Talking about my bipolar disorder with each of my children was difficult. Once each was old enough for “the talk,” they had sharply different reactions. Here I share my story and some tips that might help you navigate your own family discussions.
Difficult Conversations about Bipolar Disorder
The discussions I’ve had with my children about mental health challenges have been some of the most fraught conversations I have ever had—and the reactions I got from them when I have tried were as varied and unique as they are. But I discovered some pointers that may help you to have family talks about mental illness that flow a bit more easily and naturally.
Different People & Different Reactions
My children were very young when I was diagnosed with bipolar I disorder—at the time, I had a third-grader, a kindergartener, and a toddler. I had experienced a psychotic episode where I packed up my bags and ran away from home. I was found quickly, but I was still gone for several days without seeing my children while I stayed in the hospital. When I came back, they were very loving to me but scared. We had to tell the oldest two something about why I had left, and we settled on calling my illness “anxiety attacks.”
Curious and Open
My oldest was the most inquisitive of the three, and, several months later, she started telling me about the day I ran away. She said that she and her younger sister thought I was still in the bedroom when they came out of their rooms to fix their breakfast. My husband came out of the bedroom, thinking I was in the kitchen with my girls. When each of them discovered I was nowhere in the house, my husband called the police, then took my oldest two to school and stayed home with the toddler.
She said that that day, she and her classmates started making crafts for Mother’s Day, which was coming up. My oldest broke down, crying, and was taken to the office to talk to one of the principals, a family friend, about how she didn’t know where her mother was.
When she opened up to me about this, I told her that her mommy had problems with her emotions, and sometimes they made her do things that hurt herself and other people.
I told her it was called bipolar disorder, and that she was welcome to talk about it with me and ask questions about it at any time.
We didn’t discuss bipolar again, until she was in high school and grappling with hard emotions. She came to me and said that her first thought had been, “Am I going to be like Mom?”
I offered her reassurances, and we supported her whatever resources she needed to navigate these feelings and questions.
Learning by Observation
My middle child didn’t want to talk about my disappearance or bipolar at all. Whenever the subject was brought up, she would leave the room.
When she was about 13, I told her that if she ever wanted to know about my condition, she could get one of my books on the subject and read up on it.
“I don’t need to read up on it,” she said. “I know from watching you what it’s like.”
And she has hewn to that position.
In college, she took a course called Intro. to Psychology, and I told her that if she and her professor agreed, I would be happy to come to her class to talk about bipolar disorder.
She flatly refused, and we haven’t spoken of it much more since then.
Growing Up & Beginning to Understand
My youngest was the hardest to talk to. She grew up knowing me only after I became symptomatic; the other two had seen what I was like before my symptoms came out in earnest, and that had complicated the process of talking with them about my treatment.
Although my youngest had grown up with a mom who was symptomatic, she didn’t have formal knowledge about bipolar yet. So, when she was 13 also, I thought it was time to come clean with her about my symptoms and my bipolar disorder.
I silently went up the stairs one night, then knocked on my youngest daughter’s door.
“Yes?” she said. “Can I come in for a bit?” I asked. “Um, okay,” she said. As I walked in, I wondered how to open this “adult” conversation. “Can I talk to you for a minute or so?” I asked.
She said okay, then kicked a few of her playthings out of the way on the floor, and I moved a few stuffed animals around on her bed to make room to sit.
I decided to admit that I wasn’t sure what to say: “Mommy needs to talk to you about something, and I am wondering about how to say it right …” I decided to go simple first. “You know Mommy has problems.” She nodded. “What do you know about my problems?” I asked. She shrugged her shoulders. “Do you know what it’s called?” I asked. She shook her head and said no. “It’s called bipolar disorder. Do you know what that means?” “No,” she said.
To keep it simple, I described bipolar by saying that sometimes I would get very sad and depressed, and, other times, I’d be really angry and irritated; but there were also times when I was all right—not experiencing any of those things. Because it causes switching between both sides, they call it “bipolar disorder.”
I paused. “Do you understand what I’m talking about?” She nodded, but I could tell she really didn’t. She was nodding to end the conversation.
“I’m telling you this because I never got medicine for my problems until after you came along. We knew I had struggles, but we never put together what was wrong until then. And even with me learning about bipolar disorder for my work for disability—I still didn’t know that any of that was happening to me…. But you need to know about it because it is hereditary; and you need to know that if you ever start feeling really, really funny in your mind, to come to talk to Mommy and Daddy about it.”
She nodded again, and this time I think she understood at least the last part of what I had shared. I asked if she had any questions, and she said no. I reiterated that I just wanted to talk so that she could understand what my problems were all about. “You know how Mommy sometimes goes to the hospital?” I asked. She nodded and said yes.
To explain this potentially confusing experience for her in an age-appropriate way and also set her mind at ease, I said, “Well, that’s because I sometimes get really, really sad and other times really, really anxious and upset. That’s why I take medicine all the time now, to keep that from happening again.”
I stopped and just looked at her. She nodded. I could tell she was eager to get back to her playtime. To wrap up our “talk,” I said, “If you ever have questions or, like I said, start feeling really funny, let me and Daddy know.”
I could tell that I had given her a lot to think about. She was young still, but it was a talk that we needed to have. And, at that point, she was mature enough to start understanding my mental health condition, which can sometimes be very complicated—for anyone, of any age—to really comprehend.
Suggestions for Talking to Your Own Family about Bipolar
Start at their own level of understanding. Use simple language.
Don’t wait for a crisis that they’re not prepared for. Educate them beforehand.
Offer to answer any of their questions. Refer them to books or reputable internet sources.
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