My Son Has Bipolar Disorder, and He Is My Hero

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In the third week of September 16 years ago, I met my second son for the first time. A difficult pregnancy with preterm labor and several long, tedious weeks of bed rest concluded anticlimactically with an apparently healthy baby born on his due date, a relatively easy two-hour labor. He was loud about announcing his arrival into the world but quieted quickly when the doctor placed him in my arms.

Any mother and most fathers can tell you about The Gaze, that first moment when your newborn child fixes his or her eyes on you and makes him/herself the center of your world. Michael was a master of The Gaze. As I stared into his endless midnight-blue eyes, I was possessed by a sudden strange thought: “This soul is much older than I am.”

A black and photo of Liza's song as a baby.

The moment stayed with me through my son’s agonizing marathon toddler tantrums that grew into inexplicable preschool rages, continuing right up until he was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 13.

I was and am his caregiver. But I have always felt an ancient wisdom when I’ve looked in his still-deep blue eyes, a sense of timelessness that transcends our relationship and his illness. Michael is an old soul.

And I’m not even really like that. I’m the science girl, not the New Age one. I read quantitative studies and consider outcomes and sample sizes and effects, not the ineffable but undeniable power of my child’s mind.

But now that he is celebrating his 16th birthday, I think about everything he has had to overcome in his brief life: the night terrors, the paranoia, the overwhelming sensory swamp, the dysgraphia, the bullying from peers, the teachers and principals who have said, “He has so much potential. Why does he act this way?” I think of his four stays in juvenile detention, his three hospitalizations. I think of the keen loss he experienced when he was separated from his siblings for several months. I think of the hole in his heart created when his father left him. This second son of mine has fought so much harder for happiness than most of us ever have to.

And the thing is, he’s winning. Despite the illness, despite the odds, Michael is winning. Maybe not every day, but slowly, bit by bit, his resilience, my son’s old soul, that ageless wisdom, that precocious sense of humor, keeps him from the abyss that rocks below every cradle, but especially below the cradles of our children who have mental illness.

I am his caregiver, his mother. But he has taught me lessons about humility and strength, about perseverance, and about forgiveness. His experiences with his own “different” brain have taught him to be so much more tolerant of others’ differences, and he has taught me by example.

Mental health is important to all of us. But people with mental illness have to work so much harder at it. My son is my hero. As I watch him claim the life he deserves, I remember that day when we first met, when he caught me in the power of The Gaze. This is a young man who will go far in life (again?). This is a young man who can teach me a few things. I look forward to learning them.

Follow this journey on The Anarchist Soccer Mom.

 The Mighty is asking the following: Parents of children with mental illnesses – tell us a story about working within the mental health system. What barriers of treatment have you experienced? What’s a change in the system that could help your child? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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When You Have to Box Your Way Through Rapid Cycling Bipolar

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I have symbols tattooed on my arm. In case I forget. In case, one day, I wake up in a strange place, in a strange mind, sans words or weapons, behind the guise of the mental health system. These symbols represent stages, tenets, of a very large thought. Mental martial arts, if you will. They keep me boxing; they keep me sane and functioning. I worked hard to formulate these ideas. Many brain cells were sacrificed over the years in the name of progress, many before I was ever diagnosed with anything.

Steve's tattoo of symbols
Steve’s tattoo

The institutions of intervention, official and familial, never did much for me in terms of, well, intervention. So I fought and learned. Boxed and studied. Sacrificed and trained. It’s been a never ending journey back and forth to the blackboard from my seat. I have formalized the conditions of severe retribution and retaliation for my natural state.

It sounds like a little much. It is. It’s necessary.

Rapid cycling bipolar doesn’t ruin my day anymore.

But it tries.

No one has any clue that I cycle randomly throughout the day at work. The medications stifle it to a certain extent, yet my mind is essentially a random idea generator. Don’t be fooled, by “idea” I just mean a stream of thought. They can be helpful, harmful, distracting or the ever popular all of the above. I’m not sure if anyone can appreciate what this means. My mind never stops. Ever. It’s a constant stream of associative thought and imperceptibly swift mood changes. This is not particularly useful at work.

It’s a condition of constantly having 12 to 15 thoughts on the tip of one’s tongue. It’s a condition of the three stooges all trying to cram through the door at once and ultimately failing upon all three counts. So, enter the training. I’ve spent the requisite 10 thousand hours to master the craft of meta boxing, of essentially bullfighting this associative stream of madness. It streams. I wouldn’t say I ignore it, but I just don’t actually engage it. Through detachment, I kind of let it dance by itself in the corner like that friend who has had too much to drink.

