Motherhood is challenging for everyone. Motherhood with bipolar disorder brings added difficulty. But it is absolutely possible to parent well with bipolar disorder.Continue reading
One question I hear frequently is:
“Should I have children if I have bipolar disorder?”
This question and the worry underlying it are understandable. There are so many unknowns with motherhood from the stress of pregnancy and hormone changes to the worries over the unpredictability of motherhood and passing on mental illness to your children.
While there is not a one size fits all answer to these questions, learning how to proactively manage your disorder will prepare you to be successful as a mother with bipolar.
The first thing to address is your mindset about your disorder. It is essential to acknowledge that you have bipolar and that you are responsible for treating it consistently if you want to have children.
Bipolar disorder is a serious mental illness and can be dangerous, even life threatening if it goes untreated. It is possible to live well with bipolar disorder if you proactively treat it and that begins with:
- accepting that you have bipolar,
- not comparing yourself to others without bipolar, and
- understanding what wellness with bipolar disorder looks like.
Acknowledge that you have bipolar disorder and take ownership for treating it. Although this seems like it should go without saying, many people struggle with accepting their diagnosis. You might wonder if you were diagnosed correctly in the first place–bipolar is diagnosed using such intangible symptoms.
You may go through periods when you start to feel healthy and balanced and begin to think that maybe the diagnosis was wrong or that you don’t have it anymore. There are also periods when you will feel angry about your diagnosis and refuse to treat it because you are sick of how hard everything is. Regardless of what prompts your denial it can be a major barrier to living well with your disorder.
Women have difficulty not comparing themselves to each other already. As a society there is tremendous pressure to conform to certain “ideals” of womanhood from many different directions. This is amplified by social media where people post their “highlight” reels and distorted versions of reality which can cause you to feel inadequate, or worse.
With bipolar it is even more important to not compare yourself to others without the disorder because it can create a barrier to learning to live well. The pressure to be and do everything can prevent you from eliminating unnecessary stressors while you learn how to effectively manage your bipolar.
For years as I was trying to learn how to live well with bipolar, I always thought of wellness as a linear path–like climbing a mountain–with the destination being never having a mood swing again. The problem this created for me is that I felt like I had failed each time I experienced a mood cycle. One time I had been healthy and balanced for months and then suddenly became depressed and I was so angry. I went to see my therapist and told her that I felt like a failure. I had been almost to the top of the mountain and now I was all the way back down at the bottom again!
That day my therapist helped me to understand that learning to live well with bipolar is not a linear process. It looks more like the addiction recovery cycle where there will be times when you relapse into mood swings, but this isn’t failure. The key is to learn how to successfully manage your mood cycles so that you can lessen the impact on you and your family and shorten the duration of the cycle.
Preparing for Motherhood with Bipolar
Once you have acknowledged the reality of your disorder and your responsibility to treat it you can start learning the tools on the path to wellness with bipolar.
One of the most important tools you will have as a mother with bipolar disorder is your Mood Cycle Survival Guide. While you are learning to live well with bipolar disorder you need to have a plan to help you successfully manage your mood swings. This guide will help you:
- Minimize the impact on the mood-swing on yourself and your family, and
- Shorten the duration of the mood-swing by creating a plan to get back to mental health and balance.
If a mother has diabetes, she needs to be very deliberate and conscientious about prioritizing her self-care–monitoring her blood sugar, eating healthy and caring for her overall health. If she doesn’t take care of herself, she won’t be able to take care of her children because there can be serious, sometimes life-threatening consequences if she’s not careful.
The same is true for a mother with bipolar disorder. Self-care for bipolar is essential to keep yourself and your children safe and healthy. This includes:
Most people with bipolar disorder need some form of intervention to address the imbalance in the brain. This can look different for different people. Some people do well on medication, while others, like me, find healing with specialized micronutrient treatments.
If you take medication, it is necessary to discuss with your doctor which medications are safe to take while pregnant or nursing. Remember to stay consistent with your psychiatric appointments and monitor your mood and symptoms consistently during and after pregnancy as hormone changes can affect your body and brain chemistry.
Regardless of the type of treatment you choose it is essential to stay consistent with taking your medications or micronutrients and ask for help immediately if you start to notice changes in your mood.
