My Bipolar Episode and Our Neurodivergent Family

I wanted to write about our family's neurodiversity after having a recent bipolar depressive episode. I am now working to get medications correct so that I don't end up manic. It's draining and scary not only for me but for all of us, but it is something that I must take care of to continue to function in our family, for our business, and in the world.

Each person in our family has their own neurodivergent brain. Andrew has been diagnosed with Autism and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum, I am diagnosed with Bipolar and Andy has been diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety. This leaves a lot of work for each of us to understand the other. It causes each of us a lot of stress in everyday interactions, but over time we've learned how each of our brains works and methods to communicate... until one of us isn't well. 

Depression

My depression manifests itself as an overwhelming doom mixed with out of control anxiety that nothing seems to be able to touch. Every word, whether positive or negative, is a stab at who I am and my worth as human being. Positive emotions toward me become sarcastic lies to manipulate me and negative emotions are how everyone truly feels.

My depressive thoughts run scripts that fuel my anxiety... I'm doing a terrible job at work and they planning to fire me... Your stepson hates you and wants to live with his real mother... Your husband is tired of dealing with you and wishes he could leave. They play over and over until I can't tell if they are real or just the depression. My skin feels too tight and I can't sit still. If only I could sleep until it's all better. I don't want to leave my bed and feel panic when I have to leave my bedroom. 

If you've ever had an embarrassing night of drinking with a super hangover the next day, that's how it feels: tired, worn out, and anxious over... just everything.

Medication

It's easy to say you are fine and don't need meds when everything is going relatively well. Routine and low stress keeps an even keel in life, which limits triggers for bipolar episodes. I'm not proud to say that I wasn't taking meds for a long time and coping with my ups and downs by self-medicating with either alcohol or food. It was working, or so I thought. I quit drinking alcohol when Andy went to rehab, so food has become my comfort. I've gained a ton of weight, but that's coping, right?

During this episode, it became abundantly clear to Andy that I needed more than just time in bed or seeing my personal therapist more. With his support and love, he convinced me to get medical help for the depression that was engulfing me. He even offered to help me be committed if I wanted, but he didn't push. He gently guided me to seek out a psychiatrist that could prescribe me the medications I needed to get my life back.

This episode of depression forced me to realize that I have been existing, but not completely coping or living. For too long I've been living on the edge of major episodes and looking back I can see the low-grade cycles of depression and mania. I can also see how this has affected my family. 

Parenting Guilt

As a step parent, there is automatic parenting uncertainty. You never truly know your place or parenting level. With that uncertainty comes some level of guilt, but when you are also neurodivergent it's amplified. I worry a lot about how my bipolar is affecting or will affect Andrew. I also worry that it could cause Andy to lose his son if anything bad ever happened like being committed for an episode. It causes a lot of anxiety when I'm not feeling well.

During my ups and downs, I know that I become touchy and with a neurodivergent child, I worry. I worry about his understanding. I worry about his feelings. I worry that because he can't read my emotions easily that I'm hurting him with my strange behavior. I feel guilty that I'm not spending enough time with him due to not being able to manage the strength. I worry and feel guilty that he's already trying so hard to communicate with me and then when I'm not well I've changed up that whole system. Worry, worry, worry and guilt.

Spousal Guilt

Episodes cause me to be such a raw nerve that being close to me is hard. I have nothing left to give. I feel guilty that Andy already has anxiety and now I'm pushing him away because I don't have the reserves to also help him. I can see his anxiety level rising worryingly about how I'm doing and whether I'm going to get better. I feel guilty for causing that anxiety. 

I feel guilty that all the parenting is dumped on him, but I just can't help no matter how much I want to help. This also raises his anxiety with so much more to do. It feels like the stress and anxiety I'm overwhelmed with has now been pushed onto him. I truly believe this is our cycle.

Cycles 

For many, many years our family has gone through cycles of doing really well and then falling apart. We've employed so many therapists trying to figure this out, but I think we've finally found "the one" and he couldn't have come at a more pivotal time. 

I touched on it earlier, but due to each individual's neurodivergence the stress we each feel seems to come from different sources and seems to get rotated around. When one of us can't cope any longer the others pick up the slack. However, that extra stress causes each of us to end up on the downside like a stress powered three-way seesaw.

This all stems from communication. For Andy, when his anxiety is high, and ask can feel like criticism. For Andrew, it's hard for him to follow directions or to think ahead when in uncertain situations. For me, when Andy is defensive or Andrew isn't doing what was asked it can feel like a direct reflection on my worth. It's a mixture rife with misunderstanding.

Solutions

We have spent years getting supports for Andrew in school, for him personally, and for home. We receive some of these supports through Medicaid Community Services Waivers for disability. The latest service we've employed has been in-home therapy. This has been one of the most amazing things we could have done because with the diversity of our family we could not solve this on our own. 

Our in-home therapist has employed some really simple strategies for our family that is making huge differences in how we communicate, how we interact, and how we deal with stress. One of those is to track our emotions daily on a whiteboard so that everyone in the family can see. This was to help Andrew know how the parents were feeling so that he could better gauge how to approach us.

Us parents were dismissive at first that it would help us, but it's been amazing. We've had lots of discussions on why we are feeling the way we are and have been better as checking in with each other. This also had the unintended side effect of helping me with my medications. I have been clearly able to see the effects of my medications on my mood and something I can share with my psychiatrist to help to dose. 

I think that too many times parents try to help their children when in actuality it's their children who can help them the most. Our family is in a good place again and this time feels different. It feels like these changes will have positive, long-lasting outcomes. 

*****

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