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My Childhood with Bipolar Disorder

By: Natalia Beiser

My mother knew at an early age that I suffered from depression. What she did not know was what to do about it. My remembrance of the 1970’s is that no one discussed mental health unless an acquaintance went to the state hospital. Then it was discussed in very dark, quiet hushes. There was a world of difference in the stigma regarding mental health than there is even now. 

My mother mentioned observing me at approximately two years of age sitting on the kitchen floor of our humble trailer in a corner, contemplatively eating raisins from a snack sized box. She could see the despondence in my face.  Even if she would have sought help for my depression, where would she have gone in 1973? 

I knew early on that food sustained me in more ways than just nutrition. Food helped me to feel better emotionally. Food perked up my mood and helped me not to feel. This relationship with food has been a battle, and I attribute many of my issues with food to coexist due to bipolar disorder. My weight was a constant battle at home and in the office of pediatricians. I wish that they would have had the knowledge to investigate as to why I “needed” to eat. 

I did not want to ride my bike in the neighborhood like other children and would not seek out new friends. It was too much effort. My mother often urged me to get out. One time I refused to leave and she said that if I was going to stay around the house that I was going to have to do a variety of undesirable chores; I chose the chores. Even to this day, I believe that having bipolar disorder is an occupation in itself. It is hard work.  

My early years of school were satisfactory. I was social enough and was the teacher’s pet on several occasions. I always received a bad grade on my report card for “self control.” Self control – that whole term infuriated me because that was the only place where I received a bad grade. My mom said that it was because I didn’t stop myself from crying when I felt emotions. I cried often; it was considered a character flaw. To this day, I cannot stop myself from crying if tears begin to emerge. 

I specifically remember when I lost the ability to concentrate. I was in fifth grade and I could no longer pay attention the movies being shown in class.  This is around the same time that my scores on standardized tests started to drop. My ability to do well in school changed regularly. It was hinted at me by some teachers that I did not try hard enough while others hinted that I was lazy. However, no one ever investigated the antecedent as to why my educational history changed at that time.

At the end of fifth grade, my grade school permanently closed and I thought that my world was going to explode. Literally all of my friends were going to another school and I was going to a more affluent grade school in the same district. I became actively depressed and subsequently suicidal. The coursework at my new school was more difficult, and being brought into new surroundings for a kid that did not adjust to change that cried easily did not go well. I was scared to go to recess, because I did not have the energy to go outside and mingle. So I learned that I could sit in my classroom alone and no one would notice. And this became my sanctuary. 

My stepfather always preached that you were never to talk to anyone about your feelings outside of your family. Anything that needed to be said could be discussed at dinner. It was a desperate time, because I knew that it was a dire sin to commit suicide but I wanted to die and I definitely could not talk about that at the dinner table. The suicidal feelings appeared long after childhood.

Finally junior high came around and I was euphoric. I was going to be able to go to school again with my friends from my former grade school. I still could not concentrate and was accused of cheating in seventh grade English class. The teacher implied that I was lazy, but I really could not concentrate enough to memorize what was needed to pass the test. 

Every year around Halloween, I experienced hypomania. The first experience was in seventh grade, when I proudly “soaped” every business in my small hometown. Even now, if I am to sustain a mania, it will happen in the fall. 

As a freshman in high school, I began marching band. Some people see the painting of van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and cannot imagine how he felt while painting that site. I understand the work so well, because the football field sky often resembled that painting. I was exhilaratingly high during that time, and each subsequent fall. The “buzz” that I had a pulse of its own.

Springs were tough, also. I became more grandiose by the minute during spring musicals. Not only was I convinced that I could conquer the stage, but one year I became obsessed with not eating at the same time. Voila! I lost thirty pounds really fast! I sustained my first full blown mania my last year of high school. I became angry and impulsive.  By this time, I was eighteen and was treated as an adult in the psychiatric ward, but on the inside, I was still that sixth grade girl that was scared to go outside for recess.  

Fortunately, as I grew into an adult, it was easier for psychiatry to identify my symptoms. This generation is so blessed to have physicians spending more time and research into children’s mental health. Had I been born forty years later, I am confident that my symptoms would have been better managed and childhood would not have been such a dark place. 

Comments

I really appreciate your honesty and your story. Luckily my battles with depression didn’t begin until my 20s.

In hindsight there were signs in my childhood before my major depressive then manic episode at 16 (which was still treated as depression!)

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