Therapy is essential for anyone who wants to learn how to live well with bipolar and it is especially important as you enter parenthood. Anxiety and worry can increase, and unhealed trauma may be revealed as you enter this new phase of life. Working with a competent therapist is critical to help you navigate the new challenges and continue to work on identifying unhealthy thoughts, behaviors and coping mechanisms, processing and healing trauma, and setting healthy boundaries.
Developing a daily routine
Setting up a healthy daily routine specifically to manage your bipolar disorder is going to help you manage stress and live healthier–body and mind. Each of the tools listed here are important but you need to learn one at a time and figure out the best way to incorporate them into your day.
- Mindfulness meditation
- Exercise (keep it simple, easy and accessible)
- Healthy, consistent sleep habits
- Good nutrition
- Hygiene habits
- Carefully evaluating and managing stressors
Get support from other moms with bipolar disorder
Motherhood with bipolar disorder can feel lonely and isolating because you feel like no one understands the challenges you are facing. Join our Facebook group Bipolar Moms Learning to Live Well to get encouragement and support from other moms on the same journey.
As a mother with bipolar disorder, I can tell you that it wasn’t always easy. I was very sick with my disorder when my children were little. Over time I discovered how to live well with bipolar. I started my blog to share what I learned so you don’t have to figure it out the hard way like I did.
I am forever thankful for my children. They are the greatest joys of my life, and I am filled with gratitude every day to be their mother. You can live a healthy, balanced, productive life with bipolar–including children–if you choose to:
- Shift your mindset to accept your disorder, don’t compare yourself to others and learn what wellness with bipolar looks like, and
- Prepare for motherhood by proactively treating your bipolar.
There is hope and there is help!
Boundaries. We hear that word all the time but how many people actually understand what boundaries are and how to set and respect healthy boundaries?
A few years ago I was in a therapy session and my therapist started speaking about boundaries and I finally admitted to her that I didn’t really understand what she was talking about. She had mentioned boundaries off and on during previous sessions, and I just kept nodding and smiling because I had a vague idea of what boundaries were. However, during this particular session I realized that not understanding clearly what boundaries were and how to apply them in my life in a healthy way was causing problems for me.
The way that my therapist explained them during that session was in terms of physical boundaries. She explained that countries have clearly defined boundaries that define what territory makes up their jurisdiction. A country has the right to create laws, penalties for violation of its laws and responsibilities to its citizens within its boundaries. It also has the right to protect itself from violations of its boundaries. Countries also need to respect the boundaries of other countries or there can be negative consequences.
At the time it was still a little abstract for me. Over time as I have worked with my therapist to understand what boundaries are and gained experience with implementing and respecting boundaries, I have begun to understand the concept better. I also better understand why learning about and implementing healthy boundaries in your life is so critical to living well with bipolar disorder.
Why People with Bipolar Disorder Struggle with Boundaries
When you have bipolar disorder, especially before you learn how to effectively manage it, you can feel like you don’t have any control over what is happening in your mind. The dramatic mood cycles you experience–from mania to depression–feel like an extreme mental and emotional rollercoaster that you cannot get off. This can cause you to act and speak in ways that you normally wouldn’t act or speak.
You may not even recognize that you are experiencing a mood cycle initially because many of the symptoms are in your head and feel normal to you. Many of the thoughts and feelings are irrational but may seem completely rational to you. The intensity of emotion (or lack of emotion) feels overpowering.
All of this can cause you to experience anger, frustration and helplessness as you daily fight a battle with an enemy in your own mind. Having bipolar feels unfair and this feeling of unfairness can make it difficult to set healthy boundaries and to respect the boundaries of others.
You may feel like you don’t have a choice, it’s not your fault and you can’t do anything about it anyway, so everyone else just has to put up with it, too. This leads you to violate the boundaries of others and feel justified in doing it.
On the other hand you may feel overwhelmed by guilt for the things you do and say when you are struggling with a mood cycle, or feelings of worthlessness because you judge yourself as damaged or broken. These feelings can lead you to believe that you don’t have the right to have boundaries. You feel like you have to allow others to treat you however they want because you don’t have the right to object.
Unhealthy boundaries damage you and others. It damages relationships, your feelings of value and self-worth and the emotional turmoil can make your mood cycle worse.
