When a Child Has a Mental Illness (Part 1)

Or… When Appearances are Deceiving

My eldest daughter Felicity phones home. We chat about our new blog – mother, daughters, sisters –  and her first post. One thing leads to another and we find ourselves talking about the difficult years when Felicity was suffering from undiagnosed bipolar disorder, and I was an inexperienced mother, not understanding her needs. 

I have never written about those times on my blogs because only so much can be shared online. Sometimes the whole story can’t be told. “I haven’t wanted to invade your privacy,” I say to Felicity. 

“I don’t mind you writing about me,” she replies. “Go ahead. We can both write. You from a mother’s perspective. Me from a daughter’s. Perhaps we can compare notes.”

Writing is a real gift. I have learnt so much by writing down my thoughts and working through experiences. I have also learnt so much about Felicity by sharing her writings on her own blog, Felicity’s Felicity. Sometimes it’s easier to write than it is to talk.

So I have Felicity’s permission and I’m going to write about my daughter, those difficult teenage years, bipolar disorder, all the mistakes I made, the pain of the years when Felicity was living an enclosed life in the convent, how we grew apart and how we have made it back to being mother and daughter.

There is so much to say, certainly more than will fit into a single post. Perhaps I can write a short series. What do you think? Is anyone interested? Even if no one is, I am sure Felicity and I will learn so much more about each other as we both write.

Where shall I begin? I shall begin at the beginning.

When I was expecting our first child, I hoped our baby was a girl. “It doesn’t matter if the baby is a boy or a girl,” I told everyone. But it did matter…  just a little bit.

I always dreamt of having a daughter. I grew up, the eldest of three sisters. Yes, life in our house was girl orientated. I wanted to share all those feminine experiences with a child of my own. I hoped for sons too. They would be a wonderful new experience. But a girl… a girl first would be perfect.

A couple of weeks before our baby was born, I decided to fill in some of the waiting time by knitting a tiny little cardigan. I debated which colour wool to use.  It would have been sensible to have bought a unisex colour like white, yellow or mint green as we didn’t know whether our child was a girl or a boy, but I found myself selecting a delicate pale pink. I hoped.

“You have a daughter!” announced the doctor, as soon as Felicity was born. A daughter? Really? I had a huge grin on my face for weeks.

Felicity, of course, was absolutely gorgeous. I looked at her and my heart ached with love. I wanted to be a perfect mother to my child. She deserved the best. Yes, I was going to raise her well. I was going to look after her and keep her safe. I wanted to give her the best start I could in life.

But I didn’t always go about things in the right way. It’s no wonder really. I had no mothering experience. I had a lot to learn. Many times I found myself butting heads with my strong willed daughter. But we survived and Felicity did grow into a beautiful
person, despite my poor mothering skills.

By the time Felicity was 12, she was a very capable child whom I depended on. She could cook and run a house and look after her younger siblings. She was clever and talented and outgoing. She was funny and good to talk to. In fact things couldn’t have been going more smoothly.

And then things began to fall apart.

“I think everything started to happen about the time Thomas died,” said Felicity. “That’s when the bipolar started to affect me.”

Thomas is our 6th child. He died when he was one day old. Felicity was 12 at the time. I remember how she held us together during that difficult time. My mother-in-law was staying with us but it was Felicity who was really in charge. She kept family and friends informed, cooked and cleaned and helped in any way she could while I was grieving. But was she grieving too?

I assumed all my children were grieving in some way or other. Duncan grieved most openly. I worried about him. But Felicity? I thought she was coping.

A year or so ago I read the following words in one of Felicity’s blog posts, Guilt:

I have a crushing sense of guilt, one that seizes on any occasion to make me feel sad, worthless and powerless. I don’t quite know how this all started. Maybe it began when my brother Thomas died? He was one day old when he died of a birth defect. I remember how we found out he had a birth defect before he was born. I remember how upset my mum was. I even remember lying in bed, unable to sleep, trying to bargain with God. If He took me, maybe he could heal Thomas? I wanted more than anything else to have my family happy and whole again, and if that meant me dying so that my brother lived, I was ok with that.

Of course, God notoriously doesn’t do bargains, and I found myself stubbornly alive while my brother died one day after birth. In the time that followed, I tried my hardest to hold the family together, to be a good big sister and daughter. I remember trying to take over as much cooking as possible, trying to keep my siblings happy and trying not to bother my heart-broken mother. I resolutely crushed down my own feelings of grief out of a sense of responsibility towards my family.

