Parenting is tough even without a bipolar diagnosis. However, there are strategies that can help you maintain healthy family bonds through the challenges.
I am the proud father of two daughters, age 23 and 20. My girls are each the “apple of my eye” and anyone who knows me understands that this is the case. I’ve been there every step of the way, from changing diapers to seasons as a softball supporter and eventually graduations and jobs.
And while I am fortunate to have children that are transitioning successfully, I have had many challenges along the way. The first was simply explaining that I live with bipolar.
This is how it went down: I vividly recall an afternoon when I was in my basement running on my treadmill. My older daughter (who was 13 at the time) opened the door, stepped down a few steps, and asked, “Are you bipolar?”
“Yes,” I replied. “Why do you ask?”
“I saw the bp Magazine on the kitchen table,” she said (this was actually several years before I was a blogger for bphope.com).
So, there you go. It wasn’t a situation where I had to have a formal family meeting where I sat the girls down and shared my condition; it was actually more organic in nature. Mind you, my one daughter was a teen and both the girls were already aware that I was in recovery from addiction.
Also, they had never seen me in the midst of a manic or depressive episode. But nonetheless, her discovery did prompt further conversation. I would take the opportunity to share with them in a developmentally appropriate manner what the condition was like. I remember talking to one of them about the idea of genetic predisposition. When I did so, I ensured to break it down in a way that she could understand.
Since that time I re-entered the world of clinical work as a counselor and both my daughters were well aware of the work I did. But one thing that was crucial in our relationship was the spirit of openness and transparency about my condition. Also, the whole idea of living with a mental health diagnosis was normalized in my household. I eventually began to blog and do advocacy work in my community and they became accustomed to my new profile.
I recall another time when I was at a 5K race with my younger daughter. Afterwards at the post-race party, a woman approached us and said that she had heard me speak once and that she appreciated the message I provided. My daughter later commented that she thought that it was really nice to hear of the connection I had made.
While my situation may be different than some, I still have had to face issues common to any parent with bipolar disorder. This specifically pertains to the idea of projecting my illness onto my children. My wife has reminded me (on more than one occasion) that my daughters are not me.
My life experience, in many ways, was much different than theirs. And for that, I am especially grateful. This is the case for many people living with mental health conditions. While genetics and family history can be a risk factor for bipolar disorder, DNA can be an unpredictable thing. Add to that other issues like trauma, for instance, then the risk may be higher. But just because a person has a mental health condition, it doesn’t guarantee that their offspring will.
Another commonality that dads with bipolar disorder face is that of taking on the responsibility of raising kids, and how this can be complicated by living with this diagnosis.
For instance, when my wife was pregnant with our first daughter I actually experienced a manic episode that took me out of work for three months. This was a real wake-up call. I was reminded of the importance of adhering to my medication regimen. I knew that I would need to maintain a sense of stability when raising my kids.
Being a dad can be challenging in itself—throw bipolar into the mix and it can become more complex. But it is possible to be successful whether or not one has a bipolar episode or not. The key elements are communication and compassion. It’s important to remember that while our children may not understand our condition, it is possible to help them to not be afraid of it and to know that they are loved.
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