Understanding Boundaries for Bipolar Disorder
Going back to the border analogy, when you are establishing boundaries for yourself you need to identify two things: your “laws” for what is permitted and your responsibilities within your borders.
Laws within your borders
When you have bipolar it is easy to feel like you don’t know if you are rational or not. When you are manic you think you are the most rational person in the world, compelled to act on the thoughts and feelings you have. When you are depressed you may struggle to function at all. You can feel overwhelmed by hopelessness and robbed of the ability to do simple things like shower, or even get out of bed.
Both sides of this can lead to feeling either defensive when someone comments on your behavior, or may make you feel like you don’t have a right to object to the way they speak to you because you think they’re right, you must be irrational, lazy, compulsive, etc.
Not having healthy boundaries about what kind of communication you will respond to, however, is not beneficial to you, or to the relationship. If you are allowing someone else to speak to you in a way that reinforces negative thoughts and feelings you have about yourself you will further damage yourself emotionally which then feeds the mood cycle.
You need to set healthy boundaries for communication and behavior. This includes setting clear boundaries to protect yourself from unhealthy or abusive behavior and words. You should also agree with those you trust on healthy ways they can communicate their concern if they see you behaving in a way that is harmful to you or others.
Working with your therapist you can begin to identify what boundaries will be best for you and how you can effectively communicate your boundaries to others. You can’t choose how others behave, but you can establish what you will allow in your life and what you will do if someone doesn’t respect those boundaries.
Responsibility within your borders
Just as a country has responsibility to the citizens within its borders you are responsible for yourself–your behavior, your choices, your self-care. This may feel impossible at times when you have bipolar disorder. Experiencing irrational states of mind and emotions can make you feel like the bipolar is in control and you are just along for the ride.
The reality is that you are the only one who can be responsible for yourself. You are not your disorder, and you can learn how to manage it so that you can live a healthy, balanced, productive life. It takes work and persistent effort, but it is possible.
The first step is to learn how to successfully manage your mood cycles. Start by creating a Mental Health Emergency Response Plan. This plan helps you proactively manage your mood cycles so that you lessen the impact on yourself and those you love and shorten the duration of the cycle.
The next step is to work to find something to balance your brain. For some people that is with medication, for others it is through treatment with micronutrients, or a combination of the two. The symptoms of bipolar are telling you that something is missing or out of balance and you need to address that need in your brain. Persist until you find what is right for your brain.
Third, go to therapy. When you have bipolar disorder you will develop unhealthy thought and behavior patterns, unhealthy coping mechanisms (sometimes this includes addictions) and you may have unhealed trauma, and unhealthy boundaries. Working with a good therapist will help you identify what you need to work on, process and heal so you can interact with the world in healthy ways. If you avoid therapy you may find the right medication or supplements but the unhealthy thoughts and behaviors will continue to trigger mood swings.
Finally, develop a self-care routine. Self-care is a phrase that you hear all the time and it can conjure images of manicures at a day spay, bubble baths or vacations to tropical places. These are definitely nice ways to take care of yourself, but the self-care necessary for managing bipolar disorder is caring for your mind and body in a way that helps you stay healthy and balanced. This includes important tools like mindfulness meditation, healthy sleep patterns and nutrition, yoga and simple, consistent exercise.
Respecting the boundaries of others
It is necessary to learn how to respect the boundaries of others. It’s really hard to feel like you can accept responsibility for your actions when you are doing and saying things from an irrational state of mind. But the reality is that you are still doing and saying those things. So how do you take responsibility for yourself?
First, always say sorry when you hurt someone by something you say or do. It may not be easy. It can feel humiliating to have to admit to the things you do or say when you are in a manic or depressed state. But the first step to mending the damage is to acknowledge what you did and apologize sincerely.
When a child hurts someone, even if it is by accident, you teach them to say sorry. They didn’t do it on purpose, but the other person still got hurt and so it is important to acknowledge their pain. The same is true for pain you cause when you are struggling with a mood cycle. You may not have meant to cause the pain, but the other person was still hurt by something you did, and you need to acknowledge their pain.
