Taking Care of Yourself When Your Son Has Bipolar Disorder

My son, Max, was diagnosed with Bipolar I when he was twenty. We’ve been on the bipolar rollercoaster for thirteen years now. Friends kept saying “You have to take care of yourself,” but really I just didn’t have the time. Until I finally realized that if I didn’t, I might collapse under the weight of fear for Max and the frustration at the roadblocks to treatment I encountered at every turn. I needed to find something that would ease my clenched jaw and the knot that always lay in the pit of my stomach.

A weekend yoga retreat close to home seemed a good place to start. It was a clear, sun-filled day when I reached the center. People were milling around talking, others were sitting, legs crossed, arms in lap. Some were stretching. A couple of women had gems glued onto their foreheads, reinforcing the feeling that I didn’t belong. But I found a place on the floor, facing a wall of glass that revealed a sweeping expanse of lawn that disappeared into the pines.

Pretty soon fifty some people sat around me as Yogi Amrit Desai otherwise known as Guredev appeared. He wore a white silk tunic and flowing pants, a red sash with gold embroidery draped across his shoulder, salted black hair brushed back in waves over his shoulders. He bowed, a smile lighting his face and began speaking about Kirpala Yoga—meditation in motion. He told us that painful transition periods, relationships, and crises can become opportunities and openings for personal transformation. Personal transformation sounded like a good step toward taking care of myself, so I did the yoga poses and listened to his advice. “This is not a fight with your body or your mind,” he said. “Let your muscles gently release. Just let go.”

It was a good weekend and I felt better than I had in months—calmer and more centered. So I made an appointment with one of the rolfers who attended the conference, thinking maybe he could dig deeper into my muscles and bones and push on my pain so hard that it would dissolve. It was painful, extremely painful. “Relax into it,” he told me. After each session, I sat out in my car and took stock. My muscles felt like tenderized beef except for the ones that held my teeth locked together. After ten treatments, I wasn’t the new person I had hoped and I’d spent far too much money.

The next logical step was the more conventional appointment with a psychotherapist. She was patient and sympathetic. We spent hours talking. It felt good to unload on her. I’d never trusted anyone enough to tell the full story. But talking didn’t relieve the deep-seated fear that I could lose my son. She opened a book of healing strategies and we tried a few that were supposed to break me out of this “fixed behavior.” After each session, she asked me if I noticed any changes at all.

“Maybe I feel less tension.” I lied because I felt like a failure, and I didn’t want her to feel the same way.

Looking back, I realized that I was simply not capable at the time of letting go. Maybe it felt too much like not caring, not being a good mother, not trying to make things right for my son. Maybe taking care of those you love is a way to take care of yourself I rationalized. And I was convinced that if I looked hard enough and long enough, I would find the right doctor, the exact treatment program that would save Max. But of course, it was never that straightforward.

Now, thirteen years later, I better understand what I can and can’t do. I see that accepting the things you can’t change does bring serenity. So much was in Max’s hands and it has taken us both years to accept and understand his illness. Understanding came for Max through the experiences of his episodes and with the help of a couple of good doctors and therapists, and with family support.

For me coming to terms with bipolar disorder involved getting educated. I took classes through NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and found support from other families who were struggling with the same issues I was. And I learned how to be an effective advocate for Max and eventually for others who live with mental illness and for the people who love them. There’s nothing like action, like doing something about your pain, fear and frustration to help you heal.

Max and I have written and published “Walks on the Margins” about the years of trauma. Telling our story helped us understand the illness in ways we never had and it helped us make sense of the chaos and confusion inevitable in mental illness. Now we speak openly and honestly about our struggles. It’s surprised us both at how liberating and healing speaking and writing about our experiences has been especially when we can see how it helps others.

If you live with mental illness like Max and our family does, you know that healing and recovery can be fleeting. You know that things can fall apart because though recovery is possible, cures aren’t. We’ve learned to live with and accept uncertainty.

By the way, I’m still doing yoga too!

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