Disclaimer: Reading this story could trigger traumatic memories. If this happens, please contact your therapist.
Why are you so reactive and down,” my wife asks — and for good reason. The sun is shining. The birds are chirping, and you have a little boy looking up at you and I start crying.
He is pointing at things and muttering nearly inaudible words though you know he is asking to learn.
Of course, I answer in the only way I know how: “I don’t know. I don’t know.” Because I don’t. Not really. The tears caught me-as they often do — unaware and off guard. But deep down, I do know, I am cycling again.
I am slipping into another depressive mood cycle.
You see, I am one of 5.7 million Americans who struggle with an illness (a mental illness) known as bipolar disorder, and while most days are good, some days are dark and dark for days in a row when seems as though the sun will never rise up again.
They are filled with manic highs and paralyzing lows, and today is one of “those days.”
I am drowning in the darkness, swallowed by sadness, solemnness, moroseness, anguish, and despair.
Of course, it is on these days — my depressive days — that I find it hardest to parent. Thinking hurts. Breathing hurts. Being hurts, and parenting? It is a task I am not up to. I can barely care for myself, let alone another. So, on these days, I sit and watch my son — my handsome baby boy — in front of his toys and let him play while I take a seat in my chair. While I try to hold it together in my chair by trying to escape digitally. While I do everything, I can to hold it together, for him.
Where, were it not for my son, I would most likely want to “sleep it off” for days. But depression is more than apathy and lethargy. It is more than sadness, helplessness, hopelessness, and pain, and my depression makes it impossible to enjoy “the little things,” my son, my wife or anything.
I cannot tell you how much of my son’s life I have missed out on already because Daddy “was tired” or some other seemingly justifiable excuse in the moment.
Because Daddy was unable to feel.
The good news is that these episodes do not last forever. Eventually, my mood shifts. The depression lifts, and I level out. I experience a “normal” and healthy range of emotions. But this stable period only lasts so long. The depression can (and will) return. As will the mania-the other piece of this bipolar puzzle.
Make no mistake: on paper, mania looks good. It is a period marked by elation, euphoria, and increased energy. Of cockiness, confidence, creativity, and hyperactivity. And, when I am manic, I experience all of these symptoms and more: I am lively and energetic, outgoing and electric, and I can bounce around and sing loudly. I tell stories, play, and have fun, and I am the dad I yearn to be.
I am the happy-go-lucky dad my son wants me to be and needs me to be.
But my manic periods are also filled with danger. I eat too much and try to find ways of escape. I have trouble focusing on any one task. I am anxious and angry and irritable to a fault. (Seriously. I have lost my shit over everything from a piece of paper to being looked at.) And I spend impulsively at times when I know I shouldn’t.
Until I crash and crash hard.
(And with bipolar II, my crash is always defined by depression. By long, deep, and dark downs.)
The good news is that, thanks to a series of medications — of uppers, downers, mood stabilizers, and “as needed” pills — most days I am good (when I decide to not self-prescribe changes). I am okay. I am fine. But because my disorder is tricky and unpredictable, I never know when things may change.
Me — and my mood — can shift on a dime.
So how do I explain my bipolar disorder to my wife and son? How do I help normalize my behavior to give them some sense of sanity and consistency? To keep them calm in the midst of my chaotic world? Well, I talk to them about my health. (My mental health.) I explain that, sometimes, I don’t feel well. I am tired. I am lost. And I try to explain, no matter what version of Daddy they see before them, I always love them. I always need them, and I always care about them.
Even when I am struggling.
Even when I am alone in my thoughts.
Is this enough? Probably not. But I’m trying. Every day I’m trying! And, bipolar or not, I am a person first, a husband first and a parent first. A parent who enjoys fun bath time, one who tells him just how much I love him every chance I get, one who tries to snuggle his son every night as he drifts off to sleep and reads him stories every time he brings a book over, even if it’s the same book 10 times in 5 minutes. I tell him I promise to never give up trying for him.
And for today, that is enough.
I may be bipolar, but I am enough.