Next, talk with others about their boundaries. Having conversations with your partner or spouse, children and others who are close to you will help you understand their boundaries better so you can learn how to interact with them in healthy ways. If you aren’t sure how to approach this kind of conversation, talk with your therapist. He or she can give you help understanding what to say and may even be able to facilitate it in a session with the other person or people.
Finally, accept that there will be times when someone needs a break from the relationship. This is really hard because it doesn’t feel fair that you have to deal with this disorder in the first place. We all want others to accept us and love us as we are. However, there will be times when someone needs to prioritize their emotional, physical or mental safety and may need to set a boundary to protect themselves.
Just as you need to set healthy boundaries and prioritize caring for yourself, you need to respect the need and right for others to do the same.
How to Define and Apply Boundaries
The most effective way to learn how to define and apply healthy boundaries in your life is by working with a good therapist. Boundaries can feel abstract and complicated, and your life experience and unhealed trauma can create barriers to learning how to implement them. A therapist can work with you to help you learn what boundaries are and how to implement these tools effectively.
Learning how to utilize and respect healthy boundaries in your life is an important step on your path to learning to live a healthy, balanced, productive life with bipolar disorder.
Michelle is a mother who is not only living with and managing her bipolar disorder but is also thriving! She has used tools and techniques on herself to make her journey an enjoyable one and is now teaching mothers all over the world how they can do the same. Her support is not a replacement for doctors or therapy, but rather another tool to have in your arsenal to use alongside medical treatments.hopeandway.com
“When I was a young mother with bipolar disorder I felt alone, lost, and hopeless. I struggled with a disorder I didn’t understand and I saw a major disconnect in the resources available to me. I didn’t know how to advocate for myself, I struggled to find anyone who understood what I was going through, and I felt no hope of ever getting any better.
Over the past 12 years, I have worked to learn the tools for wellness and how to utilize those tools in an integrated way to live a healthy, balanced, productive life. I have often wondered why this couldn’t have been shown to me initially when I was first diagnosed as a treatment plan. None of the tools and resources I use are novel or unique, but I had to discover them on my own and figure out how to apply them to my life and my disorder.
I started my blog and the Upsiders’ Tribe program to shorten the learning curve for others with bipolar and help create a community that provides hope, support, and encouragement on the journey to wellness.”
See full interview here:
TW: This blog post mentions suicide. If you are having thoughts of self-harm please contact 911 (or your local emergency services) or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-8255 (in the USA).
I didn’t start off having suicidal thoughts. It started with nightmares. Vivid, intense nightmares about dying and I would wake up feeling horrible inside. This went on for years until it progressed to daydreams about dying. I would have random images or scenarios pop into my head of things that could cause my death.
I knew intuitively that my mind was suffering with my bipolar disorder and it was trying to find a way out, but I didn’t realize the full implications of what I was experiencing. I didn’t recognize the danger these thoughts posed to my safety.
When this first started I recoiled from the thoughts and images. I felt anxiety and fear when I would have them. But as the years went on and my disorder grew worse I started having thoughts like, “your husband would be so much happier if you were dead and he could find a better wife,” or “your children would be so much better off if they had a better mom who wasn’t sick.”
I didn’t tell anyone about the thoughts I was having because I was so embarrassed and ashamed of them. It made me feel crazy and I didn’t want anyone to know how broken I really was. So, I hid them and suffered alone.
Then in 2008 I had a breakdown. I was hospitalized three times in three different hospitals in two states. During that time I finally gave in to the thoughts that had been plaguing me and made two attempts on my life. I don’t remember much of what happened because during one of my hospitalizations the doctors performed a full course of twelve electroconvulsive therapy treatments and I lost most of my memory from those months.
It took years for my husband to talk to me about what happened because it had been so traumatic for him–he was the one to stop me both times.
When I was finally released from my third hospitalization I had an experience that changed everything. One sunny morning a few weeks later I was watching my children play. My daughter was 4 and my son was 2. I was looking at my daughter and had a very clear thought come into my mind, “if you ever succeed in ending your life it will ruin hers. Your daughter will believe it was her fault and she will spend the rest of her life blaming herself.” I was shocked! I had come to thoroughly believe the lies my mind had told me, that my children would be better off if I was gone.
As soon as I had the thought, I knew it was true, she would believe it was her fault and it would ruin her life. That day I made the commitment that I would survive for my children.
