Growing up with a bipolar mother: a true story

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Growing up with a bipolar mother shapes the child-parent relationship forever. For Elisabeth, it meant her childhood was all about secrets.

Growing up with a bipolar mother: a true story

“I have a secret,” she said.  She was lying on the living room couch, cigarette burning too close to her fingers. Not now, I thought, suddenly feeling agitated in that way I’d feel when she began a manic episode.  Growing up with a bipolar mother meant that there was always a period of time when things did not feel exactly right.  This was one of them. My senses became heightened as I tried to detect if there was a shift or if it was just my imagination, like my version of Spider Man’s Spidey sense.  Something just felt off.

I migrated to the kitchen and busied myself.  I didn’t need to know yet another secret.  She was 68 years old and days away from dying of colon cancer.  I wanted to make peace, not begin another manic cycle.

I wanted her to tell me that she loved me.

“I’ve been having an affair with our dentist,” she said.

Oh god, mom; he’s married, I thought, surprising myself with how prudish and conservative my first reaction was.

“And it’s been quite satisfying,” she continued.

Please stop talking.  I felt like an adolescent walking in on their parents having sex.  I didn’t want to know, and yet I did.

This probably isn’t true.  My dentist?  How gross.  I mean, the last time I saw this dentist, he graciously gifted me a free cleaning as a wedding present.  But my mother still saw him regularly as she suffered from periodontal disease, probably due to her life-long pack a day habit.  He was always flirty, peering over his magnifying work glasses as he spoke, but I thought that was just his style, a way to lighten the visit.  He was funny in a goofy sort of way.

The conversation ended mostly because I wouldn’t participate, and she drifted off to sleep.  I gently extracted the cigarette from her right hand and extinguished it in a nearby ashtray, but not before it left a burn mark on the couch.  I turned off the television that was providing white noise in the background.

Growing up with a bipolar mother meant periods of normalcy and chaoes

My mother was beautiful, intelligent, and creative.  Yet with all those genetic blessings, she was often side-railed from accomplishing anything.  Sabotaged.  She went to Music and Art High School and played the cello.  Then on to Barnard College, a subway ride from home, the farthest her parents would allow her to go.  But she didn’t finish there.

From what I can piece together, she must have had her first manic episode during school and ended up in a psych ward in Westchester for almost a year.  Treatments for psychiatric illness were not what they are today.  But I can’t be sure because these things were never discussed.   

She eventually returned home and graduated from City College even though she would continue attending Barnard reunions, never letting on that she did not graduate from there.

She studied to be an elementary school teacher.  I think it was easy because her father was a teacher, and she could get a job, not because she had any passion for it.

Ultimately, she married my father, became a medical resident, and moved to Boston. I am sure she thought that this would provide financial stability.  He probably thought he hit the jackpot. Beautiful and fun.  Perhaps out of his league.  They moved to Boston and had two children in rapid succession, Irish twins they called us.  But shortly after my brother was born, Mom had to return to the Bronx from her house in Boston.  She said he shut off all the electricity and closed the bank accounts leaving us with no food or heat—the bastard.

I rarely saw my father.  In the beginning, he did fight to see us, but as the court battles and angry phone conversations drew on, he stopped paying child support, and the visits stopped as well.  He remarried quickly after he left us; maybe he had been having an affair. Perhaps he found needed comfort with this woman.  Maybe he just couldn’t tolerate my mother’s behavior and wanted out.  Growing up with a bipolar mother meant more secrets. Things I will never know.

Read more: How to cope with a Bipolar Mother

Years later, a random email from a woman who thinks she knows who we are appears in my brother’s inbox.  Our adult half-sister has just discovered that she has siblings, never learning about us until now.  We were kept secret from her and her brother, and she has somehow discovered that we exist.  We were vaguely aware that he had other children.  A few emails are exchanged, her curiosity is satisfied, and we never meet.

