Lessons From My Bipolar Mother

When I was little, I fantasized about my mother’s death.

Other kids cared about who to invite to their birthday parties, whether buying name brand clothing was worth the money, or how to tell their crush that they liked them. I wanted to wake up knowing if I would be abused that day. I craved the simplicity of a normal reward system: that good would be praised and bad would be punished, an unrealistic world colored in with black and white. I did not desire my mother’s death in and of itself; as a child, I wished that the crazy part of her would disappear, the part that took her from one emotion to the next within seconds.

Every day I see the damage. She has done horrible things to my brother, my father, and my grandparents. She has hurt me in ways I might not ever share, though reading some of my old entries on this blog can provide a starting picture. Even now when she has an episode, I find myself hating her and wishing I was somewhere, anywhere, but home.

Now, though, as a nineteen-year-old who has read more about her condition, I ask myself: is it okay to hate someone with bipolar disorder? Am I a bad person for not forgiving my own mother, even though she has pushed me closer to choosing death over life so many times in my childhood? Is accepting that I don’t have the answers to these questions any different from giving up on finding them?

My mother has taught me about the complexity of human emotions. Despite how many of the bad memories I have written about on this blog, there were rare days when she would smile and act like she cherished life. Through adjusting to her mood swings, I have learned to recognize other people’s feelings on an instinctual level, without having to think at all.

My mother has taught me about appreciation. After being threatened with a knife at the age of nine, I have come to cherish days filled with classes, or work, or the less volatile drama that comes with healthier relationships. Through surviving my mother, I have learned to look back as a reminder of how far I have come and how much more I am capable of doing.

My mother has taught me about acceptance. I do not know whether I will ever completely forgive her or her actions. But I know that I need to accept myself and all of the feelings – both good and bad and inspiring and depressing – that come with being my mother’s son. Through the compassion I try to practice with my mother and others, I have learned that perfection does not equate to happiness: it is the pursuit of becoming a better person that should make me happy.

I will follow that path to becoming a better person. Because I know a small part of my mom, deep down, wants me to be happy too.

A wonderful quote about self-acceptance. Also my current Facebook cover.

A wonderful quote about self-acceptance. Also my current Facebook cover.

Anyone have any similar experiences or know of friends or family members that do? My family life has taught me other lessons too, like learning to rely on my friends as a second (and in some ways, first) family, but I tried to capture the main ones in this post. You can also read my reviews of Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl, Me Before You by Jojo Moyes, and A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You by Amy Bloom here, here, and here respectively.

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32 Comments

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32 responses to “Lessons From My Bipolar Mother

  1. Confession: I fantasized about my mom’s mother’s death. Or well wished that she would just go away, cease to exist. I used to HATE visiting her. It feels kind of wrong to say (because I love my mom and we are talking about her mom) but she was not a good person. She was the kind of person who just knew the right things to say that would hurt you the most. (not just to me, but to my parents as well) But “thanks” to her I have learned early on that there are people like that out there and that I shouldn’t let them get to me. So in a way, she helped me get stronger and prepared for the “real world”. I still wish she was more like my other grandmother, or just less “crazy” (she was sort of paranoid as well…).

    I’m so glad you managed to get out of mother’s influence, Thomas! And I think it’s admirable that you can look back on the past this – “forgiving” – way.

    • Glad your mom’s mother taught you about resilience, Cayce! I feel like people often say that struggle builds character, and that struggle can come from interacting with difficult people as well as plain old life experience. While I’m sorry your grandmother is difficult, at least you’re able to reflect on it in a mature way – and it’s good you have your other grandmother.

      Thank you for reading and commenting, as always.

  2. Adversity is difficult but it makes us better people. Have you read Solomon’s Far from the Tree?

    • I agree with your statement about adversity. I have not read it, but I’ve added it to my to-read list – I really want to read a book by Andrew Solomon soon.

  3. I can definitely relate to some of what you said. My mom’s never been officially diagnosed as far as I know, but I wrote about some of my experience with her mental illness here: http://fetzersisters.wordpress.com/2014/04/21/finding-grace-for-mental-illness/.

