Do People With Mental Illness Make Good Parents?

Glenna Gill

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My first episode of severe depression happened two days after I gave birth to my oldest son. It rendered me incapable of taking care of him in any way. Luckily, I had a big family and my husband who were able to take care of the baby’s needs until I recovered. They took me to the doctor where I was put on my first psychiatric medication, Zoloft.

Once I was better, I felt relieved that I’d made it through the depression. I also stopped taking my Zoloft because the episode was over, and I didn’t think I needed it anymore. Another reason was that my husband and I were trying for a second baby, and I didn’t want him to be born with drugs in his system. I wound up pregnant at the same time another depressive episode hit me like a Mack truck. My doctor was furious with me for stopping the medication. He started me back on it with a warning:

“You can’t ever stop your medication again, or you’ll likely try to kill yourself.”

He gave me a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, type 2, which basically means the mania is less and the depression is more severe. As much as I worried about my pregnancy, my baby boy was born completely healthy even though I had taken an antidepressant. I didn’t realize before that some psychiatric medications are safe to take while pregnant.

In total, I am the mother of three children, two boys, and a girl. There have been times when I wasn’t a good mother. I’ve had depression so severe that I could barely tend to their needs. I don’t play as much with them as I’d like, especially when I have trouble even getting off the couch. I tried to hide my symptoms when the kids were little so I didn’t upset them. Now, I’m a little more honest as the boys are adults and my daughter is a teenager. I’ve told them about being bipolar, and they pretty much take it in stride.

When my ex-husband left me for another woman, my depression and anxiety surged as I tried to manage all the kids alone. My doctor kept trying me on different medication combinations, but they didn’t hide all my symptoms. Unfortunately, I took up drinking after the divorce and used it as a crutch for my anxious mind. When it became a serious problem and my bipolar got worse, my ex-husband asked me to sign over custody of the kids. He said it would only be for a while, but that I needed to get myself together.

I didn’t argue with him when he presented the papers to me in my new apartment. The truth was, I knew I wasn’t doing well and definitely wasn’t stable. My ex had a huge family who all lived close to each other, and the same wasn’t true for me. My children would have a much more stable and consistent upbringing if they moved in with him. I really didn’t want them to miss out on that, so I tearfully signed my rights away with limited visitations. It was the best my ex would do.

Losing those kids blasted a hole through my heart that has truly never healed. It’s humiliating and sad to know you aren’t the best parent for your children. I gave birth to them and tended to their needs as much as my bipolar would let me, but I had to admit my best wasn’t good enough. I knew the kids were better off, and I knew they were in the best hands possible, but I desperately wanted them back and cried every day they were gone.

A mother without her children is a lost soul, stretching out her arms with no one to run into them. I constantly thought about all the school events I was missing and the funny things they said. Meanwhile, my depression and anxiety were off the charts, and I drank even more heavily so I wouldn’t have to think about my situation. There were times I couldn’t afford my medication, which caused things to get exponentially worse. Finally, I was hospitalized after a spontaneous suicide attempt. I remember swallowing a bunch of Ambien just out of the blue, which was most likely a misguided cry for help.

During my time in the hospital, I began to stabilize with the alcohol leaving my body. I began seeing a therapist who told me that my most important goal was stability. That meant taking my medications no matter what, continuing with weekly therapy, and doing the self-care that I usually hated myself too much to do. I realized that when I saw my kids, they deserved a whole parent and not one barely hanging on.

I stopped drinking altogether, which made my moods easier to deal with. When I’d have visitation with my children, I often felt so anxious about it that it was hard to relax in front of them. I’m sure they sensed it, too. Because I felt I had let them down, the guilt was almost too much to bear. Still, I knew I’d couldn't have a real relationship with my kids until I let down my guard and worked on my self-esteem. The last thing I wanted was for them to feel like they were parenting me. I’d gone through that with my own mother for years growing up, and I never wanted to put that kind of burden on my sons and daughter.

It wasn’t until I did some work on myself that I became really close to all three kids. My teenage daughter is at home with me again, but my sons are adults and off living their own lives. Even so, they visit as much as they can and sometimes spend the night. Being honest with them about my illness only worked in our favor, and it was easier for them to confide in me. I speak to the boys every day or so, and I’m watching my daughter blossom into a beautiful young woman right before my eyes.

I believe that parents with mental illness are just like any other parents. We’re only able to be helpful to our kids if we have taken care of ourselves first. Every parent makes mistakes and often feel bad about themselves when they falter. However, each mistake is a lesson to learn from and correct the next time.

I even think I’m grateful to have bipolar disorder now because my daughter was just diagnosed with it. She’s doing really well with medication and handles herself like a tough cookie. I’m glad I can talk to her about her symptoms or any other questions. I mostly navigated my illness on my own, but my daughter has someone in her corner now who has been there.

Yes, I am a good parent. It took me a while to realize that, but my love for my children could fill up the universe. I’ve also learned that people who worry about being good parents are also the best parents. If not, they wouldn’t care at all. I carried around a massive amount of guilt for years because I failed to provide everything they needed, but they grew up with the best of everything, even though it was without me.

I’m stable and sober today, and I put my children first. The love between us is enormous, and that’s really all I ever wanted when I became a mother. I’m so blessed to have them in my life, and I hope they feel the same way. They are the greatest part of me.

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I write about lifestyle issues, including such topics as parenting, mental illness, family, substance abuse, marriage/divorce, and inspiration. My hope is that these stories will help people suffering from similar issues by reading about other's experiences.

West Palm Beach, FL
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