Have you ever had a conversation with a parent that left you shaking your head? I have had plenty, and for a long time the ones that really got me were the ones where parents would tell me, “I think they really need to stay at (insert your college name here) to be successful.” I, as the college administrator, had phoned them in the hopes that they would drop everything and get to campus as quickly as they could, because their student was disintegrating in front of my eyes. I don’t make these calls whimsically. But. They. Didn’t. But. They. Wouldn’t. I now know it was because they couldn’t.
I am the parent of a brilliant, creative, super-funny, highly verbal and very sensitive, 17 year old daughter with the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen. She has been diagnosed as bi-polar. I suspect she was diagnosed about 4 years too late, and I carry that guilt with me daily. I suspect she should have been on medication years earlier, and I carry that guilt with me daily. I have so much guilt about her diagnosis on any given day, that it can paralyze me, or reduce me to tears (I am pretty close to those tears as I write).
She had her first hospitalization in her first year of high school. Almost one week inpatient, released with a diagnosis of MDD, and was placed on medication. She was bullied after that hospitalization (though we did not know it for many months – and I carry that guilt with me daily) and in her sophomore year, things came to a head and we pulled her out of high school in March and began to home school her. Her diagnosis was changed to bi-polar and nearly 5 medications later, she seemed to stabilize. Home schooling increased her academic confidence. We had a really wonderful summer between junior and senior year. She worked full time, traveled to and from work successfully, saw her therapist weekly, took her meds. She was feeling good…and you know what happens when bi-polar people feel good? They think they do not need to be on their medication. We discovered weeks later, that she was not taking her meds but was throwing them away.
So what does living with a bi-polar person feel like? Like you are walking on eggshells all the time. Like you are afraid to be in your own home. Like you must weigh each and every sentence that comes out of your mouth because you don’t know if that will be the sentence that sets her off. Like you want to live somewhere else. And yes, I carry that guilt with me daily.
My daughter could be having a conversation with me about something innocuous, and I would say the thing that triggered her. She did not like to hear no. She broke things, she threw things, she tore things, she said vile, evil, frightening things. She would tell me afterward, that she could feel herself losing control, and would tell herself to stop, and the next thing she knew she was throwing the laptop across the room, or down the stairs, or out the window. The police have been called to my house because her behavior has been so frightening. I have been told that she is going to kill me (and the way that she would do it in great detail), I have been told to never speak to her again. I have been told I am the worst mother ever, I have been told that she hates me more than any person could hate another person. I have been told that I will never, ever see my grandchild. I have heard all of those things hundreds of times, and in between those times, I get punctuated obscenities of the worst kind – words I would never, ever say.
Do you think I am kidding? Have you ever lived with someone who is bi-polar?
She disintegrated quickly this past fall when she went off of her medications. She insists she is not bipolar and has no need to take them ever again. She became so out of control, that on October 15th, the police needed to be called. She ran down the street holding a knife and we did not know where she was for 4 days. She stopped attending school, she stopped communicating. And here is my big confession. My daughter has not lived with us since October 15th. Very few people in my professional circle know this. My own co-workers do not know this. I feel like the worst mother in the world – my 17 year old daughter does not live with us, because she refuses to be med compliant and we could not continue to live like we had been for the last two years, because we need to be healthy too. As parents, we are told over and over about unconditional love. I am here to tell you that the line between tough love and unconditional love is razor thin. I get it now when the parents I call can’t do the thing I want them to do.
I am an advocate for coming out from behind the curtain, and yet, here I have been – safely behind the curtain for almost 7 months. I am afraid of being judged. I don’t believe the tweets of support – would you really hire me if you knew I had to deal with this on a daily basis? Do you think it would distract me from my work? I try really hard to stay focused, I have learned to compartmentalize. When I know I can’t do it, I take a break, regroup, and begin again. Oh, and I cry.
My daughter and I are working toward a relationship. We speak, we call, we text. We see one another fairly regularly. I don’t talk as much, am less confrontational than I want to be. She will become a mother in September and I want, no I need, to be in her life. She is after all brilliant, creative, super-funny, highly verbal and very sensitive – my 17 year old daughter with the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen.
To read more about “Committed,” a series focusing on sharing stories and continuing the conversation about Mental Health in Student Affairs, check out this post. Follow the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #SAcommits. Thanks for reading and supporting your colleagues!