Parenting with Mental Illness – One Bipolar Mom’s Journey (part 2)


In part 1, we learned that mental illness is widespread among the general population and seriously under-reported among parents in the U.S. Blogger and bipolar mom Courtney Vaughn shares what it’s like parenting with mental illness.

In part 2, she takes us into her bipolar world, describing what she, her husband, and two children experience during her episodes. We discuss important parenting issues and tips, including pregnancy and mental health and the risks involved. This is Courtney reaching out to the parenting community as a whole, those living with and without mental illness, for mental health is an issue that concerns us all.

“I felt my life just for a moment crashing and I could do nothing to stop it. This moment was brief and in reality nothing horrific was happening but in that moment my emotions could no longer be controlled and I felt useless and powerless . . .” ~Courtney Vaughn, When My Life Crashes for a Moment

TiP: How do you communicate to those around you what you’re going through, that you have bipolar disorder? And was it difficult to get that initial support?

Courtney: It is very hard to explain when someone cannot physically see the illness like a broken leg, for example. It’s hard to explain to others what you yourself are still coming to terms with. In fact, I kept it hidden from almost everyone except my parents and my husband because I did not want people to think I was crazy or incapable of having a normal life.

As for initial support, it was not difficult to find in terms of family. I am very blessed to have wonderful family members that have chosen to educate themselves in order to best support me. It has been a growing experience for us all through the highs and lows. As for friends, however, I kept it hidden for the most part because of the stigma surrounding mental illness. It was at a time when I needed someone to listen and not give unwanted advice, even if it was coming from a good place. However, I soon realized I was the one who needed to stop the stigma and help educate those who did not understand my mental illness, or any mental illness for that matter.

TiP: Regarding pregnancy and mental illness, you have two lovely and lively kids; so, what tips can you share with new bipolar parents, those who are expecting or planning to have children?

Courtney: If you’re pregnant with bipolar disorder, let your doctor(s) know! You can be monitored and they can help! Living with bipolar is hard enough; adding all the pregnancy hormones on top of it can make it very complicated. So, let them know!

Having children is obviously a huge responsibility, planned or not, and being a parent means it’s your job to do what is best for your child. I fought a six-year infertility battle to have my imagechildren, knowing I had bipolar disorder. It was a planned, deliberate, carefully thought-out decision made with the support of my family and doctors and my own understanding that I am I am capable of having a full and functioning life just like most people.

When parenting with a mental illness, you need to understand the illness and its stigma, then focus on staying healthy and positive. And you will find out what a great parent you are — maybe even a better one, in some ways, like having higher levels of creativity!

More on Pregnancy and Mental Illness

It’s common for bipolar disorder to pop up in early adulthood. And because women with mental illnesses are no different that other women who want to have children, the onset of bipolar episodes and pregnancy can, and often do, overlap. And when they do, the bipolar symptoms can get out of control.

“. . . pregnant women or new mothers with bipolar disorder have a sevenfold higher risk of hospital admission and a twofold higher risk for a recurrent episode, compared with those who have not recently delivered a child or are not pregnant. ~NAMI

Treating both the mental illness and the pregnancy, without compromising either, can be tricky. That is why planning pregnancies and working in concert with a psychiatrist and OB-GYN is recommended to minimize risks.

You can find more information about recommended medications during pregnancy, the risks, studies, and more at NAMI Research on Managing Pregnancy and Bipolar Disorder and by contacting your physician and behavioral health professional.

TiP: What are some of the extra challenges bipolar parents may have to face on any given day?

Courtney: They change from person to person and may be more intense for some who may have a different form of bipolar disorder, such as bipolar 1, or someone with bipolar depression episodes, or if the disorder is complicated with other mental illnesses. In general, though, extra daily challenges for bipolar parents can include . . .

  • staying on routine
  • watching out for and identifying triggers
  • getting out of your episode once it occurs
  • taking medications as required (if that is part of your treatment) — could be a couple of times a day
  • making it to your therapy appointments
  • making sure your vices are not dangerous (vices can be anything from binge drinking to wanting to read all the time)
  • staying focused on the task at hand
  • not fixating on just one thing
  • not letting the unexpected throw your anxiety into overdrive
  • sometimes, in extreme cases, just the will power to get out of bed
  • remembering if you have a bad day, there is always tomorrow
  • learning you are no different from any other parent out there . . .

According to Dr. Adele C. Viguera, parenting tends to motivate those with bipolar disorder to take their medication, stay healthy, and successfully regulate their mental illness.

“Patients with bipolar disorder are perfectly fit, wonderful parents. It’s just a condition that has to be managed.” ~Adele C. Viguera, M.D., Everyday Health

TiP: Pull us into the thick of it. What’s it like for you, your husband, your children when you’re hit with any of the following bipolar episodes: emotional high period, emotional low period, rapid cycling, and the aftermath?

