Recently, my daughter had to have heart surgery to close a hole in her heart that should have closed on its own shortly after she was born. She is 18 months old and is now 7 weeks post surgery, healed quickly and is now considered to be healthy and normal. But the stress of the situation caused a relapse in the stability I was so proud of maintaining for 4 years. When our children get sick, the last thing we want is for us to become mentally unwell as we want so badly to stay strong for them and if we seem to be slipping or having a setback in our mental health recovery, we need to allow ourselves to do that without too much negative self-talk and guilt. The extreme stress that comes with this situation could throw any parent’s mood and mental health off the rails. I realized that I had to give myself more credit. And looking back on the two or so months where I felt like I was slipping, I realize now just how well I coped.
My daughter was diagnosed with a heart murmur when she was only a few days old. This was due to two holes in her heart. While one closed within a short time, the other didn’t and we knew that one day she would require a simple procedure to correct it. Two months ago we found out that her heart condition was severe enough that it was causing her to no longer thrive. They told us that a quick cardiac catheter procedure wouldn’t work as the hole was bigger than they had previously thought. They said she would need surgery instead and at that moment I felt like all the air in the room was sucked out. I had such a sense of dread from that moment, while awaiting her surgery and right up until the surgeon told us she had made it through. My worst fear since becoming a mother was that I would lose my baby because having her just seemed too good to be true. Now that she was going to have heart surgery the thought of losing her almost became an obsession. I would think about it constantly. The worst was at night when trying to fall asleep. I would get this wave of nausea and hear my thoughts tell me “she’s going to die in surgery”. I don’t know if that is a normal fear for moms whose babies need to undergo surgery or if it was caused by an unwell mind but it was the scariest time of my life.
I had to take some time off from work, on short term disability which for me is a difficult thing to do as I care so much about staying functional. I wasn’t sleeping well. I was obsessing and constantly googling my daughter’s heart condition. My anxiety was building. The days leading up to the surgery I thought to myself, this is it. If I lose her, I will never recover. These negative thoughts, I constantly tried to flush from my mind, replacing them with positive ones. Luckily we didn’t have to wait too long for the surgery date. The staff at the children’s hospital moved quickly and although the hour and a half we had to wait while the surgery was happening seemed like ten times that long, once the surgeon met with us and told us she had made it through I felt such a sense of relief. My anxiety eased up and I felt myself gain control of my thoughts. The moment I saw my daughter post-op I broke down and cried, covering her in gentle kisses. I realized that my illness caused so much excess in worry and for mostly nothing. At a follow up visit, the doctor told us that her heart was now whole and functioning normally. As her incision healed, so did I and I am happy to say that I am now back to work and she is back to running around, making us giggle and giving us so much to be happy about and grateful for.
I learned that in times of added stress I was able to recover quickly by sticking to my recovery plan and what works for me. I also learned that when it comes to taking time off from work for mental illness, there is no need to feel shame or guilt and that instead one should be proud of how long functional abilities were maintained. For me, each relapse comes after longer periods of wellness and that is something to be proud of. Having bipolar disorder means that there will be lots of ups and downs and if we can make the ‘ups’ last as long as possible, that is a great accomplishment in itself. Dealing well with the ‘downs’ can make them as short as possible. I believe my relapse was inevitable as this was a terrifying experience that any parent, bipolar or not would find extremely stressful and hard to get through. But I also believe that doing your best to stay on track with your recovery through all the coping mechanisms you have learned to use to stay well in addition to being gentle with yourself when your symptoms complicate matters is the best way to recover as quickly as you can in times of increased stress. I didn’t go through this alone either. My husband, who has been with me through my very worst was, as always, my rock. I also leaned heavily on my support network of family and friends which is always good advice no matter what type of stress you are going through. My best advice, is to keep close in mind while you’re going through it, that a relapse is a temporary situation that you will heal from at some point. There is always going to be better times ahead which makes the bad times much easier to get through.