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Help! My Parent Has Bipolar Disorder: Part 2

By: Leslie A. Lindsay

In Part 1, I described my personal experience with a parent with bipolar disorder. I have compiled a list of questions and concerns that you may have from your own personal experience! Maybe one is, “Why does my mom (or dad) have Bipolar Disorder?”

That’s a very natural question. The answer isn’t super-clear.  Scientists knows bipolar is a disease of the brain. That means there’s an imbalance of certain brain chemicals, maybe too little or too much of the right (or wrong) chemical. Scientists also know bipolar is related to genetics. That means bipolar tends to run in families.

Question: So I’ll have bipolar, too?

Answer: No one knows for sure if they will ever develop bipolar in their lifetime. But it’s natural to worry. I did. I don’t have bipolar myself but there was a time when I felt depressed and anxious. I made sure I talked to my doctor right away. He prescribed medicine and it helped.

Question: Can I “catch” bipolar? Will I get it because I live with a parent who has been diagnosed?

Answer: Bipolar is not contagious; it’s not “catching.” Being around a person with bipolar doesn’t mean you’ll get it too (like a cold or the chicken pox). If you’re really worried, it’s important to talk to a trusted adult like a grandparent, teacher, church official, or family friend. You can even talk to your pediatrician or a social worker at school about these feelings. Be open and honest. If the adult is worried about your mental health, they can help find resources for you.

Question: Will my mom/dad’s bipolar ever go away?

Answer: Not exactly. Bipolar disorder is not curable. Medication and talk therapy can help manage it and keep things “under control.”

Question: Sometimes I really don’t like my mom or dad, especially when they are manic/depressed/both. How can I make living with them more bearable?

Answer: This is a tough place to be, I’ve lived it. Here are some suggestions:

1) Make a list of all the good things your parent does with you or for you. (These can be simple things like cooking meals, buying your clothing, doing your laundry, getting you to practice).

2) Make a list of your mom/dad’s skills and strengths (my mom was an excellent seamstress, she was great at decorating and cooking, and we had a ton of fun shopping, and she was pretty).

3) Keep a journal.

4) Exercise. Participate in sports. This gives you an outlet outside of the house and increases your self-esteem and self-worth.

5) Develop or expand your hobbies/interests or activities. I would spend hours drawing floor plans of dream homes. This helped. Other hobbies might include: reading, drawing, painting, music, models cars, learning a new language.

6) Talk with other adults about your worries, about your bipolar parent. I developed a closer relationship with my dad; we both knew what it was like living with my mom when she was manic or depressed. He was a good source of compassion and sympathy. You could try talking with your grandparents, a family friend, a godparent, a coach or teacher, or someone at your place of worship.

7) Be open with your mom/dad about your feelings when they are in a “high” or “low” episode. Wait until the episode is over. Looking back, it’s something I wish I had done. 

Try: “Mom, you really worried me when you thought I was the devil and you wanted to hurt me. It was scary and confusing. I didn’t know what to think. Do you remember that? Can we talk about it?”

8) Remember, everyone is different and that’s okay.

Question: Things are bad, super-bad. I am worried for my safety and my parent’s. What can I do?

Answer: This is such an important question. Some kids feel better if there’s an “Action Plan” in place. Here’s how that looks:

1) BEFORE your mom or dad has an episode, brainstorm all the ways you can tell it is about to happen. Make a list on your own or with your Trusted Adult or your Parent.  Your list might look like this:

More irritable,

More tired,

Goes to her room a lot,

Cries for no reason;

2) You’ll probably notice more mild symptoms first. Consider alerting your Trusted Adult(s) in the mild stage.

Say: “Mom is spending a lot of time in her room. Her thoughts are a little mixed up. I’m starting to get concerned.” 

3) Make a list of people to call when the episode gets to be ‘too much.’ Add telephone numbers. We tend to forget phone numbers we’ve called hundreds of times when we’re stressed. Put them in order of which you’ll call. Keep the list in the same place so you know where to find it. Mine looked like this:  

Dad at work, 555-6591

Grandma and Grandpa, 555-7812

Aunt Liz, 555-9963

Mrs. Johnson next door, 555-7341

Coach Rizzo, 555-1727

4) Write down your worries and concerns. They might look like this:

Hasn’t slept in three days.

Called me names.

Thinks she is going to save the world.

Says she doesn’t think life is worth living.

5) Make sure everyone involved knows what symptoms to look for and how to help.

6) IF IT’S A TRUE EMERGENCY, ALWAYS CALL 9-1-1 FIRST.

If you feel you still need more help or information about bipolar disorder, there are a lot of resources available, including books and pamphlets, in-person support groups, on-line support groups, blogs like this, and ‘get started’ kits you can find on the Internet for free.  Talking with a therapist on a regular basis about living with a parent with bipolar might also help.

I know having a parent who has been diagnosed with a mental illness is a challenge for everyone involved. But you can make it better by planning ahead. Keep the lines of communication open and keep yourself healthy by engaging in activities that are good for your body and mind (eating well, getting regular sleep, and spending time with supportive friends).  Mostly, be yourself. You are not responsible for your parent’s actions or behaviors. 

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