All my efforts seemed to be in vain however. I couldn’t mend broken hearts, no matter how much cooking I did. I felt guilty that I couldn’t do more. And, as I grew up, this sense of guilt grew and expanded. Looking back, I realise I was developing bipolar disorder, which was causing havoc with my emotions. But at the time, all I could see was me betraying my stoic, responsible ideal with these stupid emotions. I wanted so much to be good, to be the perfect daughter, but I felt so bad.

These words make me want to cry. I had no idea what Felicity was experiencing at the time of Thomas’ death. She needed help and I was so wrapped up in my own sorrow, I didn’t realise. I had absolutely no idea until 13 years later. Guilt? I felt guilty. What did I do that made Felicity feel she had to fix my broken heart in such a way? How could she have thought I’d be happy having Thomas but not her?

Felicity turned 13 and, of course, was officially pronounced a teenager. I was prepared for a hard time and yes, it arrived. My capable daughter fell apart. I thought she was just acting like a ‘normal’ teenager. It seems she wasn’t. I shall write about those years in another post.

Felicity and I are still chatting on the phone. “What are you going to write about in your next blog post?” I ask.

“I think I’ll write about when Thomas died.”

I wonder what Felicity will say in her post. I guess she’ll tell it as she remembers, just like I did. Then we will probably talk and learn and grow closer together because of our words.

Yes, writing is a gift, just like daughters.

Image: Sometimes a photo doesn’t tell the right story. This one was taken on the morning of Thomas’ funeral. Happy faces? Sometimes what we see is not what is going on. Sometimes appearances are deceiving..

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  1. Reply

    "There is so much to say, certainly more than will fit into a single post. Perhaps I can write a short series. What do you think? Is anyone interested? Even if no one is, I am sure Felicity and I will learn so much more about each other as we both write."

    I think it's fantastic and I'm very interested. Perhaps you both need this more than you realise.
    God bless

    1. Reply


      I think you are quite right: I am sure Felicity and I are going to learn so much from sharing our stories. Thank you for wanting to share them too. God bless!

  2. Reply

    This made me cry. I am interested. Also, I felt strongly yesterday that Thomas' death was very significant for Felicity. Now I know it was God's voice. I will be praying for continued healing ~ for all of you.

    "While we can still be healed, let us surrender ourselves into the hands of our Divine Physician." ~ From a 2nd century homily

    1. Reply


      All the events of our lives have meaning and are connected, I'm sure. When Felicity wrote about Thomas' death I was shocked. Yes, it seems to have been a very significant time for her.

      Thank you so much for your prayers. I do appreciate them. God bless!

  3. Reply

    Very interested. I think it will help you all and many others. Thank you so much for sharing. I was so glad to read Felicity's post in your mother/daughter blog. She sounds like a wonderful person.

    1. Reply


      I'm so glad you think sharing might help others. All our experiences are different but they overlap in many ways, and at least we can feel less alone and encourage each other. Felicity is a wonderful person! It was kind of you to read her post on our new blog and leave a comment. Thank you!

  4. Reply

    This is remarkable. Moving, real, and remarkable. I have a feeling that not only you, but many others, can find healing as your series progresses. And yes, I am more than interested. I selfishly wonder if there are insights for me here, as my mother was seriously depressed and ill all during my childhood and beyond – at a time when people denied the reality of such things. I am moved to tears at Felicity's amazing caring about how her family was feeling at the time of Thomas' death.

    And the photo! It is a story in itself once we are told when it was taken. In itself, it brings me to tears – HEALING tears. Things are not always what they seem.

    I know I am going on and on, but I want to THANK YOU AND FELICITY for so generously sharing this. I pray it will find just the audience God intends for it as He continues to inspire you both. GOD BLESS YOU!

    1. Reply


      I am surprised how many people have children or other relatives suffering from mental illness. I guess until it happens to you, you don't really think much about it. The same is true of grief and child loss. It will be good to share!

      Oh I can't really describe how Felicity's words about guilt affected me. I really had no idea what she was going through. She showed such love towards us and I wonder… how ever did I deserve that?

      Someone once looked at this photo and said it's a pity Duncan didn't smile. It would have been such a nice photo if he had. I had to explain the circumstances surrounding it. Yes, it is not obvious it was taken on such a sorrowful day.

      Thank you so much for your thanks! I have a feeling this is something God wants us to do. Maybe something amazing will result from this sharing. I hope so!

      God bless you too, Nancy!

  5. Reply

    Thank you for sharing this. We too have suffered with bipolar disease and extreme anxiety disorder in our family.

