In a recent blog post, I talked about the difficulties of being a parent while managing bipolar disorder. But one of the most difficult aspects of this is dealing with the accompanying anger, which requires a whole separate discussion. Many people don’t know that bipolar mania isn’t just a precursor to depression: it also causes anger—a lot of anger. I have nights where I am super happy, riding the wave of my mania, only to wake up the next morning irritable and just plain nasty, which is the worst way to wake up when you have little ones.
My boys, Jeremiah and Brayden, have seen their mommy at her absolute worst. I’ve woken up so angry that I’ve snapped at my oldest, Jeremiah, for moving too slowly, yelling and screaming to get him to move faster so we won’t be late—as if the ticking of the clock is the true source of my hostility; as if it’s his fault he’s five and doing what five-year-olds do. I’m guilty of storming off and basically throwing a temper tantrum when my boy simply acts his age. Sometimes Brayden, the baby, will throw a tantrum and fall onto the floor, and I find myself boiling over with anger because I don’t know what to do.
After I cool off, I look at their faces, and I see how confused and afraid they are of me. It breaks my heart. Then the guilt sets in, and I start to tell myself I should’ve never had kids, that I don’t have the temperament to deal with children. I wish I could sit them down and explain that my anger has nothing to do with them, and apologize for my behavior. Although apologizing is great, it only goes so far. Changed behavior is better. And who better to change your bad habits for than your kids? So I began to evaluate where my anger was really coming from.
For me, anger and irritability show up as symptoms of anxiety. What could possibly make me so anxious that I take it out on my kids like that? The answer: literally anything and everything. I live in a small town, but I commute to the city for everything. Just the thought of the next day’s commute will make me irritable. Even though my anxiety around driving stems from traumatic experiences, my reaction is disproportionate. Knowing that if we don’t leave at a certain time, we will hit traffic, I am wont to turn into a military drill-sergeant, barking orders at my poor five-year-old, scaring him and Brayden.
So I decided to tell my therapist what was going on, so we could find a way to stop these angry outbursts at my kids. We concluded that it’s not just the driving that causes the anxiety — it’s also getting the boys and myself ready in an organized fashion. A light bulb went off. ‘That’s it!” I thought, “A little spring cleaning and that should cure the madness.”
Being organized is not one of my strong suits. It takes a lot of self-awareness that I just don’t have yet; I’m currently working on that in therapy. I realized that getting my kids and myself organized and on a schedule would be a challenge, but I weighed all the potential benefits. It would make it easier for us to leave on time in the mornings, thereby avoiding the traffic that scares me so much. It would make it easier for Jeremiah to be more self-sufficient, which would take some weight off of me. Then I could do a better job tending to Brayden, which would cut down on the morning temper tantrums.
You probably won’t be surprised to learn that this brilliant “spring cleaning” idea caused me to become even more angry. Nothing ever stayed where I put it, so the next day we were still scrambling to get dressed. The plan only changed what I yelled about. Now I yelled at Jeremiah about where he was supposed to put his dirty clothes, or why he was playing with toys instead of getting dressed as per our new family schedule. Discouraged, at my wit’s end, I implemented an old strategy: COUNTING TO TEN.
I bet you’re thinking: Count to ten? Just like I was when I was younger and given this method as a coping mechanism? Does that work for grown-ups? It does, for the most part. It basically gives you a few seconds to—not to cool off, because who cools off that fast?—but to pause and think about your reactions.
As I counted to ten, I quickly realized I wasn’t angry at my son. I was angry with myself. As I said before, organization isn’t my strong suit, and I’m not a morning person. And I was angry with myself, thinking, “At this very moment, I’m not being a very good parent or adult.” Counting to ten allowed me pause long enough to realize that I was getting angry at a kid for being a kid. You can’t be mad at a kid for being a kid.
I was projecting onto my son. Mind you, we had never actually been late to school, so I was being irrational as well. I needed to take that moment, so I could process my feelings and move forward from there. Once I did that, I could apologize and do better.
Since instating this strategy, I am doing much better — no more angry outbursts, but a lot more counting. Have you ever caught yourself taking your anger out on the wrong things or people? What strategies have you found to cope with it?