Back in October of 2021 I was made aware of an anthology being put together of women’s stories. No real guidelines, just non-fiction or fiction. Or poetry and photography. Mostly they just wanted our journey as women or mothers, or aspiring mothers, ect. It was a really exciting opportunity, and I decided to write a non-fiction piece. Ultimately it was rejected (yay! My first official rejection!) and I’ve often wondered why. I can’t wait for the book to be released, because I know it was amazing. Since it isn’t going to be “officially” published I though I’d go ahead and share it here.
Yes, yes… it isn’t perfect, but it’s a window into my life. I hope y’all enjoy it!
Trigger Warning: Suicidal Ideation, Mental Health, Children’s Mental Health, Swear Words
That Bipolar Mom
Written By: Amy Long
I have been blessed with a beautiful burden. I was officially diagnosed as bipolar when I was twenty-three years old, and it made so much sense. I’ve struggled with amazing highs, and crushing lows, since I was around five years old. In hindsight the professionals think I had early onset bipolar, I’d say they’re right. It’s pretty unusual for a nine-year-old to be hiding butcher knives under their beds, working up the courage to end themselves.
Let me clarify a bit. I come from an amazing family. I’m the youngest of five kids, in what we’ve always called a “his-hers-ours” family. As a child I didn’t care or understand that I was a half-sibling to my brothers and sisters. They never referred to each other as “steps”. My siblings all called my mom and dad just that, and I had love. So much love.
I’m the baby (by a lot) you see. My next closest in age sibling is seven years older than me. My sisters are each ten years older than me, with my eldest brother being thirteen years older than I am. Which suited me just fine, I was an only child with siblings! My maternal grandmother lived with us from the time I was around two, so I had three adults in my life that adored me. Other than normal sibling rivalry and squabbles, my home life was pretty ideal.
The real trouble started when I began school. I was the fat girl, the bookworm, the girl with low self-esteem. I had a target the size of Texas painted on my back, and the bullies tormented me until I broke.
Let’s face it though, it didn’t help that I was incredibly sensitive. My mom’s nickname for me was Scarlet, as in O’Hara, because I was the overreaction queen. Nobody knew in the late eighties and early nineties that I was throwing one red flag after another in the air. It was all a phase I would grow out of… right?
Except, I didn’t. My teen years were drugs and rebellion. I even managed to force my parents in to letting me get married at seventeen. Yup, I was off the rails. Oh, and no… that marriage didn’t work out. That’s another story though.
In my early twenties I was in love with my best friend, a sweet, funny, wonderful, self-destructive guy. I lost him to diabetes when I was twenty-three and he was twenty-four. Just six days shy of his twenty-fifth birthday, and he was across the country when it happened. I had been so tangled up in drugs and alcohol before his death, that the loss of him hit me harder than the ice water challenge. That was January 30th, 2008.
I did a deep dive in to losing myself. I tried to bury the pain with pills, pot, booze, and men. When, one March morning, I woke up and decided that this was the day I was going to die. Lucky for me it wasn’t my time, and I was caught by the sheriffs before anything too terrible happened. Actually, the best thing in the world happened. I was committed and I was diagnosed for the first time in my life, and do you know what I felt? Relief.
I had the answer now! The key to being able to fight this bitch in my head that had been running the show my whole life. I grasped that diagnoses with both hands, and I did the hard work. The medication merry-go-round (because they never get it right the first time out of the gate), therapy, coping skills. Answers floated around me like bright little fireflies for every struggle I’d endured. I thrived. I lost a ton of weight and increased my standards for myself. A move back across the country with my parents to my home state of California meant a clean slate.
Then I met the man of my dreams. After a couple years of dating the conversations about marriage started, and what a family would look like for us. That was easy for me. Six kids please, no less than four and no more than nine. We agreed, with some major excitement for our future. The wedding came and went, and the marriage began. With it some challenges and questions that I suddenly had to face.
First, just to get pregnant I’d have to come off of all the medications I’d faithfully used to keep me stable. During that time my mind began to wander to the “what ifs”. Instability brought out all of my anxiety, insecurities and doubt. Worse, all I could focus on were those bipolar moms.
Face it, no one hears one good thing about bipolar mothers. Think about all the news stories of bipolar mother’s doing atrocious things to their children. Bring it closer to home even. I’d never heard a single friend say, “My mother had bipolar, and my childhood was great”, have you?
Nope, it seemed pretty obvious to me that bipolar and motherhood was a recipe for totally screwing up your kids. Except… I wasn’t a “typical” bipolar patient… I was compliant and worked great with psychiatrists and therapists. I was referred to as the freaking unicorn of bipolar patients. Could I be the exception to the rule? How would that even look?
For me it was a pregnancy I sailed through with exceptional mental health. Unfortunately, I was determined to do early motherhood the same way, and I refused medication while breastfeeding. Which didn’t last long, due to low supply, spiraling me deeper into the belief that I was already failing at motherhood. Once my oldest son officially went to formula only, I began to medicate again. We’d decided to have kids close together, to get me through my low or un-medicated times as quickly as possible. My second pregnancy was also med free, and other than crippling anxiety I did pretty well. I’d learned my own personal lesson from round one, and began antidepressants the day my second son was born. I had a better time with the postpartum, and was even able to breastfeed longer.
