I am a 31 year old woman of color and mother of 3 living with mental illness. My official diagnosis is “rapid cycling bipolar disorder type 2 with OCD and anxiety.”
I can trace the anxiety back to my childhood. My father was emotionally and verbally abusive and physically violent during my childhood and teen years. When I was able to leave and move in with my mother at 17, I was sexually abused and mistreated by my stepfather.
I can trace the depression to my 13th birthday when I had my first suicidal thought.
In 2009-2010, at age 27, I found myself severely depressed while pregnant with my second child. After his birth, the depression mostly manifested as rage, the anxiety led to panic attacks, and my way to try and feel in control of the spiral I was in was to organize, arrange, clean, and obsess over things being in their proper place at all times. At 10 months postpartum, I found myself so desperate for relief from my symptoms and so wracked with guilt over not being “good enough” for my children, that I was suicidal.
Getting treated for postpartum depression and anxiety led to the eventual diagnosis I listed at the very beginning. Treatment in the form of talk therapy was helping, but both the Zoloft, and anti-anxiety medication I had been prescribed didn’t seem to be keeping my moods from cycling at such a frantic and scary pace. It became so debilitating, cycling between both manic and depressive symptoms, I could barely function. When I fell deep into another well of suicidal thoughts in July 2011, I found myself at the VA mental health clinic with my 15 month old sleeping soundly on my lap while I bared my soul and struggle to the intake psych. I left that day with a new diagnosis, a new treatment plan, and a new hope that I wasn’t “crazy”-I would be ok.
I was told that day what I was experiencing was a result of both nature and nurture; due to trauma in my childhood and teen years, as well as a family history with mental illness, I was basically a walking list of risk factors, a breeding ground for mental illness to develop.
My grandfather, my mother’s father, is schizophrenic. Depression? Runs rampant on my mother’s side of the family. My mother? Was hospitalized for psychiatric reasons after suffering a breakdown when I was 2 years old. Her diagnosis? She won’t say. Medications were a suggested course of treatment, but she refused them and has maintained her faith is all she’s needed to keep her mentally sane all of these years since. My father? Not only was he abusive and violent towards me, he himself was the result of a traumatic childhood, but was never treated. His mother is also believed to be suffering from a mental illness, but what it is, no one knows.
And those are the problems within my family: no one knows and no one gets treated. Trauma and other risk factors for mood disorders are highly prevalent, but there is no awareness, no steps are taken to educate the next generation about susceptibility. I was never put in therapy. My stepfather assumed he could “fix” me himself and my mother…I think she just assumed my “issues” at 17-20 were beyond her understanding and that somehow along the way, God would just fix me.
I don’t know why no one in my family talks about mental illness. I don’t know why despite all of the education and degrees they have, there’s still so much ignorance about mental health. I just know that silence has not helped us thrive. I just know that no one knew that with a family history of schizophrenia, the probability of bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety impacting future generations is significant. I just know that I grew up so ill informed on mental illness that I was unaware of the risk factors that can lead to its development.
Now, though, I know. I’m aware. I’m informed. I know that with my grandfather being schizophrenic and myself having bipolar disorder that the chances of my children developing some form of a mood disorder is as high as 20%. I knew that due to previously having PPD and having bipolar disorder, my chances of relapsing or developing postpartum psychosis after I delivered 7 months ago was as high as 80%.
I know, now, and that knowledge gives me the power to make informed choices regarding my health and treatment. It empowers me to advocate for myself, and to make my mental health as much of a priority as anything else I’m responsible for as a mother and wife. And it enables me to being extremely vigilant and mindful of the type of environment I provide for my children, and the kind of relationships I have with them. I do my best to be honest about my struggles when they ask while still shielding them from when I’m at my lowest. When I was hospitalized in October 2013, I was honest with them when they came to see me, letting them know I was there because I was sick, needed help, and was getting it there so I could come home and be the mommy they needed me to be. They know I take medication and see a therapist when necessary. They know I advocate for other moms who suffer from postpartum mood disorders.
I talk to them as openly as I can and show them I’m compliant in my treatment because I want to model for them what wasn’t modeled for me. I want them to be able to talk openly and honestly about any struggles they’re having with their mental health, and know it’s okay to ask for and need help to thrive. I want them to know that it’s possible to live with mental illness yet still be a productive person with a full, healthy life. I don’t want them to live in shame or fear of stigma. I don’t want stigma or ignorance to keep them from seeking help if and when they need it throughout their lives.
I want them to know everything I didn’t. I want them to live empowered, unashamed and aware of all the parts of their being-even the ones that malfunction through no fault of their own.
Stigma shames. Stigma silences. Stigma turns a blind eye. Stigma kills. It’s not taking me nor my children. Here’s to setting new patterns for my family. Here’s to thriving.
A’Driane Nieves is a Postpartum Depression and Anxiety survivor who writes about navigating the nuances of motherhood and Bipolar Disorder Type 2. A’Driane is also a USAF disabled veteran, writer and artist best known for her love of Prince (He re-tweeted her once!), and her hot pink streaked afro. You can read her mind at her blog Butterfly-Confessions.com, and read her random thoughts on Twitter (@addyeB). She was most recently named one of BlogHer’s Voices of the Year for 2014. She lives in Austin, Texas with her futurist husband and three boys.
A’Driane, thank you for standing up to stigma. Thank you for sharing your story of surviving PPD and anxiety. Thank you for writing about mothering while living with bipolar disorder. Thank you for your vibrant life-affirming art. Thank you for just being you.