Coloring Between The Lines

February 21, 2011

There are things that one knows about one’s self, and things that one doesn’t. I know, for example, that words make me happy and that I love my children and that I can, when I try, be very funny, and that I am introverted (yes, really) and that I am good at philosophy and at making soup and that I love the smell of lilacs. I know, too, that I am prone to anxiety and depression, but that I am able to cope with these with the help of the love and support of my family and by writing and with a certain quantity of pharmaceuticals. What I don’t know is how big a role my proneness to anxiety and depression plays on the stage of my psyche – whether it is a starring role or a bit part, whether its strutting and fretting defines the production in some critical way or is just a nuance, just theatrical flair – and whether, or the extent to which, it shapes who I am. What I also don’t know: how much it effects how my children regard me, and how they will remember me.

My paternal grandmother was, to use the vernacular, crazy. To the best of my knowledge, she was never diagnosed with a specific mental condition, but according to my parents, she was bonkers. My use of words like ‘crazy’ and ‘bonkers’ is inappropriate, I know, and a practice that I deplore in others, but ‘crazy’ was how I understood her, my Dad’s mother, as I was growing up. I never met her – my mother told me, later, that she had been terrified to let her babies, us, within ten feet of her – and my parents were, of course, very careful in the language that they used to describe her to me when I was growing up, but I’d gotten bits and pieces of the story by eavesdropping and asking annoying questions – Dad had been afraid of her, Dad had left home very young to get away from her, she’d died when she set her own house on fire – I understood, I read through the lines. She had been crazy.

Later, when I became aware of my father’s own struggles with mental illness, my understanding of my grandmother became more complicated. Throughout my teens, Dad had what were at the time called ‘nervous breakdowns,’ and it seemed to me that those breakdowns of nerve, those collapses into nervousness, were very probably my grandmother’s fault. Dad had demons – to use the language of our church – and all I knew of his demons were that they had something to do with his childhood, with his mother, and so I blamed her. I blamed her for the fact that he had breakdowns; I blamed her for the fact that he would go sit in the garage and weep (which terrified me all the way down to my bones, such that they would ache with my fear); I blamed her for the fact that his voice would break when I would ask him about his childhood and he would say, I’d really rather not talk about it, sweetie; it’s not a happy story. I blamed her for the fact that he didn’t have a happy story.

I don’t blame her anymore; I know more of the story now, and although it is a truly hair-raising story, I know that it’s a story of mental illness. But in a way that knowledge has made it worse: she wasn’t a monster, she was a woman with an illness, but that illness is something that she might have passed on to her son. That she might have passed on to me. That I might pass on to my children. This terrifies me.

This terrifies me, not only because I fear for my own mental stability – if this is genetic, is it beyond my control? am I genetically fated to be crazy? (the research calls this ‘self-guilt’) – and for that of my children – are they genetically fated to be crazy? – but because it colors my memory of my father, who, although he struggled with anxiety and depression and, really, just a whole lot of sadness, was a light in my life and a source of great joy to me. He was gentle and kind and wise and although I always knew that he held a very great grief in the deepest part of his heart, I also always knew that that grief was overpowered by love. But when I dwell in anxiety about my own mental state – my own griefs, my own fears – and the genetic heritage of this state, I lose this part of him; my memory of him becomes achromatic, desaturated, a fog of gray and sad. I hate this. And I fear that my children will inherit it, that they will someday fret over their mental wellness and that this fretting will cast a pall over the memories of their childhood and that they will see me that way, in a fog of gray and sad.

I hate this, I hate this.

I fight this.

I fight this by fighting my battle with anxiety and depression, and by endeavoring to fight it out of their view, but I worry about this, about this concealment of the gray and the fog and the sad. My paternal grandmother lurks in my memory like a shadow, a sinister one, and she does so because I did not know her and did not know her story and by the time I learned her story, and my father’s story of her, she had already settled into her spectral shape. The details, now that I know them, are secondary; brushstrokes of oils over an image whose paint has already set. My father never explained to me why he struggled, beyond the barest sketch, and so I just colored in between the lines, and sometimes over them, and I worry whether my children will do this, too, that if I conceal my own story, or keep it deliberately vague, they too will fill in the outlines of that story with their own colors, or uncolors, achromatic grays and blacks, and regard me through that fog.

So what do I do? Do I reach for as much honesty as I think that they can handle, even now, when they are so young? I discuss grief with Emilia – it is necessary to discuss grief with her, when it keeps so close to us – and she has learned, already, that there are different kinds of sad and different kinds of worry and that not all of these, perhaps not any of these, are ‘bad,’ but do I – can I – extend that discussion to those times when Mommy has a headache / Mommy is tired and break for her that code that conceals the truth of Mommy is anxious / Mommy is sad? Or do I wait until she – until they – are older, and then explain in more detail this experience, this thing that I struggle with, this thing that may or may not have anything to do with the thing that my dad struggled with, with the thing that my grandmother struggled with, with those things that are not monsters, not necessarily, not if you drag them out of the closet and sit with them in the light?

(Thank you to award-winning author Linda Gray Sexton for sponsoring this series, which is inspired by her memoir Half in Love: Surviving the Legacy of Suicide. I was selected for this sponsorship by Clever Girls Collective which endorses Blog With Integrity. To learn more about Linda Gray Sexton and her writing, please visit her website.)


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    { 33 comments }

    Shnerfle February 21, 2011 at 2:18 pm

    I just told my 10YO son, the other day, that I take medicine everyday to help me feel happiness. I told him, because I am starting to see my depression raising its head in him. These gifts we have from our parents, sometimes we pass them on. And so, with THIS one, I am fighting it with honesty. I told him about the chemicals in our brains, how they don’t always work. And as I watch my baby begin to struggle with this demon, I hate myself a little bit more, as if, somehow, I DID this to him.

    I’m scared too. And I am angry. But mostly, I feel helpless to protect him. I feel like I’ve failed. But I haven’t. And I won’t. And we will fight this thing.

    Her Bad Mother February 22, 2011 at 10:28 am

    @Shnerfle, the research on this (there’s a link in the post) calls this self-guilt, and suggests that, contrary to the expectation that exposing mental illness as often rooted in genetics would alleviate shame/prejudice, people often really struggle with the fact (?) that mental illness is such a deep part of them, and that they might give it to/pass it on to/”do this” to their children. Which is to say, it’s common. Doesn’t make it easier, though.

    Hugs to you.

    ABCfibi February 21, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    I to had a mentally ill grandmother. I was only allowed to see her twice in my life, with my parents present. I had always wondered when I was little why we didn’t spend any time with her aside from the fact that she lived about 8 hours away. As I got older, I learned a little more about her. And this past fall, I had an agonizing conversation with my aunt about her and she told me things that my Dad would never talk about. Things that I am not sure that I really want to know.

    My grandmother was incredibly abusive. She locked my father, aunts and uncle in closets for hours. She beat them. She even held guns to their heads on occasion to make her point. And as sad as that sounds, she did far worse things that I won’t go into on here.

    I too worry. What if it hereditary? How do you know that the gene isn’t hibernating and being passed down a generation or two. The thought is horrifying. Did my grandmother suffer her own abuse that turned her into a monster or was it just something deep down inside of her.

    It is very scary.

    Her Bad Mother February 22, 2011 at 10:32 am

    @ABCfibi, my paternal grandmother was abusive like that. my uncle told, after my father died last year, that my dad (his older brother) had saved his life many times, helping him hide from knife-wielding mother but pretending all the while that it was a game so that he, my uncle, wouldn’t get too scared. My dad grew up into an exceptionally gentle man – the gentlest man – and did not carry on the legacy of abuse, but he did struggle with clinical depression, terrible clinical depression, so I wonder what part of the darkness is rooted genetically. The ‘monstrous’ part doesn’t seem to have been handed down – maybe she was a victim of abuse herself – but we’re only two generations past, and I don’t know what her condition was, so. The fact that I don’t know enough terrifies me.

    Marcy February 23, 2011 at 1:24 am

    @Her Bad Mother, This reminds me so much of my husband’s family. His maternal grandmother is mentally ill, and was horribly abusive in all those ways to her children. I have never met her. My husband’s mother is amazingly calm and gentle, especially in contrast to the childhood she had. Aside from some anxiety, she seems to be very mentally stable (though I do not know her history or what medication she may or may not be taking) but her sister, my husband’s aunt, ran away years ago carried away by her own demons, and even her now-teenage daughter doesn’t know where she is.

    My husband has never shown any signs of mental illness, so I wonder if it mostly was triggered by horrible upbringings…. or if there’s something hidden, that will one day show up in him or has been passed on to our 2 boys. I hope I can be watchful of them as they grow up, and look for signs if any show up and help them fight those battles if needed.

    Becca February 21, 2011 at 2:21 pm

    Thank you for this extremely timely piece. As a neighbour was hospitalised for mental health reasons this week, I can’t help but think “there but for the grace of God go I”. I feel somewhat predisposed to this, and with the baby on the way, every fear is amplified.

    I think that gentle, thoughtful honesty must be the best way forward.

    EarnestGirl February 21, 2011 at 3:40 pm

    The truth, always the truth.

    Children have unerring radar, not speaking the truth in the light pushes them toward darkness & makes everything more frightening. Just find ways to tell it clearly & without undue complication.

    ( Picture books, for example, can open little trap doors in our hearts which allow complicated concepts & conversations to become easily understood references. )

    dana parker February 21, 2011 at 4:05 pm

    I often wonder if my boys will one day refer to me as their “bed-fast crazy mother”. Damn, I love your honesty!

    Christina D. February 21, 2011 at 5:58 pm

    I’m with EarnestGirl: it must be the truth. Tailored to their understanding and age appropriate, of course, because they know; they can sense it, that deep sadness. They are a part of yours (and ours and my) families, their destinies are entwined with that of the family’s, and they deserve the respect of being told what’s what inside the family. Because it will come out eventually and wouldn’t it be better for you–their loving, insightful mother–to work through it without them as opposed to a therapist when they’re 15, 25, or 35?

    Show them the respect they deserve as Life endeavoring to reach its fulfillment; it’s this ongoing addiction of ours to hide and conceal and protect that’s getting us all into trouble in the first place.

    Christina D. February 21, 2011 at 5:59 pm

    Oops – that line should have read “to work through it WITH them”

    Little Miss Gonnabe February 21, 2011 at 8:19 pm

    I have my fingers crossed that for me it is A case of PPD. This is round two but it’s getting easier… I really appreciate this post. Thank you.

    Kimmad February 21, 2011 at 8:37 pm

    I could seriously have written this post, substituting
    “Mom” instead of “Dad.” My mom spent a month in the “crazy” hospital due to a “nervous breakdown” and visiting her was a nightmare for a 12-almost-13-year-old. Yeah, good times. I suffered with depression for so many years before getting it recognized, so in some ways I’m thankful that I was able to recognize it in my own son and get him the help he needed.

    Thanks for your honesty.

    Jenna February 21, 2011 at 9:15 pm

    Honest, heartfelt post. Thanks for this.

    And I, too, always turn to books for help in explaining hard concepts to my kids. This one has been recommended to me, though I haven’t seen it in person. http://www.amazon.com/Sad-Days-Glad-Story-Depression/dp/0807572004/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1298337173&sr=8-1

    Hollie Pollard February 21, 2011 at 10:42 pm

    I too can relate too well, having had a mother who went through nervous breakdowns, and my own suicidal thoughts. I have battled darkness off and on for a long time but really refused professional help (drugs)..I know how dark it got for my mother, and now I see signs of darkness in my daughter who just turned 13 and it terrifies me.

    Thanks so much for this post!

    Tway February 21, 2011 at 11:42 pm

    I’ve always been anxious–and after some years of therapy I still get anxious a lot, but at least I know how to put a name on it now. I know to talk about it. I know other people experience it, too, and sharing our stories is good and healthy and makes you feel human.

    I think I got it from my mother–a kind, helpful, generous woman who doesn’t ever talk about her real self. I realized a few years ago that everything she says is disguised as advice, something to offer other people, and something to make herself feel wanted and useful. But it’s fake, and a cover for whatever inadequacy she feels, and I never hear anything that’s truly from the heart. And it’s so obvious, and so fake, and so grating–and I wonder who she is, under all that. How hurt she is, what she lived through, why she spends so much energy covering up.

    It hurts that she won’t allow anyone to know her–won’t be vulnerable enough to share her weaknesses. She hinted only once–when I pushed hard and cried for her to please be herself–that she spent a long time building up her wall. And then she shut down. And never mentioned it again. In fact, went back to all smiles and advice, as if we hadn’t spoken. It was awful.

    So I try to be honest, always, about my anxiousness. I try to be vulnerable in the hopes of finding strength in it. And I hope–I really, really hope–that I can be as honest with my daughter when she grows up.

    Loukia February 22, 2011 at 12:08 am

    I worry all the time about my children, and more so having to have gone through a few extended hospital stays with my oldest son, for kidney infections and pneumonia, surgery in his lung, etc… the fact that I was already a hypocondric only made it worst for me and if he gets a fever, I run to the doctor, each and every time. I get the worry and axiety from my mom, and even though she is the worst person to be around when my children are sick, because of how much she worries and freaks out, I need her by my side more than anyone else. I know I should probably take something to calm me down, but I don’t. I do take Ativan to fly, though and my GOD it helps, although still, I worry…

    Frelle February 22, 2011 at 12:11 am

    I love the way you write. Every single time. It’s just what flows out of you, authentic and brave. Its how I want to write, too. Resonates with me.

    This post especially.

    My oldest two are 11 and 8. The oldest is very intuitive, and in the last year or so, we have talked quite a bit, just on the surface, about anxiety and depression, and how people should treat other people, and how we need to be accepting. I try to be as open as it seems recommended/wise to be, I really strive for authenticity.. even with my kids.

    I dot have any way of knowing if your fear will be realized, but it is not paranoid fear, that’s for sure. Just want to validate you. It’s your truth, and what’s in your heart. Thank you for sharing it with us.

    anonymous February 22, 2011 at 3:49 am

    Here are my tenets for living:
    Secrets are bad.
    Age appropriate information shared is healthy.
    Don’t burden children with adult problems but don’t lie and make secrets. Children know when we are not being honest and it causes them stress. E.g. if child says “what’s wrong mommy?” and mother replies “nothing” a. the child will not believe her b. the child will feel stress. A better response is the truth delivered age appropriately. If our words say one thing, but our body (language) says another, children will believe our body language, not our words.
    You’ll find your way. You are really good at this stuff–you are really good at life.

    anonymous February 22, 2011 at 4:05 am

    When I was a little girl my mother took “happy pills”. Thing is, they never made her happy. I often asked to “go and get your mothers happy pills”. I’ll never forget the brown bottle, the rattle of the pills inside as I skipped to my mother, pill bottle in hand. I also won’t forget the sad look on her face, and the beadlike orange pills with white writing on them, like skittles, only smaller. I’ll also never forget watching her take them, with a glass of water, me waiting for her to turn happy. It.never.worked. Everytime I waited with anticipation and stress. I think I would have been better off if someone had given me some information, some way to understand. And, if someone had allowed me to brainstorm with them about ways I could contribute positively–ways to show her love, ways to live my life so as not to make her life harder. I think I would have embraced that kind of information/help.

    After becoming an adult I realized there are genetically inherited traits; I waited and worried and watched myself like a hawk for signs that I was turning into my mother. I looked like her, maybe I migth be.like.her.too

    I still worry. But not so much. I love the reassurance that we have (some) control over our lives. I know how to eat well in order to function better. Sugar makes me gloomy and listless.

    Mental illness is not an easy road to hoe.

    We need to improve our attitude to include people with all.types.of.struggles. Even the invisible struggles.

    We need to offer understanding to people who struggle every day with challenges they do.not.choose.

    Who would choose to be the sad one? Who would choose to be the dysfunctional one?

    I bet sad and dysfunctional people would change places with people with happy and functional inherited dispositions in a heartbead. It is bad enough that some people have to be sad or be dysfunctional. Let’s not make matters worse by excluding [insert any negative word you want, have seen in action here] them for being so.

    The crap shoot of genetics.

    Whose to say we’re not all just doing the best we can with what we’ve got. Wouldn’t it be better if we all had a meter on our head that showed “maxed out–this is as well as I am able to do” instead of just judging performance. Some people rock performance without even lifting a finger. Lucky for them.

    Angela@beggingtheanswer February 22, 2011 at 10:20 am

    I am so grateful for this post, and for all the helpful comments.

    I am a high-functioning person with bipolar depression. It began with what we thought was a very bad case of PPD. At the very worst, I couldn’t function at all, much less care for my kids.

    I was seeing my psychiatrist weekly, and was honest (and scared) enough to phone her when I started having suicidal thoughts. She was able to quickly get me on the correct medication (mood-stabalizers), and they took effect almost immediately.

    My oldest was only 2 when this happened, so I’m not sure how much she remembers. Maybe only that Mommy stayed in bed a lot because she felt sick, and that Grandma came over and stayed with us for a few weeks until Mommy got better.

    Since being on the mood-stabalizers for 1 year, I’ve gone through a couple (comparatively) mild depressive and manic swing. We just told my oldest (now 3) that Mommy felt sad, and it wasn’t my daughter’s fault, and that Grandma was coming over to help until Mommy felt better. She doesn’t notice I take medication every day, yet.

    I know the time is quickly approaching where I’ll need to address my disorder more in depth and more openly with my kids. I don’t want to hide this from them; but I don’t want to scare them either.

    I’m bookmarking this page for future reference. The post and comments have been so helpful. Thank you.

    Kim February 22, 2011 at 10:58 am

    This is a tough one. My genetic worry is cancer, but still. That’s some scary stuff.
    I try to put a simple, positive spin without being dishonest about why Grandma needs my help, why I am going to the doctor a lot for tests, why I want us all to eat healthy, etc. I think when the kids get older, I’ll give them more info. I wish more adults were honest with me as a kid.

    Megan February 22, 2011 at 11:01 am

    Wow, this post hit close to home. I have just spent the weekend in an anxiety-ridden state and am still on the road to recovery from it. I’ve suffered from anxiety & depression for 12 years now, most of it with medication to help. But as you know, it doesn’t always help. For a long time I never told anyone in my family – we weren’t the talking type – actually I never really knew other families did talk about this stuff until I was in my teens probably. I told my parents on the weekend because I needed them – my husband is travelling now so I was home with all of the kids – I needed help! Even after telling them what was up, there wasn’t much discussion. I have no idea if there is any family history of this. I know I’m terrified that I’ve passed this on to my boys. I try to be open with them about what goes on with me, but they are still very young (2 and 5). I’m more open with my stepdaughter (who is 12). It’s tough. I’m trying to be strong, taking it hour by hour right now, day by day as it improves. And I know it will improve. I’ll get through this “episode” just like I have before. But there is always that demon looming, making me wonder when the next one will hit and if I’ll be able to get through it. All this to say thank you Catherine. Thank you for being so open, for making us all feel like we’re not alone and we can get through this all together. I hope that all of this talk and awareness helps our kids, so that if (when?) they do show signs of this demon lurking, there will be so much more available to help them. So thank you, thank you, thank you.

    anonymous February 22, 2011 at 11:53 pm

    @Megan,
    You are a sweetheart. I love what you wrote:`Thank you for being so open, for making us all feel like we’re not alone and we can get through this all together. I hope that all of this talk and awareness helps our kids,…`

    I agree: a. with your thanks to Catherine. Thank you Catherine for so much. Thank you for everything that you do everyday. Thank you for opening up a dialogue. THank you for the space. Thank you for the acceptance b. WE.ARE.NOT.ALONE if I have learned anything from this blog and these beautiful commenters, it is that we.are.not.alone That is a very helpful, destressing and re-energizing awareness! c. we can get through this all together. It is the only way sister. d. we can only hope one generation improves on the previous and our kids are going to be better positioned to deal well with this stuff because of the brave work you are all doing today–sharing your stories.

