One Calgary man learned to love his bipolar mother by letting her go

Spending sprees. Dysfunctional relationships. Psychiatric wards. Crippling depressions. These are all terms that may describe a person in the grips of a bipolar disorder.

But what happens when that person is your mother?

The National Institute of Mental Health suggests some people suffer for years with bipolar disorder before they are properly diagnosed and treated.

Neal Burgess, 34, said this was the case with his mother, who was diagnosed later in life, after Burgess had left home.

“It didn’t occur to me until she told me about it. But looking back, and through learning about (bipolar disorder), I can see it,” Burgess said.

Although Burgess doesn’t remember anything out of the ordinary happening with his mother’s mental health as a child, he’s since learned there are parts of the story he didn’t know.

“If she did go through lows, she kept it hidden,” Burgess said. “She told me that she used to sit at home and cry a lot. But when I got home she’d put on a face.”

A Family Illness

Bipolar disorder is a mental illness that may intensify over time if not properly treated. For Burgess’ mother the disease had progressed to an unmanageable level by the time she was middle-age.

This is when the relationship between mother and son began to get very complicated.

“She was in northern B.C., living in a trailer and just doing horribly. And being (in Calgary), I couldn’t do anything for her,” Burgess said. “It was several years of up and down until she finally was able to manage.”

Burgess’ mother eventually moved back to Calgary, but the chaos continued.

“She probably went through more mood swings because she didn’t have stable finances or emotions,” Burgess said. “She was constantly moving around. At one point she had moved in with me and my wife for a period because she had nowhere else to go.”

Burgess said having his mother live with them during the height of her illness took a toll on him and his wife.

“She would come home and just unload all this stuff to us,” he said.

His mother — who he said was bankrupt at the time due to spending sprees during phases of intense mania — had also developed a knack for secret-keeping.

“Other things she’d keep hidden from us, like racking up her credit cards or relationships she was having, because she knew we would chew her out about it,” Burgess said.

Hitting Bottom

Bipolar disorder, like many other forms of mental illness, can reach life-threatening proportions according to PubMed Health websit, a part of the U.S. National Library of Medicine .

It was one of these life-or-death situations involving his mother that Burgess remembers as the most harrowing.

“The worst time we had was when she was seeing a man who was also bipolar, and at the time, he was homeless. He was a train wreck,” Burgess said.

“It was New Year’s Eve seven years ago and I had to basically rescue her. She had taken too many sleeping pills. I had to go get her, and her boyfriend was screaming and yelling.”

Detaching with love

It was through situations like these that Burgess said he began to learn his mother’s illness was something beyond his control.

“I knew that my mom wasn’t her disease,” he said. ” I knew she was my mom. I just felt that I had to take care of her. But I realized that she had to help herself.”

Just as Burgess was trying to let go of managing his mother’s illness, his mother was also taking steps to find relief from the disorder.

“She checked herself into the psych ward about three times. I remember going to visit her on Christmas day,” he said.

Hope after chaos

Neal Burgess, 34, discovered that he could help his mother by allowing her to make the choice to help herself.

Photo by Melissa Molloy For Burgess, getting help from Calgary’s Organization for Bipolar Affective Disorders came as a great relief.

“It has been a saving grace for my mom and for our relationship,” he said.

Education through the organization has helped Burgess to make peace with the disorder that has affected the relationship between mother and son.

“After I learned about bipolar, I knew she couldn’t just snap out of it,” he said. “But there were certainly ways in which I could see she wasn’t trying to help herself, and feeding into the mania.

I was always learning that I couldn’t guide her. She had to do the leg work, otherwise it would mean nothing to her.”

Kaj Korvela, executive director of The Bipolar Association, is familiar with stories like Burgess’.

“It’s a difficult thing because people want to help their family members and they want to guide them and direct them,” Korvela said. “But it’s an individual journey for recovery.”

Thankfully, for Burgess and his mother, the story has a happy ending.

“Now she’s in a good place. We used to go to the (peer-support and family) meetings. She now facilitates those meetings.”

Hope for families, hope for medicine

Dr. Peter Silverstone, a University of Alberta professor of psychiatry, devotes his studies to research for bipolar disorder. He said family members play a special role in the recovery of people with the disorder.

“Bipolar impacts the wider family. It does not just impact the individual. We increasingly recognize how important helping the family is for recovery,” Silverstone said.

“A supportive family is extremely useful to the patient.”

Burgess said his mom has been doing well for years, and credits the right combination of medication, peer-support and a lot of dedication.

“I know my mom will be okay now. Our relationship is good. She is in a good spot.”

mmolloy@cjournal.ca