Fatherhood With Bipolar Disorder
I've done the damage, the damage is done
I pray to God that I'm the damaged one
“Little Digger,” Liz Phair
“Did you tell your boss you had kids?” my then-six-year-old daughter said from the backseat.
It had been almost four weeks since I got fired on Oct. 4, 2022, and two weeks earlier I had been diagnosed with type 2 bipolar disorder. We were taking her five-month-old sister to the pediatrician and the question came out of nowhere.
“What’s that, Beetle?” I said – not because I hadn’t heard her, but because I needed to stall a beat to come up with an answer that was honest without being confusing.
“Did your boss know you have kids? When she fired you?”
Indeed, she did.
The unwritten rule at Patch Media was to not discuss why someone left. But within an hour after my boss who knew I had kids clicked “Leave Meeting,” a talentless Patch hack posted a self-righteous tirade on social media about the horror of “one of our own” orchestrating a huge breach of ethics. The narrative that spread on Patch’s Slack channels was I had used 10 weeks of paternity leave over the summer to start a competing news site.
Not exactly false, but it lacked nuance.
Beetle was waiting for my answer. I had no way of explaining the guilt and shame I was feeling. My whole purpose was to keep her and her sister happy, safe and secure, and that included keeping my fucking job.
“Yeah, honey, she knew.” The only thing I could really do was assure her I’d be back to work soon, and we’d get through it together. She let it drop, but I knew we were going to keep coming back to the conversation until I found a job.
What Patch’s editor-in-chief didn’t know, what no one, including me, knew at the time, was that I had Bipolar II Disorder. My wife had had a hunch for more than a year, but I spent that year in denial.
My diagnosis would not have made a difference in whether I kept my job, but it certainly explained a lot: why I could wow everyone after taking a job, throwing myself into the work, but, over time, I’d get a reputation of being difficult to work with. I hadn’t been fired before, but my previous employers didn’t usually beg me to stay when I gave notice. And I’m pretty sure I avoided getting fired a couple of times by quitting before they got around to it.
Kids or no kids, I would’ve fired me, too.
You forget six-year-olds absorb all this adult drama around them, even if they don’t fully understand it. What else had happened over the previous month that she had been trying to process?
In "An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness," Kay Redfield Jamison writes about her therapist telling her to never have children. It was common advice in the 1980s, when most still called it “manic depression.” Therapists worried the genetic disorder would be passed down to kids. And even if they didn’t pass it down, the assumption was parents with bipolar disorder make shitty parents.
“It is true that I had wanted to die, but that is peculiarly different from regretting having been born,” Jamison wrote in 1996. “Overwhelmingly, I was enormously glad to have been born, grateful for life, and I couldn’t imagine not wanting to pass on life to someone else.”
Today’s therapists are much more aware of the stark difference between untreated bipolar disorder and bipolar disorder that’s being managed through pharmaceuticals and therapy. People with untreated bipolar are much different than people getting treated. We can do everything normals do — including parenting.
So, I don’t worry too much about being an unfit parent. But I do spend a lot of time worrying about a lot of other things, including:
What happens if my daughters take the hit from one of my dark moods?
What impact did my uncontrolled, pre-diagnosis spending have on their futures?
How — and when — am I going to explain all of this to them?
And the worst one: What if I passed it on to them? What if they hate me for cursing them?
The first one doesn’t have to be a problem if I continue the work of learning how to manage my disorder. And while I still worry about the second one, they have a mother who is the exact opposite of me when it comes to money. I wasn’t lying when I told her we’d be okay. I’ve renegotiated my debt, set up a system where I can’t make impulsive purchases, and I’m working to contribute to our family’s financial security.
I’ve also deleted Amazon from my phone and blocked the Website on my browser. Huge difference.
It’s the last two that lead to lots of sleepless nights.
Because how do you explain something you barely understand? And explain it to kids without scaring them? If “Fun With Bipolar” were a book, it would be dedicated to my wife, but it’s largely being written for my daughters. When they are older, they may use these entries to better understand me and how I worked with their mom to make sure bipolar disorder didn’t stop them from dreaming up.
There will have to be discussions. They will have to be age-appropriate and carefully crafted to help them understand without scaring them. They’ll have to be spread out over time. I’m still working on what and when I will say in therapy. It’s aggravating to be a writer who doesn’t believe in writer’s block and find yourself at a loss for words. I don’t have those words yet, but I will find them.
But then there’s the big one: what if our family loses at genetic roulette?
We’ll do what anyone does when things grow on: we’ll push through.
And we’ll be better armed for the fight. I have the knowledge, which may or may not help them get help earlier, but it will help post-diagnosis. And, after surviving the past year, I know I have the empathy they’ll need. It’s a pretty good asset, no matter what the parenting situation.
They won’t hate me for plucking them out of nonexistence. Like Jamison, I never regretted being born. I never blamed my parents for having me; on the contrary, I’m thankful every day they gave me a chance to lead a life that’s been secure, productive, and full of friends and family who love me — even if I’m still learning how to accept that love.
It doesn’t matter if my boss knew whether I had kids. What matters is my kids know I’m trying.