On Presidents’ Day, a school holiday, I awoke to an unscheduled day. I needed something to do with my daughter Marilla, so I decided to take her to the park. (My other little girl, Avonlea, headed for her best friend’s house.) The weather was clear and sunny, but my mind was stormy and gloomy. I wanted to hide in my bed, read a book, and not have to interact with anyone. It was actually a promising sign of my recovery that I was able to leave the house, so off we went.
The park was near our home and frequented by many families. During the seven years of my visiting it, my park experiences have ranged from enjoyable to atrocious. One of my worst visits occurred when I tripped over an innocent-looking root on a perfectly flat trail. I was alone and no one saw me fall. I slammed down to the ground, breaking my collar bone from the impact. Luckily I had my cell phone and I reached Craig for help. More pleasant times included the afternoons I spent there with a kindred spirit mom while our kids had fun playing tag with one another. We’ve held birthday parties for both of our girls at these grounds. During those events I’d feel happy watching my girls’ excitement, but I also suffered with social anxiety.
It is here, at this park, where I’ve been both “B.D.” and “A.D.”:
before diagnosis and after diagnosis.
After we moved to this area with baby Avonlea, I wanted to meet other moms. Through the internet I located a baby playgroup that met in my neighborhood. I immediately joined the small group and met some friendly moms who I am still in touch with now.
This was “B.D.”. I would not become the “Bipolar Mom” in our community for almost two more years. It’s hard for me to believe that back then I was perceived by others as relatively normal. I had been battling depression for many years, but I hid it well. I didn’t talk openly about my depression at the playgroup and neither did any of the other moms, although I sensed I wasn’t the only one struggling in that way.
Then fall of 2007 came along, I gave birth to my second beautiful girl Marilla, and all hell broke loose after her debut. My lack of sleep, a genetic predisposition to bipolar, and wacked-out hormones combined to trigger postpartum bipolar disorder. Two months after Rilla was born, I had full-blown postpartum mania. I reluctantly admitted myself to our local hospital’s locked-down mental health unit. Despite the fact that the building opposite my unit had a fully equipped maternity wing, the staff couldn’t find me a breast pump to ease my painful engorgement. (It was such a nightmare admission that we forgot my Medela pump in the car.) I actually had to call a friend on the pay phone to loan me her pump. The hospital’s ineptitude with the breast pump was a prelude to their incompetence in every other aspect of the place. I could have run a better unit, especially in my energetic manic state. 😉
After my stay at the hospital, I entered a new epoch of my life: “A.D.”
When I returned home after my hospitalization, our extended family, friends and acquaintances knew what had happened to me. I’ve written about this time in depth in my Birth of a New Brain draft. Suffice it to say that I was not treated like I had a “casserole disease” by certain people I knew. It broke my heart how these individuals were unable to offer empathy and practical support. (If you are reading this, and you visited with me or helped our family in any way, please don’t take offense. I’m not including you here!)
Where I live, the mental illness stigma is still very strong. This is a conservative rural community. There are so many churches up here that thinking about them makes my head spin.
As far as I know, I am the only “out” mom with bipolar around these parts. I founded our county’s chapter of the DBSA (Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance) and I created my first women’s support group. We started with over twenty members, but the group eventually ran out of steam when I relapsed. When I created the women’s support group, I was profiled in two local newspaper articles that included pictures of me with my girls. I don’t regret doing that, but I believe that my going public had personal repercussions. Our Press Banner’s editor Peter Burke did a nice job in the following piece:
Over the years since I was diagnosed, I didn’t think I came across as “crazy” to others – anxious, yes, but not psychotic. I know the publicity I did (some of which mentioned I had been hospitalized) backfired on me socially. I sensed that some school moms who knew of my medical history didn’t want to develop friendships with someone like me. I’ll never know that for sure, of course, but my intuition tells me I’m right. I can’t go back to undo my past, and I wouldn’t change my actions if I could, but it’s isolating and lonely having bipolar where I live.
Since 2007 I’ve only been approached by two other mothers with bipolar. I’m incredibly fortunate that both of them have become close friends. One of them even had ECT with the same doctor who helped me. These women’s cases were less severe than mine, as none of them were ever hospitalized for mental illness. I apologize for being a whiner but I feel like a pariah for being known as the worst case mental illness scenario ’round here. It’s difficult to express this concept without sounding like an ingrate of some sort; this has been one of the hardest posts for me to write.
More importantly than any of the above is that I don’t want my girls adversely affected socially because their mom has a brain disorder. The point that keeps popping up in my head is that I can’t be the only local mom who was in a locked-down unit for mental illness, but I feel like I am. There are thousands of folks in the large valley where I live, and statistically speaking, there is no way there aren’t other moms who have been hospitalized for bipolar. We don’t have support groups around here where I could potentially meet some of those moms. I’m not starting yet another group, as I’m burned out.
I may never completely get past feeling ashamed about being the “community horror story” but as you can infer by reading this post, I have a ways to go. I want to come to better terms with my past, but I can’t do it alone. My husband, close friends, and therapist can help me navigate this tricky issue. When I adopt another dog, that will help me too! (Really!)
We all harbor darkness such as sexual abuse, self-harm or depression. I want to remember each and every day that I am not the only one suffering, and that it’s possible that other “normal” moms I encounter may be keeping their serious mental health issues under wraps. If I try my best to be productive and focus on the positives in my life (rather than on the crap) I think my shame will fade in the years to come.