Photo: Courtesy of Joni Pontillo photography
I couldn’t stop crying. I sat slumped over, with my head in my hands, in a gloomy hospital room. It was January 2016 and my youngest son, then two months old, had been admitted to hospital after ceasing breathing in the emergency room. We had gone to have his jaundice looked at when he suddenly aspirated his milk, stopped breathing and turned dark blue. After being revived, he was transferred to a children’s hospital by ambulance. During our stressful six-day stay there, I began to realize that not only was something wrong with my son but there was also something wrong with me.
My son was on close watch for the first four days in the paediatric intensive care unit—he stopped breathing four times and was resuscitated four times by some of the most wonderful nurses I’ve ever met. As I watched my baby go through this, a feeling of helplessness overwhelmed me. It was incredibly stressful, but somehow, deep down, I knew my sadness was bigger than my son’s condition. As the nurses’ shifts changed and days turned into nights, I cried quietly, almost non-stop. Horrible thoughts ran through my head: I was an unfit mother for not noticing that something was wrong, I’d let my son down, my two boys would be better off without me. After many tests, we discovered that he had reflux and an underdeveloped larynx—a common problem among newborns with known solutions. We were lucky, but the darkness didn’t lift when he was discharged from the hospital.
At night, I became consumed with watching my son’s breathing monitor and waiting for the alarm to go off, which would signal he’d stopped breathing. There were more false alarms than I can count—my nerves were frayed. Every day was an enormous struggle to get out of bed and take care of my kids. When they cried, it was hard for me to empathize. I felt cold and disconnected, like I was in a fog. I was also emotionally and physically exhausted, and I’d lash out for innocuous things—even little things, like my two-year-old spilling his cereal, would set me off.
We had recently relocated from Canada to Florida, so I had no family or friends nearby. I only had my husband to lean on, but he knew that something was very wrong and begged me to talk to a professional. I was resistant, but I knew he was right. Reluctantly, I agreed to see a therapist.
I’m told that having kids can throw your hormones out of whack and that the added stress can spur on mental illness or make an existing disorder worse. This seemed to be the case for me. It thrust my illness to the forefront and made it undeniable. I was diagnosed with postpartum depression. While I accepted the diagnosis, I resisted medication—I hoped that it would pass with time and sleep. But as my talk therapy continued, my therapist noticed that I experienced many highs and lows. My mood was all over the place, and she suggested that I might be suffering from rapid cycling bipolar disorder II, which is characterized by at least four episodes of hypomania or depression in one year. I surpassed that number within six months.
I’d have several days with massive bursts of energy where I’d accomplish everything and more on my to-do list. I’d have super-intense workouts, get the house cleaned from top to bottom and complete long-overdue projects. I’d feel on top of the world—invincible even—and then, without warning, I’d plunge into a heavy depression that I could barely see my way out of, sometimes for weeks. Everyday chores would fall by the wayside, the house would be a disaster, and I would be short with my kids. I felt like I couldn’t handle life, never mind parenting.
I have a generous, caring, patient husband, two beautiful boys and a roof over my head. But in those moments of depression, all I felt was despair. It was dark and scary. Parenting on those days was excruciating because, as low as I felt, my boys still needed diaper changes, food and love. And I gave it to them—I gave them everything I had and was left with nothing for myself. I felt hopeless. And the bipolar diagnosis didn’t help: I felt like my body was betraying me—like I was a stranger to myself. When my kids crashed for the night, I would crash for the night, no matter what time it was. I was sleeping 10 or 11 hours a night and napping during the day when they napped. I just wanted to escape my life.
The hypomanic times were different: They were wonderful and horrible all at once. I’d have delusions of grandeur and tons of energy (I could work out a couple of times a day and feel no pain), and I’d start new projects and make commitments that, after inevitably coming down from hypomania and plunging into depression, would go unfinished. At one point last summer, on top of parenting full-time, I was writing a book that I was sure would be a bestseller and had four different inventions I was hell-bent on getting patented. I’d never been a hands-on creative person, yet I spent hundreds of dollars at Michaels and hours upon hours hunched over my inventions—all four at once sometimes—developing them into the marvels I’d envisioned. It felt as if my mind had expanded.
It breaks my heart to admit it, but I’m positive that my oldest son could sense when I was struggling. He would spend extra time snuggling with me on the couch while we watched movies. He would intertwine his little fingers in mine and tell me he loved me a little more often than usual. It was in those moments that guilt and self-loathing would take over because there I was with the most beautiful boys I could ever hope for, yet I felt like I was failing them as a mom. It was gut-wrenching, but at the same time I was slowly understanding that this wasn’t my fault. All I could do was keep pushing to find solutions so that I could be well for my family.
I want to do my best by my kids. I want them to grow up in a stable household. I want my kids to feel safe. I want them to feel taken care of, not like they ever have to take care of their mother. So, I’ve started down the long path of finding medications that work. With the help of my therapist and psychiatrist, I’ve been on a painstaking journey of experimenting with medications for over a year now, and we’ve recently found the right combination of drugs to level out my moods. I feel like I’m becoming the best version of myself. The past two years have certainly been a roller coaster, but now that I’m in a positive place, I can clearly see a beautiful future ahead of us.
My family is the reason why I’ve worked so hard to find a solution. They’re the reason why I roll out of bed on the hard days, and they’re the reason why I leap (OK, more enthusiastically roll) out of bed on the good ones. I’m doing well and beginning to thrive, but I know I still have challenges to face and work to do. I am a highly functioning person with bipolar disorder. In fact, other than a few friends and family members I’ve told, no one knows I have it, and I bet very few would guess I do. But now that all my friends and family will know about my mood disorder, I want people to know that I have bipolar disorder II, but I am not bipolar. I have bipolar disorder, but it isn’t who I am. Mental illness doesn’t define me.
You might wonder why I’m writing this piece. I risk so much in writing it. I risk my credibility as a mom among my friends, family and acquaintances. I risk credibility as a human being. I risk being seen as unreliable, flaky and, worse still, unstable.
I’m exposing myself for a few reasons. One is to lift the weight of secrecy that I feel has been shrouding my life and to be free of hiding for fear I'll be judged. But I’m also sharing to do my part to help lift the stigma of mental illness and, perhaps most importantly, tell someone else who might be suffering silently that they’re not alone and that it can get better.
Everyone has his or her struggles. This happens to be mine.
Here are some resources for those who think that they may have bipolar disorder: