Raised by a single mother with bipolar disorder, *Beth grew up walking on eggshells, perennially terrified of  inadvertently setting off a parental explosion.  My patient recalled, “If I walked in five minutes late from school she might throw a glass at my head for worrying her.  When my mother was in her depressed mode my job was to take care of her.  Surviving my childhood was a full-time job.”

Bipolar disorder (BD), a mental illness with a spectrum ranging from manic highs to devastating lows affects 5.7 million Americans, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

It’s not surprising that studies point to children of parents with bipolar disorder being more susceptible to psychosocial problems such as risky sexual behavior, substance abuse, aggressive behavior and risk of suicide. Growing up in this type of dysfunctional environment makes it nearly impossible to escape unscathed as children need to feel emotionally safe, loved unconditionally and free to be children and not caretakers for parents who are alternatively volatile and needy.

But those raised by parents with mental illness are not condemned to remain emotional hostages to their troubled parents. They can lead emotionally healthy lives.

The First Step to Healing

Many people who have experienced tumultuous upbringings find it hard to seek help.  Some don’t feel worthy of help. They blame themselves for their parents’ problems: “If I’d been a better son or daughter my mother wouldn’t have been so sick.”

And some fear they will “inherit” a similar mood disorder. Indeed, there does appear to be a genetic component. But it is also becoming clear that lifestyle and environment affect the severity of the disorder. Getting help through therapy and sometimes medications are also factors that can hugely help someone with mental illness.

Beth shared these conflicts.  She long resisted therapy, going for the first time at age 30 “to make my husband happy.” Although she hadn’t physically lived with her mother in years, inwardly she remained in the same zip code.  “Decades later I still hear her voice haranguing me, telling me I’m not lovable or smart or pretty.”

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Finding acceptance for who she is no matter what she expresses in the therapy room proved powerful for Beth. After confessing a “dark secret” – that months earlier she’d impulsively thrown a shoe in her husband’s direction -–and finding  I didn’t recoil and insist she leave instantly as she was beyond help– started loosening the coils of self hatred and misery lodged deep inside. “You’re not perfect,” I told her. “No one is.  You had terrible role modeling from your mother. She never showed you that we can learn to control our impulses.”

“So I’m worth saving?” she whispered. “I’m not irredeemably bad?”

“Doing something you regret does not make you a bad person. It makes you human.” I smiled and added, “Welcome to letting yourself be as imperfect as the rest of us!”

Find Community Where You Can Be Yourself

Like many people who were emotionally abused by a parent, Beth felt she couldn’t share her experiences because no one else would understand; she believed everyone else was so much better able to cope.

Being silent, keeping the demons and fears locked inside, had a high cost. Talking to me about things she had never even confided to her husband was a good start for Beth. Joining some online and in person support groups for people who grew up with emotionally volatile and fragile parents proved an eye-opener. “Wow,” Beth said after her second meeting, adding, “They really get it.  We share tips and help each other get through tough times. Every time I leave a meeting I feel so much lighter.”

Learn to Emotionally Disconnect From Your Parent

The mother of a 10-month-old, perhaps Beth’s deepest fear was that her parenting would be no better than what she’d received. “I convinced myself that despite wanting to be a great mother, I would automatically screw up my daughter. “

Gradually Beth came to realize that she and her mother (who she keeps at arms’ length – checking in a couple times a year) are not the same person. “The difference is even though I have emotional issues I want to learn how to cope with my pain and make decisions that are best for my child. My mother never even tried to put me first.”

Look for Lessons From Your Past Versus Running From It

Beth was diagnosed with PTSD and severe anxiety. She was prescribed anxiety medication by a psychiatrist and continued weekly sessions with me.

Being able to sit with difficult feelings in session rather than continually run from the dark emotions; asking herself questions she had never thought to pose like “What are my strengths?” versus always focusing on her perceived faults;  learning coping skills; coming to realize that her experiences had taught her many positives such as empathy for others in pain; and coming to appreciate moments of peace versus waiting for the next tornado to erupt helped her reclaim her life and find her joy.

She said at a recent session, “I know I’m not ‘done’ – I will always have ups and downs and have to manage fears and the damage that will always be there, but now I accept it and work with it. I don’t feel limited anymore.  Rather, to use a word I never thought would come out of my mouth: ‘I feel optimistic.’”


*Name and identifying details changed

Last Updated: Jul 2, 2019