    Thanks so much for sharing openly about your struggles and your hope, I think that mental illness still very much has a lot of stigma surrounding it, which keeps people from getting the help and support that they need. I feel like only now am I beginning to seek out adequate knowledge and resources that both my mom and my family need, beyond just friends or mentors who may not know any more about all of this than I do. I encourage you to do the same as well!

    • This must have been hard to write. I think we’ve all experienced things similar to this, but not to the extend you’ve had to deal with. When you grow up not understanding why someone is the way they are, that hatred and resentment grows, especially when violence, physical or emotional is involved. The fact that you’re questioning your blind hatred shows your strength. Your relationship may never get better, but by understanding where she is coming from and what she is suffering from, the situation becomes more understandable. It’s completely your call if you want those emotions in your life, and I’ve had similar issues with my stepfather. I wish you the absolute best and hope your situation gets better. Always choose life. There will be something waiting for you around the corner when you get through this.

      • Thank you both for your kind and encouraging comments, as well as for sharing your experiences. I think that you write just shows that it’s never too late to seek help or to try and understand our experiences from the past. Even just writing about our experiences helps us to process them, and through blogging we can connect to others. Active compassion is important and it’s wonderful that there are so many others out there who strive to practice it.

  4. A thoughtful and moving post, Thomas. I’m glad that you’ve felt able to look back and reflect 🙂

  5. Your ability to hope and to seek goodness in such situations is something that I admire and envy. I also have an abusive mother, but I grew up dismissing my child abuse experiences because it was never physical. Likewise, home has always been a very difficult place for me to be and I still wonder if I would ever be fully able to escape my parent’s bond of neglect. Sucks that growing up with abuse and neglect still has its repercussions – even after years of accepting, learning, and growing from the situation – that are often hard to overcome in the young-adult years. Anyway, I can relate to most of what you have written. May these experiences drive us to achieve more that what we think we are capable of doing!

    • I’m sorry that you have an abusive mother, and in my opinion emotional abuse can be just as damaging (and in some ways, more damaging) than physical abuse. From reading your writing I definitely sense that you feel a distance from home, though I hope that once you’re fully able to escape and be independent maybe you will develop a healthy relationship – or a healthy non-relationship – with where you grew up. Please shoot me a private message if you want to talk about your experiences further because I am here for you! Thank you for reading and commenting, Elayna!

  6. I haven’t had this kind of experience Thomas and I’m sorry you and so many others have. I hope you continue to explore and write about your progression through this. Because I see other thought processes coming!

  7. Powerful stuff. I have no first hand experience with Bipolar Disorder in my life, but through your words I now have important insight into how it can affect a child. Though I’ve never met you, I am very proud of you for taking so much negative intensity, and such dramatically traumatic experiences, and finding positive life lessons and inspiration to be a better overall person. You are sharing an important message here. I’m glad to have read it and I’m thrilled that we have been connecting through our blogs!

    • Thank you for all of your kind words, Adam! They mean a lot to me. I’m glad that we’ve been able to connect through our blogs, commenting on experiences ranging from coming out to abuse.

  8. I have a really good friend whose mother also has bipolar disorder and she’s definitely expressed a lot of fear and resentment towards her. Not constantly, but it’s been a recurring theme throughout the 6 years I’ve known her. It’s likely that she, like you, has a fantasy of her mother’s death. Sometimes death seems like the easiest way out of a difficult situation.

    • Yep, death can appear as the easy way out, though I think there are more fruitful solutions that require compassion and effort – these are the solutions I hope to find. I hope your friend is doing okay and I’m glad you’re there to listen to her. Thank you for reading and commenting.

  9. A brave and thoughtful and honest post. I too am proud of you for the balance you are able to achieve in your life. Going through adversity early on can strengthen you and will undoubtedly make you a more compassionate person, as you are able to take the lessons learned and apply them positively rather than perpetuating the misery.

    • Yes, I agree with you so much when you remark on positive reflection and action instead of perpetuating misery. Thank you for your continued support throughout all these years, it means so much to me!

      • I’m so pleased to see you proceeding through your life, taking things as they come, embracing new experiences and reflecting on what you’re learning – it’s a privilege to be a part of that through reading your posts.

