My world came crashing down, and with it, my sense of self.
I knew I had been depressed, and dangerously so. Months of medical trial and error had not yet helped. I flirted with suicidal thoughts. I struggled to function as a human, let alone a mother of five children under 10, including an infant. I credit my faithful husband with our family’s survival.
Suddenly, the latest in a string of antidepressants triggered something I had forgotten existed: happiness. I had instant energy, and with it, I concocted ambitious plans. I started to paint bedrooms, learn a challenging piano piece, lose ten pounds. I thought the world was mine…but it wasn’t. I had jumped straight from depression to mania.
As delightful as mania could be (just the freedom from darkness was intoxicating), it came with anger and agitation. I was soon troubled by the swing of my emotions. The ups were brief and the downs crashed hard. There was no middle ground. Bipolar made sense of my recent mood swings, but the stigma of the illness disturbed me.
A review of my life revealed a telltale bipolar pattern. However, to protect my fragile ego, I questioned everything. Had I truly been having manic episodes for more than a decade? Was the dating, working, straight-A college student Manic Heidi or just me? Was it true that Depressed Heidi was simply the lazy girl who didn’t try? Who was the real Heidi? I yearned to know, but the answers came slowly.
I now believe I had prolonged manic phases as a young mother. Doing it all energized me. I was the consummate committee chair, musician, and party planner. My kids and I took day trips to the beach, the apple orchard, and the zoo, always with scrapbooked photos the next week.
One year, I successfully trained for a marathon in 11 short weeks. I exercised a lot, didn’t sleep much, and was generally very happy for long periods of time. I thrived on the positive feedback from my family and others.
Life with young kids wasn’t close to perfect (parenting is hard whether or not Mom is mentally ill!), but I remember those years being very happy overall. The notion of a manic influence never entered my mind.
My depression had surfaced in early married life. I didn’t understand my oppressive sadness. Despite the blessings of a husband, baby, and new home, my world looked gray. Depression lifted for long periods of time (sometimes replaced with mania), but seven years and three babies later, it had become a constant companion.
I was always irritable. The deliberately calm mother in me disappeared. I was also sad, withdrawn, lethargic, and distressed that I couldn’t do things that made me feel valuable: host parties, attend park trips, serve others. Basic tasks stretched me. I was broken.
After my bipolar diagnosis five years ago, I expected to uncover a completely new person, one who was neither manic nor depressed. That would be the real me; the standard by which I would judge all moods and behaviors.
Actually, there are parts of the real me in every phase. My mania seems to amplify innate characteristics and recreational interests, while depression strangles them. When I am manic I might train for a marathon; when stable I might jog a few days per week; when depressed I might not exercise at all.
I tend to tie productivity and accomplishment to my personal worth, so mania and depression elevate or diminish my self-esteem, respectively. This awareness prompts the questions: Do significant accomplishments alone make me valuable in the world? Am I nothing without them?
The answer to both questions is, of course, “No.”
I can now say that I am not defined by my illness. I have learned to express, “I have bipolar disorder,” instead of “I am bipolar.” I am not the sum of my accomplishments. I can confidently affirm that I am compassionate, a good listener, a loyal friend, and a dedicated wife and mother, even though today I did not take a shower, make dinner, or volunteer at the book fair.
Having a mental illness does not mean I don’t contribute to my family and society. I am an important, lovable person simply because I am breathing, and if breathing is all I can do today, that is great!
Time and treatment have not healed me. My psychiatrist recently said, “Our goal is not relief of symptoms, but better management of them.”
I will probably battle bipolar disorder all my life. As such, I have chosen to speak more openly about it. I am trying to overcome the social stigma of mental illness, which is challenging because it attacks a person’s core identity.
Explaining bipolar disorder to my young children has been difficult. I don’t want to frighten them, but I do want them to have a vocabulary for and basic understanding of my experience.
Out of my painful journey has come two children’s books. When Mommy Feels Sad will be available on Amazon by the end of April 2018, and Feeling Manic and Other Things is in the early stages of production. I’ve shared these stories with my children, friends, and family members. Some cried with me; others felt educated and enlightened. My therapists endorsed them.
I hope they help start conversations about mental illness. I am hopeful that through my darkness, I might shine a light of hope for others.
QUESTION: Can you see the person you are through all that you do? Do you define yourself by your accomplishments or something else?
CHALLENGE: Be kind to yourself. Consider your challenges and accomplishments. Think of the value you have simply because you are you, regardless of what you do.
Edited by Lisa Hoelzer and Kimberly Price.
Image provided by the author; graphics added by Anna Jenkins.