Have I ever considered what my parents think about my mental illness? I have bipolar disorder and it has significantly impacted my life for many years. I’m pretty close with my parents (I’m lucky) and a few of their opinions sometimes sneak up on me or slip out in conversation. But I’ve never had a proper, honest conversation about what goes on in their head when they think about my bipolar disorder. So I called them up individually and asked them a series of interesting and sometimes intrusive questions to get their deepest, most honest and most accurate thoughts about my mental illness.
Why did I decide to do this now? Well, today is the International Day of Families and I wanted to honour the occasion by showcasing my own family. My family has played an important role in my recovery from my mental illness and in my support system. Some people don’t have good relationships with their parents and they have built themselves a chosen family instead. So I’d like to honour all types of families today.
So without further introduction, here we go with my questions and my parents’ answers:
Did you notice anything was wrong with me when I was younger? A teenager?
Mom: No, not really. You used to get sick a lot with stomach aches. Thinking back now, maybe it was psychological. We never talked about what happened at Dawson (read about the Dawson college shooting here) or how it affected you. I didn’t know what was going on in your head. You did really well in school and saw your friends regularly so I didn’t question it. You seemed pretty normal. You covered it up pretty good.
Dad: No, not really. For me, everything seemed fine. If anything was wrong, it just seemed like normal worries about school, etc.
How has my bipolar disorder affected you?
Mom: It has impacted me a lot. I don’t want to talk about it too much because I don’t want to upset you. It really hurts. Sometimes, I think “What have I done wrong?” It’s also hard to talk about it with my friends and I am not that open about it. When you were diagnosed, I thought they were wrong, but now I’ve realized after your episodes that it’s true. When you are a mother, you just don’t want that for your child. When you are depressed, I just want you to be stable and cope. I hate when you call me on the phone and you are really sad. It breaks my heart. However, I’ve started to come to terms with it. I’m really happy for you because resources are so much better now. As you know, I grew up with my mother being sick with schizophrenia. She never got the right help. Thinking about it eats me up. It helps me deal with it to see you trying hard to feel better.
Dad: I didn’t know anything about it. When you were in a really low place, your sister told me to come pick you up in Toronto and bring you back to Montreal to be with your family. I came to pick you up and when I saw you, I definitely realized something was wrong. When you ended up in the hospital a few months later and received your diagnosis, I was really worried. Seeing you depressed really had an effect on me. I remember a customer at work noticed that I didn’t look good and offered me a hug. I didn’t know anything so I didn’t want to say the wrong thing. Sometimes I don’t talk a lot because I don’t want to pretend I know something I don’t. Once you started the blog, I could see that you have a lot of knowledge. I’ve started to learn a lot more. In this day and age, there is more education about it. I’ve learned that your mental illness doesn’t go away. It belongs to you now. There are lots of things to make life better for you. Since then, I have dug into stuff and read other people’s stories. There are answers to your bipolar disorder but they aren’t complete. There is no cure for what you suffer. And no two people have the same roadmap. You may take Medication A, but the other people take Medication B. No two people are alike.
The bottom line is that my family is the most important thing in this world to me and I think about you every day.
What was it like for you when I was in the hospital at CAMH after my diagnosis of bipolar disorder?
Mom: Terrible. I was so worried about you. I didn’t understand what was going on. It was a shock. I was hoping for a quick fix. The main thing on my mind was, “How do I make you feel better?” My family is everything to me.
Dad: Of course, I was worried. I wanted to know what was going to happen and to be able to understand. Mental illness is not something you want or ask for. First and foremost, you are my kid so I just care about your well-being. I was hopeful you would get the right care. The healthcare system isn’t great.
What have you learned about mental illness in the time since I have been diagnosed?
Mom: So many more people have mental health issues than I thought. I read a lot of articles. There are a lot of good things and people out there to help treat mental illness. I’ve also learned that you really don’t know what goes on in people’s minds and lives. They can seem really strong or they can have a lot of money but under the surface, something can be seriously wrong.
Dad: Like I said before, I’ve learned that no two people respond to treatment the same way. I’ve also realized that you will be taking medication for a long time. But hopefully, you can live a more decent life with the right meds. Mental illness also definitely causes a lot of anxiety and sleepless nights for family members.
What do you think about the fact that I will likely have bipolar disorder forever?
Mom: You have really good support so I think you’ll be okay. It won’t be easy but you can do it. You are accessing a lot of resources and trying really hard and I am proud of you.
Dad: I’m sure you’ll be fine – you have a great partner who loves you. I know your mental illness is not going to go away but you’ll deal with it.
Do you have any advice for someone in the same situation? (a parent of a kid with mental illness)
Mom: Just learn to listen to them and make sure they are accessing the right resources. Don’t get frustrated because their mental illness is not their fault. Try to stay positive.
Dad: This is your child and you brought them into the world. Give them the help necessary to manage the mental illness. Make sure you find out anything you can. Also, the healthcare system isn’t perfect so be prepared to deal with issues in receiving treatment.
What do you think about my mental health advocacy?
Mom: At first, I was leery about you being so open and honest. I thought, “Why do they need to know about your mental illness?” But I’ve realized that educating people is important. I am proud of you and happy for you. Your blog posts opened up my eyes to a lot of things. You are so courageous. Working on your blog seems to make you feel better, so that’s what counts for me. I think it (your mental health advocacy) is a good thing.
Dad: It blows me away every day. It shows you are trying hard to learn something in order to give yourself a better life.
What do you think of my parents’ answers? Be gentle, they will be reading this. Personally, I was pretty amazed by their self-awareness around these questions. They didn’t have any hesitations to answer any of my questions. The answers seemed ready to go. We don’t really talk about my mental illness much, except for a quick “Great blog post!” or me providing an update on treatment, so I guess I didn’t really expect such insightful responses straight away. But it shouldn’t really surprise me – I have seriously caring and wise parents.
Who is a part of your “family” and plays an important role in your support system? Tell me about them in the comments below and we can celebrate them together.