Family secrets: My Grandmother’s unrecognised & untreated Bipolar Disorder

grandmother-webI only met my estranged Grandmother twice, once when I was 4 & once when I was 14. She died when I was 24. I remember visiting & her turning white & reeling in shock as she opened the door to a vision of her teenage self in front of her. We were the spitting image apparently & she genuinely thought I was the ghost of Christmas past come to visit. Strange though it was, it made me smile, I liked her, I liked her sense of fun, her independence & slight rebellious streak…I guess that could’ve been the drink though.

To me she’d always been that dreaded phone call on Christmas day, that small-talk with a stranger made under duress due to a misguided sense of duty. There were never any cards or gifts (important stuff for a child)…just premium bonds “in the post” to thank her for.

My mother had a rocky relationship with her mother & after what I gather was an uncaring, cold & lonely upbringing she left home at the earliest opportunity…& who would blame her?  Apparently my Grandmother was a ‘drama queen’, a self-centred, ‘either up or down’ character who was always arguing with somebody or other & pretty difficult to get on with. When my mother was a teenager, my Grandparents divorced which was a shocking & uncommon thing back in those days.

I’m now certain she lived her whole life with unrecognised, undiagnosed & untreated Bipolar Disorder. I guess this happened often back then & with the abundance of stigma, every effort would have been made to hide her symptoms & shame from the world. Even though she was far from a maternal type, I’d always wondered why she never went on to have more children, now I have some answers.

After considerable delving, I discover my Grandmother “went funny” after giving birth to my mother. This snippet was part of a dark family secret that people, if they knew at all, were reluctant to speak about.  If it hadn’t been hidden & the information was passed down, it might have given me a small ‘heads up’ in some way about what was in store for me.

My Personal History of Mental Illness

My relationship with my own mother was rocky & I too left the family home at the earliest opportunity. Was her cold & distant parenting style due to the role model she’d had in her own mother? Or was I so similar to my Grandmother, I reminded her of everything she’d had to endure?

There were many lows in my childhood up to my early adult years where I now believe I’d had depression. I clearly remember thinking about suicide by drinking a bottle of vinegar (?!) at the age of 7. These things weren’t talked about back then, especially not to children or in my family so I never told anyone. Like my Grandparents, my parents divorced when I was 13.

I now also know I’d had a previous severe manic episode in my mid 20’s, 15 years before I gave birth. It was after a plane I was on was forced to make an emergency landing after one of it’s two engines failed then my husband being seriously ill in a Canadian hospital…yes dramatic I know & luckily things like that don’t happen very often to me! I’d put my perculiar behaviour over the next few months down to some kind of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Doctors disagreed & advised counselling…which was awful, upsetting & didn’t help in the slightest. It was a real shame they didn’t recognise it as the possible first Bipolar episode it was. Similarly to my postpartum episode, it had happened after an event where I was highly stressed & sleep deprived for days & was followed by a phase of deep depression. The episode after giving birth was on a whole other scale though.

I thought I’d never been mentally ill before (how naive & ill-informed was I?) & without knowing I had a family history of mental illness, Postpartum Psychosis (PP) hit totally out of the blue. I never knew something so awful existed or considered anything like that could happen to me. But it did. Four days after giving birth to my beloved son, like my Grandmother, my one & only child.

My Postpartum Psychosis; Fear & Maternal Bonding

From the moment he was born I was really scared. I’d never held a baby before or been around them & even though I’d read every book, I didn’t know how to be a mum. The panic, extreme confusion, mania & delusions of psychosis hit. Hard. The world & everything in it as I knew it ended & I didn’t even know my own mind or have any trust in it. The psychosis subsided after a two week hospital stay & although I was very fragile I was treated intensely at home.  Because I wasn’t in a Mother & Baby Unit, I didn’t have the extra ‘how to care for baby’ help & support that other PP mums had if they were lucky, instead, I felt broken, lonely & isolated.

My husband was a real rock for me but he was as clueless as I was about the baby care bits. With all the challenges & struggling through, it was hardly surprising it took over a year for me to bond with my son. I looked to my mother-in-law for an example of how mothering should be & although we didn’t always see eye-to-eye, her nurturing, motherly love for her son was clear. I’ll always be grateful to what she unknowingly taught me & that along with what I already knew (how it shouldn’t be done), I got there.

