Living with bipolar is like walking on a tightrope, trying to maintain my balance, fearful of each step I take.
As a young adult, I didn’t understand what triggered my highs and lows. I saw depression as a problem, but I didn’t fully understand the role of workaholism, overachievement, and perfectionism, even as I crashed over and over.
After my training as a clinician, when I finally turned to medication for help, I understood and described myself as cyclothymic (experiencing highs and lows less extreme than bipolar) even as I was diagnosed and treated for dysthymia (persistent depression).
At almost 54, I’m still learning about myself. I used to consider myself extroverted. I threw parties, loved to be on stage and the center of attention. When I look back, though, I performed at parties. I did not really feel comfortable. I danced and laughed loudly, or I shrank back into a corner, wanting to leave.
Now social stimulation overwhelms me. Sounds bombard me.
This summer, first the long days challenged me with too much sunshine. My thoughts raced at bedtime. I found it hard to sleep, had to take benzodiazepine to turn off my thoughts and allow slumber. I started to ramp, to take on more and more tasks.
Recently, I signed a three-month private trainer contract at a Pilates studio. The training itself overstimulates me. Too much social interaction. The exercise has aggravated forgotten knee and hip injuries. I know that Pilates should help, but for now, I’m in pain.
Responding to the pain, I’ve scheduled appointments with an orthopedist and a physical therapist.
Escape is what I yearn. I want so badly to be in a less stimulating place, quieter, slower, surrounded by trees on one side to shelter me and an open vista on the other so I can look at the horizon and feel free. It’s a place I’ve had in my imagination a long time. My husband and I have been talking, but it’s not yet time to retire. Our life is here for now.
When my son was a preschooler in daycare
His class had a field trip to the local In ‘N Out
As we walked back to the daycare center
My son held my hand
We walked in pairs down the sidewalk
His daycare teacher said
Everyone stay on sidewalk
Do not step into the driveway or the road
My three-year old son touched his foot in the gutter
Just his tippy toe
His teacher swiftly grabbed him from my hands
Took him with her to the front of the line
She gave me another child to walk
A more compliant, less rebellious child
My son, he was rewarded
He got to walk at the front of the line
Beside his favorite teacher
I was punished
Cannot control her child
Later that day when I returned to work
I told this story
One of my bosses smiled
Kitt, you love that in your boy
That your boy rebels against the rules
Just like the Berkeley rabble-rouser you once were
Pushing the limits
Yes, it still brings a smile to my face
That I have a son who dared touch his toe to the gutter
He understood the importance of staying with the group
He understood the spirit of the law
He did not run out into the road
Yet he questioned, dared to test, the letter of the law
What happens, he wondered, if I break this rule just a little bit
The memory also hurts
How dare that teacher rip my son from my hand
How dare she judge me and my child
Deem me unfit to walk my son back to daycare
Before I had to return to work
Return to work judged an ineffective mother
Return to work rather than stay with my son
Now that I think about it
He punished me
How dare I go back to work
How dare I not stay home with him
1. Discuss your decision-making to work and mother at the same time.
Before I even became pregnant, my husband and I purchased a house we could afford on one salary, so that if I decided to stay home, I could, and if I decided to work, I could. I worked during my pregnancy until at thirty-one weeks I went into preterm labor and had to stay on bedrest for five weeks. At that point, off bedrest, I went about painting my son’s nursery and at thirty-seven weeks thrilled to be able to move I danced at an engagement party. That night I went into labor and had my son three weeks early.
By that time, I was ready for some adult interaction. I decided to go back to work two days a week, hiring my sister to bring her infant to my house and babysit twice a week. The responsibilities of my position required that I increase my hours to three days a week, so my husband flexed his time to care for our son that third day. By the end of my son’s first year, my job responsibilities required me to increase my hours to four days a week, at which point I put my son into a family day care. It broke my heart to leave my son every day. My days didn’t end until 7:00pm. After a month or so, I quit and stayed home full-time for over a year.
That year was a challenge. I cobbled together mommy-and-me classes, attended mothers’ groups, yet thirsted for intellectual and creative stimulation that I simply couldn’t get as a stay-at-home mother. By the time my son was twenty-seven months old, I started to experience symptoms which I recognized as hypomania. I felt euphorically called to one church and another. As a former mental health practitioner, I recognized the euphoria as a symptoms of hypomania.
Since I was eighteen I had been in psychotherapy for depression. At thirty, a licensed Marriage, Family and Child Counselor working in non-profits with severely emotionally disturbed adolescents, I had a severe breakdown. I was so depressed that I unable to get out of bed. Finally, I turned to first my internist and then a psychiatrist for help. I was prescribed different three different anti-depressants, and after a few months of medication changes, found myself manic and unable to sleep for a week.
At that time, it was unclear whether I was bipolar or simply reacting to the antidepressant medications. I moved in with my parents, and went to a group practice where I was seen by both a psychiatrist and psychotherapist. By the way, I’m a huge believer in collaborative mental health treatment. I was stabilized on an SSRI antidepressant, slowly titrating my dose up careful to avoid triggering speeding thoughts.