Unfortunately, that dancing companion is my main consciousness, which means I’m not left with a ton of weaponry to deal with my surroundings. My tattoos and the invisible scars from a lifetime of conscious battle cling to my mind as I interact on various levels, without the use of most of my available brain power. It seems to work well enough, though. Aside from certain idiosyncratic behaviors, I manage. My speech can be stunted or stuttered on occasion, though, as I sometimes struggle for the correct words to reflect thoughts on that secondary platform. Sometimes I just can’t get ahold of them at all and must remain silent. Writing is a different story, so I try to express as much as possible that way.

No one at work has any idea, to my awareness, that I’m not speaking to my capabilities, that I’m sacrificing brain power in an effort to control myself. It’s been a struggle, from time to time, to accept that many of the people I know don’t actually know me very well. I have thoughts, ideas that go beyond casual conversation. I walk around, and I see the angles, I see the subtleties of situational dynamics. Through the process of controlling myself, through all of the symbolism on my arms, I have learned how operate within those angles.

Every day is a boxing match. Every day is an opportunity to demonstrate the skills I have acquired. Detachment is but the first of seven symbols. Overt associative streaming is but the first opponent. Every day I practice my martial arts, and every day no one has any clue. Perhaps one day I will speak my mind.

In the meantime, I box. It’s what I do.

The Mighty is asking the following: For someone who doesn’t understand what it’s like to have your mental illness, describe what it’s like to be in your head for a day. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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When It's Hard to Accept a Late Bipolar Disorder Diagnosis

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I was diagnosed just a few months ago. I suppose I always had a hunch. Others in my family history have dealt with this disease. But I thought I only had major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder (along with its friend social anxiety) and post-traumatic stress disorder and oh yeah, I’m a recovering alcoholic, too. (This long list just made me laugh a little out loud, I suppose it’s because I have an odd sense of humor…I think it’s called gallows humor.)

I’ve experienced symptoms of these other mental health issues since my teenage years. I was always been told I was dealing with major depressive disorder, and I always have, off and on. I’ve had three hospitalizations now, four if you count the outpatient partial hospitalization program I went through a few months ago. But maybe it wasn’t until I became more knowledgeable about the symptoms of these different disorders — or noticed the times I overspent money and/or times I felt super euphoric for no real reason or for the littlest reason, only to come crashing down. I’m not sure exactly when, but something in the back of my head thought it was possible. Something else in my head said, “No way! You don’t do the extreme things that are said to be symptoms of bipolar disorder.” Even my psychiatrist said I didn’t meet the criteria when I mentioned it to him a few years ago.

But this fall, when the most severe symptoms of depression worsened and I began my descent into the pit, my therapist at the outpatient program I mentioned previously confirmed my concerns. Then in November, the doctor at the hospital where I was an inpatient confirmed my concerns. And finally, my new psychiatrist after the hospitalization confirmed it as well. Bipolar type 2 was the general consensus.

Something in me didn’t believe it, though. Something in me didn’t want to have that diagnosis. Something told me I was going to face a whole new set of stigmas, and I did not want to deal with that. Something in me said, no way.

But I took the new medications. I hated the new medications. We switched around some of the medications. We’re still switching around some of the medications. And, believe it or not, I think I’ve turned a corner and I don’t feel like dying most of the time. (Praise God.) But something different is going on with me now.

I’m waking early in the morning before my alarm clock goes off. (This is really odd for me, as I am a sleeper!) I can’t fall back asleep these days. I now have new found hobbies and interests that are consuming most of my thoughts and time. As in, I can’t stop thinking about them and all the things I want to do and what I should do next and all of the ideas are flooding my brain at once. My mind is racing as if it’s trying to catch something and I’m running with it (and running really isn’t something I do). It’s not simply that I have a lot of thoughts, I have a lot of thoughts all at once and they are grand and filled with the greatest optimism. My days are full somehow. There are so many things to get done! But guess what? None of them are things that I really should get done. If it weren’t for my meds, I doubt I would go to sleep at night at all, at least not until very, very late. Additionally, I may or may not be spending money on things I shouldn’t be…and rather impulsively.

I added all these thing up in my head and I did a little research on “what hypomania feels like.” It turns out, I could so relate.

I had an appointment with my psychiatrist yesterday. They took my blood pressure. It was unusually high for me, not dangerously high, but high for me. I found this interesting considering how I’ve been feeling. I told my doctor about all of these symptoms I’ve been having and yep, she thought I was definitely experiencing hypomania. She believes I’m in what’s called a mixed state right now, because I still have depressive thoughts and moods, but am also experiencing the hypomanic highs. She’s made a few adjustments to my meds (again) and now I’m a little worried I’m going to feel sad all the time.

