A personal story of growing up with a bipolar mother

Written by Eric Silver

You know, perception and reality are funny things. When you tell your friends about your struggles with a bipolar mother, their perception is just about always the same. They envision someone who one minute is very happy and then the next minute lashing out in anger or sadness. While this may generally be true, the reality is that living with someone, a mother no less, is so much more than just that perception. No one could possibly understand unless they were in my shoes.

As a child, growing up with a bi-polar (single) mother can be described as any other child with a bi-polar parent would describe it: feelings of confusion, instability and challenges. Every day was filled with these emotions. Even now, 20+ years later and married with three children, these feelings can unfortunately be triggered in my own house. It’s completely irrational but the lasting impact is real. Going through it in your adolescent years though was much worse.

For starters, the overall mood of me and my siblings was a constant state of fear. Not of being abused (thankfully), but because any little thing could potentially set her off. We were walking on egg shells every minute we were with my mother. Fun side note: because of this, I became much more thought-focused and articulate than my peers. In any event, my siblings and I saw that every little thing was a huge deal in our mother’s eyes. Naturally, this affected our social lives drastically and we each dealt with it in different ways.

I grew up in a tight-knit community, where parents knew all of the other parents of the neighborhood. While the parents somewhat understood the situation, they didn’t have a full grasp on it. Plus, they felt bad since they were all married and my mother was now the “single” one in the community. Additionally, I was just a child. These parents would have felt bad forbidding their children from coming over and having a play date with me. So, my friends continued to come by. Everything was going fine…until my friends grew up. At around age 12, my friends started understanding the nature of personalities better. Due to this, my friends no longer showed up at my house. Even my best friend would steer clear of stepping inside unless he really needed to, which was rare. I knew why they were doing this, but it was an understanding that we didn’t dare bring up. Still, it hurt.

As we grew older, the parents felt more comfortable speaking with their children. I have no doubt about this as several of my friends shared with me their “talk” about my “house” (read: mother) with them. This hurt too, but I understood it, even as a child. These parents didn’t want their children being exposed to constant instability and rashness. But while these parents and children thought they understood the situation, they really didn’t.

Minor tasks became a big deal. Homework became a big deal. Family outings became a big deal. Walking into a supermarket and up to the cashier was frightening. Every single time. I never knew if she had enough money to cover the bill. Or perhaps she didn’t have the right form of payment. The employees would immediately sense that something was off because of her comments and her demeanor while walking out. Once we got back in the car, it was over. The devil was out.

My siblings and I managed to cope with this in different ways. I would always run to friends houses, not just because they didn’t want to be at mine but because I wanted to see what a normal family was like. I also learned to never take things too seriously. This unfortunately developed later in life into me not caring for virtually anything in life (outside of immediate family and money). I’m working on this but it’s a constant struggle and one I don’t know if I’ll ever overcome.

Of course I have forgiven my mother as it’s not her fault that she is this way (even to this day). However, I’d like to give a bit of advice to any parent who may be going through the same thing: you should be upfront and open with your children at an age that is appropriate. Make it very well-known that you not only love them but that your behavior is not a result of their actions. And most of all, please seek out professional support. After all, you want the best for your children. You should also want the best for yourself.


Image credit: Bob Clark


Eric Silver has been helping a close family member learn to cope with depression for nearly twenty years. Over the years, he’s developed a passion for mental health awareness. Mr. Silver has researched and written extensively within the mental health area, specifically in regard to bi-polar, depression, stress, and anxiety issues. You can follow his writing at E-counseling.com, where he is an editor.

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  • Jeanné

    Your story made me want to cry. (Being at work reading this caused me to fight back the tears. Hahaha.) I am Bipolar but I don’t have children. I never wanted children, but once I was diagnosed I was thankful I never had children. While I do believe people with Bipolar can be wonderful parents if they take responsibility and extra care with their illness so they can provide for their kids (as well as seek advice from children who have experienced growing up with such a parent) I never want to give it a chance.

    The images you gave growing up touched me deeply. I live in constant fear of hurting people. Before I had the tools and awareness, my mania would tear people’s hearts to shreds and my depression would create confusion. I spend most of my time apologizing and regretting. It’s a terrible feeling. That’s why it’s helpful to read that you forgave your mom and understand that it wasn’t her fault. It gives me hope that those who love me will give me. It is equally helpful that you offered your advice for parents to be open and honest with their children. I know I need to be more honest with those I love.

    Your entire article was brave and helpful to me. I truly appreciate your courage to share and your perspective. I wish you as your family all the best. Aloha

    • Eric Silver

      Hi Jeanne! Thank you so much for your feedback. I am glad that my story is helpful. I wrote to Trish saying that I generally don’t share this particular story. However, if my story helps just one person, it will have been worth it.

      I also believe that everyone is different and should form their own opinions and make their own choices. I am not telling you to have kids, especially if you have thought about this considerably (which it seems you have). However, I do believe that having children is the single greatest joy in life (sure there are hard and frustrating times but overall it’s amazing). This is just something for you to keep in mind, *especially* because you are so far ahead of many people living with a mental illness. How? Because you are already aware of the fact that you are living with one – something that probably 90% of people living with a mental illness either don’t know or refuse to accept. The good news is that you can seek out professional help, and with this help there is no reason to deprive yourself of one of life’s greatest joys (children). Also, parents love their children unconditionally. Funny thing is that works both ways. Children love (and need) their parents too. I understood my mother was oftentimes bat-sh*t crazy, but I never stopped loving and/or needing her. Like you said, people living with bipolar can have children if they take extra responsibility and care. My advice is this: life is full of challenges. Everyone has them. And no, this isn’t about equating other people’s challenges with yours. It’s just a fact. Everyone has challenges in life. If this is your biggest challenge, you are in good shape. I understand it may not be like this for you but for me, if this was my biggest challenge, I would challenge myself to get constant support in order to have a life with children. There is no greater fulfilment IMHO.

      • Jeanné

        Beautifully put Eric. Have a Happy New Year!

  • Lori

    The article (and especially the comments by Eric and Jeanne) were so well-thought, helpful, and honest. I appreciate both of you! Thank you for the perspectives mentions, as well as the eye-opening look at parenting with bi-polar. I found myself reflecting on my relationship with my dad – as well as thinking about my own son. Blessings to you both (and to anyone reading this). You’re in my prayers.

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