. This is why I did not become a mother. This and because not only was I Bipolar with a strong history of family alcoholism, 3 generations of it but there was schizophrenia on my husband’s side. But I would not have the strength to say: “No, I am not a …” and would think I was. I admire you for doing it all and am a bit envious. But I am sure a child of mine would have come out bad. Thanks for being so honest and courageous and sharing this. It has helped me to think of a new way of dealing with what you call psychotic thoughts.
It’s not easy to write such personal things. If it makes any difference – you’re one of the bravest people I know. Def a super woman in my books 🙂