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When You Miss the Early Signs of Your Child's Mental Illness

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As parents we can get busy — busy with life, with carpools and jobs. We get busy with helping with homework and figuring out what’s for dinner. 

• What is Bipolar disorder?

Maybe that’s why when my daughter started withdrawing the summer before eighth grade, I was too busy to be really concerned. When she wanted to stay in her room on a beautiful day, I dragged her with me to the pool. As she got quieter and quieter, I was still busy juggling life with her two active siblings.

Suddenly all that came to a roaring stop. I was at school bingo with her brother and sister when I received a call from her best friend’s mom. Everything stopped when this woman told me her daughter admitted to her that my child was having suicidal thoughts. The child I had left home alone for the evening was having what? I ran out of the school leaving my children with another mother and prayed desperately during the five minutes it took me to get home. I can’t even remember what I promised God I would do if I could just find her home safe. I do know I would have promised anything. So I burst through the door, found her OK and sat her down to talk. How could I have been so unaware? Not only was my child so depressed that she wanted to die but she had been self-harming for months. How had I missed this? 

This happened on a Friday night and by Tuesday, my child, my firstborn, was admitted into the hospital. I have always thought I was good in a crisis, but nothing prepared me for the paralyzing feelings of fear and helplessness that sometimes made breathing impossible. 

We got a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. This was based on her symptoms and the fact that there was a family history of bipolar. Now here comes the meds. Those little pills that can bring a whole suitcase full of side effects. We would wait to see what worked and in a year we tried at least six different kinds. The drowsiness, weight gain, stomachaches and hallucinations she went through were all in our quest to find what worked. Each time I went to the pharmacy, I prayed that this time it would help.

Between the end of eighth grade to the middle of freshman year, she was hospitalized four times. We finally realized we needed to do something more drastic and we sent her to a residential program for a month. We had to stop this endless cycle of in and out of hospitals. We finally found a medication that helped and she began to see a physiatrist and therapist regularly. We also had to fight with her school to get her accommodations that would help her be more successful. 

Every day I was still looking for signs, afraid of missing something. I became something of a robot. I still did the carpools, homework and laundry, but I had pushed my emotions down so far I began to fear what would happen if I let go for a second. How could I break down when she needed me? To this day, there are fears and emotions I haven’t truly dealt with, but are still in the vault I locked inside myself. The whole family was affected by this. Once when I had to take her for an appointment and I had a friend pick up my other kids after school, my kids were instantly panicked their sister was back in the hospital. My husband, an incredibly strong man, struggled with the helplessness of not being able to chase away the disease that was threatening to take our child away from us. 

Fast forward two years and here we are. My daughter surprised us with a granddaughter her junior year and while it was a difficult pregnancy and the postpartum depression was crushing, she made it through. My granddaughter is the most beautiful baby and while we are blessed to have her, she is also blessed with a wonderful mother. Now she’s about to graduate this year, my daughter who may be the bravest and strongest person I know. (Although she would probably argue this). She plans to attend college and hopes to one day help teens who are going through what she went through. 

What would I say to other parents? I guess it would be to slow down and look around you. We can get so busy in the maintenance of our lives that we stop noticing things. Even kids who are hiding things from you are also sending you signs that they are in trouble. 

We were so lucky we had family and friends to help. Just knowing my friends were there at a moment’s notice was life-saving. When our insurance wouldn’t pay for a residential program, my in-laws paid the bill without hesitation. Every night I prayed for her to get better and for God to give me the strength to help her. 

There is no cure, no magic pill, no words that can keep her from ever falling into depression again. I can only hope that we have given her the tools to fight through it and the knowledge that we are always there for her. 

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Image via Thinkstock.

Originally published: January 21, 2017
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