    1. Reply


      I am still trying to understand bipolar disorder. I do realise though that it is a great suffering. I'm sorry to hear your family are suffering too. Thank you for stopping and sharing. I hope we can share more as I write our story.

  6. Reply

    Your daughter is a true gift.
    I can't even put into words how moving your post is, Sue. Thank you for sharing your heart…..

    Love you

    1. Reply


      Felicity has written about how worthless and bad she has felt. Describing her as a gift is a gift in itself. I always knew she is very special but it means a lot when someone other than her mother says it, I'm sure.Thank you! I think it was Felicity's quoted words which made this post moving. I am grateful she is willing to share her story.

      With love to you too. xx

  7. Reply

    She's an amazing girl your daughter! Of course this made me blubber like a baby. I am so so glad that you are both at a place where you can share these intimate details as you probably have no idea how much both your writings will help other people. What I love is that you guys experience some real lows, yet you always remain loving, warm and open-minded. xxxx

    1. Reply


      Sharing intimate details…that is frightening. I was thinking about that this morning. Once you start opening up there is no knowing what will be revealed. But I guess we shall have to be brave!

      Some real lows… oh yes. God has always brought us through them. I don't know how we would have coped on our own.

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful words.

  8. Reply

    Definitely interested!! So wonderful you are able to talk about it now.

    1. Reply


      I am so glad we can talk too. At one point I felt I couldn't say a word to Felicity without us both getting upset. There was a huge distance between us. But now we are certainly talking! Thank you for your interest in our story, and for taking the time to stop and comment.

  9. Reply

    God bless you and Felicity for doing this difficult but important series! It's a wonderful thing when your children forgive you for not being perfect, isn't it?

    My first child turned out to be on the autism spectrum, but I was too inexperienced to realize it until he was 10. My second child had a life threatening (and painful!) birth defect that was misdiagnosed as colic until she was 9 months old. I was too inexperienced to realize that the doctors were wrong. My third child had a stroke at birth, something I didn't figure out until he was 8 (not an experience I'd had before). My fourth child was "failing to thrive" because I was failing to realize she was tongue tied (too inexperienced). With my fifth child I realized he was on the autism spectrum around two or three, but I made plenty of newbie mistakes because his spectrum issues were completely different than the first kid. For my sixth kid I was a perfect parent.

    Ha! Ha! Not really. When he was born, the doctor didn't suction his mouth correctly and I didn't recognize that was the problem until he aspirated some mucus (and spent a week in the NICU trying to get it out). Ah, well.

    But I look back now and thank God for those experiences. I've been able to help and encourage many people because of them, and it's taught me a lot of compassion. Sometimes I wish I could go back and do things differently, but more often I look at how hard things were at that time and just thank God for his love and mercy. He fills in that lack between what we can do and what our children need.

    I remember telling my Mom that I just couldn't meet all my kids needs, and her answer was very freeing: Of course not, only God can do that – and if you could, you'd take the place of God in their lives. You do what you can do and ask God to fill in the lack.

    Sue, you have such a compassionate and loving heart! Losing Thomas surely was devastating to everyone in your family. Sometimes it's hard for us to have compassion and forgive ourselves, the way our children forgive us. What a beautiful and healing thing you and Felicity are doing! Praying for you both today!

    1. Reply


      I am humbled by the love my children have for me. Yes, they are very forgiving. I guess we just want to be worthy of such love and we wish we could have given/ give our children more. Someone once said that our mistakes are very valuable. They show our children they don't have to be perfect in order to be loved. What pressure to have to live up to a perfect mother! Sometimes we think we have forgiven ourselves but maybe we have just put it out of mind where it no longer troubles us. We shall see if that is the case as I write!

      Thank you for sharing your own story and your children. My, you are a special mother! God certainly knew the right person to send your children to. You have had a lot to deal with and learn from. Like you, I thank God for all the hard experiences He sends me. They do make us grow in love and compassion. Oh when I think of what I used to be like… so self-centred and in control… I cringe.

      I have at times looked at other families and wondered why their children appear to be so 'easy' while I have struggled. I have to remind myself that no one's children are perfect, even though it can seem that way. But some problems are more visible than others. Everyone has their 'underneath story' as Emmie would say.

      I do agree with you about not having to meet all our children's needs. God does indeed fill in all the gaps. It is just as well I can ask Jesus to fix up all my past mistakes and bring good from them. Hey! Maybe that's what He's doing right at this moment… encouraging me to write in order that I can share and encourage, just like I do with grief and you have done when sharing your own experiences.

      Thank you for praying for us. I am praying for you too.

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