What my mother taught me through her battle with mental illness

The week before my senior year of high school my mother had a nervous breakdown. I’m not talking about someone who is having a bad day who sighs and says, “I’m having a nervous breakdown.” But a full out didn’t get out of bed for months, couldn’t go to work nervous breakdown. We didn’t talk about it; it was never explained to me. And even to this day it is still only rarely discussed. It happened and that was that. Growing up as a fairly independent child in a single parent household, I had flirtations with the idea of being an adult before, but at that moment the roles were reversed, and she became the child and I became an adult.

At the time, I had so many other things going on around me, that I didn’t really know what to think. I had just started my last year of high school. I was stressing out about college applications, AP classes, and my best friend who decided that she didn’t want to be friends anymore. I needed my mother and she wasn’t there for me. I needed to be comforted, and reassured that things would workout OK. I was angry and confused, I needed my mother to get out of bed and to take control but she couldn’t.

Several years later I found out that this nervous breakdown was brought on by several different factors, some of which included a new doctor, a change in medication, and my growing independence. Finally a diagnosis was given: bipolar disorder. So many things that had at once point been confusing now seemed crystal clear.

I had always known that my mother had suffered from depression. In fact it was a running joke in our family that depression was the family heirloom that we passed down from generation to generation. I had seen my grandparents, aunt and uncles and now my parents suffer with mental illness. I had seen the good bad and the ugly sides and I couldn’t help but wonder, was I next? After all it has been suggested that mental illness runs in families. Was I just a ticking time bomb that could go off at any moment?

And while I did have some times when I felt sad, it it has been nothing compared to some of the struggles I have watched friends and family go through. So far I have been lucky, I have found great friends who are wonderful listeners, which is such a huge help for me and luckily I have never been afraid to ask for help if I needed it. But what I am afraid of is waking up one morning and not being able to get out of bed, and finding out that I am now suffering from this demon this “Black Dog” as Winston Churchill called it.

For a long time I was so angry with my mother. “Why can’t she just be happy? Why can’t she just be normal? Why can’t our life be perfect?”

As I have gotten older I have come to realize that this wasn’t her fault. Having family members who have suffered from mental illness have taught me to be compassionate and patient. Not to judge people, most of all it has taught me how to love people, and to be grateful for the family that I have and not the perfect families that are portrayed in movie or TV. Over the years I have learned to build a different kind of relationship with my mother. She and I will never be Rory and Lorelei, and that is OK.

Mental illness can be hard to understand for people who do not suffer from it. It can be frustrating to explain to someone why your seemingly healthy mother is not able to function the way that most people do. Mental illness is not just a bad day, or even a few bad days. For those of us with loved ones who suffer from these complex disorders it is a way of life, and something that must constantly be treated with care and gravity.

I’ve come to recognize the moods my mom is in when her doctor is adjusting the dosage of her medications, or if she has switched to a new one. I can tell just by the sound of her voice whether she is having a “good day” or whether she is going through a ”rough patch.” Children are taught over and over again that their parents will always love them no matter what; often we don’t really think to apply the same rule to our own parents.. My mothers journey with bipolar disorder has taught me patience, compassion and empathy, and most importantly it’s taught me how to love her just the way she is.

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