Growing Up With a Bipolar Mother
Important Note: Recommended for people 18+ due to graphic and traumatic content.
It was Australia day, 1989, and I was two and a half years old when my father came home from work to find police cars surrounding the small cottage where we lived. My mother was sitting in the back seat of a police car, while I was being rushed away in an ambulance.
I can still vaguely remember my mother sterilizing the knife in boiling water, then laying me on the sheepskin rug... putting my hands up in front of my face to stop the falling knife. My mother slit my throat from ear to ear and held me for 40 minutes as I bled. After awhile she realised what she'd done and called 000. Fortunately for me they didn't think she was a prank caller.
My mother was in her late twenties, and this was her first psychotic episode. She was the oldest of seven children, and there was a history of mental illness and bipolar disorder in her family. This episode was going to start a long and complicated saga in our lives.
My mother was rushed into a mental ward and I was to spend 3 months in a hospital and then live with a tracheostomy tube in my throat for a further 11 years. After a year my mother was discharged from the hospital and came home to live with us. She was originally diagnosed with schizophrenia, and it would be years before she was re-diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She wasn't allowed to be alone with me at first, so by the time I was six we had built a house with a granny flat so we could live with my father's parents.
As a young child I didn't have much of an idea about what had happened—I remembered it and knew my mother took medication, but I never really grasped what it meant. That was why it was such a shock when my mother had her second breakdown when I was 10 years old.
This time my mother didn't hurt me, but during our morning prayers and bible reading, she started talking about seeing an angel and tried to help me see the vision. At this stage I still looked up to my parents and believed they knew more than me—so I tried my best to go along with what she was saying, despite my confusion. But, after a little while, she began to scare me. I finally managed to ring my father who was working five hours away. He immediately realized what was happening and instructed me to go straight to my grandparents. My father drove straight home but by the time he got there, my mother appeared fine. It wasn't until years later that we realized this episode had begun her downward spiral.
Until the beginning of year 8, I had been homeschooled by my mother. By the time I got to year 6 and 7, she basically left it up to me, just handing me books and then returning to such occupations as the phone and spending money. My mother never held down a job during this time, except for a 3-month, part-time job at a nursery.
By the time I was 13, I knew there was something wrong with my mother—but I was still too young and scared to figure out what it was. When I tried to tell people they labelled me as rebellious or told me that I was rude. My father was running his own business, so he often didn't see or hear all that my mother did.
When I was 13, we travelled to the other side of the country for my youngest uncle's wedding. I found out later that my mother had been talking to relatives while there about my father's "abuse" of her. Within a week of returning home my mother told me to pack my bags so we could stay at a nearby family friend's house. Upon arrival I found another uncle that had driven a long way just to pick us up. I was upset and surprised when told that we'd be travelling back across the country. The adults kept telling me that my father was "volatile" and "like a volcano." No one asked me what I thought.
After a long drive—full of verbal abuse about my father—and then a plane ride, we were finally at my Nana's place. Of course my mother told stories of my abusive father and spent hours buying things, meeting new people, and telling all sorts of lies. I tried to interject, but my mother simply explained that I hadn't realized the full extent of my father's abuse.
At this point I will say that my father wasn't completely innocent—he'd been running his own business and often came home late, tired and stressed. However, my mother would often bait him and arguments erupted about things such as money, wearing pants (she believed that they were biblically considered cross dressing), or the fact that she'd spend all day out and then run home to do a quick clean (leaving my grandmother to sneak in and clean up after her). I think my father may have hit my mother once or twice but never hard; usually he'd break a plate or glass when she pushed him too hard. I remember her throwing things at him and shouting verbal abuse at him.
We spent more than a month at my Nana's house, my father frantic with worry. I was allowed to write to him but never to reveal where we were. During this time my mother was socialising all day, every day, and had at least one affair. Finally my Nana started to get worried and called my father. Once my father arrived I went to pieces - so glad that someone else realized how sick my mother was and that it wasn't all just in my head.
My father left a voice message on the phone and my mother must have heard it - she disappeared that evening wearing nothing but a tiny dress that barely covered her undies. The family spent hours looking for her and finally the police found her, taking a taxi to one of her various new boyfriend's houses. She yelled and screamed, claiming the right to be taken to the address she'd asked for in the taxi and threatening to sue the police and everyone else in sight.
I've seen her more than once control a manic episode, easily fooling a doctor or someone she wants to impress before letting her bipolar disorder loose once she is in "comfortable" surroundings.— Susannah Birch
My mother spent several weeks in the hospital there, and then we finally returned home. Before this episode, our house had almost been fully paid for—only $1,000 left on the home loan. By the time we got home, between plane tickets, living costs and lost work time, we were $50,000 in debt. My father had had enough—within a few months I was enrolled for the first time in school and by the school holidays my parents announced their split. I was overjoyed.
Between then and now I've had various run ins with my mother - each time reinforcing the fact that she doesn't deserve my help or a relationship with me, since she isn't willing to get better or even take medication. At time of writing I haven't talked to her in nearly two years.
I have nothing against mentally ill people—I've suffered from depression myself—I do have something against people like my mother who cost both the public health system, friends, relatives and even helpful strangers thousands of dollars and invested emotions without a thank you or a sorry.
I still haven't reached a resolution; in fact I'm sure that as long as she lives my mother will always be somewhere in the background, ready to cause more trouble for me. But I can't hang around and wait for her to cause trouble or decide that she wants to get healthy again. There comes a point when it's no longer my responsibility as a child to care for a parent who won't help themselves. And I know she can—I've seen her more than once control a manic episode, easily fooling a doctor or someone she wants to impress before letting her bipolar disorder loose once she is in 'comfortable' surroundings.
Like a drug addict, my mother enjoys the rush, the lightning speed of her brain when she has a manic episode. If I don't like her I have learnt the hard way to warily respect her - during a high she can remember things no one else can, win any argument and convince anyone of anything.
I may not have come to terms with everything - but for now I just need to get on with my life - my work, family, university and hopefully one day, a book. To anyone out there who has stood years of abuse at the hands of a parent, sibling, child or lover, that's all I can say. There comes a point when you need to move on with your life, no matter how selfish you feel doing it.
Update - 2012
I now have daughters of my own, and it has made me question even more how she could do what she did. I am seeing a therapist who is helping me deal with PTSD symptoms and losing a mother because really, that's what's happened.
A Helpful Resource
Do you no longer have contact with your mother because of a mental illness? Visit Women Without Mothers.