Bipolar & Parenting: Our Faith, Hope & Family
Anna’s faith has helped her cope with her son’s bipolar diagnosis, and has pulled her from her deepest depressions.
By Millie Guerrero
From a distance, the Evans family looks like a Norman Rockwell painting. With four sons and one daughter, they are churchgoing people. They love the outdoors and sports and participate in the community life of their small town in Utah.
But the Evans family (not their real name) is far from ordinary. Mother and three sons have bipolar disorder.
It’s a complicated, stressful home life— one that demands the full attention of parents Anna and Tom. A solid commitment to their marriage and their children, forged in their faith in God, is the family’s backbone. The Evanses are Mormons and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Faith and church-related activities play a significant role in their spiritual and social life.
My next-door neighbor has all of these perfect kids and then we are struggling like crazy.
For Anna, a belief in God has been a major factor in her ability to pull herself up from her deepest depressions. Her faith also has helped her cope with the troubles of her diagnosed sons. But Anna’s strict Mormon upbringing—her father was a bishop—also puts pressure on her to mirror others in her community whose lives and families seem to be in such good order.
“My next-door neighbor has all of these perfect kids and then we are struggling like crazy,” says Anna, whose children range in age from 11 to 21.
Not only is Anna responsible for keeping herself well and monitoring the needs of her children, she also must serve her congregation.
“It’s a very demanding church,” Anna says, explaining that all Mormons have a specific calling and are responsible for numerous church-related activities each week. “I used to have to force myself to go to church and it took me three days to recover.”
Anna would eventually learn that her father and sister also suffer from bipolar disorder, but she knew very little about the illness when her symptoms first developed in her early 20s.
When Anna was 22, a friend gave her an article to read about bipolar disorder. She saw that all of the symptoms rang true with her own emotional outbreaks, the manic hyperactivity and long fits of depression. She sought professional help and started medication.
When she and Tom met at college, “he felt very strong about marrying me,” aside and explained to him that living with me wasn’t going to be easy.”
That turned out to be quite the understatement.
Although at the beginning of their marriage, and even when Anna and Tom began their family, life seemed to be pretty stable.
“When I (first) started having kids, I didn’t have the responsibility of having a big family,” she says.
But as her oldest children grew, and more babies were born, the challenges and stress increased. Things got even more complicated when three of Anna and Tom’s four sons began showing symptoms of bipolar.
The firstborn, Spencer, now 21, became depressed at age 13. He was prescribed medication to help him pull out of these episodes whenever they occurred.
Fortunately, having bipolar disorder did not hinder Spencer’s ability to cope with the demands of school and teenage life. School officials placed him in a program for gifted children, where he developed strong friendships.
He played the French horn in band, and became a “Science Olympiad” through the science club. Having these activities helped him focus on his life and future, even when he suffered from episodes of rage and depression.
The Mormon faith played an intricate role in Spencer’s life through programs of leadership and mentoring. Members of the church in her neighborhood took an interest in him and encouraged him to participate in activities that would help build his self-esteem.
Spencer has plans to go to college to help people. He wants to become a doctor so he can “destroy bipolar” and help other people with the dream of finding a cure. He is currently serving a church mission in Jacksonville, Florida.
Anna believes that her own depressive cycles were especially hard on Grant, 19, the second-born in the family who suffered wild mood swings starting in his pre-teens.
“There was a particularly difficult incident that provoked Grant into an uncontrollable rage,” Anna recalls. “He put a chair through his bedroom mirror and used the remnants to destroy his stereo system and other items in his room.
“I used to think other parents would think I was a terrible parent because Grant was so difficult,” she says. “But I was probably Hercules compared to those mothers because I had to put in so much effort to help him.”
Now, Anna is dealing with the onset of bipolar disorder in her youngest child Cody, age 10. “He was 7 when I noticed there were a few things going on,” she says of Cody. “He would get into rages and totally lose control, or have giggle fits to the point that he would be crying and laughing at the same time. I couldn’t get him out to school and the teachers started calling me.”
Hailey, 16, the lone daughter in the family, says, “One minute we’ll be joking around and you’ll say a joke to Cody and he’ll start crying. Five seconds ago you were laughing at that and now you are crying. We just try and calm him down, comfort him, he’ll go to his room, come back in five minutes and do the same thing.”
Cody describes his disorder as being “like thinking two things at the same time,” which frustrates him. Anna says that Cody will shut himself in his room to separate himself from his family. “It allows him time to cope with the typhoon of images that bombard him,” she says.