There are only painful memories from my son’s first year of life. It was the lost time. That first precious baby year was gone & for me, there’d never be another opportunity to do it right. It passed in a medicated, inhuman, struggle of survival, a non-existence where I had to re-build myself from scratch at the same time as learning how to be a mother.

A Nursery Nurse came for one hour per week to help with the boding & show me how to play with my baby. In reality she’d help me with baby care things like encouraging me to change him out of baby-grows into real clothes & show me how to clip his fingernails – simple things to a ‘normal’ mum but my confidence in my abilities was just so shattered.

There is only one photograph of me with him in my arms from that first year, I was scared & couldn’t bear to hold him…but I knew I had to. I knew my Health Visitor watched closely & monitored how I interacted with him so I’d fake it & go through the motions – I’m sure she knew.  I felt judged & couldn’t do everything by the book so I knew I was a terrible mother. I was depressed, lower than low, rock bottom. I had no feelings or emotions & he was nothing but a chore, I looked after him & saw to all his physical needs but I couldn’t do any more.

I went back to work part-time & my time there was an escape, I dreaded the time I had to pick him up from my mother’s house…it was like the full weight of the illness crashing back down on me. I’d fantasise about winning the Lottery so I could have nanny to take over or about having him adopted. A mother shouldn’t ever feel like that & I was crushed by the guilt. I still am.

I didn’t know what exactly this mysterious bonding was or how to make it happen but I tried so hard to get it…it just wouldn’t come though. I’d look at other mums at the baby group singing & playing joyfully with their babies. Twinkle Twinkle still makes me nauseous to this day. I didn’t know how to do that & I could barely get him out of his carry pod & touch him. I couldn’t chatter to him in that special baby language or make those faces that other mums found so easy. I forced myself to do baby massage because I thought I was supposed to, but it was an upsetting experience – it was just another thing that I was supposed to do & was a failure at.

One of the first things I did which helped, was reading to him…or actually just reading a newspaper or book aloud while sat next to him. It felt alien at first but it gradually got easier & felt more natural. I then moved onto to singing this lullaby, which was more a comfort for myself but then I’d start to notice him responding. Such small things for a mum whose mind had stayed intact I know, but for me it was a huge step forward.

bonding-2-webOver the next weeks & months, the elusive bonding grew naturally, just as it should. It happened slowly in its’ own time & just took a lot longer for me with PP. When it happened, it was beautiful…really, really beautiful. I’d run my fingers through his hair & my heart would soar…he was so amazing, so perfect!

I had severe depression for another year but our special bond continued to grow throughout as we gradually got to know & love each other. He’s such a happy, clever, handsome boy (I know every mum says that), & he’s my ‘everything’. I treasure every minute with him & find joy in the little things that without PP, I’d take for granted.

Now & Onwards

Postpartum Psychosis wasn’t my fault, it was out of my control & didn’t happen because of my upbringing or due to anything I did or didn’t do. The bond with my son is invincible, we’ve been through so much together – not that he remembers at all, he’s not affected by our rocky start or this family legacy in any way, I’ve made sure of that. PP has affected my relationship with my mother but luckily in a positive way, she was there for me when I needed her & I’d never needed her more. She called me every day, made me go out, do things, helped me live again & helped me pick up the pieces when I nearly didn’t make it.

Bipolar has had a profound effect on my family for four generations & possibly more, but due to my own psychotic episodes I understand my mother’s relationship with her mother more & know how challenging it would have been for both sides. I feel incredibly sad it shaped my mother’s life, gave her lifelong challenges & subsequently affected her relationship with her own daughters. I wonder how different my mother’s life would have been & subsequently my own, if my Grandmother had had the treatment she needed to control her illness to allow her the chance to be the nurturing, loving role model she could have been.

I feel I’ve broken a pattern of poor maternal relationships in our family & I’ll make sure my Grandchildren & their children know their genetic, family history & are forearmed. I don’t blame past generations for the choices & decisions they made, they did what they had to do for whatever reasons. I’m different from them, there are genetic links & possible personality similarities but I’m not my Grandmother & I’m responsible for my own life, my family & our future. I feel apprehensive about the future with the uncertainty of having another episode when I least expect it, but I what I do know is that with the love & support from my family, we’ll all get through together.