I am twenty-eight years old as I write these words. I was diagnosed with childhood bipolar disorder at the age of twelve. Sixteen years has passed since the diagnosis yet it still feels recent−particularly when I am asked what life was like living with a serious mental illness at such a young age.
When I am asked what childhood bipolar symptoms I exhibited and experienced that led to the diagnosis, I have to stop and think. I have to remember that time in my life−that frightening time−in order to paint a picture of what bipolar disorder looked and felt like, and the impact it had on my family life. Sometimes, it's easy to forget that mental illness, in all of its shapes and forms, is a family disease and each member suffers in his or her own way.
I have been blessed with a wonderful family and my mother−the strongest woman I have ever met−asked if she could contribute her experience to this article. She wanted the opportunity to speak from a parent's perspective and what it was like being a parent of a bipolar child. As is the case with all of life's stories, I must start at the beginning; I must take myself back to that scary time in my life.
Childhood Bipolar Disorder Affected Everyone
My Parents Knew Something Was Wrong
My mother tells me that she knew I was different before she even laid eyes on me. I did summersaults in her womb, kicking hard, unlike my two siblings. I came into this world screaming, and I never stopped. The doctor told my parents I was colic—a simple term describing a newborn that is otherwise healthy, even thriving, but screams for no reason, expresses symptoms of distress.
Five years later, able to walk and talk, I would not sleep—I could not sleep. I lay in my tiny bed and kicked the walls. I screamed and I cried and my parents knew something was wrong. Something, my mother tells me, was not right. My siblings were younger than me, one two years younger and one five, and my behavior affected the family dynamic immensely. We could not enjoy dinner together because I could not sit still. Although I was young, I remember a feeling of extreme agitation, an angry energy I could not rid myself of. A distinct feeling that I was different than my siblings.
By the age of seven, my behavior had become more destructive. I am ashamed to admit that I was abusive to both my siblings and our pets. My mind was like an engine that pushed my young body. I felt completely out of control. I was completely out of control. My parents tried to integrate me into my peer group; they enrolled me in baseball and soccer and figure skating. When I was manic, I would decide I wanted to join these teams and my parents, elated, would pay for it. I was never able to attend more than a few of the events, my anxiety was so high that I had trouble breathing and talking to people.
Family History of Bipolar Disorder
My family tree is populated with people who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, severe depression, anxiety disorders and, sadly, more than a few suicides. Mental illness runs rampant in both my mother and father's side. Armed with this knowledge, my parents took me to the first psychiatrist at the age of ten. Diagnosing childhood bipolar disorder (aka juvenile bipolar disorder) was rare at the time, and though the psychiatrist listened to my mother and father speak, describing my childhood bipolar symptoms, he simply told them they were bad parents. He was adamant that they were not disciplining me properly. In other words: I was not mentally ill, it was their fault. This experience is shared by many parents who have tried to help their children. Nobody wants to believe a child, innocent and still new to the world, can have a serious mental illness.
Being Told You're A Bad Parent
I asked my mother what it was like, that first meeting, being told that it was their fault and she told me in no uncertain terms, that she and my father felt it was there fault. They believed this professional, believed in the various medical degrees hanging on his wall, and took his advice: They sent me to my room and told me I had to sit quietly for ten minutes. They had tried this before. I ran up and down the stairs with energy that could not be explained and so "sitting" and being "quiet" were not things that were possible for me. As soon as the door shut, I would lie on my back and start kicking it. I would kick until the wood splintered and cracked, the handle falling to the floor, and then scream that I was going to jump out the window.
I tore all of my clothes off the hangers; I threw things out my third story window, ripped off the wall paper with my hands and tore up my favorite books. I was like an animal, only I was caged in my mind and my parents could not reach me. It became clear that my actions were not a result of "bad parenting" as both my siblings were stable and thriving−as much as they could be amongst my madness. I was admitted to a children's psychiatric hospital at the age of twelve. I remember being terrified and wondering what was wrong with me. I wanted to be like my brother and sister; I wanted to go to school and make friends and smile! Being a child with a serious mental illness is frightening, disruptive, and above all else, it can feel hopeless. I am blessed that my parents never gave up on me but they did, as the years went on, lose faith in those who refused to believe I had a mental Illness.
We saw our fair share of mental health professionals−during this time I was in and out of hospital −before we found one who listened to my parents and who listened to me describe how utterly scared I was. After many meetings discussing what was going on, she sat our family down one day and told us she had come to a diagnosis. She had a lovely office painted in pinks and in blues, the walls lined with books and large windows, it's strange the things we remember. But I will always remember the look on her face, both serene and matter of fact---a look that tells you that you will soon receive good news or bad news. In our case, a bit of both.
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