Survival Tips from the Bipolar Mommy of a Special Needs Child

Crazy Good Parent

photo: healthychild.org
(This is not a photo of the author.)

I’ve been “parenting” since I was 14 years old and was caring for my baby cousin so much that people asked me how old my daughter was. I became a parent when I was 17, again at 24, then gave birth to my last child when I was 39 years old. I just turned 45, so, that’s 31 years. Up until very recently, I believed I was a bad parent because of that and that my bad parenting was because of my special blend of crazy, which was only recently identified as Bipolar II with PTSD.

I look at the things my two adult children experienced with me when my symptoms were undiagnosed and I didn’t even realize there was anything more going on other than depression and stress. As if depression and stress weren’t enough, right? I see the way their lives have been throughout adolescence and my son’s twenties. My heart breaks for their brokenness and pain. I used to wallow in bad mom shame and guilt for those things, knowing that my instability and chaos contributed to their choices and experiences. My lack of firsthand experience with being nurtured combined with all the survival coping skills I acquired while growing up – severe codependency being primary. Consequently, my children did not experience the love and concern I have for them, but many of the same things I experienced while growing up: abandonment, rejection, and lack of security. LOTS of mommy guilt defined my self image.

Now, though, I can see that my children have a lot more resilience and capacity to handle the painful, difficult, and harsher realities of life. My son, who manages a gas station, actually thanked me for training him in crisis management. We’ve been severely estranged for a long time but are working on, and through, reconciliation. He was smiling and joking, but truly sincere in his statement. He has capacities and abilities that those who didn’t grow up in crisis do not have.

I’m not recommending chaotic and unstable parenting as a parenting technique. I’m simply stating that even the worst parenting has it’s good outcomes.

I’ve learned from him and his sister. Now, I’m in the process of parenting their youngest sister and working to apply the lessons I’ve learned from parenting them. My youngest has been identified as being on the higher functioning end of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Her needs for structure, routine, stability, consistency–and for the adults in her world to exemplify the constructive social/emotional/behavioral ways to function successfully in the world–are much more critical than those neurotypical children require.

All the things Bipolar II, PTSD, and 45 years of living in survival mode have equipped me for– flexibility, adaptability, situational analysis, crisis response and management–simply are not the functional skills and tools for supporting and nurturing a child on the Autism Spectrum, especially when the necessities of those characteristics are present more than 50% of the time and I’m still learning to live with and manage my own symptoms.

I feel as if I’m in continual and constant crisis. Even when that isn’t the case, it’s how I feel. Unless I’m in the hypomanic phase of the bipolar, then, I’ve got it handled . . . until I don’t. What’s a Crazy Good Parent to do in this situation? I don’t know what will work for you, but I’ll share what is helping me.

1) Ask for help – From the moment I found out I was pregnant with my youngest, I was terrified I was going to screw her up the way I screwed up my oldest kids. I didn’t want that to happen and knew that because of my own issues and the issues I suspected her father to have that is what would happen without help.

I have accessed and reached out for supportive services since she was born. A community health nurse with the Healthy Start Program did weekly visits until I enrolled my daughter in the Early Head Start Program. She has also participated in the Volunteers of America Family Relief Nursery program, which is a respite program offering parents a break and additional supports as part of our community’s commitment to prevent child abuse.

If I had hidden the issues and problems inside of myself and my home, if I had not chosen to reach out and access the services and resources available within my community, we wouldn’t know or understand that she has special needs developmentally and emotionally. If I hadn’t admitted to myself and others that I was struggling and needed support, the postpartum depression would have had its way with me or the difficulties and dysfunctions in my other relationships would have escalated in much more destructive and painful ways than they have.

2) Talk about it – It’s scary and very difficult to be open and honest with the people we know when we are struggling with mood swings, depression, relationship problems, poor finances, job instability, and struggles with our children’s behaviors, needs, and wants. We’re in the era of super achievement, “mommy wars,” and the polarizing politicizing of all of these things as they relate to accessing public assistance, experiencing poverty, and the stigma associated with mental health disorders. Fear of criticism, judgment, or having someone decide to move in and take over because our struggles make us “bad parents” often keeps us silent and isolated.

If I had kept silent about my mood swings and continued to live in denial about certain things, I would never have asked questions of friends and acquaintances who had information and answers I needed. I wouldn’t have gotten diagnosed for the Bipolar II Disorder or the PTSD and wouldn’t be getting the help I need. I also would not have realized that things I was observing in my youngest daughter were signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder.

