To meet Allie, you’d never guess what happened in 2009. She’s tall and slender, demure and intelligent. She has a sweet nature and is genuinely interested in people and animals. A little bit shy, she can easily be brought out of her shell when asked about her fossil collection or any discussion about travel. She loves to sing with the minister of her church, though she’d never take a solo. And she’s an active home-school mom; she wanted to have a direct influence on her son’s education and be able to take him out into the natural world as often as possible, because she believes that is where real learning happens. But one October afternoon in 2009, when her son was only 6, Allie had given in and taken him to a giant toy store in her town. Normally, she preferred to spend time with him in parks and alongside streams, but he’d been begging for a certain Hot Wheels set. Feeling agitated and inpatient, Allie relented. But something about the sky high racks filled with too-brightly colored boxes, the harsh florescent lights and the running, screaming children—including her own son—began to overwhelm her. Before she knew it, she’d dashed out of the store and into the confines of her Volvo station wagon, where she said she felt safer. Two hours went by while Allie sat in her car; she doesn’t remember what she thought about. Eventually, store personal discovered a little boy alone and in tears looking for his mother. The police were called to the scene, which finally got Allie’s attention. But when confronted, she became combative. “I just needed a moment of peace!” she yelled at the officers and one very confused store clerk. That day, Allie’s little boy was taken from her. He was handed over to his grandmother for a period of six weeks, and Allie was charged with child neglect. As a result of the experience, Allie fell into a darker depression than she’d ever known before, and even contemplated suicide. She spent five nights in in-patient treatment. It was there that Allie was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Today, she takes a number of medications including a mood stabilizer and an anti-depressant, and feels much more able to manage in moments of stress. Nothing like what happened at the toy store has happened again, though Allie feels hot shame to think about that day. She is still home-schooling her little boy, much to the chagrin of the majority of her family members. Because of her diagnosis, many of them view her as unfit, and are unable to see how she can be at once a good mother and a woman who was suffering from an untreated mental illness.
Balance, Balance, Balance
Even without any other complications, motherhood is a tough job. Feeding, sheltering and caring for the needs of another individual isn’t easy; it takes a lot of sacrifice and a huge supply of love. And making the tricky judgment calls constantly required in parenting gives even the most stable moms cause for concern. While Allie wasn’t lacking for love or a willingness to sacrifice, she had an additional dilemma—one which affected her ability to make the right call, and both she and her son suffered greatly as a result. Dealing with mental illness is no small feat even for the childless adult, but when the addition of the responsibility for a young life comes into play, it is all the more important to focus on achieving and maintaining recovery. There are dozens of factors that can contribute to complications in mental illness—most of them arise with the occurrence of stress. Creating a life as stress-free as possible, and learning healthy ways to cope when the stress inevitably comes on is key, especially for moms. Building a routine around proper nutrition, adequate exercise and enjoyable activities or alone time is essential. Seeing your doctor or therapist regularly, and keeping up with your medication is also critical to staying healthy and on track. Examining your life, locating areas that feel out of balance and correcting that balance are healthy strategies for staying on top of your recovery and maintaining your cool so that you can be present and reliable in your most important job. It’s also important that you build in ways to feel independent and autonomous, so that parenting does not become an overwhelming, identity-swallowing enterprise.
You Can Do It
The stigma that exists against mental illness is a hurdle everyone affected must overcome, and perhaps mothers especially so. The ideal is that all mothers be calm, rational forces of nurturing and love 24/7 but that isn’t the reality, even for mothers who do not carry the additional burden of mental illness. Something like bipolar disorder, or any other diagnosis, cannot be an excuse for bad parenting, however. We must all be accountable for our choices and step up to seek treatment when our choices have been negatively impacted by an illness. Mothers have quietly battled mental illness for generations, and are still learning how best to fight the fight. Choosing health and remaining willing to reach out when you need help are the only requirements.