Growing up with a bipolar mother mean there were periods of normalcy and then periods of complete chaos.  Mom could go a year or two being a normal mom, but then the disease would reemerge, and she became a manic mom.  These periods began with creative outbursts, playing Chopin on the piano, painting a mural on the living room wall.

Writing.  Staying up all night talking on the phone to people she used to know in California and ex-lovers, having sex with the milkman and the florist down the street.

Throwing raw eggs against the kitchen wall for some reason only known to her.  The smell of the perfume she would wear.  Followed by someone calling the police and her being manhandled into an ambulance and dropped at the nearest psychiatric ward with an open bed.  Neighbors and parents reaching their limits of what they could tolerate.

For me, growing up with a bipolar mother meant it was often difficult to tell what was true and what was not. She’d convince me that there was a fire in the wall and that she needed to call the fire department to investigate.  Flipping the switches in the fuse box would keep the fire from spreading.  In order to navigate the darkness, she poured sugar straight out of the bag to make tactile paths on the floor that would allow us to find our way from room to room.  The firemen showed up, and politely tried to figure out what was going on.  Heavy in their gear and carrying axes.  Eventually, they just left, leaving us there alone with her.  Take me with you, I thought.

She convinced me that the bushes outside the apartment building hid a secret garden.  We would squeeze in between the scratchy bushes and the brick wall and follow the path to the entrance of the building—the smell of wet earth.

She’d convince me that she was allergic to the lithium tablets dye, which was why she couldn’t take them—that and the fact that it dulled her creativity.

She convinced me that Choo-Choo, our overweight and declawed house cat, needed to be set free on the streets of the Bronx.  That he would be fine.  We never saw him again after that.

She convinced me that I was a sucker for following the rules.  That would never get me anywhere.  That I was not as smart as my brother.  That I was dull.  I was ordinary.  And ordinary was bad.

She once convinced several of the inpatients in the psychiatric ward to escape.   They all followed her out of the ward, ducklings chasing after their mother.  Maybe they made it down the street.  Maybe they bought hamburgers with fries and ketchup.  That adventure cost her some freedom, back in her blue hospital gown when we next visited her.

Reflecting on my time growing up with a bipolar mother, now that I am an adult I still often question my first instincts.  In this case, my first instinct was to not believe her about the dentist.

I also avoid conflict with my bipolar mother, get triggered by loud arguments, and obsess over negative criticism.  My brother has come to believe that trauma is “held in the body.” He suffers from chronic dizziness that prevents him from traveling.  We each have distinct coping mechanisms despite a shared history.  But part of healing is making sense of the past. And if this is true, it explains why we need to tell our story.  Why do I need to talk about it.  Why I am asking you, dear reader, to keep reading.

Growing up with a bipolar mother meant that my childhood was all about secrets.  Don’t tell anyone your bipolar mother is in a mental hospital. Don’t tell anyone we are poor. Don’t tell anyone your bipolar mother was married twice.  And outward appearances were meant to hide these secrets; fancy coats bought by Grandma for shopping trips in the city when I got free lunch at school.

My grandparents lived in the apartment next door.  They supported us financially after my father abandoned my mom, brother, and me when we were just infants.  Of course, their support came with strings.  I never got an allowance, and so I babysat, dog walked, and made jewelry that I sold at school.  The money went to purchase Jordache jeans and Nike sneakers so that I could fit in at school.  I would often change out of the corduroy dresses and “school shoes” that my grandmother bought in the stairwell, careful to stow them behind the gray painted pipe and change back before I got home: one persona at school, another at home.

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I learned to be frugal.  Growing up with a bipolar mother meant there was never enough money in the house. In medical school, I ate ramen noodles and cans of soup, trying to make my school loans last as long as I could. 

So, it was no surprise, but it was still confusing when it was time to shop for a wedding dress, a dress I didn’t even want.  I had the idea of wearing a pantsuit.  But Grandma plunked down $5000 on a Vera Wang dress just like that. That’s what she wanted.  And I would not be an embarrassment to my new in-laws from Chicago.  The dress, although beautiful, was not me.