    Healthy Life is Easy February 22, 2011 at 12:23 pm

    What Can We Do to Help Them? This afternoon I read the news via the internet. I was Surprised by the news That ‘there is, an earthquake Happens again on this earth. 6.3 earthquake with the strength ritcher Destroyed scale has most of the city in New Zealand. I cans not do much, We all cans only pray for all the quick passes and They get the help and assistance Immediately. hopefully the Victims to be patient.
    I attach news of the earthquake today, the which I quote from the CNN media. http://healthylifeandfitness.com/?p=1046

    Laura February 22, 2011 at 1:49 pm

    Thanks for this post – I too suffer from anxiety and depression and have already noted anxiety in my 5 year old daughter. Lots of good thoughts on how to discuss and be open.

    Karen L February 22, 2011 at 3:04 pm

    I don’t have much to add but I wanted to comment because your story of your dad reminds me so much of my dad. Also a very, very gentle man who has had several “nervous breakdowns.” He hasn’t been hospitalised in over a decade but you never know when the meds (for bipolar disorder) will just stop working. His mother died of a heart condition before I was even born but there have been suggestions that her mental health was poor. There were also suggestions that my father and his siblings were abused by their father, too.

    Also to your earlier comment, it is very interesting that research shows that increasing awareness of the nature side of (especially genetic predisposition) mental illnesses actually INCREASES the stigma attached to mental illness.

    anonymous February 22, 2011 at 11:56 pm

    @Megan,
    You are a sweetheart. I love what you wrote:`Thank you for being so open, for making us all feel like we’re not alone and we can get through this all together. I hope that all of this talk and awareness helps our kids,…`

    I agree: a. with your thanks to Catherine. Thank you Catherine for so much. Thank you for everything that you do everyday. Thank you for opening up a dialogue. THank you for the space. Thank you for the acceptance b. WE.ARE.NOT.ALONE if I have learned anything from this blog and these beautiful commenters, it is that we.are.not.alone That is a very helpful, destressing (stress reducing) and re-energizing awareness! c. we can get through this all together. It is the only way sister. d. we can only hope one generation improves on the previous and our kids are going to be better positioned to deal well with this stuff because of the brave work you are all doing today–sharing your stories.

    Aimee Giese | Greeblemonkey February 23, 2011 at 12:32 am

    Not sure if I have ever told you this, but both my grandfather and father were hospitalized for schizophrenia. And while I don’t have that, thank god, here I am with my own crap, my own large amount of crazy drugs that I take, and I worry about my effect on Declan, and wonder what he will go through as an adult. Yes, all these same feelings you have. You are not alone, darlin. xo

    nic @mybottlesup February 24, 2011 at 9:58 am

    i recently went back on my combo of prescription drugs that i’ve had success with in treating my chronic depression and anxiety. my two and a half year old (way too smart for his own good) son sees me take them each morning, and sometimes at different points throughout the day depending on the situation, and he calls the pills “mommy’s gum.”

    i cringe when i hear that but i’m also grateful that at such a young age, he has some concept of it… he knows that mom takes something. period. i can only hope that as that knowledge increases with age, it will cause him to be that much more sensitive and understanding. all i can do is hope and educate.

    it’s interesting to me that you mention your parents and grandparents in this post… the generations have such differences yet we’re all discussing the same thing ultimately. whether it’s a grandmother who was “bonkers” or “off her rocker,” a father who “needed happy pills,” or now our generation who just calls it what it is (which can be both a blessing and a curse)… it all comes back to the same thing… we are parents and we’re doing the best we can with what we have.

