Before I had my babies, I imagined that I would be the perfect stay-at-home mom, and despite being a parent with a mental illness (bipolar 1 disorder), I thought I could keep everything normal. I planned to arrange play dates, work out, make all of my family’s food from scratch, keep the house clean and decorated, while still reserving enough energy for some saucy romance with my husband. My kids deserved to have a normal childhood, no matter how crazy their bipolar mother was. I was determined to not allow my bipolar disorder to interfere with my mothering.
Mental Illness in the Family
Mothering with an invisible mental illness is challenging. I know you couldn’t see my mental illness when you were sitting next to me at “back to school” night. You couldn't see the bipolar medications I swallow twice a day or the 14 years of therapy that have equipped me to behave so normally. You can’t see my bipolar 1 disorder, but sometimes I wish you could. I'm mothering with an invisible mental illness.
Hi, I’m Taylor Arthur, and I am so excited to be writing for Mental Illness in the Family here on HealthyPlace. Unlike the other authors of this blog, I am the mentally ill member of my family. My high school sweetheart, Jack, and I had no idea when we were married that I had a serious mental illness, and my illness almost ended our marriage (Bipolar Spouse: Coping With Bipolar Husband, Wife). But 16 years later, we are balancing bipolar disorder, marriage, careers, and children in a life not far from what I imagined on our wedding day.
Tim has announced that when he turns 21 next summer he wants to move out. I can’t begin to explain all the ways that frightens me. Except for this past February when he knew he needed a few days inpatient, Tim has been stable for just over a year. I never, ever thought we would get to this place. He even spent two straight weeks alone with my parents in July, helping them with chores around the house and playing miniature golf. He hasn’t been able to do that since he was nine. Moving out means Tim will have to be responsible for all the things he doesn't realize he relies on us for, and for all the things he is responsible for now, but I remind him about almost daily. We can teach him these things, yes. But what we can’t teach him scares me more, namely, how to keep him safe out in a world that may automatically assume he’s dangerous, and may be dangerous to him because he trusts too much.
Two things happened last month that stirred me to revisit an often-examined question: Am I too involved in my adult son's life (Ben has schizophrenia.)? Have I "stolen his manhood and his rights" by insisting on treatment for his schizophrenia? One reminder came in the form of a reader's book review on Amazon.com for Ben Behind His Voices, calling it a "Testament to Abuse of Power and Parental Authority," the only one-star review in a sea of 5-star praise and gratitude. Clearly, a man with an agenda, so I didn't take it too personally, but this is not the first time I've been called an over-involved parent. On the other hand, I've also been criticized by others for not "stopping" Ben from dropping out of high school, for "allowing" my son a period of homelessness in Idaho and "letting him fail" when he gained and then lost five different jobs after he returned.
If our story of schizophrenia hitting a family were made into a movie, here is where it might end: on the hopeful note of some dreams having come true, after challenges and crises too numerous to count. My adult son, Ben, is stable, taking his medication, able to participate in family functions, and actually working part-time as - of all things - a server in a restaurant where customers come in and ask to be seated in his section.
I was on the Diane Rehm Show on NPR last week, discussing Congressman Murphy’s “Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act,” Bill HR 3717, along with Congressman Murphy and Dr. Fuller Torrey of the Treatment Advocacy Center. I was booked as the opponent of the bill, which isn’t quite accurate. There are many parts of the bill I think are valuable.
Two weeks ago, I went back on antidepressants. I say "back" because I took them during a protracted period of depression several years ago, but weaned myself off of them after about six months because I didn’t think they were doing much for me. But two weeks ago, after weeks of urging by my husband and a close friend, I went back to my psychiatrist and he felt I should try an antidepressant. I am beginning to feel better, I must admit, and if I’m being honest with myself, I white-knuckled it through the winter and early spring, knowing I was in depression, and refusing to do anything about it other than hide and eat (food is my self-medication of choice). But I felt defeated, walking into the doctor’s office, as if I was a failure. So after putting on 25 pounds and crying every day for a month, I gave in and got myself some help.
Last Tuesday I called Tom, my husband of nearly 24 years and our family’s stay-at-home parent, and asked him to pick me up some bandages for a blister on my heel at the pharmacy. He groaned at me. “Sure,” was his reply in a half whine, half frustrated tone. “I haven’t been to the pharmacy in what, 12 hours. They’re probably wondering what’s happened to me.” Tom continued his rant, telling me he feels like Norm from Cheers when he walks into the building, and he swears the pharmacist knows our phone number by heart. I thought he was exaggerating until Friday when Tom asked me to stop and pick up a new medication for Tim on my way home from work. When I got to the pharmacy counter and asked for a prescription for Tim Hickey, the pharmacist said, “Where’s Tom?” It took me a few seconds to pick my jaw up off the counter and politely answer that he was at home and no ill had befallen him.
Our mentally ill child, Tim, 19, sometimes forgets his coping skills for schizoaffective disorder symptoms. Generally, he reaches out and talks to one of us parents when he's having a tough time before things get out of hand, but sometimes he forgets. He forgets what to do when he feels paranoid or unloved.