The opening of the purse for this trivial purchase should have made me feel like a princess, but it made me feel empty.  I was an inanimate object to be dressed like a doll.  I had struggled to eat, but no one would know about that.  And as I stood on a podium at the Vera Wang store on Madison Avenue in my tattered cotton underwear while the saleswoman took my measurements, all l I could think about was how much 5K could buy and how much debt that would alleviate and how much I could have used the money for something else.  How much we still had to pretend that we were something that we were not; to pass.  Even though I was about to graduate from medical school, still not good enough, I guess.  Growing up with a bipolar mother meant I always felt I was never good enough.  And how much that made me question if any of that other stuff actually happened or if I had made it all up.  Honestly, it made me feel a little crazy.

One night she insisted on sleeping in my bed with me.  She woke me up every few minutes to tell me yet another secret.

“I was married before your father and he made me his love slave.  He locked me in the house and wouldn’t let me leave.  My mother was so upset that she made me get an abortion and got the marriage annulled.”

She told me she still heard that child call to her.  Too much for a 10-year-old to understand.

I guess these secrets made me think she was special.

I believed that she had a magical life.  But I was excluded from the magic.  I wanted to believe in all of it.  I tried to be her sidekick. But I became lost in the background.

Growing up with a bipolar mother meant I had to be the grown-up.  The assistant.  The person that goes around tidying and making excuses and never gets thanked.  I had to get my brother and me to school.  I had to keep us fed.  I had to keep the secrets and act like everything was okay.

I often hated her as well as the secrets we were told to keep. Couldn’t anyone see how scared I was? Why were there no social work visits when the two of use showed up alone at yet another psychiatric ward, lugging the requested items in black plastic garbage bags that she demanded we bring?  I couldn’t wait to grow up and be free of her.

She filled out my financial aid forms for college and wrote in $0.00 under my annual income.  Part her truth and part her warped strategy to pay for college; I got financial aid for my fancy liberal arts college education.  Again, I was trying to pass in a world where I didn’t quite belong.  Pretending to be someone I wasn’t.

My bipolar mother said to say I came from NYC when I told everyone I came from the Bronx.  It felt like everyone had money. They all had cars, paid people to type their papers, and unlimited funds for beer.  I had a work-study job, no phone, no fridge, and no designer clothes.  No house in Vail.  Never been to Europe or Asia, or South America.  It was easier to keep up the charade than to tell the truth.  Upper East Side parents would look me up and down.  Trying to assess if I was of the right social status to befriend their children.

“What do your parents do?” they would ask.

“My mother is a teacher.”

I don’t carry these secrets anymore.  I have become an over-sharer in an attempt to normalize my experiences growing up with a bipolar mother.  In an attempt to understand who I am in all of this and how these experiences have affected my choices.  In an attempt to prove that these things really happened.  I want these events to be validated and to mean something, but now it feels as if the particulars of these truths are only useful material to shock others at cocktail parties.

Humans are complicated.  They sometimes take years of intense study to understand.  And study her, I did.  I dissected every spoken word.  I tried to understand her, to know her.  I desperately wanted to connect with her.

She convinced me that the worst thing in life was not feeling anything. “Make them feel,” she said.

I’m still not sure if I believe that. I’m still not sure what that means.  I don’t want to make people feel bad.  But I think it might be important.  Hoping it was some secret to life that she was trying to pass down to me.  I am still trying to break the code.

Growing up with a bipolar mother I rarely felt much affection and was rarely touched.  I love you was never something that was spoken aloud.  Despite this, I do believe that she loved me.  After being pushed down by two neighborhood boys from second grade, shoes removed, and tossed into the street, I ran home crying.  I didn’t want her to do anything, didn’t want to draw more attention to it, but my mother figured out who they were, and called their parents.  Not sure what she said to them, but she scared those boys so, that they never even looked at me again, let alone bother me.

She drove to my college to talk with a Dean when I was having a problem with the registrar about making a class pass/fail.

She showed up at the hospital after my daughter was born, telling me she was beautiful and that if Grandma were still alive, she would have loved her.

