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.