Courtney: During an emotional high period, I feel like super woman! I’m super productive (or what I feel is super productive), full of energy, not sleeping, starting 900 projects, and I also get super fixated on things like cleaning, cooking, and so on. My emotional high periods don’t last very long, only a couple of days.

My husband’s reaction is to basically let me just go through it because I am really doing nothing destructive like binge drinking, partying, or other dangerous vices that some bipolar people are prone to being victims of. He does make sure that I do go to sleep and tries to keep me on some sort of routine.

As for my children, they just know Mommy is full of energy, as we are doing extra crafts, playing outside, and so on.

The aftermath is always the same. I have 900 unfinished projects; I feel like I got hit by a bus; and I have to get back on my routine.

imageDuring an emotional low period, I feel depressed! I have had these more and had them last several weeks if not months. I feel worthless and exhausted, want to do nothing, and like I’m wearing a mask. This means I have to force myself to cook, clean, and basically function on auto pilot. During the emotional low periods, my husband picks up a lot of the slack, and I end up feeling worse, causing a deeper downward spiral. I know he feels frustrated with me at times but loves me anyway. He also encourages me to seek help, whether it is to talk to my mom, go back to my “brain doctor” (what I call my psychiatrist), or just talk about it.

My kids are still young, so I am not sure what they pick up on. I think they see or feel that I am just functioning on auto pilot and staying on my routine. We tend to watch more TV or movies and take it easy during the lows. My kids end up getting cabin fever a little. However, they have not really experienced me in a prolonged emotional low period yet. My children are my motivation. For that reason, I think the aftermath is brief or nonexistent, for I try my best to get back on track and make things up to my husband and kids. It’s usually a good time for an adventure day.

My children did not ask for me to be bipolar or to have health issues and it is truly not fair to them when I am in an emotional low. And though I can put on a decent mask, it doesn’t mean I don’t feel like crap once the mask is replaced and I’m back into what I call normal or an upswing. My children are my everything, and I want to be my best for them!

During rapid cycling, I feel like there’s a light switch in me that I have no control over. It’s my worst enemy. Not every person who lives with bipolar disorder has this with their diagnosis, but anyone who with bipolar and rapid cycling can say this is not a pleasant thing. This is where a lot of my triggers come in to play. Triggers can be events, places, people, smells, and so on that can trigger my moods.

I can be having a great day with family and friends, then trip over a broom (true story), which everyone finds funny, but triggers a switch in me and frustrates me to the extreme. Other times, I get super emotional, and things just make me want to cry and cry. Sometimes, these extreme moods can happen days apart or within a 24-hour period!

My rapid cycling usually starts with a good mood, then switches to bad, then good, then frustration, up, down . . . . The only thing I can do is check out of reality for a bit, meaning my husband lets me take a nap, or I surround myself with music, or simply take a time-out.

Rapid cycling is probably to blame for those with bipolar being labeled “unstable.”

In the aftermath of most episodes, sure sometimes I beat myself up over lost bipolar battles; I’m often surrounded by unfinished projects and nine piles of laundry; I’m exhausted and trying to figure out how to get back into my routine. But I have the support of my family; I somehow fight to stay positive, and prioritize maintaining my health. So, the aftermath . . . the aftermath is always three steps forward and two steps back.

That’s still progress.

“Mental health needs a great deal of attention. It’s the final taboo and it needs to be faced and dealt with.” ~Adam Ant

imageJoin Courtney in her efforts to create support for parents with mental illness and fight against the social stigma by sharing and encouraging her! To follow her journey, check out her blog A Bipolar Mom and Her Daily Life.

Recommended Reading:

  • The Bipolar Disorder Survival Guide: What You and Your Family Need to Know by David J. Miklowitz
  • An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness by Kay Redfield Jamison
  • Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me by Ellen Forney
  • Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder: Understanding and Helping Your Partner by Julie A. Fast and John D. Preston
  • Welcome to the Jungle: Everything You Wanted to Know About Bipolar But Were Too Freaked Out to Ask by Hilary T. Smith

Thank you for being tuned in parents. A special thanks to tuned in parent Courtney Vaughn for speaking up about life as a bipolar mom. She is a parent in the trenches, not a doctor. For medical advice, please refer to your health care providers. I welcome your comments, suggestions, stories, and all things parenting! There’s more for you, too, on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest!

About Elle C. Mayberry

Elle C. Mayberry is a mom and author, who just released a new children's book with her young daughter. With a passion for parenting and degrees in psychology and "make it workology," she created Tuned In Parents (TiP).

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