The language of Bipolar

So in the last few days Mum just got “better”, “well”, “high”. This was following a period of four weeks of feeling “depressed”, “down”, “low”, “ill”.

I sometimes reckon half the problem with a condition like Bipolar is the language attached, None of the above words appropriately describe my mum’s situation at any one time and they can be suggestive of something wrong or scary.

When my family and I talk of mum being better, we know that means that shortly she will be high – high as a kite. She will bound around her life filling it with as much stuff, as many people, as many new interests as possible. This will involve spending money irresponsibly, double booking people and activities, forgetting about people or responsibilities due to her business. Mum, when feeling this way will be a lot of fun, if your on the right side of appreciating it. If you are tired from caring for her for weeks or wish to raise concern about her mood becoming too high she will shout a lot and become abusive.

There’s a part of this mum of mine, when high, that I love, a lot. Most of that is because this is the mum I remember from my life. She probably wasn’t ever out of control in my childhood but she has always had huge amounts of energy, an infinite ability to do. My mum was often described by my young friends as “crazy”  or by the friends parents possibly as “eccentric”, but I don’t think this was ever said in a negative sense, rather one of awe. It caused me great embarrassment often, in fact it felt like terminal mortification at the time, but even that was OK in the grand scheme of things because I could shout back at her, I could “hate” her in my head. Back then she was simply my annoying mum (before diagnosis and before serious unwellness).

Even now the high mum of mine is easier than the low mum. High mum irritates me incredibly, but even now I still get excited at her “wellness’ or the prospect of seeing her/speaking to her and always seem to forget how frustrated I  will feel after. She can not listen to me or my thoughts, she will forget everything I tell her, she won’t have time for me but well, its not a worry to see her like that.

When we talk about mum being “down” what we can mean is depressed, sometimes to the point of suicidal thoughts, anxious, to an extreme degree, never being left alone, and in the past, catatonic. This is the phase that has involved me caring for mum. I would need to be with her when dad couldn’t be, keep her mind distracted but with simple tasks that didn’t add anxiety. You get the same script over and over about how she will never feel better, that she is a worthless person and that the illness is all her fault. Mum finds fault with all around her and this promotes anxiety; she always feels the house she’s in is falling apart, that everything she owns is rubbish. She cries a lot, often rocks while muttering under her breath. Its a proper cliche. However often I see mum like this (every four weeks currently; rapid cycling ) it never gets easier. I know that she’s been like it before, that she will feel better at some point, that what she’s telling me is what she always says, but it rips at my heart every time. She’s like a scared animal, a lost baby and it feels so very wrong not being able to make it go away.

I’ve had to find a way to describe Bipolar to my children. At first when my eldest was young and would see her granny often in either state I would attempt to hide the negative traits. It was exhausting and impossible and actually how helpful? When I found my daughter copying my mother rocking aged 2 and a half and then saying that she didn’t want to see granny anymore, I realised my way wasn’t working. I can’t allow my children to become fearful of Bipolar, its part of their Granny and their uncle. And I don’t want to perpetuate what is so wrong about our society; the stigma mental illness gets.

Now my children are told that Granny and Uncle have Bipolar. Its explained in the most simplistic terms right now (they’re 5 and 3).

“Granny has Bipolar. This means her brain can’t always control her feelings and sometimes she feels very Sad and other times she feels very Happy. When Granny feels sad we can’t make her better but she will get happy again. We can love her anyway because that always helps.” I feel proud of my daughter now asking if its “happy or sad” granny we’re going to see. Because now we’ve explained it, with non-scary language and explanations, although she may ask, she doesn’t mind which one it is, either way, its just her granny.

Maybe this is the language we need more of. The simplicity of Happy and Sad – doesn’t this also help to make Bipolar an extension or extreme of a person rather than an illness, doesn’t it make Bipolar more acceptable to sufferers and their friends and family?

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