Dear Dr. Wes and Miranda: Basically, I think my mom might be bipolar. She goes through these mood swings, VERY happy to VERY angry in a matter of minutes.
For example, me and my brother are supposed to do the dishes. Usually, we do them before Mom gets home so she won’t have to do anything after a long day at work. Sometimes, though, we forget. Those days she walks in the door all happy with us, then sees the dishes and you’d think it was the end of the world.
Originally, I attributed this to a recent divorce, but now it’s gotten a little worse, as she goes from being happy to very upset at the drop of a dime. I love my mom. She has been there for me through everything. I just want to know if she needs help or not, and there’s no way to ease into, “Hey, Mom, I think you might be bipolar and you might need help.”
Miranda: The other day my mom became very emotional when we started talking about graduation. This is normal in the sense that moms often have a difficult time letting go of their children. Realize that this is a touchy time for her, and you have to accept and acknowledge that you will have to tread lightly for a while.
Another really hard thing for a parent to go through is divorce. And when that parent is the one the kids primarily live with, that just adds more pressure.
I’m no professional, but if I had to guess, it seems like stress, not bipolar disorder, is the underlying issue. I know your mother’s behavior is frustrating, but try and keep some perspective, as she has a lot resting on her shoulders right now.
There’s also a strong parallel between being left in a marriage and being left by your children, as they’re moving out or at least getting close. Dealing with an onslaught of rejection can really hurt a person. Just a simple reminder that you and your brother will always be there for your mom may ease this.
That being said, you know your mom better than I do. If you honestly think she extends past this “line” of stress and into a disorder, then it’s time to seek the help of a professional. Sit down and talk with her one-on-one, but try not to mention the whole “bipolar” thing. Suggest that the three of you start attending family therapy of some sort. This has no doubt been building under the surface for a while, so expect a negative reaction at first. Stay calm, and help your mom though whatever she is going though.
Being supportive, loving and honest is what your mom needs right now.
Dr. Wes: Hard to improve on that advice. Miranda is correct. Many of your mom’s symptoms sound like stress, and I’m sure she has a lot to be concerned about these days.
While some folks are able to manage low-grade symptoms earlier in life, it’s likely that if she were actually bipolar that would have shown up prominently in her life before now. I don’t know how old your mom is, but she might also be having early symptoms of menopause, which might combine with the issues Miranda raises to change her mood stability.
But the real question before us is how do you intervene with your mom in a way that encourages her to hear what you’re saying and get this looked into, without becoming defensive. One thing I’ve learned is that no matter how much you show your concern and try to take care of other’s needs, if they can’t hear things in the way you intended, you’ll be misunderstood and probably vilified. That’s not where you want to end up with your mom right now.
Its hard to know how she’ll take the therapy suggestion, but you could tell her you’d like to go either as an individual to work on your own concerns, or if you think she’ll buy in, with her to work on your relationship. Most parents genuinely want to have a good relationship with their kids, and by asking to make some improvements together you’re making an offer she’ll have a hard time refusing.
Tell the therapist that you’re concerned about her moods, not because you want to get something out of the deal but because you genuinely love and care for your mom. Be sure she knows how much you want to support her after all she’s done to support you. Hopefully, if she sees you taking a selfless interest, she’ll be more able to listen, and the therapist can help figure out what’s difficult for her right now.
It’s always nice to get a letter from a caring daughter.