And truth be told, I’m also a little sad that it’s true. I really do live with bipolar disorder and I have been for a long time. I suppose there is a little bit of grieving that goes on with any new diagnosis, a grieving for the health we had or the health we thought we had, whether it be true or not.

The good news is I finally know what I’m dealing with and I honestly have no reason to attach any kind of stigma to myself. Living with bipolar disorder is no more shameful than living with arthritis. Unfortunately, if I’m really being honest, it’s going to take me a while to believe that in my heart, because for some reason I feel a little more faulty and a little more broken right now.

Follow this journey on Mommy Muddling.

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When Living With a Mental Illness, Don't Forget to Live

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There is more to you than what is wrong.

That doctor said you were anxiety’d, depressed, bipolar’d, schizophrenia’d or OCD’d? They like to tell you what’s wrong. I get it. There must be something wrong with someone who overthinks everything all the time.

Worry.

Place a label on my thought structure. I will sit and take your medicine. But there are worlds that you have not thought of.  Therapies that I am on the cutting edge. I have a PhD in late night dance parties. I am summa cum laude of emotional rants about truth. I just wrote a dissertation on how hot and sweet love can drip off your tongue.

There is more to me than what it is wrong. It takes a person in a box to place a person in a box. There are so many boxes, it feels like I have just moved a thousand times. How many houses do I have to live in, to keep going forward in my life?

There is more to my life than echoed pasts of what you said in your manual. There is more to life than your diagnosis check list. I prefer step by step instructions to find joy. Step one, step out of your comfort, step two, jump and fly, step three, feel the wind on your face, thermals under your wings.

I take your medication to make sure it’s safe for me to walk through the world. But also try hugs and support and cradling my head as I lay down at night, listening to the world take me away. There is always a thought of death, loss, suicide, anxiety, pang, paranoia, always incessant, always oozing.

Step into my office and I will show you what it is to love. I will show you what it is to look at yourself and see that there is actually nothing wrong with you. There is nothing to fix, break, flip over, change, reboot, compress, tighten or even speed up. 

Try theirs, but also try mine. Try sitting with a newspaper and a hot cup of coffee on a Sunday morning, try running and screaming until your heart gives out, try drinking a cool glass of water, try diving into icy oceans, try staring at the sky and catching snowflakes, try letting a puppy lick your face, try turning on the light to see there actually aren’t any monsters under the bed, they are just in your head.

Instead of running from that achy haze, turn around and float yourself into its gravity. You are alive. Live it when you can. Ride waves of unconscious pain. Some doctors will tell you what you need to do to get by. I think about the thrive.

Follow this journey on Adventures of a Little Boy.

The Mighty is asking the following: Tell us a story about a time you encountered a commonly held misconception about your mental illness. How did you react, and what do you want to tell people who hold his misconception? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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I Thought I Was the Only One I Knew With Bipolar Disorder

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When I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder type II after 20 years living with a depression diagnosis, it felt like a king-sized relief. At last there was an explanation of what was happening to me, my brain and with my behavior. 

Then, I realized — I didn’t know anyone else who lived with bipolar. So there I was all super-freaky, out there on my own like a dog in a yard. My diagnosis was no longer the supreme relief I originally thought it was.

My psychiatrist gave me a copy of Kay Redfield Jamison’s book “An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness. I am a prolific and fast reader. Add a topic I have a vested interest in and I become a voracious reader. I read the book overnight and then read it again. It was an amazing and insightful explanation of how bipolar type I affected Redfield Jamison. It spoke to my experiences over the past 20 years. Although Redfield Jamison’s experiences, her manias, were far more extreme than mine have been, they resonated. As did her depression. The book was so valuable because it was an open sharing, a full disclosure.

It became my inspiration. Not only to stand up and be counted. Not only to speak openly and comfortably about mind health matters on a weekly radio program, but to also share my story in short snippets as well as in my own book.

And as I started telling people about my 20-year experience with depression and my recent bipolar diagnosis, something interesting happened. Suddenly, every person I spoke to wanted to tell their story. It became OK to share their work, social, familial or personal experiences of mind health matters with me. I heard about my uncle who lived with bipolar, a primary school friend’s mom’s long-time challenges of living with bipolar. People who were diagnosed with or lived with someone living with schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, OCD, generalized anxiety disorder and the all too common depression and bipolar disorders all came out of the woodwork.