Now, I have a confession. Even through my sunny attitude of how to handle my bipolar, I would occasionally have to ask God “why me”. Why am I having to deal with this creature in my brain, who knows how to whisper to me even through the medication? Why can I not break free from severe suicidal ideation, routinely committing myself for inpatient care? What is the divine purpose in all of this? I wouldn’t be so arrogant as to say I know what God is thinking, but I think I may have an idea.
My oldest son never seemed quite… normal. I’d been around infants, toddlers, and children my whole life. I’d become an aunt for the first time at six years old! So, it seemed strange that my oldest son was nearly impossible to soothe.
The older he became, the more I worried. By twelve months old he was having violent episodes of temper, self-harming with banging his head into the walls or floor so hard that he would actually knock himself unconscious. I worried when my second son was born, as big brother was only two, but in the 95th percentile or more for his height and weight.
My oldest was two years old the first time he backhanded my face so hard my glasses flew across the room. He suffered from horrible night terrors, his moods swinging from high to low with barely a moment in the middle. While he was one of the smartest and most loving kids you’d ever want to know, there was a dark side that people outside of my house rarely got to see.
By the time he turned five, things were out of control. We’d done early intervention, even tried therapists for him, but nothing helped. He was violently attacking his little brother on a daily basis. I can remember those final series of events so clearly.
First it was the fight over the tiny metal toy train. Both boys wanted it, and my eldest picked it up and bashed his brother in the head. He actually split his brothers scalp open. One week later my nearly three year old son was in his highchair eating lunch, turned to watch TV. My oldest sat at the table, eating his lunch, and I slipped outside for a break. I came running when I heard the crash and the scream. My baby’s highchair, laying on the floor sideways with him still strapped in it, my oldest standing nearby watching. I frantically asked what had happened, and had no words when my oldest said he just felt like pushing him over.
The next day the search for real answers was on. I begged a psychological evaluation center to see my oldest before something permanent happened, and was relieved when he was seen right away on an emergency basis. I sat in the car for four hours a week later, as they tested my son for every single thing under the sun. A few week later I was given a gift. Answers.
My son has ADHD, specifically impulsive and hyperactive. He has an IQ in the 140’s. He has very superior processing speeds, and in human terms that means his brain doesn’t allow even a nanosecond to think before he acts. They felt he may have DMDD (Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder), but was too young to officially diagnose*. We made the hard choice to medicate his ADHD, and saw improvements right away at home and in school.
The moods were still there though. That anger always simmering underneath. We walked on eggshells, trying not to set him off but also set boundaries. Frequent trips to the outside patio began, where I would watch him scream and rage in a chair for an hour or more. Once it passed, I may be able to talk with him about what happened, or I may have to let it go. The violence began to uptick again, and he developed new fears of things that had never bothered him before.
A month before he turned six we started him in therapy again. While some improvements came, it also became clear he was fighting a battle in his mind. His depression set in. He would say his brain was broken, would pray that God would take him away, or break him in to pieces and build a better boy. He would sit at the street, flagging cars down in hopes they would take him to a new home where he could be good.
Clearly, it was time for more action. Again, I feel I should clear some things up. Watching the male version of me as a child broke my heart. Those feelings of worthlessness and isolation were something I’d save my son from at all costs. The reality that he wasn’t only a harm to himself, but potentially others, was an ever present topic of conversation. I needed to save him.
My husband and I decided we should have him see our psychiatrist. To get a fresh set of eyes on an ever evolving situation. Then came the diagnoses. Possible early-onset bipolar disorder. This time I felt no relief.
I raged. I screamed at God for slamming doors on my son at such a young age. I pleaded and bargained. I begged and threatened. I cried until I ran out of tears. Then I prayed, and my answers came.
I am a freaking bipolar unicorn. I do everything I should, even when the medications aren’t working. I work with my doctors, and I feel ZERO shame in this disorder. I advocate loudly for the normalizing of saying the words and walking the walk, and I now have a son stepping on the path. I am a freaking bipolar unicorn, and he will be too.
Yes, agree with it or not, we’ve chosen to medicate our son. I’m blessed with a psychiatrist that believes less is more, and the best course for a six year old is to do as little as possible pharmaceutically to simply help the therapy along.
My son smiles now. He laughs. He hugs his brother. He stomps his feet when angry, instead of destroying property or using his hands. He cries when his feelings are hurt, and is soothed by a hug and kind words. He knows his brain works differently, and that there’s nothing wrong with that. He knows he needs the medicines, because they let him take control of himself. He’s happy.
At six years old, my son already is taking the reins on the bitch that ran my life for twenty-three years. At six years old, my son is winning. I helped with that. Some doors may shut, but others are wide open. He’s still free to pursue his passions, the way I’ve done with writing. Instead of an astronaut, my boy just might be a geologist.
I am a bipolar mom, and it’s the best possible thing I could be.
*As of the original writing of this story, my son has been diagnosed with DMDD (Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder) and is currently being helped to manage it.
Believe you can and you’re halfway there. -Theodore Roosevelt