I have bipolar: Here's how I dealt with parenting

Driving home not long after the birth of his first child, Richard was hit by a suicidal impulse so strong he almost drove head first into an upcoming semi-trailer. It certainly wasn't the first - or the last - suicidal ideation he would have as he battled bipolar disorder silently, but as a new dad he realised this one was very different.

"The only thing that made me swerve and pull out at the last minute was that I saw my daughter Monique's face in the grill of the truck," Richard, now 51, recalls. "I remember thinking, if I do that, I'm going to hurt my little girl. There I was thinking I was going to hurt her physically by pushing her into the truck but then if you look at the psyche of it, I was actually thinking, no, I'm going to hurt her long-term."

Richard with his mother Maureen, daughters Stephanie, Monique, Gabrielle and stepson Aaron.

Richard was only diagnosed with bipolar disorder - a mental health disorder which is marked by alternating periods of extreme elation with severe depression - three years ago, just prior to Monique's 21st birthday.  Later, he would also be diagnosed with Adult ADD and Auditory Processing Disorder - a condition which he explains makes him unable to filter out noise and sound. However Richard admits he'd known for over 20 years that there was definitely something wrong.

"I thought I was coping with it," he says of why he suffered in silence for so many years before seeking help. "It wasn't until I was with my second wife, Dawn, that I felt like I had no control. The swings were unpredictable and I was an at absolute all-time low. Dawn and I had an almighty blow-out and she said to me and said, 'Sweetheart, if you don't go and get something done about this, I'm out of here.' That's when I went and saw a doctor and I was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder."

Parenting in the early years

Richard was 29 when Monique, now 23, was born. He was already a step-parent to his first wife's son Aaron, now 24. Gabrielle, now 21, and Stephanie, now 17, swiftly followed.

"Parenting was difficult," he admits of suffering from mental health issues while raising young children. "It was probably one of the most difficult things I had to do. I had to try and control myself. The signs of my ADD were there from the age of four, I have a very short temper and I used to worry about how I would take that down with the kids. I would remind myself that it wasn't their fault.

"And then you would get the mood swings - the lows and the highs. Towards the end of my marriage to the girls' mum - we broke up when our oldest was seven - I was working two and a half jobs. Keeping myself busy distracted me from everything else. When I was looking after the girls it wasn't easy but I'd cope with it as best I could."

"We would see Dad every second weekend after he and mum broke up," recalls Richard's daughter Monique of her younger years. "We would get in the car and wait to see what mood he was in. If he seemed depressed, we would tense up. But if he was happy, we'd all relax and get ready to enjoy our time together."

Coping with the highs

When Richard, who is currently a senior graphic designer, was first diagnosed he baulked at taking medication initially. "I asked the doctor to think twice because my demons are also my angels," he says. "That's what aids me to creativity."

While the extreme highs could be destructive personally - seeing him repetitively take up and abandon multiple projects to the frustration of those around him - Richard believes those creative impulses are looked back at fondly by his kids.

"They'll be like, 'Oh Dad, I loved how we would come down to your workshop with you and we'd do this and that,'" he says. "I knew the things they liked and would tap into that. I loved bringing out their imagination - we had a ball."

"When Dad was up, he was a big kid, just like the rest of us," recalls Monique. "When we went to the workshop with him, he'd sit and play Xbox with us on his lunch break. There was never a 'parent/child' barrier there, he was our friend who just wanted to play when we had a few minutes to spare."

Today, Richard (with wife Dawn, their son Connor, Stephanie and Gabrielle) is open about his struggle

Talking about mental health

When Richard was finally diagnosed and began treatment for his bipolar disorder, he braced himself for a difficult conversation with his kids. Believing he had managed to keep his mood swings under wraps for their sake, he was worried it may come as a shock for his close-knit family.

"I said, 'Look, I've got something to tell you, I've been diagnosed with bipolar,'" he recalls of the moment. "All three girls looked at me and said, 'Tell us something I didn't know Dad.' They said it was about time I did something about it.

"Now, I have an open door policy. If they ask if I mind talking about it, I'm like, absolutely not. I feel like people should be upfront with their kids, don't hold back. My youngest boy, Connor (with wife Dawn) is 15 and he'll know when I'm having a bad day. He'll come and put a hand on my shoulder and say, 'Are you okay Dad?' That's all it takes for someone to do. Ask, 'Are you okay and do you want to talk about it.'

"Today, my relationship with my kids is fantastic, we are very, very close. I text all three of my girls in the mornings and say, 'Good morning Angels,' and they'll reply, 'Good morning Charlie.' I'm always here for them and the know that.

"Sure, there are things that I look back on and think, 'I could have handled that better' or 'I shouldn't have told the kids off for that, I should have done this instead'. Could I have been a better dad if I'd been diagnosed earlier? I couldn't honestly tell you. Every parent has regrets and harbours guilt over things they did and I'm no different. And for any other parent who is struggling with mental health I have three words: Don't be ashamed."

Certainly, for Monique, Richard's openness has been a positive in their relationship.

"The most valuable thing about having a parent with this illness is that it brings a level of empathy to the table that can be quite rare," she explains. "Anything from anxiety, chronic stress or depression is immediately met with compassion and empathy because it's something your parent has already been through. While I admit there have been some strained moments in our relationship, there's always been a level of understanding there that won't fade."

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14. If you are in immediate danger, call 000.

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