Even the bad days are ones that we can learn from.
Millions of Americans live with mental illness. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 1 in 5 adults has a mental health condition. That makes me 1 of over 46 million.
I have anxiety disorder and bipolar disorder and have for many years. And while the former makes me nervous and fearful — when I am anxious, my heart pounds, my legs shake, and my mind and thoughts begin to race — the latter makes me full of confidence and energy or void of feeling. Bipolar II is characterized by hypomanic highs and crippling lows, and this affects my parenting.
Some days I am present and fun. I dance in the kitchen with my daughter and sing in the bathroom while bathing my son. But other days the exhaustion is so great I cannot move. I struggle to get out of bed. I am also very irritable. I snap without cause or reason, and this makes me inconsistent — at best.
I have held my children and hurt them. I’ve fulfilled their dreams and caused them to be disappointed.
But it’s not all bad. In some ways, I am thankful for my mental illness because bipolar disorder and anxiety disorder has made me a better wife, friend, and mom.
Here’s how my mental illness has affected me and my children.
My children have learned how to sit with — and explain — their feelings
Growing up, I struggled to name my feelings. I felt sadness, anger, joy, and fear but I didn’t necessarily know what each emotion was. I also didn’t know how to express myself. When I became enraged, for example, I would blow up. I recall shaking and shrieking at the top of my lungs.
But through therapy I’ve learned how to identify my feelings and work through them. I use meditation to combat angst, for example. I run (literally run) when I am scared or mad, and I’m teaching my children to do the same. They know acting out is unacceptable but no emotion is bad or wrong.
I’ve also given my oldest tools to cope with her feelings. She has a calm down — or chill out — corner full of sensory objects, like a paddle ball, stress balls, and blanket, and she can go there whenever she is feeling overwhelmed. It is her time and her space. No questions asked.
Anxiety makes it difficult for me to make mom friends — or any friends
One of the hardest parts of living with anxiety disorder is how it affects my relationships, i.e., anxiety tells me I am not good enough or smart enough. It makes me question my value and my worth, and anxiety makes me distrust the intentions of others. I do not believe anyone could like me or love me because I am so awkward. The tape in my head tells me I am a failure.
As such, I struggle to make new friends, which is tough when you have children. The silver lining — if there is one — is that my daughter is a social butterfly, and because of her personality, I must talk to others. She pushes me to be a present (and personable) parent.
My kids never know which mom they’ll get
On any given day I may be the happy “let’s bake cookies and have a dance party” parent or the one who cannot shower or get out of bed.
While my short fuse is a problem, another issue (and characteristic) of bipolar II is rapid cycling. When I am symptomatic, for example, my mood can fluctuate on a dime.
As such, my children never know which mom they will get: the “normal” one, the depressed one, or the hypomanic one. The one who dances and sings or the one who cries and yells. And this causes them to walk on eggshells. My children do not have consistency.
That said, I always apologize for my actions if and when I make mistakes. I try my hardest to maintain stability and some semblance of normalcy, and I use myself as an example. Because of my illnesses, my children know the importance of mental health.
My children are learning it is okay to ask for help
I’ve never been good about asking for help. When I was a child, my parents taught me that strong individuals deal with problems on their own.
However, I now know that is not the case, and I let my children see my “flaws” and “weaknesses.” My oldest has accompanied me to therapy. I tell them when I am sad. When mommy is not okay.
Sometimes I am too tired to play with my children
Living with mental illness is tough. Scratch that: It is exhausting, and some days I cannot function — as a person or a parent. Some days I am too tired to play with (or care) for my kids. On these days I will not play kickball or hide-and-seek. I will not take them out on their bikes.
Of course, this has taught my children to be empathetic and understanding. They are forgiving and full of grace, but it has also caused my kids to be disappointed… a lot.
I have used the screen as a babysitter
Experts agree that media consumption should be limited for all children but particularly young children. In fact, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, screen use for children ages 2 to 5 should be limited to 1 hour of “high-quality programming” a day, but I’d be lying if I said I adhere to these guidelines.
Some days my depression is so great I struggle to sit up or get up. I parent from the bed. And on these days my children watch a good deal of TV. Scratch that: They watch a lot of TV.
Am I proud of this? Absolutely not. But in order to be a good parent, I need to be a healthy parent, and sometimes that means practicing self-care and taking a literal and figurative break.
I have snapped — unnecessarily — at my kids
Living with bipolar disorder can be challenging. Despite medication and ongoing therapy, I regularly experience symptoms, and one of the characteristics of bipolar II is irritability.
When I am hypomanic, for example, I become so tightly wound I snap. I yell at my kids, and this (in my opinion) is the worst part of being a parent with a mental illness because I know my anger has a negative effect on my children.
My children are learning the value of compassion — and the power of an apology
I have made a lot of mistakes as a parent. A lot. My short fuse hascaused me to yell suddenly. Depression has caused me to shut down unexpectedly.
I’ve canceled plans and spent hours in my bed or on our couch, and I’ve had strange emotional outbursts. I’ve cried over things like cold coffee and spilled milk.
The good news is that my slip-ups are teachable moments. I regularly say “I’m sorry. Mommy shouldn’t have done XYZ. I was frustrated. That was wrong.”
And through my behaviors and actions my children are learning the power of an apology. They are learning accountability and forgiveness, and they are learning it is OK to ask for help. Everyone gets upset and cries. Everyone makes mistakes.
Kimberly Zapata is a mother, writer, and mental health advocate. Her work has appeared on several sites, including the Washington Post, HuffPost, Oprah, Vice, Parents, Health, and Scary Mommy — to name a few — and when her nose isn’t buried in work (or a good book), Kimberly spends her free time running Greater Than: Illness, a nonprofit organization that aims to empower children and young adults struggling with mental health conditions. Follow Kimberly on Facebook or Twitter.