The greatest of these is love…

“Aren’t you afraid he will get your disease?”

The question uttered by a colleague at a department picnic this past summer when I was still working as a college instructor. This colleague had known me for a few years. She had known me when I was still adamantly not going to have children. She knew of my diagnoses. And this was the first time she had seen me since giving birth. This was the first time she met my son who had just turned one year old.

And this was the question; a question about my fear of passing on my psychiatric illnesses. Not a question concerning the million other things that happens with new motherhood- a question of genetic loading.

I wanted to respond with my sarcastic self and give a blank stare and state, “why no, I never thought about that.”

Seriously, I waited until thirty-six to entertain motherhood. I had heard for years from psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers about my genetic loading. I had read countless articles about the increase in odds of a child being diagnosed with a mental illness when a parent is also mentally ill. I, myself, am ABD in my psychology doctorate. I think I may have visited this topic before.

Did this woman not think that when this little boy looks at me with his big brown eyes that I earnestly pray he will never know the torment of violent mood swings or the torture of psychosis?

But, at the age of thirty-six, wisdom had also joined in to calm my fears. Therefore, I did roll the dice and become pregnant. And here is why:

First, I know that with genetics, 1+1 does not always equal 2.

Second, I am so much more than my diagnoses. Yes, I live with schizoaffective disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and PTSD. But, I am also so much more than my illnesses.

Third, if my little man is afflicted with a mental illness, there is no one more capable than myself and his father to help him through the maze of that journey. We both know that maze forward and backward. We can be the support he would need and deserve.

And lastly, I love this little man with all my soul. And as we know, the greatest of these is love.

So, to my inappropriate colleague, I must say that it may happen. And if it happens, this little man has all the love and support in the world to fight every day for him to thrive.

 

The Legacy

When I was first diagnosed as mentally ill, I remember a psychiatrist stating I was “genetically loaded.” Trust me, that is an accurate statement. Now, it is not to say that genetics work as a 1+1=2 process; but, when one has mental illness in their genetic background, their odds of that loading surfacing in their life is fairly high.

Part of this genetic loading comes from my parents. My father lives with what one would know as classic bipolar disorder. I grew up walking on eggshells while trying to navigate his infinite mood swings. He would swing into mania with grand ideas of new business ventures and that mania could tip farther into agitated paranoia where he was waiting for the “revolution” and hoarding weapons; he would then swing into deep depressions where he would confess to me his thoughts of suicide. As a child, I constantly knew I needed to save him.

What about my mother? She lives with schizophrenia. She has lived so long with this disease untreated that I am sure she does not truly understand what reality actually consists of anymore and her cognitive decline is truly staggering. In addition, her paranoia created an aspect of manipulation that was brutal for those around her. Ultimately, the lines of delusion, paranoia, truth, lies, reality, and perceived persecution were gone- not blurred, gone. Childhood with her was torture.

I must state that I cut ties with my parents fifteen years ago for multiple reasons. No contact. Whether they have finally received treatment for these issues, I do not know. I truly do wish them peace. But, I could no longer contribute to the dysfunctional system.

This leaves me now as a parent who is also living with mental illness. I am a mother and I am also a person who everyday has to make choices to best handle my chronic brain disorder of schizoaffective disorder. I also made a very conscious decision that the legacy of how I was parented was going to end. I realized that in order to end this legacy, I had to both address my genetics and brain disorder and also realize I am more than my genetic loading.

So, how do you that? One thing I have to do to receive treatment. Neither of my parents received treatment. Mental illness is progressive and without treatment, it only worsens. I also know that stress exacerbates mental illness. I recently left a career that was not allowing me to take care of myself and was adding stress to my life. I have to care for myself to be able to parent my child and create a new legacy for him. Another aspect of my parenting is empathy. My child is new to this world. He also only gets one childhood. I empathize with that fact and I continue to reflect on how my parents’ mental illnesses impacted my childhood. I look at my child with empathy when making parenting decisions. Am I always successful? No. Am I far from the legacy given to me? Yes.

I was given a legacy. I let that legacy convince myself that I should not be a parent. It was not until the age of thirty-six that I realized that some legacies can end and new ones can be created.

 

The Isolation

The stigma, the isolation…

There are numerous writings chronicling the loneliness and isolation that can accompany new parenthood. It happens. It is a part of dedicating one’s self to another human to ensure their survival. It is the giving of one’s self.

However, there is an isolation and loneliness that we often do not touch on and one that many will not share for fear of judgment, assumption, or even worse. That isolation and loneliness comes from the stigma of living through your mental illness and the challenges that illness places on your new status as parent. You are now balancing your symptoms, medications, doctor appointments, blood draws, relationships, and caring for a truly dependent human being that is trusting in you completely. The cost is high and the isolation can be deafening.

