What It's Like to Parent With a Severe Mental Illness

Kimberly Zapata
·5 mins read

In June, I found my mother face-down and unconscious in her apartment. Her chest was covered in bruises, and her face was covered in sores. Hours later, I learned she had developed aspiration pneumonia, which occurs when someone ingests fluid and said fluid accumulates in their chest and lungs. Forty-eight hours after that, her heart stopped; she was pronounced brain-dead the following day.

This would be a lot for anyone to handle. But for me, someone who lives with a severe mental illness, it was overwhelming. The trauma stunned me, and the shock sent my system into overdrive. My feelings vacillated between apathy, anger and numbness. Today, I am more depressed than I’ve been in a long time — and it’s affecting how I parent my own two kids.

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Of course, millions of Americans live with a depressive disorder, anxiety disorder and/or another mental illness. I am just like one in five U.S. adults, but parenting while sick is particularly challenging. Parenting with a severe mental illness is tough, and my diagnosis — bipolar II — affects my children in numerous ways.

When I’m depressed, I am unable to function. I lie on the floor while my children climb on top of me and play around me — while they use me as a prop. A toy. I cry… often. My 17-month-old son laughs at my tears, because mommy makes silly faces when she cries. Because water leaking from my eyes is pretty funny. But my 7-year-old daughter dries my tears; she reminds me its just a spill. That we can clean things up.

When I’m depressed, my fuse is short. I’m irritable and quick to anger. I yell, shriek, scream and shout.

When I’m manic, I am the happy mom. The entertaining mom. The “fun mom.” I sing loudly and dance often. We bust out the karaoke mic and bluetooth speaker. We go on regular trips: to the mall, the Disney store, the playground, pool and beach. I plan extravagant vacations, whether we can afford to take them or not. We craft. A lot. Things I normally do not have the patience for, like glitter and paint, make their way onto my dining room table and into our living room. And I stay up late, working, cleaning, cooking and baking. In the morning, there are cookies on the kitchen counter. Our fridge is full of food.

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But there are also dangers. I drink too frequently and spend too much. During my most recent manic episode, I accrued thousands of dollars of debt in three days. Three. Days. I thought I was unstoppable — that my family and I were untouchable. I put us in dangerous positions, physically, mentally and emotionally.

The good news is, thanks to therapy and medication, most days I am balanced. I’m stable, well, “normal” and good. My emotions are regulated and my mood is in check. And this means I can be present; I am able to accomplish little things, like cleaning and cooking dinner. I pay the bills and open the mail. I have the patience and the presence to listen to my daughter and play with her. And because I am level-headed myself, we are able to discuss my daughter’s emotions, apprehensions and fears. I get to be the parent I want to be — the parent my children deserve.

Is it easy? No. I wish I felt normal. I wish I were “normal” all the time, whatever that may be. I just want to be a good parent. A Pinterest parent. A mom who wears rompers and runs beside her kids at the park. But (and this is an odd “but”), my illness has benefits, as strange as that sounds. Because thanks to bipolar disorder, I am able to teach my children the weight of an apology, and the power of compassion and empathy. I am able to talk to them about their feelings and emotions because I feel everything so intensely — because my life is lived in extremes. And I am able to appreciate the little things. I truly appreciate the days when I am healthy and well.

So if you are a parent with a severe mental illness — one who doubts yourself and your abilities — don’t forget that you are a good person. A strong person, a capable person, and a great parent. Because your illness doesn’t define you; what defines you is how you handle it, and how you handle yourself.

So be patient. Be consistent. Be kind. And make sure you ask for help, if and when you need it. Never, ever be afraid to get help.

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, visit SuicidePreventionLifeline.org, or text “START” to 741-741 to immediately speak to a trained counselor at Crisis Text Line.

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