  10. Interesting to me that you and I not only share college study interests, but that we both had a parent who has Bipolar Disorder. I think that you will find that as you age that your sense of peace will be your own. I’m sorry for your childhood, but I do know that you are an incredible writer and are resilient.

    • Thank you for your support – it’s inspiring and reassuring to hear from someone who has had a similar experience to mine. Your comment brightens my day, and I hope you are doing well.

      • I am wishing nothing but goodness for you. You’re an extremely bright young man with a wonderful future ahead of him. Above all, be kind to yourself and gentle with your feelings. You will do what’s right for you, and put out a beautiful presence into this world that often seems unfair.

  11. Thomas, the fact that you have tried finding good in a such a dark situation proves to me that you are an incredibly strong person. Rather than inflicting pity on yourself (which would honestly be fine considering the circumstances) you courageously acknowledge the bitterly acquired benefits. Thank you for inspiring me.

    -Grace 🙂

    • Aw, Grace, thank you so much for your kind and thoughtful comment! Like Viktor Frankl writes in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” when something bad happens, it happens – so it’s up to us to determine how we feel about it afterward. Your support always brightens my day. (:

  12. So many commentors have left wonderful messages, and I would just like to add a (cyber) hug here.
    You inspire both pride and faith in humanity.

  13. Anonymous

    Wow I admire that you can talk so openly about this topic. I’m going to leave this message anonymously because I definitely don’t have the courage to talk about this publicly yet. I was physically/sexually/emotionally abused by my grandfather for my entire childhood. He’s in jail now, and I still fantasize about his death. There was a time when I even considered trying to kill him myself. And I refuse to ever forgive him for what he did to me. I always wonder if it makes me a bad person for wanting to kill him, wishing he’d die/suffer in some horrible way, and for refusing to forgive him. And like you, part of me always wondered if I was a horrible person for not forgiving him/wishing him dead, considering that he also had mental disorders. I even managed to convince myself that he wasn’t in control of his actions. But after doing a lot of research on the topic, I found out the stigma that says abusive behavior is the result of mental illness is just that — a stigma. It’s a nasty stereotype used to dehumanize non-abusive mentally ill people and to excuse the behavior of abusive people. Just because someone has depression or bipolar disorder (which is also what my grandfather had), it doesn’t excuse their actions AT ALL. You’re not a bad person for not forgiving your mother, and of course it’s okay to hate someone even though they have a mental illness. Mental illnesses do NOT justify abusive behavior.

    I have anxiety, depression, and PTSD from my abuse, and I was suicidal and self harming for a while because I felt guilty for wanting him dead. One of the most healing things for me has been to recognize that it’s perfectly okay to not forgive him, and that it’s my choice if I ever decide to. And acknowledging that it’s okay to be angry and that I shouldn’t beat myself up over wishing him dead has also really helped me. I can’t control having thoughts like that, and it’s perfectly understandable why I have them so I shouldn’t feel guilty about it.

    Thanks for sharing your story 🙂

    • You are such a strong person: for having gone through abuse at your grandfather’s hands, surviving it, and being able to reflect upon it and your own emotions with such clarity and wisdom. It’s great (that’s such a lacking word, fantastic, wonderful, etc.) that you know where to draw the line between understanding and forgiveness, and it’s inspiring to hear someone else speak about how it’s up to the “victim” to determine whether or not they wish to forgive the perpetrator. I really needed to read that because what you say resonates with me to the point where it almost made me cry when I first read your comment. Your thoughts in the second paragraph about what you can and cannot do are so honest and self-loving, which makes me happy, even though of course I’m saddened that you had to have gone through your struggle in the first place.

      Thank you so much for sharing your story and for enlightening me with your thoughtful, detailed comment.

  14. The Howling Fantogs

    I don’t think anyone can blame you for feeling this way about the person who was meant to he taking care of you. All credit to you for coming out of this the person you have become. If anything, maybe seeing this kind of behaviour first hand has made you so determined to help others. Genuinly moved by this. Hugs x

  15. Ronald

    I had a bipolar? father. Either that or some other disorders or combination thereof. I survive. You survived. Some don’t. Sorry, no clichés from me on how this makes one stronger, better, more compassionate. That crap changes nothing. We endure, we soldier on. There probably is no fix for this problem. Time will help. Learn from the other’s mistake.

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