    Taxidermy Worms February 24, 2011 at 11:11 pm

    I feel I need to say something in response to this incredible outpouring of honesty you have shared so graciously… but in all seriousness I’m feeling lost for words, which doesn’t happen often.

    I just had my first child 6 months ago but have been internally battling myself in this regard since I realized I wanted to be a mom years back. I wouldn’t say that any dramatic form of mental illness runs in my family (I am probably the most severe case, at least over the past few generations) but now that I’m older I can see that there has always been an air of sadness but more so anxiety around my mother. She recently shared with me when discussing what it was like for her as a new mother, that she felt what she now looks back and sees was postpartum depression. I wouldn’t say that she hid anything or concealed her anguish from me, but she never came right out and told me either, and although as I get older I see her more and more as a whole person than just my mother, I don’t think I feel any disillusionment regarding my childhood memories. She is a light in my life and that light is not in any way dulled in either my past remembrances of her or during our current time spent together.

    Then again, like I said earlier, I am a much more dramatic case study than my mother… and I’m terrified my children will lash out the way I did when my “demons” began to manifest themselves in my teen years. I’m scared that my self-destructive nature will be passed on.

    That being said, as much as I would hate for my offspring to have to experience that particular brand of struggles, I know in my heart that if it’s not one thing there will be another monumental hurdle for them to overcome… and all we can really do is provide a strong foundation, the right resources to cope… and unconditional love. From there it’s in their own hands. I would hate it for my mom to feel that my mental turbulence is a burden she somehow cursed me with, hereditary or not it wasn’t up to her.

    roo February 24, 2011 at 11:43 pm

    For some months before I was hospitalized with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, my husband and I had been trying to conceive. But then I got sick, and went to the hospital, where I was put on medications that contra-indicate getting pregnant. I was worried about whether I’d ever recover enough to be a fit mother someday, and I mourned the immediate loss of our hopes and plans– and felt 9unfairly to myself) responsible for the loss.

    Still, I was getting treatment, and my doctors told me that my disease could be managed with proper vigilance and care. I hoped that someday I’d be able to pick up my life where it left off.

    I mentioned my sadness about having to wait to try to become a mother in one of my group therapy sessions. An occupational therapist, who was pregnant herself, told me that if I ever wanted to have a baby, I might have to check myself into a hospital and receive electro-shock therapy, because I wouldn’t be able to take medications (I found out later that there are in fact medications for my illness that can be relatively safe to take while pregnant.)

    The OT went on to tell me,” And if you ever do try to become pregnant, you really should consider using a donor egg, because bipolar is genetic, and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”

    She didn’t seems to realize that she was saying I would have been better off if I’d never been born.

    I’ve come to learn that she also doesn’t understand much about the nature of genetics, which are far less prescriptive than the public generally understands– at every level, environment plays a part in how they are ultimately expressed.

    After all, I must have had some genetic pre-disposition to having bipolar my whole life– but I didn’t experience symptoms of same until I was well into my thirties.

    At any rate, that occupational therapist did a lot to add to my grief, at a time when I was already overwhelmed with receiving such a difficult diagnosis, and the shame of being hospitalized for it.

    It’s hard to forgive her for that.

    MamaRobinJ February 27, 2011 at 12:00 pm

    I feel like I should comment on this post, but I don’t really know what to say. I haven’t lived it, but I can understand the fear.

    My experience with this was PPD, and it seems to be temporary, at least that’s what I’m hoping.

    Your question about what to tell your kids, especially when they get old, is interesting. Wouldn’t you presume they could read all you have written? I think it would help enormously with understanding, but of course you’d have to talk to them about it as well so they understand why you put yourself out there.

    I write about my experience – as so many others do – so that it becomes easier, more okay to talk about these things. And I have to hope that will help our children too.

    Rob halper March 7, 2011 at 9:44 pm

    What a great post. You’re not alone. We all have our share of demons, whether present or past.

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