Their youngest seeks help from his mother and expresses his thoughts and fears. Anna tries to help him break out of negative thought patterns by giving him something else to focus on, such as building models. Tom also works with Cody. “He takes time to help him wind down, play sports, make models,” Anna says of her husband. “It helps Cody feel OK.”
At times, it is especially difficult on the “normal” children in the family, Anna says. Joseph, 18, and Hailey are the only two who don’t suffer from bipolar.
“They get frustrated because the other kids get more attention or things go awry because of their mood swings,” their mother says. “If we are planning to go to a picnic and someone goes into a rage, we don’t go. Sometimes the rages are really stressful. It disrupts the peace in the family.”
Hailey and Joseph get a sort of perverse relief from observing the drama at home. “We’ll sit there and talk a lot, and make fun about how crazy they are. We sit and talk about everything,” says Hailey. “We laugh about it so we don’t go crazy!”
Anna says she believes that while the family’s trials are difficult, the situation will help make Joseph and Hailey better, more empathetic, people. “It will help them to be more compassionate and more understanding of other people’s problems,” Anna says. “They see we are not doing this (exhibiting signs of illness) purposely.”
Anna, however, believes her husband Tom thinks she has considerably more control over her mood swings than she actually does.
“My husband is an engineer and he is very logical,” says Anna. “When he makes a decision, it lasts for the rest of his life. When I do, it lasts a few minutes. He’s had to learn how to bend and it’s been really hard.”
Anna sympathizes with her husband, though, because he’s the one who has to pick up the pieces when she can’t. She knows he doesn’t fully understand the disorder, but that he does his best to support her and his family.
“I think that it’s evolved for him,” she says. “At first it was really difficult for him to understand what was going on. But he has mellowed out a bit and now he doesn’t expect me to be like other wives.”
For her part, Anna often feels unable to cope with stress, which can set off cycles of deep depression in which she sleeps 16 hours a day and gets up only to cook and do laundry.
“If I’m really severely depressed, I don’t feel anything,” she says. “I just feel empty. I would cook dinner just to let go of some of the guilt and keep everyone off my back.”
At these moments, Anna says faith and the love of her family provide the strength she needs to pull through.
“I know that my belief in God and the afterlife saved me from suicide,” she says.
Church teachings dictate that after death, a person’s spirit leaves their body and moves on to the spirit world, a place of learning and preparation. After a time, a person’s body and spirit are reunited and never again separated. Anna believes that it is a gift to every person who ever lived.
Anna says faith and the love of her family provide the strength she needs to pull through.
“No matter how bad things got, I knew in my heart that I couldn’t (kill myself),” she says. “I pushed myself harder for (my children). I think they gave me a reason to go on. And those little hugs and kisses don’t hurt.”
Also, says Anna, she is cycling less rapidly than in the past. Five years ago, she found a doctor who introduced her to new medication that has helped stabilize her mood swings. She feels this was a turning point in her life, allowing her to parent with more alertness, compassion and understanding.
Anna and Tom make sure that one night a week is devoted strictly to the family, whether it be a movie night, or a sit-down evening at home during which they talk about scriptures and the current happenings in their lives.
These evenings are some of the best nights of her life, Anna says, and it helps the family communicate their feelings about coping with bipolar disorder.
“At night when we read scriptures, sometimes we just start talking,” she says. “We start telling jokes, we are laughing and everyone is just happy. No moodiness, no nothing, just happy.”
Anna plans to go back to college for an advanced degree in psychology that will allow her to teach others how to deal with bipolar disorder and help other families cope with their loved ones who have it. Anna believes that faith and respect for the family that she and her husband share has held them together through the toughest times.
“The big picture,” she says, “is that I want my family to be happy and to be a family unit forever. I know if I raise good kids, they will go out and change the world. They will make the world a better place.”
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Anna’s tips for parenting children with bipolar:
- Keep a regular bedtime. Everyone does better when he or she is well rested.
- Limit television, video games and computer time, especially the hours just before bedtime.
- Open communication. Let your child talk about his day, which helps him put things into perspective.
- Educate your child’s teachers about bp. They can make adjustments to help relieve a child’s stress level.
- Find ways to develop talents. Keep children with bp busy by doing positive things, such as sports, music and art to improve their self-esteem.
- Simplify. Focus on only the major issues that affect the household and let the truly unimportant things slide.
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Printed as: “Bipolar & Parenting: Our faith, hope & family” , Spring 2007