If that was the best I could do, I would do it.
I loved them more than my own life and I would do anything for them.
From that point on I decided that I would not let the thoughts of death or suicide stay in my mind unchallenged. I would ask for help if I was having those thoughts and not let myself feel shame or embarrassment anymore.
This was the first time in over a decade after my diagnosis that I truly, proactively, took responsibility for my mind. I thought I had before. I had diligently gone to psychiatric appointments and tried to take my medication, but I didn’t feel like I had any control over my mind. I felt for years like my bipolar disorder was in the driver’s seat and I was just along for the ride. But I now realized that I couldn’t let my bipolar be in charge anymore: it was trying to kill me and I wasn’t going to let it.
When you have bipolar disorder, it feels like there are so many things working against you. You have a disorder that really is all in your head. When you have those horrible, intrusive thoughts while you are floundering in the dark heaviness of depression, it is so easy to believe they are true because they correlate with what you are feeling.
I didn’t understand that I shouldn’t believe every thought that came into my mind. I didn’t know that it was possible to separate myself from my thoughts and challenge them.
With bipolar disorder it is embarrassing, discouraging, and yes, unfair, to keep making mistakes or poor decisions because of the mood cycles, especially mania, and then have to deal with the consequences for your decisions. Each time you give into impulses that are bad or make decisions based on irrational thoughts it’s humiliating to have to deal with the aftermath. This naturally results in feeling insecure and makes it easy to believe that everyone would be better off without you.
It can also feel like your life is not worth living because you spend so mucheffort just trying to manage your disorder and don’t feel like you have anything to offer beyond that.
The wonderful thing is that:
- you can learn to separate yourself from your thoughts, decide which ones to believe and dismiss the bad ones,
- you can learn to manage your disorder so that you don’t keep making the same mistakes and poor decisions, and;
- you absolutely have so much to offer because you have infinite value and purpose well beyond your disorder.
It is possible to learn to manage your bipolar well and live a healthy, balanced, productive life.
The first step is to create a Mental Health Emergency Response Plan (ERP). An ERP will help you to take responsibility for your mood cycles so that you lessen the impact on you and your family and shorten the duration of the cycle. One very important piece of your plan will be your Emergency Response Team.
If you are having thoughts of self-harm or death decide who you will talk to or what you will do when you have those thoughts. This was a really important piece for me. It was important to have someone to talk to when I was having intrusive, negative thoughts because there were times when it was too much for me to manage on my own.
Think of those thoughts like having an intruder in your home that wants to harm you. If that happened you would call for help, you wouldn’t allow that threat to remain unchallenged. Do not allow those thoughts to stay in your mind. Identify them and challenge them. This is something that is especially important to discuss with your therapist. Create a plan ahead of time so that you will know what to do when it happens.
Second, you need to develop a self-care plan that helps you begin to effectively treat your bipolar disorder. There are several important tools that will help.
- Finding effective medication/supplements
- Proactively seeking treatment with a good therapist
- Learning to practice mindfulness meditation–this is an especially important tool for identifying and challenging intrusive thoughts
- Additional self-care tools like yoga, exercise and simplifying your life.
- If you would like additional guidance on how to effectively manage your bipolar disorder you can join the monthly membership program that guides you through the steps & tools necessary to manage your bipolar disorder well. For more information click here.
Finally, seek support from others who understand what you’re going through. Having bipolar disorder can be very lonely and isolating. It is hard to not feel broken and flawed. Seeking positive, encouraging support from others who are struggling with the same disorder will lighten your load and lift you up. You’ll gain strength to live well while managing your disorder. For moms with bipolar disorder you can join my free Facebook group Bipolar Moms Learning to Live Well.
If you have thoughts of harming yourself or thoughts of dying, please reach out for help. Life with bipolar disorder can feel hard and overwhelming. Your mind might tell you that everyone would be better off if you weren’t here, BUT THAT IS A LIE! Challenge those thoughts. DO NOT BELIEVE THEM!
You are irreplaceable. You can manage your bipolar disorder well and live a healthy, balanced, productive life.
There is hope and there is help!
If you are having thoughts of self-harm please contact 911 (or your local emergency services) or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-8255 (in the USA).