Personal Stories, Bipolar

Mum, bipolar and me - the impact of a delayed diagnosis

Last week there were two events - world bipolar day (though it seems only to be celebrated in Asia ) and Mothering Sunday (in the UK). These two events both make me think of one person - my mum.

My mum has bipolar mood disorder. She was diagnosed when I almost twenty, after battling for more than a decade. That was more than 10 years of deep depressions, periods of erratic behaviours as the mania kicked in, and countless “hospital holidays” when it all got too much to handle. As a single parent (my dad died when I was 6) without family close by, mum had little support. Which meant that we battled alone. Her, my younger brother and I.

It defined my life from an early age. I watched mum’s friends come and go with her changing moods, and I became used to a constantly changing life. We moved every 12-18 months and it seemed like life was in a constant state of flux. We were a family adrift as we tried to make our way through life.

Our stability was shattered when mum bought and lost a business, which left her struggling with significant debt. Each month became defined by the celebration of payday as we stocked the cupboards with food, and the desperation of the last week as we ran out of food and money. Every few years it would become too much for mum. She would be hospitalised, whilst my brother and I went to stay with a local family or the pastor from the local church. But we kept smiling, in fact it became a family joke that hospital was the only way mum could get a paid vacation. We were a family living on the edge, stretched at the seams and then we snapped.

I was 13. Life was becoming increasingly difficult. Mum had lost her job, deliveries of food parcels became our new normal, and we had been evicted. We were due to move into two rooms in a commune on the outskirts of town, but we couldn’t take our beloved pets with us. This meant that our pets had to be given to the SPCA (an animal charity).

It was moving day, and time for school but mum was still in bed. I went in to see what was keeping mum, and in an instant my world irrevocably shifted. In short, mum had detached from reality and was rambling. I now realise that she had suffered from a breakdown, but at the time I couldn’t understand why she couldn’t respond to my basic questions.

I arranged for a neighbour to take my brother to school, and for the doctor to take my mum to hospital. That left me to pack up the house into boxes and, with the help of the SPCA who had arrived to collect the animals, I was able to arrange a van to take us to our new accommodation.

I still remember that day and can picture each moment so clearly. Sitting on the back of the lorry on top of the boxes, as we drove past my school where my classmates were playing on the field. Wanting make sure that I had unpacked mums favourite things, so she would have a comfortable space to return to when she got out of hospital, and spending two nights with the volunteers from the SPCA because there was nowhere else for us to go.

A few days later mum was back home and we started to settle into our new accommodation, but things were different. Mum was different. She seemed broken. This was the start of a deep depression that lasted for about a year. I tried to keep us moving forward, and felt responsible for keeping the family together. I knew money was tight so I walked the hour and a half journey to and from school every day, to save the bus money.

I felt abandoned and alone, and couldn’t understand why mum wasn’t there for us. No one spoke about depression, and there was no follow up with mum. She had been given anti-depressants and sent on her way. We were just left to get on with life.

Over time things started to improve, I found a flat for us to rent. It was closer to the centre of town and it held the promise of getting our lives back on track. I found a job at the local library and regularly babysat to earn extra money for the things I wanted. Mum had started a crafting business and each weekend she would sell her amazing creations at craft markets. We were happy. Then the mania kicked in.

I was 16 when it reached its peak. Mum and I had been at odds with each other for more than a year. She had become less able to look after us. That is when child services were alerted to our situation.

My strongest desire was to protect myself and my brother. The swings between the highs and lows were more frequent, and life felt like a battle for survival. It was fend for ourselves or leave, and I was tired of battling.

There was talk of us having to go to a children’s home, as there were no available foster families. A thought that truly terrified me. Thankfully we were rescued once again, by my boyfriends mum who agreed to take us in. It would be an informal arrangement.

It fell on me to tell mum that we were leaving. That was one of the hardest conversations I have ever had. For weeks I cried myself to sleep each night, wracked with guilt for splitting up my family. A year later I faced a harder conversation when it became necessary for us to formally placed into care, and I testified against my mum.

I was 17, and I had lost everything. My mum no longer spoke to me and my brother was angry that I had pulled him away from home. He didn’t realise that I was trying to protect us, or how close we were to being sent to a home.

For two years there was little contact between mum and I. I became determined to leave my life behind me. There was no looking back as I finished school. I took control of my life, and became determined to never let my past hold me back.

Then I found out that mum had been diagnosed with bipolar mood disorder. I wanted to know more, and after days of researching in the local library I found “An unquiet mind” by Kay Redfield Jamison. I sat in my room reading the book from cover to cover, finishing it in a day. The tears falling freely.

It’s hard to describe the emotions that take hold of you as you read someone else describe behaviours and situations that perfectly describe someone you know. Suddenly so many things made sense.

The highs, the lows, the moments in between. All down to a chemical imbalance in the brain. A genetic condition. Moods, thoughts and behaviours that can not be controlled. Mum had been struggling with a run away brain.

I’d love to say that we reconciled immediately, and that I was there to support mum when she most needed help.

But I can’t. I was young, hurt, angry and was focused on putting myself first. Our relationship was strained, and it took a long time to repair the damage that had been done. We were always there for each other, but there was a distance between us. We were scarred, and were never able to bring ourselves to talk about what had happened. There was too much hurt and guilt on all sides, and this held us back.

It took another 20 years, motherhood and the insights gained through my own struggles to really understand and accept what had happened during that period of time.

I have faced my own challenges, but I had a stable income and the support of my husband and people who are close to me. They helped me keep going until I was able to find my feet.

Mum had no one. She battled alone, as a single parent, fighting a brain that was increasingly running away from her. Bipolar wasn’t well known, and there was no one saying “I think there is more to this than meets the eye”.

Our relationship is on the mend. There are still many things that still struggle to talk about, but we are learning to be more open with each and our wounds are slowly healing.

I wonder how different all of our lives would have been if mum had been diagnosed sooner. If someone had tried to understand why she repeatedly needed to be admitted to hospital, and why sometimes her behaviour was so erratic. If someone had spoken to myself and my younger brother to better understand what life was like for us all. If they had asked the question of why a loving mum who wanted nothing but the best for her children, suddenly wasn’t able to care for them.

I see so many people battling, searching for answers, support and insights when their brain seems to be working against them.

When we judge people for their behaviours without taking time to understand why they are acting the way they are, we risk making the wrong decisions about who they are. We risk failing good people, losing lives, and tearing apart relationships. We risk guilt, hurt and devastation.

When we look beyond behaviours to see what people need, we help them and those around them to live the life that they were born to lead.

This is something that my mum has taught me. When I look back I no longer see the hurt, anger or disappointment of what I missed on. I see the strength and courage of a woman who have made it against the odds, and is an example of the huge difference that a little understanding and support can make when you are Neurodivergent.

My ask is that we work together to ensure that people get the right diagnosis and support as soon possible, so that they and their families don’t risk facing the types of challenges that we went through.

I want to thank my mum for her courage and support in relation to me publishing this post, as I know how difficult the memories are for her. She has even suggested that she may write her own post one day. ❤️

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About Helen Needham

Helen is the originator and founder of Me.Decoded. A passionate advocate for Neurodiversity, - diagnosed as autistic in her 40's after a lifetime of feeling like she was on the outside looking in.
  • England