I dreamed of having a child throughout my formative years. When asked what I would be when I grew up, I readily answered “A Mommy!” I doted on baby dolls, babysat throughout my teen years and dressed every cat we ever owned up as a baby. I deeply wanted to know the connection, but had problems with my reproductive system, including massive scarring, that doctors said would prohibit me from successfully carrying a baby to term. Still: I dreamed, prayed and hoped.
Therefore, when I got pregnant with my son, T, in 1987 I was over-the-moon ecstatic. Looking back now, I see the bipolar reared its head within me around this time (not uncommon given the hormonal changes). I was irritated, impulsive and excessively paranoid about the health of my baby while I was pregnant. However, at the time, nothing was as noticeable as my preparations for the baby’s arrival. I was still quite young and undiagnosed, most of my symptoms dismissed as immaturity by my husband and my Mother (the just of my social network).
The baby grew and, at 3 months in utero, began to move: a lot. Doctor’s dismissed this as gas or over anxiousness on my part, but I knew the baby would be active. Once born, T did not disappoint. He slept very little, babbled incessantly and reached his developmental milestones well before his peers. At 3 he was reading, memorizing and quoting short chapters from Psalms and other books of the Bible. At 5 he was going to gifted and talented programs.
T was also “acting out” early. He often challenged authority, mine, his Father’s and his school’s. In a profound instance, at age 8, he destroyed all the other children’s structures in a gifted and talented class. He refused to talk, except to say “chicken” for an entire day at school and, at 9, he drove off in a golf cart belonging to my university. As a result of his erratic behavior, I homeschooled him in K-2 and again in middle school and we sought psychiatric help for him at age 5 (I still wasn’t diagnosed).
Unfortunately, he was misdiagnosed as ADHD and put on a powerful stimulant, causing—we now know—a long, painful mania that included violent outbursts. The medications also caused his, still present, tardive dyskinesia. It wouldn’t be until he was 9 that he was properly diagnosed and medicated. Much damage had been done to him and me both, psychologically and physically, at that point.
I was diagnosed in 1996, T was properly diagnosed in 1999. I was barely an adult when I gave birth to my prodigy and I was completely unprepared to deal with his challenges or mine. However, I found my way—good or bad—and so did he. Today T is about to graduate from IT school, has three beautiful children and is a delight to all who know him. My hope is that our trials can help others be better parents to children with Bipolar Disorder and as parents with Bipolar Disorder, we can finally give ourselves a break.
“Depending on the particular condition, parents with mental illness have the added challenges of decreased energy, irregular sleep, trouble concentrating, sustaining attention, irritability and moodiness — all of which can contribute to a less available parent,” according to Joanne Nicholson, PhD (Parenting Well When You’re Depressed: A Complete Resource for Maintaining a Healthy Family, http://psychcentral.com/lib/tips-for-parenting-with-a-mental-illness/0005765).
Nicholson recommends the following strategies:
•Focus on the whole family. We did this through family meetings, individual therapies for each of us, as well as family therapy.
•Engage in treatment. Don’t forget the airplane model: Put your air mask on first, then your children’s (all of them, not just those with a diagnosis). You’re no help if you’re not healthy too.
•Connect with others. We utilized homeschool groups, PTAs, Gifted and Talented Programs, sports, arts…any and everything that helped him battle his social phobias and weaknesses.
•Troubleshoot. Plan plan plan! Family meetings are so important for us. We solved a lot of problems that way.
•Create a crisis plan. Know what to do when crisis strikes. When T was 13 and no longer responding to his medications we went through some nightmarish experiences with inpatient treatment for him. Be sensitive to their needs and involve them in “well visists” to potential treatment centers.
•Enroll kids in activities.
•Attend to your needs. Making sure you have support is paramount and cannot be overemphasized. I tried to keep at least 3 people I could vent to on speed dial.
•Give the best time to your kids. ?
•Recognize your strengths. Two strengths I possessed were 1) Unconditional love: while I rarely felt I was “getting it right,” I tried daily to ensure my son knew he was loved—as he was. 2) Honest Communication: When T was being diagnosed and when I was, we frequently had family meetings where his opinion was heard and valued and where we told him what was happening and how we were going to deal with it as a family.
•Practice your passions.
A final addition to this list is BE AN ADVOCATE! For yourself and for your child. It’s never easy to face School Superintendents, teachers, psychiatrists and doctors with authority, but the reality is that no one knows you or your child or your situation like you do! Your voice should always be heard. Happy Parenting fruendas! May your lives be as blessed through your children as mine has ?.