Sorry for the long-winded answer to this first question. I’m usually terse. Anyway, forward a few years… This time I knew that the symptoms I was experiencing were hypomanic in nature and I got the help and diagnosis I needed for stability. What is tragic, is that once my diagnosis changed from dysthymic (chronic depression) to bipolar type II, my internalized stigma was such that I believed that my son would be better off in day care than in my care, and I went back into the work force. My knowledge of bipolar disorder was that it was a serious chronic progressive disorder. I wanted to protect my son from me. So, I went back to work and put him in daycare.
I was unable to keep it together, though. As it turns out, my son was overstimulated by daycare. He exhibited behavioral symptoms and unknown to us at the time struggled with both ADHD and migraines. I often had to pick him up from daycare and bring him into my office where he lied down as I continued to work.
Finally, after a year and a half of overworking with a high needs child, I fell apart and had myself psychiatrically hospitalized. I have been home on disability ever since. It hasn’t been easy. Since I started to write, to blog at kittomalley.com, and to volunteer for NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, I’ve found a balance where I have both intellectual and emotional stimulation and am able to care for both myself and my son.
2. Did you have different feelings at different stages of your child’s development (so far) about how available you felt you could be to your children? Did you feel conflicted? How did you work it out? Give some examples of times when you felt pulled in mother/worker directions. In retrospect, would you do it differently now?
Parenting at different stages of a child’s development varies greatly. Infants and toddlers require so much attention. If you are home with them, you cannot even go to the restroom alone. Work was leisurely in comparison. I was able to have lunch with colleagues, talk and interact with adults who were my intellectual equal, and I could go to the bathroom uninterrupted.
When I worked just before my psychiatric hospitalization, I worked as an investment analyst for an entrepreneur. Yes, my career is varied, not surprising for someone with my diagnosis. As an investment advisor for a demanding entrepreneur, I worked late nights. At seven pm, my husband would call, put my son on the phone, and he would ask me, “Mommy, when are you coming home?” Yes, I was a workaholic. Often, I’d go home, make dinner, put my child to sleep, and return to the office or work from home. It was untenable and led to my breakdown. I was unable to do it all.
Over time, I decided that my life has seasons. I need not do everything at once. I still have much to do, much to offer.
3. How has your child(ren) benefitted from seeing you as a working, accomplishing, successful mother?
As I have turned to writing, my son sees me as both a writer and a mother. At first, he was jealous of my online mental health advocacy and referred to my blogging and social media community as my fake friends. But, over time, he’s seen that just as he has friends through his online gaming activity, and those friends are real, I have relationships through my online community. I participate in my local writers’ group, Orange County Writers, and I volunteer for NAMI. Hopefully, he has learned that “real world” social support and common interest groups are available, and that he, too, can find his tribe.
4. Explore the importance of motherhood to you.
Ever since my mother was pregnant with my sister, I’ve known that someday I would be a mother. Without a doubt, mothering my son, though often a thankless job, has been my most rewarding job. Now that my son is an adolescent, he actually thanks me regularly. Guess I did and continue to do something right, for I’m proud of the young man he is becoming.
5. Do you think your choice of occupation(s) was influenced by your maternal desires? In other words, does the subject of your work coincide with your mothering interests and desires and/or is it separate?
My careers have been varied. I started out as a legal assistant for two years after I graduated from UC Berkeley with a bachelor’s in Legal Studies. Seeing the insane hours the associates worked, I decided that being a mother was incompatible with the practice of law. Perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps an attorney need not be a workaholic. But, I was one. I put in more hours than any other legal assistant at the firm. Then I stumbled into psychology without any plans to do so. I worked with adolescents, loving those kids as if they were my own. My background as a psychotherapist helped me as a person and as a mother of a sensitive child. My career in commercial real estate honed my business and analytic skills, which helped me to manage a household and now to manage my parents’ finances and house. I’m not just a mother. I’m the daughter of aging parents who need caregiving and financial assistance, especially since my mother had a severe stroke in November which has made it impossible for her to speak.
6. What advice do you have for new mothers who want to embark on careers?
Honestly, we are each different. Each mother is unique with unique needs. Each child is unique with unique needs. Each family is unique with unique needs. Figure out what works for you and yours. There is no simple answer.
7. In what ways do you enjoy and feel successful?
I feel successful now in my life. I have not always, even though I’m a high achiever by nature. At this time in my life, the pieces seem to be falling into place. Struggles I had in the past, careers that seemed disparate, all make sense now, as if my past prepared me for this present. As we struggle, we do not always know what skills we are learning. Now, at fifty-two, my life is beginning to make sense to me, and I’ve only just begun…
Here is where I must admit defeat or acknowledge my limitations and sensitivity to social stimulation. I’ve been hypomanic since I began coming into the NAMI Orange County office to volunteer, and since I offered to help with social media. Apparently, both overstimulate me. I love everyone at the NAMI office and so want to help, but I must acknowledge my own limitations and slow down.
Of course, I will continue to shout out for NAMI and good mental health as myself and as a NAMI volunteer.
Sorry to my friends at the NAMI Orange County office. I always do this – take something on that I cannot handle & then back off.
In one of the coloring books my sister gave me for my birthday to help me with my ramping hypomania, I found this apt quote:
Letting go helps us to live in a more peaceful state of mind and helps restore our balance. It allows others to be responsible for themselves and for us to take our hands off situations that do not belong to us. This frees us from unnecessary stress. — Melody Beattie
My problem is that I want to help everyone, rescue all, offer of myself what I really cannot spare.