If you’re reading this and you are a human being who lived through 2020, you already know that the past year has been stressful. For people with bipolar disorder, managing the stress of living through a global pandemic is particularly important to avoid dramatic mood changes. And mothers with bipolar disorder had the added challenges of juggling parenthood and virtual schooling as well as managing their condition, which may have felt overwhelming and even isolating if they didn’t know others in similar situations.
People with bipolar disorder experience extreme shifts in mood, energy, and concentration levels, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. You may be prone to manic episodes, characterized by an uncomfortable excess of energy that can manifest in racing thoughts, inability to sleep, and irritation. You may also experience depressive episodes and feel sad, hopeless, or uninterested in things you usually enjoy. (It’s also possible to have mixed episodes with symptoms of both mania and depression or to experience hypomanic episodes, a milder form of mania. In either episode, some people experience psychosis marked by either hallucinations or delusions.) There are various types of bipolar disorder, which are classified by the severity of your symptoms. People with bipolar I disorder experience manic episodes for at least seven days (they may also experience depressive episodes that last roughly two weeks), according to the NIMH. Individuals with bipolar II disorder may experience manic and depressive episodes but not for the same period of time.
Bipolar disorder triggers are different for everyone, but many people with bipolar disorder find that factors like stress and changes in routine and sleeping patterns can trigger a mood episode. All of these were present for many people during the pandemic.
Taken together, the trifecta of being a parent while managing bipolar disorder during a pandemic has created a uniquely stressful situation. SELF spoke to five moms who have bipolar disorder about the toughest part of parenting during the pandemic and how they’re coping. Hopefully, some of their stories will offer reassurance that you’re not alone and help you navigate this still unsettling time.
1. “My experience with bipolar has taught me the importance of therapy for me and my kids.”
I was diagnosed with bipolar I about 15 years ago, so I’ve lived with this condition for a while. My son is 12 and my daughter is 10; they’re in sixth and fourth grades. Their schools closed in March 2020, which was challenging. I’m the executive director of This Is My Brave, a nonprofit that holds live storytelling events in which people share their experiences of living with mental health conditions and addiction. I was under a lot of stress not knowing what was going to happen. At the same time, my family was so isolated. We weren’t going out; we weren’t seeing our friends. It was overwhelming for all of us.
The hardest part to me about having bipolar and being a mom during COVID-19 is balancing everything. I don’t think there’s an answer to that, but what has helped me is prioritizing what most needs my attention at that moment. For example, the most important daily aspect of managing my bipolar is making sure I get to bed by 10 p.m. and getting seven to eight hours of sleep. During COVID-19, I’ve had nights when I was stressed out and didn’t sleep well. On those occasions I make sure to go to bed early the next night.
My experience with bipolar has taught me the importance of therapy for me and my kids. In 2017, I had a manic episode following the death of my close friend and cofounder. My kids saw the beginning of that episode before my husband got me to the hospital. A few weeks later, one of my children started having anxiety about going to school—I think they were worried I would get sick again if they left. We found a child psychiatrist, who helped them understand more about bipolar. When the pandemic started and I realized they were struggling, I asked if they’d like to see the psychiatrist again temporarily, and they said yes. She gave them some coping mechanisms and reminded them how to decompress.
The pandemic has elevated the conversation about mental health because everyone has been touched by it somehow. We need to take this opportunity to engage with our kids about mental health. It can be a growth opportunity for so many people if they would have those conversations with their families. —Jennifer Marshall, 42
2. “It’s okay to cry if you’re having a hard day.”
My partner, Chris, and I have a blended family with six kids between ages 5 and 15. Sometimes we have two or three at home, and sometimes it’s everyone. In terms of my bipolar, I was diagnosed in 2000 and the kids understand that I have it and that I have sad times. From that, they know that it’s okay to cry if you’re having a bad day. January and February are the hardest months for me because of the weather. I’m actually relieved that when the pandemic started in March 2020, I was already getting through the worst of the depression and anxiety that hit me in those months. At least it meant I could focus on the pandemic-induced anxiety without also having to deal with the depression from the bipolar and seasonal affective disorder at the same time.
It was hard to see the kids miss out on their favorite activities, like gymnastics, swimming, and playing T-ball. Healthwise, I was especially worried about my mom, who lives 10 minutes away. She’s 70 and she was still going to her social work job in the early days. I would wake up at 2 a.m., sometimes crying, worrying about her. We’re a very close family, so it was hard not seeing her.
One of the big sources of comfort to me has been the woods behind our home. I like to look up at the trees and think about how they’ve been there for hundreds of years, and seen so many difficult times, and we’re going to get through this too.
My morning walks are usually just me and our dog, Tony, but sometimes at least one of the kids will join us. We’ve discovered so many cool things together: the bridge where you can throw rocks into the stream, a hole the kids splash in on the warmer days, and a tree they can bounce on. —Laura Riordan, 40
3. “Above all, I think moms with bipolar need to know it’s okay to ask for help.”
I’m a single mom. My son is five, and his dad and I coparent really well. We’re both essential workers, but since he wasn’t able to work remotely as easily as I was, I took on more of the childcare than usual during the pandemic.
