As little as two months ago, that question would have started a shit-storm of self loathing, anger, and telling myself what a lousy Mom I am. I don’t think any parent wants their child to see them as weak, struggling, or sick. I suspect it is even more so when the sickness in question is mental illness. When I went to the hospital earlier this year, I felt as though I had failed my kids. Nobody wants to put their kids in a situation where they are upset or scared, and when a parent goes to the hospital, it is both.
Jack and I have always explained it to the kids that “Mommy is sick, and she needs to see the doctors to help her get better.” In the most recent hospitalization, we had explained to the kids that Mommy could not sleep and the doctors had to help her sleep so she could feel better. My daughter asked me why yesterday, out of the blue. You rarely hear about talking to your kids about your mental illness, and how best to handle it. I think I had always really tried to avoid it. Instead of berating myself for my daughter even being able to ask, I answered her. Simply and honestly.
“My brain got sick, honey. Just like if you get really sick in your body, you need to go to the hospital, I got really sick in my brain, and I had to go to the hospital. Remember how we talked before about your brain not always telling you the right thing? Sometimes your brain tells lies or maybe gives you bad ideas?”
“Yeah! Like when I took food when I wasn’t supposed to, even though I knew I wasn’t supposed to!”
“Exactly. Well, my brain got sick, and it was telling me lies, and it wasn’t letting me go to sleep. You can’t be healthy if you don’t sleep!”
“Did they give you cough syrup for your brain?!”
“No, honey, they didn’t give me cough syrup, but they give me medicine now to help my brain stay healthy. It’s not enough to take medicine, though, is it? What do we all do to stay healthy? ”
“eat good foods! Meditate! Yoga! Color! Sleep!”
“Right! So just like we all have to take care of our bodies, we have to take care of our brains too, because sometimes they can get sick. Sometimes our brains make us feel worried, or sad, or angry, and that means we need to take care of ourselves a little more. Some people need medicine to help, too, and I am one of those people. Sometimes, people need to go to the hospital, too. ”
“Are you sick now? Is that why you are not working?”
“Right now, Mommy’s job is to be healthy, so I can take care of me and take care of my poopies.”
“Cause you are the best mom ever!”
“and I can’t be the best mom ever if I don’t take really good care of me. ”
After we talked, I thought about how far I had come to be able to speak so easily with my daughter. I was so ashamed and embarrassed before. I was terrified that, because the kids had seen/heard me in psychosis, I had permanently scarred them. I was angry at myself for not getting help sooner, and I was depressed that I had to start taking medication again. When the psychiatrist diagnosed me bipolar, I was even more depressed. I sobbed hysterically as I took Lithium for the first time.
When I started focusing on how I talk and thought about myself, I realized how much I tear myself down. To the point, if I would bring up bipolar, etc., I would slap myself in the head unthinkingly. I thought of everything as a separate bucket. If I wasn’t crazy… That’s not me, that’s my crazy bullshit…Or the meanest, “My poor kids have to deal with a batshit crazy Mom…” When I focused on not talking to myself like that, I realized if I am affirming of myself, I will teach my gang by example.
My kids are almost identical in appearance to me. There is every probability that they will have bipolar, MDD, GAD, etc. My sons have ADHD. If I am hypocritically telling them not to hate their brains, while I hate my brain, what is going to happen if bipolar presents? I always was terrified they’d be “just like me”. Intelligent, self aware, compassionate, and understanding? Shit, that’s terrible.
I always try to be honest with the gang, but keep it simple. If I normalize bipolar for them, that this is what Mommy has and Mommy does a lot of good things to be healthy and takes vitamins and medicines, hopefully, there will be no stigma for them. I can’t control how the world is, but my biggest struggle with everything is me. I have to think, too, being simple and honest with them actually makes it all less scary. It is not some quiet secret, and they certainly see me meditate and do all my good stuff often enough. That’s probably reassuring. If they know that keeps Mommy healthy, see me being healthy, they will be less worried about me getting sick. They’ll also be more likely to continue this for themselves.
This affects everyone in my family, and while I once felt guilty for it, I don’t anymore. The benefits of me staying healthy have been amazing for all of us. Every night, I put guided meditations on for my kids, and bedtimes have gotten so much better. My kids do yoga with me sometimes. They all have journals, and we all color mandalas. In reality, I can feel comforted that they will have a heck of a toolbox of coping skills, no matter what happens in life. I also hope that, though they have seen their mother struggle a lot, they have also seen her never give up.
It is not an easy journey, but that conversation with my daughter, and listening to her excitedly list all of the ways we all stay healthy made me proud of myself as a woman, as a mother, and as a mental health advocate. I have wanted to quit on myself so many times, but smiling yesterday made me even more committed to staying the strong fierce bitch I am. haha Besides, I cannot wait to see the cubs I am raising become the lions and lionesses they are. When I struggle, I say, “for me, for them.”
For me, for them, always.
I Am Strong. I Am Brave. I Will never give up.