As a child, Dina* couldn’t understand why her mother was cold and distant. Little did she know that her mother, her protector, suffered from a crippling mental disorder. She shares with Liyana Zamzuri what it was like to grow up with a bipolar parent.
“What’s wrong with Mother?” my sister and I would ask when we were children. The only explanation that we could get was, “She’s just not well”. That wasn’t new to us. Mother was always in and out of the hospital, and we’d seen her being rushed away in an ambulance before. We also knew that whenever she wasn’t well, we would be sent away from home to stay with our relatives.
Once, when my mother locked my sister and I out of her bedroom, we waited by the door to surprise her when she emerged. We drew flowers for her, hoping that somehow, something we did would attract her attention and she’d spend time interacting with us. But all that anticipation turned to dust.
We quickly learnt that we couldn’t depend on her for emotional or physical support. As a young child, when I needed her the most, I didn’t feel completely safe around her and often felt like I had to be the one in charge instead. Our father left when her illness took a turn for the worst, so my sister and I were left to fend for ourselves. Once he was gone, no one else was around to witness all the commotion. All we had was each other.
Being the ‘parent’ at home, I had no room to experience a normal childhood. My mother couldn’t function on her own – when she was depressed, she would morph into a tired, gloomy figure that needed to be cared for and given attention. I made her toast and coffee in the mornings; my sister took care of lunch. We did the laundry together and made sure that our school uniforms were crisply ironed.
Lost in translation
Growing up with a bipolar parent was challenging. We lived in an unstable home environment and our emotional needs went unmet. The constant uncertainty made me insecure. A good day could go south in the blink of an eye. Mother’s manic episodes struck like a sudden bolt of lightning in the sky. We’ve lived through furniture flying out of the window, clothes getting torn to bits and public tantrums.
I grew to be an overachiever, always trying to get my mother to notice me. I yearned for her love and affection, which never came my way. Embarrassed by her behaviour, I swore that I would be the complete opposite. But truth is, you can’t run from your DNA. Behavioural traits are mostly inherited, so in some ways, you are like your parents.
Now that I have a better understanding of bipolar disorder and its characteristic mood swings, I’ve realised that it wasn’t because Mother didn’t want to be there for us; rather, she was emotionally unable to do so. She had no control over her emotions and thoughts.