She once said, “you’re my Andie,” my daughter’s name, the closest she could come to saying that she loved me.

At the end, she wasn’t able to say goodbye.  I knew she wouldn’t be able to.  She was only able to share her secret life one more time with me.  It turns out that we did want the same things.  We wanted to be loved.  We were both unable to say it.

The death of my bipolar mother

I also believe that she was manic at the end of her life.  This disease that worked against her, derailed her from accomplishing anything real, ended up being a comfort, a survival skill.  From her cancer diagnosis to death was only a few weeks.  She never received any routine health care, no screening colonoscopy, or a mammogram.  When she visited me a few months before, she looked emaciated.

“Mom, there’s something wrong with you,” I said.

“No, just lost some weight; I’m happy about that.”

I should have insisted that she see a doctor, but what would that have done?  She never listened to me anyway.  She never thought I had anything significant to say.  She never really thought of me as an adult with an adult job.  

She would only ask my husband medical questions, ignoring that I was a physician myself.  When her neighbor’s pregnant daughter was sick with preeclampsia, she described all of the issues to me in great detail over the phone.

“That can be really dangerous,” she said.

What did she think I did?

She began slurring her words on the phone.  I made the trip to see her.  When I arrived, she was unable to walk, and her apartment was dirty.

“Mom, why didn’t you tell me?”

“It’s fine,” she said. “I just crawl around the house.” Like that was normal.

I cleaned her and the apartment—skin, and bones in the bathtub leaving a grimy ring around the tub. I bought a wheelchair.  I called her doctor.

I told my brother to make peace and say goodbye.  They hadn’t been speaking over the last several months.  Something that happened after he’d had a fight with her.  But you can’t have a logical argument with an illogical person.  Lines were drawn, and my brother was never one to cross them.

I convinced her to go to the hospital.  She didn’t want to go.  She ceremoniously removed all of her jewelry before going, a habit learned from prior hospitalizations where things would be stolen while sedated on Haldol.  She touched the outside of the front door as I rolled her to the elevator.

“You’ll be back,” I said.

I now have come to believe that by her ignoring her illness, my bipolar mother committed suicide.  And during her final days, she found comfort in her mania.  She was not able to express the mania as she usually did in her physically weakened state. She couldn’t even walk.  But the words…. The secrets…. The lack of reality…. My confusion…. All of these were there.  I am sure of it, I think.

I left her in the hospital, flew home for a work shift, saw my young children, and flew right back.  While at work, I called her cell over and over, but she never picked up.  A resident called late into my shift to ask if I wanted them to resuscitate her.  I said no.  By the time I got back to her hospital room, it was too late.  She was still alive, but barely.  Silent.  Unmoving.  Unthreatening.  Small.  Evaporating.  My brother was sitting there alone in a stiff chair.  I turned the noisy bubbling oxygen down and slowed her IV.  I held her hand even though it didn’t resemble her anymore.  She took her last breath.  We said nothing.

I walked out to the nurses’ station.

“I think my mother died,” I said.

The resident was called to do the EKG.  I signed a paper for her corneas to be donated.

We lingered, unsure of where to stand or what to say.  Sadness, relief, and regret.

Weeks later, as my brother and I were cleaning out her apartment, we stumbled upon a packet of Hallmark cards signed “your lover” and a tube of K-Y jelly.  We looked at each other with a combination of disgust and amusement.  They were indeed from the dentist.  She was involved with him.  At the risk of exposing his secret, we decided to call to tell him that she died; maybe he would want to know this affair was over.

“Thank you for telling me,” he said.  And then he hung up.

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Article by
Elisabeth Aron

Elisabeth Aron, the author of "Growing up with a bipolar mother: a true story," is a part-time OB/GYN and part-time medical writer. She has written a book, Pregnancy Dos and Don'ts, contributed to consumer health magazines, and has two published Birth Stories.


"Growing up with a bipolar mother meant more secrets. Things I will never know." | Photo: ©Scott Griessel / Adobe Stock