The lesson for me: my mind health is journey. The experience of living with a bipolar type II diagnosis can shift from feeling broken, alone, worthless and pitiful to rising to periods of unstoppable invincibility and ecstasy before finding a balance, leaving me feeling strong, resilient and balanced. Accept the journey for how it shows up. Find your lesson. Live your life to the fullest.

Why? Because your mind health matters.

The Mighty is asking the following: Tell us a story about a time you encountered a commonly held misconception about your mental illness. How did you react, and what do you want to tell people who hold his misconception? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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When Mental Illness Stigma Is Self-Imposed

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I have been stable for the past four years, but now my bipolar disorder has resurfaced. It could have been triggered by stress, meds or the weather change — or equal parts of all of these things — but the reality is that I’m unwell.

It was when I said this that my husband asked if I was hypomanic. Calmly, he described my behavior. I trust his judgement enough to know it must be true. Saturday highlighted this, as I was in a full hypomanic episode. Upon reflection, it had been building all week but I didn’t realize it. I had been having extreme anxiety all week and had been very agitated. I wasn’t sleeping and I was extremely volatile. By Saturday, this agitation and anxiety had turned into excessive, delirious energy and despite working out for two hours, taking anti-anxiety meds and trying to take a calming bath, it wouldn’t go away. My speech was rapid and bouncing from one thought to the next. I couldn’t sit still. I was moving like I was on speed. I had great ideas. (I saw a girl with half of her head shaved and thought that would be an awesome look for me, too. And while it might be an awesome look for me, it’s not a decision to be made while hypomanic.)

I’m equal parts frustrated, disappointed and defeated. It has been so long since my mood swings have been so volatile and explosive. It has been a long time since I felt manic. It has been a long time since I have felt so completely out of control.

Under the suggestion of my doctor and psychiatrist, I’ve taken a leave of absence from work. To be honest, this has been the hardest thing I’ve had to do in my life. I feel like I have admitted defeat to my illness. I feel like my leave of absence is showing the world my illness makes me weak and that I can’t hack it in the real world.

Rationally, I know this is totally unsubstantiated. I have a supportive partner, family and friends. I have previously disclosed my illness to my boss in preparation of writing this blog and she had demonstrated my illness didn’t taint her view of me. But there’s nothing I love more than feeling guilty, so I still beat myself up.

We often speak of stigma in terms of external judgement — how others perceive those with mental illness. But a form of stigma we don’t often talk about is the self-imposed stigma. Will I get fired for taking a leave of absence? Will I be given less interesting projects because they’re less stressful? Will they think I’m less capable because of my illness? Do my colleagues think I’m lazy and just don’t want to work? Are people whispering about the crazy girl who had a breakdown? I am so consumed by thoughts about what other people might be thinking about me, I neglect what’s most important — what I think and need. 

I try to situate my mental illness like someone who has cancer. If a colleague took a leave to get chemotherapy, would I judge them? Of course not. I would probably send them an email wishing them well or send flowers to their hospital room. But we don’t think of mental illness in this way because its symptoms are not visible. My moods are visible — I’m agitated, I’m teary, I don’t sleep — but the “proof” that the actual illness exists isn’t visible. It’s my word and a doctor’s signature on some paperwork.

Last week, these self-imposed judgments were spinning in my head increasing my agitation and anxiety. In an attempt to help, my husband and I set out on a walk of undetermined length. As we walked, I explained all of these thoughts to him.

“I’m regretting taking this leave of absence. Maybe I could take back the paperwork that had been submitted. I could go to work and have my medication readjusted — I could handle that. I didn’t really need this leave of absence at all. But on the other hand I’m so tired and angry — what if I blow up at work? I already snapped at one co-worker when I normally wouldn’t. I could lose my job. Also, I was sobbing at my desk on Tuesday. That’s not right. No, I do need this leave. It’s good for me. But on the other hand…”

After listening patiently to my rambling and often contradictory thoughts for the better part of an hour, he finally said something: 

“I know deep down you know this is the right decision. In the 10 years we have been together, this is the first time I’ve seen you choose yourself over other people. I’m proud of you.”

This stopped the self-stigma in its tracks. He reminded me this leave is only a minor setback. I haven’t surrendered to my illness, I’ve just retreated. No general would continue when the battle is surely lost. A general would regroup, tend to the wounded, gather reinforcements and re-strategize. And that’s all I’m doing. I may have lost this battle, but there’s still a war to win.

Follow this journey on Mad Girl’s Lament

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