Lifestyle / Family

Casey Kotzenmacher
7 minute read
17 Sep 2019
10:00 am

I’m a mama with a mental illness

Casey Kotzenmacher

That’s a scary thing to say and to admit.

It’s information I keep close to my chest; and often only reveal in moments of total distress when I need a friend to catch me, to love me.

It hasn’t been an easy road. Mental illness isn’t just tablets and chatting in therapy. Mental illness is a journey; a troublesome one with unpaved roads, unpainted speed bumps, and unavoidable potholes. And for me, it’s been the greatest struggle of my life. And yet my greatest achievement too.

I was 13 the first time the talk of clinical depression was whispered to my parents in cold, white doctors offices. I wasn’t happy. I was constantly tearful. I wasn’t coping with the most mundane of tasks. So I was taken out of my JHB school and sent back to my mom and sister in sunny ‘Natal.

But the shadows followed me. And eventually, I’d find myself sitting at a nurse’s desk, at an intake for an inpatient program. My bags were rifled through, my past and present dissected. And for 21 days, my gloom was now inhabiting a clinic with other equally struggling souls.

We did classes and jogged and went to therapy and cried and ate our feelings and begged our family members to take us home. I was only 14; the youngest patient they’d ever had. Certain types of mental illness also come with addiction issues and drugs ran rampant. Others come with great impulsivity and instability and we all cheered when two patients in their teens got engaged; mere days after meeting.

What followed was five years of in-and-out patient treatments. I can’t recall exactly (depression comes with memory loss) but I’d say that in four years I was admitted about six or seven times. Clinics, hospital wards, psychiatric units. Medication galore but nothing quite hitting that sweet spot.

I was eventually diagnosed, very young, with Bipolar 1 disorder. A person affected by bipolar 1 disorder will have manic highs and depressive lows. A manic episode is a period of abnormally elevated mood and high energy, accompanied by abnormal behaviour that disrupts life. And then there are depressive episodes too.

Often, there is a pattern of cycling between mania and depression. This is where the term “manic depression” comes from. After lots of failed medication attempts, I was put on what was considered the final shot; the end of the spectrum medication – Lithium. My hair would fall out, I had to leave my job, I had to have weekly blood tests.

I was 19. I was exhausted by life. And my impulsivity was at an all time high – I moved out of home, just down the road (home was a terribly toxic place, amongst all my own issues) and within a month I had moved in with a boyfriend, 10 years my senior.

My mother helped me move – five marriages under her belt, she didn’t know what a healthy relationship was and definitely didn’t teach me how to have one.

Within the year we had a tumultuous breakup (three months after which he had a pregnant fiance), and I ran away to Jo’burg. Desperate to escape. But my dad was terribly ill, dying from Emphysema, living (barely) with 20% lung capacity and a week after I arrived in the big city, he passed away.

My lifeline and support were gone. But I didn’t slump. The funny thing is I cried in a Pick n Pay because I couldn’t choose a washing powder; but the loss of a parent I took in a tearful stride. Working full-time at a fast-paced salon as an apprentice, and studying hairdressing part-time, life was manic.

And so was I. Thankfully as I neared my 21st birthday, I met my now husband. He was my date to my 21st and just helped me celebrate my 31st. I often can’t believe I’ve managed such a happy and healthy relationship; despite my upbringing; despite my struggles.

After two years of sleepless nights and breastfeeding my firstborn, the despair reappeared and I found myself sobbing on a psychiatrist’s couch. I found her on Google (how could I ask for recommendations when no one knew my issues?) and she put me on a handful of medication.

This combo finally brought me the relief I’d ached for; I’d dreamt of. Therapy and medication helped me and for the first time, I felt capable and stable. And yet in a year, I sat in an intake office again. Leaving a husband and three-year-old home alone. The hardest parts of bipolar disorder are the highs and lows.

You’d think happiness is the ultimate joy; something we all strive for. But I was TOO happy. I was manic. Speeding and shopping and eating and not sleeping. And then I’d cycle and cry and not get out of bed and cry some more. It was two weeks before Christmas 2016.

I left a day or two before Christmas; and celebrated with my family. A new handful of meds in my bathroom cupboard, but I once again felt “better”.

One day I was video hopping on Youtube and I watched a terrifying video, made by a girl like me. I made an emergency appointment with my psychologist and stormed into her office, shouting: “You didn’t tell me. Why didn’t you tell me? I didn’t know. Why didn’t I know?”

I was borderline. I have borderline personality disorder. I googled my heart out and read a dozen books. Oh, how I cried.

BPD is recognised by:
Fear of abandonment.
Unstable relationships.
Unclear or shifting self-image.
Impulsive, self-destructive behaviours.
Extreme emotional swings.
Chronic feelings of emptiness.
Explosive anger.

It was me. My personality was created by a disorder. I had BPD. I have BPD.

Finally aware of what was really going on; my psychologist got me into a prestigious, highly acclaimed DBT programme. Dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT) is a type of cognitive-behavioural therapy. Cognitive-behavioural therapy tries to identify and change negative thinking patterns and pushes for positive behavioural changes.

For 12 weeks, three times a week, I drove to a government psychiatric hospital in Houghton.

Peacocks roamed the grounds and screams came from the birds, and from the very core of my soul as I tried to cope. And for 12 weeks I worked incredibly hard to heal. The scariest sentence you’ll ever hear about BPD is that it’s the mental illness with the second-highest mortality rate; the only one higher is anorexia.

People with BPD take their own lives; 1 in 10 won’t see their glory years (I’m sitting in Mugg and Bean, tearful as I write that) and in a room with 10 other patients, I wondered if it was me. If I was that one. I completed the course. I took my medication. I went to therapy.

We tried for a second baby, lost one, had one. His name means “bringer of light” and being a rainbow baby, he was such a blessing. My children are my warmth and heartbeat; my husband is my home.

I’m 31, and for 18 years I’ve battled the storm of mental illness. I always will. But I will never stop trying to find that sweet spot of health and stability. For me and most importantly for the children I’m trying to raise to be strong and brave.

And mama will cry. And mama will eat too much cake. And mama will be late for school pick up because she’s in a doctor’s office, practising self-care. But mama will never be the one. Mama will never leave you; leaving you to struggle alone. Mama will break the history of toxicity and rise above the ache of mental illness.

And when mama is 100; reminiscing on life; you will know she tried and never ever gave in.

Mama with Mental Illness

I’m a 30-something stay at home mama to two beautiful boys; a gaming-obsessed husband and a menagerie of well-named pets. There’s nothing I love better than belly laughs from my kids, a killer sale, a giant cappuccino & cake for breakfast. I started my new blog to share my lifestyle, my loves and my life; maybe finding connections or something that resonates with someone else. It takes a village; we need a tribe.

You can find Casey over on Do Not Eat Donuts.


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