I began vomiting just five weeks into my pregnancy. I spent many miserable days on the couch. Around eight weeks, my husband and I told our four worried children that a baby was coming. They were so relieved; they thought I was dying! The kids had been too scared to ask what was happening to Mom.
A few years later, I was again lethargic and teary, mostly confined to my bed. My husband and I both knew I was depressed, but we didn’t tell our children I had an illness that controlled my daily living, just like the hyperemesis had during my pregnancy. I’m sure they were sad for me. I’m sure they had questions and wanted to help, but our silence didn’t give them those opportunities.
Adults and children who grapple with mental illness should talk about their struggles. Mental illness should be a comfortable topic. Through my experience as a mother with bipolar disorder and major depression, I have collected some strategies that craft conversations of understanding, acceptance, and love.
Find Support. First, identify someone who can offer support and hope. A friend, family member, or church leader might be a good choice. Sharing your struggle can enable loved ones to understand what is happening and see your efforts and progress. I have never regretted telling my children about my bipolar disorder. They were ages six to fifteen at the time.
Start the Conversation. Begin with simple but accurate terms. Explain your diagnosis, how you feel about it, and how it affects your life. Use these words (with children especially) as they apply to your situation: diagnosis, symptoms, psychiatrist, medication, therapist. Normalize the experiences as you would a trip to the dentist. Help them understand that your mental illness is not your fault—or anyone’s.
Notice Your Triggers. For me, changes like the beginning of a school year can trigger depression. Prolonged or intense periods of stress trigger mania. For others, specific places like the mall or situations like buying gas might trigger an anxiety or OCD episode. After identifying these things for yourself, explain them to your children (and others, too). The triggers might not make sense to anyone else but knowing what they are can foster greater understanding and support.
Identify the Signs. Notice what things indicate a mental illness flare-up for you. On a really down day, my personal appearance is the first thing to go. I’m a hairdo-and-mascara girl, so when I don’t shower, I’m in a funk. In high school, my endless flannel shirts, holey jeans, and never-tied Doc Martens were more than a fashion statement. They screamed: “I’m depressed!” (It only took me 20 years to realize that.) Explaining your signs can help those close to you be aware of your status.
Adapt. My therapist tells me to “look through the lens of bipolar” when I assess my daily potential and responsibilities. It can feel deflating to realize I am currently less capable than before, but there is power in choosing how to best allocate my energy. On a bad day, my kids and I read bedtime stories in my bed. My child’s teacher and I created a homework plan that accommodates my limited capabilities during the after-school hours. Your adaptations might require creativity and uncomfortable conversations, but it is liberating to embrace your current self and your current situation.
Make a List. When depressed, I am not task-oriented, but to-do lists still help me. My “Today” list includes three or fewer to-dos that I can accomplish in one day. Sometimes my list might include checking the mail, walking for 30 minutes, and folding two loads of laundry. The list is simple and realistic for my depressed self. My “Try This” list catalogs things I might do to stay out of bed, like play the piano, sweep the floor, call or text a friend, or pull weeds. One of my friends says, “Get some sunshine, Heidi. You know you will feel better.” She gives me the right nudges because I have told her about my list.
A Note to Caregivers. Friends and family who routinely care for those living with mental illness are unsung heroes. As you include them in an ongoing dialogue about your mental health, please thank them for their hard work and sacrifice on your behalf. They need to hear those words as much as we need to say them.
The baby of whom I first spoke is now seven years old. Her green eyes and dimples melt my heart. Because of her, I know that beauty is sometimes born of affliction. Strength can grow from sorrow. If we allow it, our tough conversations about mental illness can forge friendship, unity, and trust. Talking casts light onto hidden things, making them less secret, less scary. We can feel safe with the innermost parts of ourselves, which might be the greatest part of being heard.
QUESTION: Do you speak openly with your family/friends about the troubles in your own life?
CHALLENGE: Whether you have a mental health condition or not, consider Heidi’s strategies and try being more open with those around you. Share how you’re really feeling with someone you trust, especially if you’re going through a hard time.
Edited by Nollie Haws and Kimberly Price.
Image provided by the author.