Businesswoman Alison’s bipolar depressions were hard on the whole family when her son and daughter were growing up. She still feels guilty.
Magnets and decals for sports teams, school mascots, and the honor roll are nothing unusual to see on the back of a family’s car. But when Alison put a magnet for the National Alliance on Mental Illness on her Toyota Highlander, her children weren’t pleased.
Her daughter was 9 years old; her son was 6. Alison and her husband wanted to be open with them about mommy’s bipolar disorder, how she’d been in the hospital so the doctors could help her. So Alison explained that the new magnet was in support of an organization that helped people like herself, people living with a mental health condition.
Two days later the magnet disappeared and as hard as she looked, Alison never found it.
“They were a bit embarrassed by me having mental health issues and didn’t know what to tell their friends,” says Alison, recalling the incident a decade later. “And [they] definitely didn’t want it advertised on the back of the car.”
Alison, now 55, established a successful career in the computer industry while living with undiagnosed mental health conditions.Raising a family when her symptoms resurged proved somewhat harder, she says—and not just because her kids felt stigma-by-association.
“I was often so depressed and withdrawn that I would lie on the couch, staring at the wall, unable to interact with them,” she explains.
During manic states, it was hard for her to focus on what her children needed. Even so, she never missed a sports or school event.
“No matter how I felt or what was going on with my illness, I loved my kids and showed them that I loved them every way that I could. I was not capable of doing too much, but I always showed them love,” says the California resident.
ALISON HAD DEALT WITH extreme emotional distress as an adolescent, which led to episodes of self-harm and several hospitalizations. Once out of her teens, she evened out and remained relatively stable until her second pregnancy—which brought immobilizing depression, manic periods, and voices speaking to her.
After three more years of mood swings, Alison was hospitalized for the first time in her adult life in 2002. At age 40, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Alison also learned that, like many people with bipolar, she has a co-existing psychiatric condition. Hers is borderline personality disorder, manifesting mainly as an extreme fear of abandonment and very black-and-white thinking.
The two conditions require different treatment approaches. There are no medications for borderline personality disorder, so Alison focuses on skills learned in talk therapy.
“The borderline personality disorder has to be under control for me to take proper care of myself so that the bipolar disorder is under control,” she explains.
It took a while to get on top of things even after starting treatment. Although her mania subsided, Alison was hospitalized for depression six more times. Her husband would pick up the slack, acting “as mom and dad,” she says.
She still struggles with depressive symptoms, but she hasn’t been back in the hospital in the past three years—the longest stretch since her diagnosis.
“I feel I have gotten past the worst of it with a really good psychiatrist, daily yoga, walking three miles on the beach every day, the right combination of drugs, and a lot of work in therapy,” says Alison.
THE BOOKSHELF IN Alison’s home office holds more than a dozen books she’s written, mostly on using Microsoft software for database management. She is a designated Microsoft MVP (most valuable professional) and was honored as the Ventura County Woman Business Owner of the Year.
Alison launched her computer consulting business in 1990, which she runs with her husband. That has allowed her to step back as needed—turning to subcontractors when she wasn’t able to meet client deadlines due to depression, dictating emails over the phone to her husband during her hospitalizations so that her illness would remain private.
A few long-term clients who have become friends know about her struggles. Most do not. That stirred some fears when Alison began to challenge stigma by speaking out. When the local newspaper featured her in a full-page article on her bipolar journey, she panicked when a client complimented her on the story.
“I immediately thought, ‘Am I going to lose him as a client now that he knows?’ But ironically, I am headed to his office today for a project,” she says.
Committed to her advocacy work, Alison believes just as strongly in full disclosure at home.
“Being open about my bipolar was one of the most important keys to our family managing my illness,” she says. “Mental illness is not something you can hide.”
It’s also something that affects the whole family, not just the individual with bipolar. Alison’s husband and kids saw therapists over the years to better understand her illness and how to help her, as well as to deal with their own feelings.
ALTHOUGH ALISON HAS worked hard for her current stability, she carries a lot of guilt over how her symptoms affected her kids’ childhood. Her therapist encouraged Alison to talk about the past with her daughter, a conversation they had during a walk on the beach about two years ago.
“I asked her to share what she had gone through and what she was still angry about,” says Alison. “We talked for a very intense two hours filled with many tears.”
Alison says the two have grown closer since then. When her daughter, who is now 21, studied abroad in London recently, they used FaceTime for daily conversations.
She has yet not had a similar heart-to-heart with her son, who is now 18, but Alison makes sure he knows how much she appreciates his ongoing support.
When asked if talking things out with her daughter resolved her own regrets, Alison goes quiet.
“It helped, but to be honest, I’m probably never going to get over all of the guilt,” she says after a pause. “I don’t think I can. And maybe it wouldn’t be good for my health.
“My kids and husband are the reason I focus so hard on taking care of myself. I take medication daily and use my coping skills because of how much I love them and want to be present for them.”
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What worked for Alison
A SHORE THING: I live at the beach, so every morning I walk on the shore for a mile and a half. Then I take a very intense yoga class, where the last 15 minutes is meditation. I then walk the mile and a half home. This routine really keeps me grounded and focused.
NO ADDED SUGAR: I mainly eat proteins, fruits and vegetables, and really limit grains. I rarely eat cake, ice cream, and all of that wonderful stuff.
UP WITH PEOPLE: I make a point to hang around positive people, including other people battling mental illness that have a positive attitude. Being around people who want to help themselves and do better in life really helps me manage my own disorder. I also find spending as much time as possible with my kids makes a huge difference in my mental health.
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