I’ve hated COVID-19, but at the same time I’m so grateful that I’ve been able to spend more time with my son, especially since I feel like I missed out on his early years. I was diagnosed with bipolar II in 2016, shortly after giving birth to him, and also struggled with alcohol abuse. While I was trying to get control over my drinking and my mental health, I wasn’t able to be the involved parent I wanted to be. Being able to take on more parenting responsibilities today reminds me of how far I’ve come. I’m managing my bipolar, and I’m four years sober as of March 2021.
I run on the manic side, and my bipolar manifests as frustration and irritation. Not to the point where I’m yelling at people, but I can feel it building in myself. Before COVID-19, I didn’t know that irritation was a symptom of bipolar. Now, five years into my diagnosis, I’m still learning, and I’ve noticed that sounds make my irritation worse in a way that never used to happen.
When I start to feel that frustration creeping in, I don’t want my son to see it. I check in with myself: Did I remember to go outside and exercise? Did I drink water? Did I get a good night’s sleep? Above all, I think moms with bipolar need to know it’s okay to ask for help. There have been so many times during the pandemic when I’ve really needed to talk to someone about things that were worrying me, and I’ve hesitated to pick up the phone because I know that everyone is having a hard time right now. But I want to be better at reaching out for the help I need. —Beth Starck, 42
4. “I decided I needed to go back on medication for my bipolar.”
I have mixed bipolar symptoms (I was diagnosed in 2004), and before the pandemic I was able to manage it without medication. In addition to regular, in-person therapy, I found that a clear routine helped with my anxiety, as did keeping busy—as long as it didn’t reach the point that it triggered mania. In addition to being a mom, I’m a nurse informaticist in downtown Atlanta, coordinating applications for the hospital health care systems. In March 2020, I was also finishing my master’s degree.
When COVID-19 hit, everything changed. No one knew what was going to happen, and even though I was working remotely, I was suddenly a health care worker in the middle of a pandemic. My children’s father and I had to change how we coparented. No one puts a pandemic in the parenting plan! With no school, we had to coordinate care together. I also switched to remote therapy, which I found more intimate than in-person sessions. It was weird at first, but it did help, and I always think about how lucky I am to have the tools I’ve learned in therapy to get through this.
I still wanted to find healthy distractions, so I looked for hobbies that I could also involve the kids in. That’s when I started hiking. At first my son was reluctant, but he got used to it. I also took up roller-skating, which was really fun. Planning what we would do every week gave me that structure that is so helpful with bipolar. And my kids really liked all the activities. They say, “Wow, we did so much this year!”
Unfortunately, at New Year’s I contracted COVID-19 myself. I had a lot of neurological symptoms, including fatigue and brain fog. Making it to the end of 2020 only to get sick brought me really low. It triggered a depressive episode, and after a month I decided I needed to go back on medication for my bipolar to help get myself through it.
I realized that I had to use my support system and that ultimately helped me avoid an even worse depressive episode. Moms are not superwomen, and we need help too. We are human beings just trying to get by day-to-day. —Gleni J., 31
5. “COVID-19 taught me to value resilience over perfection.”
I was diagnosed with bipolar II in 2016, and I thought I had my medication sorted when COVID-19 hit. But stress is a major trigger for many people with bipolar, and I was under a lot of pressure. My daughter was four months old when COVID-19 hit and the pandemic changed our lives overnight. My husband is an emergency management planner, so he was immediately very busy, which meant that I had to do most of the childcare as well as my job. I’m an archaeologist, so I don’t really like sitting in front of a screen all day. I came up with lots of activities for my daughter and me to do together. I picked themes, like space: I read her astronomy baby books, found little light-up stars for her to play with, and did planet-themed coloring. Tactile activities were good for her development, while also helping me escape the screen for a while.
After my daughter went to sleep, I would stay up until the early hours to do my work, which interrupted my sleep routine—something that is also very important when it comes to managing bipolar. I missed social interaction, which is one way I get out some of the pent-up energy that can lead to a manic episode. And on top of that, in the pandemic, even going to the grocery store felt scary.
Ultimately, I had a manic episode and psychosis and was hospitalized. Because of COVID-19, I checked out after three days and instead did an outpatient program. It ended up being a blessing in disguise. I was able to take some much-needed time off work to recover, was rediagnosed as bipolar I, and started trying different medications.
I’m lucky that I had a lot of support from my husband and my family. I know a lot of people with bipolar don’t have that. Feeling like I couldn’t be there for my daughter was the worst part of my episode. But once I started to feel better, I realized that when I had been obsessively trying to be my version of a perfect mom, I hadn’t been truly present anyway. I had this idea that being the perfect mom with bipolar meant never allowing my condition to impact my family. Now I value resilience instead of perfection.
To other moms with bipolar trying to get through COVID-19, I would say, Don’t be too rigid. In the beginning, I held myself to really high expectations around what I got done at work and what I got done with my daughter. And when I started to get healthy, I was able to set more realistic expectations. Instead, be rigid with holding yourself accountable to basic self-care things that you need to do in order to show up for your child. Regardless of what some people believe, you can be a person with a mental illness and still be an amazing parent. —Annie Riegert Cummings, 29