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November 17, 2020

19 Comments

I grew up in the United States with my mum, who was a single parent. We lived on food stamps and when things were good, they were great. However, my mum suffered from bipolar disorder.

When she stopped taking her medication she would become very unwell, with severe paranoia, anger and mania setting in. My earliest memory of her condition was when I was five years old. I was in a foster home at the time. I remember being picked up by a social worker and going to visit mum in a psychiatric unit at a mental health institution. I saw others there who were really sick, and found their behaviour distressing and unfamiliar; but I didn’t really understand why my mum was there, or why she wasn’t living with me at home.

Not a ‘normal’ mum

Bipolar disorder is associated with severe mood swings, ranging from depressive lows to manic highs. My mum would be tracking along ok, and then would go off her medication. It took about three days off her meds, before she would become a person I didn’t know. I would be sitting in the living room watching cartoons, and she would come into the room yelling and beating me up, to the point the neighbours would call the police.

Another time, when I was still in kindergarten, she left our home naked and walked quite a distance before the police arrested her. She was really unwell at the time, but the kids at school heard about it and made fun of her. I would end up fighting lots in the playground defending her and spent a lot of time going in and out of detention. Because I didn’t really understand her condition, I simply thought I was in trouble a lot, and I was the reason I kept ending up in foster homes.

I thought this was all pretty normal until I was eight years old. Then, I wished so badly for my mum to be like the other mums at school. I could see how much she fought for me, how she always tried to get better and how she struggled. We didn’t have an extended family support network. I was the only person that she had, so I felt all her love and her pain. I learned how to look after her and myself when need be, but it took its toll.

Life in a foster home

At first, the foster homes were fun. It felt like I was on a perpetual sleepover, making new friends and going on a bit of a holiday. Going to different schools made me outgoing and I learned how to become a people person. Then, when I was five, the sexual abuse started. This trauma stayed with me for a long time. As I grew older, it got harder. Seeing my mum dragged away broke my heart. I had a lot of anger towards the system  the police, the social workers, the nurses at the institution and the doctors who experimented with mum’s meds. I felt abandoned, helpless and incredibly sad, which manifested on the outside as a defensive, tough kid who could fight her way out of troubles.

The effects of a life dragged up

Being in and out of different homes with no stability meant I lashed out a lot at others. I struggled to focus in school or take direction well in class so my grades suffered and I was always getting in trouble for fighting. On a positive side, I was very social and made friends easily. My experiences helped me become someone who can easily build community, have compassion for others and see the best in people that society has marginalised.

While my journey to become the person I am today is fraught with bumps in the road and at times, total sideswipes (I broke my back at 23 in a car accident and had to learn to walk again, before being widowed at 24) I now consider my childhood and life as a young adult as my training. As a mum myself, I know our parents are doing the best they can with what they know.

What I know now

Often, when you’re suffering from a mental illness you have limited information on what’s happening to you. You’re unaware of your triggers and why these episodes happen. As a society, we desperately need to discuss mental ill health so much more, so we can strip the stigma away and support people better. Seeking help is critical, and the only way for everyone involved to heal, whatever the modality – whether it’s counselling and talk therapy, or yoga, meditation or coaching. I think it’s also really important to remember that mental illness can be triggered through trauma and hardship. As hard as it can be, we need to remember that it isn’t easy for the person suffering either.

Now, my mum is my best friend. I understand her and how her condition affects her. I have worked incredibly hard with professionals to shift my blame, fear and frustration from my childhood self, and embrace her for what she is – someone who didn’t have the tools to deal with the cards she was dealt. I now have two beautiful sons, and look at them and know they won’t be passed on the intergenerational trauma that befell my mum and then me. I know better than anyone, that it’s never too late to rewrite your story.

Erika’s popular five-star podcast The Confidence Chronicles is in the top 10 of the Australian Apple charts for Mental Health and she has just hit 800,000 downloads with listeners in 60+ countries. Listen to it here.

