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On Having A Bipolar Mom

I didn’t know my mom was bipolar until I was in my late 30s, some years after I found out I was bipolar myself. My mom’s diagnosis was manic-depressive, so when I told her I was bipolar she didn’t make the connection immediately.

This post is one of understanding and forgiveness. I think my mom did a much better job of carrying on than I did, with much greater adversity, much worse meds, and much greater stigma.

I think my mom already had a suicide attempt and a diagnosis of at least depression by the time she was in her teens. She got pregnant with me at 18 and married my father, who was 20. Because it was the 1960s, she gave up a promising career as a ballerina (she studied alongside Karen Kain).

My father was killed in a construction accident (at my mom’s father’s construction company) when my mother was 20. So she was bipolar, widowed, and with a child at 20. She got depressed and she tells me now that her doctor recommended taking a vacation, which she did. No lithium or other meds. Just a vacation.

At some point she decided to take her own life. The details I have are sketchy, but she left me with someone, and made the attempt, which thankfully failed. She tells me she made three attempts overall in her life, and at the moment I can’t remember the details of the third, but I think this one was the last one.

Once I begin to remember things, here is what I remember (except for the first, not in any particular order):

  • My mother never let me question her love for me. She said again and again that even if I was bad she would still love me with all her heart.
  • She said that if you were “sick in the head” *they* would take you away from your mother and put you in an institution.
  • Sometimes it wasn’t safe to ask my mom questions. You would get in trouble just for asking.
  • Sometimes my mom spent weeks in bed, only getting up to cook and do housework.
  • My mom would make the hugest promises, which as a kid you didn’t know were impossible to keep.
  • My mom would spend hours and hours reading to me. By the time I was in Grade 1 I was reading at a Grade 3 level.
  • My mom loved to dress flashy (not that she always did).
  • My mom would often still be up when I got up in the morning.
  • My mom wanted a new father for me, but she didn’t keep boyfriends for very long.
  • Sometimes things would be permissible one day and absolutely, hideously forbidden on another.
  • My mom spent hours and hours doing crafts with me. This was before video games, of course.
  • My mom was very trusting to strangers.
  • My mom was/is a spendthrift (as bad as me).
  • We moved 11 times in 10 years.
  • I remember going to the Mental Health ward to visit my mom. (I never thought about why my mom was there).
  • I remember sitting in on group therapy sessions (at least one).

This is a child’s view of bipolar, filtered through an adult’s knowledge of bipolar. Obviously there was more to my mom than this, and I did add some non-bipolar stuff to balance things out.

Now my mom takes Effexor (that’s it) and she is doing very well.

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  1. April 7, 2012 at 8:07 am

    You’re describing my own mother to a great extent. I don’t know if mine was ever diagnosed with anything although she did show what could have been depression and hypomania at times.

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