When I state that the cost is high, I am referring to how others perceive a parent who lives with mental illness. I know I may be overly sensitive, but I also know that voices of many of my critics carried far and into my hearing range and the whispers of how many felt that someone with my diagnosis should never be a parent in the first place were stated rather openly. So, if I was to ask for help or reach out of my isolation, how would others perceive that? Truly, when my medication needs adjustment or I need extra time to see a doctor, I am highly hesitant to ever ask for assistance. I will isolate myself and my needs in order to prove all naysayers wrong. In addition, there are very few occasions that I will truly state how I am ever truly feeling, as the risks are too great. I will not risk my son and my status as his mother for assistance.

Of course, what we are talking about, at its core, is stigma. Even at this time, fifty years after the Community Mental Health Centers Act was introduced by the Kennedy Brothers and sixty years since we began widely using antipsychotic medications, many still perceive someone with a mental illness as unfit to parent. And therefore, many will take any chink in that armor as evidence to that flawed thought process of who is a fitting parent.

Here I am, feeling as if I often need to live to a higher standard than I would ever hold anyone else and I find myself isolated and experiencing a loneliness that is unique. It is not that I am without others in my life. It is that I need to hold back to protect my most precious child so stigma cannot touch him and an archaic belief system will not invade our relationship.

So, for now, I will push hard and isolate and loneliness may come. As anyone who has lived with mental illness can attest to, this is standard operating procedure.

 

The Bright Brilliance

I heard the news he was gone and it hit me like a solid punch in the gut. Always a favorite actor, someone I viewed as possessing true brilliance, and one who I respected for reaching the true breadth of human existence in his art. On Monday, I heard the sad news of Robin William’s passing.

There is another reason why I always felt a connection to this artist and humanitarian that I had actually never met in person. When I watched his brilliance of improvisation unfold, how he was able to touch human nature and emotions while harnessing the true beauty and power of words, I also saw the price he had to pay for such a bright light. Anyone who lives with bipolar chemistry residing in their brains recognizes the physical transformation that takes place when the bright light and powerful push of rapid-fire thoughts take hold. On stage, he was constantly thinking, speaking, sweating… I could only imagine his heart pounding and how his speech much feel pushed against the back of his tongue forcing its way out. The thoughts must have felt as if they would simply explode. And while I loved witnessing the brilliance, I knew the bright light also would give way to times where darkness would encapsulate this individual. And yet, for sixty-three years, he fought every day. How courageous.

The trickery of the chemistry of the mind is that we think we can control it. When we live with a chemistry that is off-balance, that can be perilous for our well-being, we tend to take cues from society that any method we can find to control it on our own has to be better than letting another person in on the secret. Some look to other chemicals: alcohol, cocaine, nicotine, sugar, and countless others. Others look towards physical stimulation to spur the chemical response: cutting, eating, sleeping, exercising, and so much more. Over the years, Mr. Williams worked to reign in his highs and desperate lows while bringing us his amazing brilliance. Exquisite exhaustion, I am sure.

But today, for me, there are tears. However, I also hope that you, Mr. Williams, have found the peace that has eluded you. As one who has been at that brink, and only through medical intervention have I not crossed over, I know the decision you bore was one of selflessness. It was one of hoping for peace for all, including yourself and the ones you love. The pain was beyond pain and the exhaustion beyond exhaustion.

I can also hope that we, as a society, will find a way to help one another… to provide support that is so often lacking. May we find peace, someday, on this side.

I told society to bite me…

Somewhere along my journey, I picked up a personality trait where I must do something if someone tells me I cannot do it. In particular, if someone tells me that I do not have the ability or it is best for me to not pursue a certain goal, then I am gone with my hair on fire after that goal or proving my ability. However, when it came to parenting, I heeded the warnings concerning my psychiatric diagnosis very seriously.

When one lives with a psychiatric diagnosis like schizoaffective disorder, there are many aspects to consider when contemplating parenthood. One, of course, is your own stability to provide for this entire other person the safety, care, and guidance they have a right to receive. The other concern lies in the treatments that keep you stable. While medications saved my life, they also take a toll and come complete with other issues to consider.

Add into this my own not-so-stable childhood and for once in life, I was cautious and heeding someone’s guidance

Then came the summer of 2012 and at the age of 35 I had an epiphany. I glanced at my husband and realized that he had been through the ups and downs of my illness for the past seventeen years at that point. He had truly seen it all… fugue states, me disappearing across state lines, a divorce, electro-convulsive therapy, too many to count medications, twelve hospitalizations, a suicide attempt…

In addition, I wanted to have a child with him and I was the most stable I had ever been. If he could weather the storm for nearly twenty years at that point and I finally wanted to have a child, why was I not doing this?

Oh, ya, society. Society…

Well, I mentally told society to bite me and got pregnant two weeks later.

Now, I have a fifteen month old son. He is quite the amazing little man. Is this mommahood @ diagnosis code 295.7 difficult? Yes. Yes, it is. Is it worth it? Never any doubts. Not once.