Have you ever had experience with Bipolar Disorder? Tell us in the comments below.

  • Thank you for giving us an insight into how a parents mental health affects a child

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  • Thank you for sharing your story, it will help so many people.

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  • Very hard for children having to grow up with a mental illness feeling they are responsible & having to carry the caring burden.

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  • I can’t imagine what it was like to go through your childhood with a mother who had bipolar. My Mum had depression and my half sister was mentally challenged so I just figured it was me who was the problem. I’m sorry to hear of all the tragedies you went through but so grateful that you have 2 wonderful sons to be there for you.

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  • I can’t even imagine going through any of this, makes me realise how lucky I was in childhood even though it was far from perfect.

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  • Have met people with this disorder and know how hard they try to continue life without their meds at times. At least you have been able to come to grips with your life and look back on it in a good way. Good luck to you, your children and your mum these days.

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  • I can sympathise, and also know how difficult it can be as a single parent with MD/Bipolar. I was diagnosed at 24 after being poisoned in India, I was bought home by the Australian consulate, after spending a month in an Indian hospital. Being an RN I also helped out in the hospital, filling my days with sterilizing gauze and watching Hindi movies with the nurses. I had a long career as an RN working in both Public and Private ( 29 years in one hospital) . I Have a son at university. I bought my own house and I was also POA and Enduring guardian for my elderly mother and then the executor of her estate. Admittedly the VMO’s at the hospital, and others always had my health in their interest. My Psychiatrist of 26 years passed away of old age- he was a very learned Dr . I know once I had my son, my lifestyle changed, I have only suffered I think 3 episodes in the past 20 years. It isn’t easy, and it does come with a massive amount of stigma. Good luck with your family and your Mum xx

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  • Thanks so much for sharing this. I can relate to it so much. I suffer from mental illness which started when I had my third baby. They said it was likely underlying and manageable prior and that it was exacerbated from trauma. My heart breaks as I am your mum in this story and I can see the effects it has on my kids. Going to different homes when I’m admitted to hospital etc. my son especially is showing the symptoms you mention, the fighting and lashing out etc. I hope that one day my kids can have the compassion and understanding towards me that you have towards your mother. I worry always that they will hate me one day but I am doing everything I can to control my mental illness


    • Aw bless you RaisingLittleBrowns !

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  • It would be such a difficult life.

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  • No I haven’t but I can sympathise with those who have had to deal with it.

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  • I can totally relate to your story as I’ve worked for 20years as a psychiatric nurse in hospitals and institutes and am a foster mum myself. Besides having 2 kids under a legal guardian ship till their adulthood we’ve had kids come and go in short term and emergency care.
    Sorry to hear you experienced sexual abuse in care ! I can imagine your feelings towards the system the police, the social workers, the nurses at the institution and the doctors, they fail too often.


    • Also my friend has a 16yr old bipolar daughter, my 16yr old daughter regularly hangs out with her and has sleepovers at their house. My friends has the last couple of years succeeded to get extremely NDIS funding for her (with lots of support and respite)

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  • Such a traumatic time, but I’m glad to see it worked out

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  • What a lot of trauma to experience so young. It sounds like you’ve got a healthy attitude and have learned from it. Bipolar is a serious disorder and needs serious treatment

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  • I didn’t deal with a mother that was bipolar, but the mother I got was a severe BPD unfortunately she’s never accepted help for it and her narcissistic personality became toxic. I had her abandon myself and my siblings when I was 8 and then she returned pregnant when I was 14, pregnant with my twin sisters. I wish for different things but I no longer crave her in my life and have spent the last 7 years with a complete tie cut.


    • Aw bless ELAtko, that sound tough !

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  • Wow! An open, honest and heartfelt summary of an incredibly intricate upbringing. Absolutely resonated with me the line you used about dealing the cards she was dealt without the appropriate tools.
    From one daughter of a bipolar parent to another sending you hugs x

    Reply

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