What I Want You to Know is a series of reader submissions. It is an attempt to allow people to tell their personal stories, in the hopes of bringing greater compassion to the unique issues each of us face. If you would like to submit a story to this series, click here. Today’s guest post is by Lani Roberts.
I have three children: a son who died as an infant, an adopted son, and a biological daughter. My living children are one and two years old. I am a twenty-eight year old woman with Bipolar II and ADHD. I am a stay-at-home mother with mental illness.
My children wake me up most mornings, and as I yawn and stumble toward the source of the crying, my subconscious is already assessing what kind of day it will be. Some days I shine with the steady light of normalcy; some days I pulse with the intensity of hypo-mania; some days I am swallowed in the darkness of depression. The light is unpredictable, uncontrollable. I blink awake while the children play at my feet, and as eggs sizzle in the pan and the bread heats in the toaster, I reach for my plastic bin of prescription medicine bottles. “Mommy has to take medicine,” I explain to my children, in wanton violation of the edicts of parenting experts to always speak in the first person. I open bottles, splitting one pill, counting others. I will repeat this routine twice more before bed.
Before the pills entered my life, I could not bond with my children. Exhausted and hopeless, I changed diapers and prepared bottles in a haze. A thick veil fell between my sunken eyes and the shining faces of my babies, and as though I was weighed down by blankets of guilt, I could not lift it. Their cries annoyed me; their laugh barely reached me. I cried while I cared for them, tears of sadness, because sadness was the only emotion I could feel.
The darkness reached a breaking point, the therapist appeared, the pills appeared, and suddenly I could see. I still had hard days, but the veil between myself and my children was finally gone. I gloried in the softness of their skin, the music of their voices, the closeness in the tasks of caring for them. With my new abilities to plan and multitask, I was finally able to do housework, take the children to the market, go to the park; these were privileges of normalcy that I had never before been afforded.
I will always feel the pain of losing my son’s first year to the darkness of deep depression. I can only be thankful the storms now are shorter and less intense, and that I can hold him and his sister close now and offer them the empathy and strength that I could not then.
What do I want you to know about parenting with mental illness?I want you to know that we who suffer from darkness of the mind, we do our best. But sometimes our best just isn’t enough. I clawed at the dirt walls of the pit that entrapped me, desperate to be on the surface with my children, but my scrambling only buried me further. How can I possibly describe the wrenching pain of that separation? How can I describe the desperation of the clawing, the total exhaustion of the effort? As a mother sickened by mental illness, I was too weak to weave the bonds of trust and connection with my children, and the knowledge that this has hurt them leaves scars on my soul.
I want you to know that on the good days I feel like a normal mom, and on the bad days I can barely direct my body in the simplest tasks of childcare. My mind struggles to claim a thought, to plan out how to make breakfast, to access my parenting toolkit. My children cry, and I hold them and cry, because the only thing I have to offer them is my own pain in that moment. How can I describe what it is like to sit on the floor, holding a wailing toddler in each arm, with tears of anguish pouring down my face because I cannot form a coherent thought, cannot remember how to soothe them?
I want you to know how my suffering has made me a better mother. We whose minds are broken, we know intimately what it is like to fail, to be alienated, to be weak. I access these places of brokenness to empathize with my children when they struggle. If the best I have to offer isn’t enough, perhaps my brokenness is, and so I offer empathy for the hard times, the failing times, the quitting times, the not-enough times. I know that internal suffering doesn’t always require external justification; heart-pain is always valid, even if it is caused by a broken cookie. I have cried over less.
I want you to know that mental illness doesn’t just disappear; it can rarely be conquered. It is a disabling, progressive, lifelong condition that requires management and often medication. I am legitimately sick, and the suffering caused by my sickness touches my family and my community as well as myself. The grace in the diagnosis, in identifying the disease, is that I am absolved of blame. Please understand this: we who suffer in the dark are survivors, fighters, bravely reaching and taking hold of life even as the illness loosens our grasp. I do this for myself, my husband, my community, but mostly I do this for my children. I want them to see their mother struggle; I want them to feel, in that deep place where mother love lives, that life is good, life is valuable, life is worth fighting for. Always.