3) Educate yourself – There is a lot of dismissiveness about internet hypochondria and self-diagnosis. Sometimes it’s valid for those who begin and end with Wikipedia and WebMD. I start there. However, if I have heard of something, which may help me to understand myself, my child, and/or the people I interact with on a regular basis, I’m going to look it up. After reading the information available on those sites, I expand my search and look for government health sites as well as national and international organization sites that offer more information. The information I look for isn’t simply what the signs and symptoms of whatever I’m looking up. I also am looking for ways to manage and address the issues and symptoms while obtaining the most constructive support of benefit to me or a loved one.

If I had not gone past identifying what the possible diagnoses were for myself or my youngest daughter, I would not have been able to pay attention to how either of us respond to different things or have been able take note of the things that help and the things that trigger our difficulties. I wouldn’t have the knowledge base to confidently discern between someone who is genuinely helpful and knowledgeable vs someone who is not.

4) Keep going, no matter what – Our society has reached a point where it often seems that someone who is not a professional, carrying a Master’s or Doctorate, doesn’t have a polished, put together appearance, and who experiences mental/physical health disorders, is going to be pushed aside, overlooked, or dismissed. Fear, frustration, fatigue, stigma, the judgy looks of others, being looked through, and overlooked as someone who is too unstable, too crazy, too out of it, a wishful thinker, who is attention seeking, faking, scamming, or manipulative, is enough to make one want to roll over, crawl into a hole and never come out again.

If I had let the naysayers and the more educated professionals have their say and left it at that, again, neither my daughter or I would be receiving the services we need.

5) Rinse and repeat – We are human beings living lives in a complex world in unstable times. We will never truly be able to know or understand what goes on inside the people we love. Often, we realize we don’t even understand what’s going on inside of our own brains and bodies. Life is a mystery. Mysteries are scary, suspenseful, sometimes dark;  when one is solved a new one pops up. We will always need to ask for help, need to talk to someone, and educate ourselves if we want to move through the things which hinder and harm. We can’t give up on ourselves, our lives, our loved ones, or the world itself.

In the five and a half years that I’ve been parenting my youngest daughter and accessing different services and programs, it seems there’s always an evaluation, goal setting, and action planning process. Each new year brings growth and advancement in her development and change in mine. Funding shifts and changes programs and support services. Laws and regulations change. Needs and strengths change, too, as do preferences and passions. We adapt and change, evolve and grow.

My baby girl is going into Kindergarten next year. She changes every day and I can’t keep up on my own. That’s okay. I now know I don’t have to. She has a team of educators and specialists ready and able to support her within the public school district we live in, at our neighborhood school. We had two meetings in order to develop her Individual Educational Plan (IEP); they considered me the expert on my child. I was open and honest with them about the challenges, barriers, and realities of my life, including my mental health issues. They understood that my daughter isn’t the only one needing support services; they realize that I am her support system and that if I am not supported well, she won’t be either. I wouldn’t have gotten to this point if I hadn’t risked asking for help in the first place or been willing to face the fear of stigma and judgment to talk about it. Educating myself gave me the confidence to hold myself as an equal member of her service team.

I didn’t give up on myself, the social services and systems, or my children, and I never will.

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7 responses to “Survival Tips from the Bipolar Mommy of a Special Needs Child

  1. Though I am choosing to live childfree, I want to say I found this an excellent read. Thank you for sharing.

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    • Sarah,
      Thank you! I’m glad you liked what you read. I’m quite sure the things that have helped me navigate this parenting journey would have been helpful skills and tools to know and have before decisions and choices made that led to my unplanned parenting when I was 17. I commend you for being cognizant and self-aware enough to make a conscious decision in this and other matters.

      Be well,
      Lillian

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  2. Pingback: Crazy Good Parent: Survival Tips from the Bipolar Mommy of a Special Needs Child | Human In Recovery·

  3. I admire your tenacity! We can’t change the past but instead of letting the mommy guilt keep you stuck, you made a choice to learn and grow. It sounds simple but it’s one of the hardest things any of us can ever do. I especially like step 5 because the reality is that we don’t have to do all this stuff just once and it’s over. We’re constantly circling back around but it’s a chance to pick something new up that we missed before. Thank you for sharing your experiences Lillian!

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