There are two ways of spreading light; to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.
– Edith Wharton
The day after my daughter was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I went into her bedroom to see if she was awake yet. I sat down on her bed and she sleepily said, “Is everything okay? You look like someone has died.”
My daughter didn’t understand the impact of her diagnosis. And evidently, neither did I.
It is difficult for me to imagine, the pure hell my daughter was going through living with un-diagnosed and untreated bipolar disorder. I will leave that part of the story for her to tell. I could never tell it correctly.
However, I can help by telling my experiences as the mother of a child diagnosed with having bipolar disorder. Parents of newly-diagnosed children need to hear encouraging words. I sure wish I had.
When Liane was first diagnosed at 13, 14 years ago, I thought it was the end of her hopes and dreams. My husband was out of the country on business. I felt I had nowhere to turn, and no one to talk to. After all, who could possibly understand? In the 1990s bipolar disorder was even more secret and misunderstood than it is now. Children were not even diagnosed with the illness until the 1980s.
When I called my mother about the diagnosis, her response to being told that her only granddaughter was diagnosed as having bipolar disorder was a dismissive “No, she doesn’t.” That didn’t help.
Classical singing, drawing, and creative writing were my daughter’s passions. She was constantly sketching from the time she could hold a crayon. And she could always be heard singing. Her singing was so heartfelt, that at her first recital, her performance of “If I Loved You,” from Carousel, brought one audience member to tears. Liane sometimes compared her singing to crying.
As Liane entered adolescence, we could see her moods growing dark. But, it did not seem out of place in such an artistic soul. In looking back, though, something was clearly very wrong. The explosive anger, and so much more…
Liane started seeing a therapist weekly at age eleven, who was recommended by staff at her Middle School. He said she was fine, just suffering from anxiety. She saw him once a week for almost two years. His diagnosis never changed.
A big believer in (and salesman of) natural remedies, he convinced Liane she should take St. John’s Wort to feel better. She really wanted to try it. So I agreed, not dreaming it could do any harm. Shortly after, she became so agitated that she could not attend school. Thankfully, her pediatrician pulled some strings to get her an appointment with a respected child psychiatrist in the area.
At that first appointment, the psychiatrist spent hours meeting with us separately and together. Her diagnosis was that Liane had bipolar disorder, which could effectively be treated with medication. I told the psychiatrist I needed to think about the medication, after all, her therapist of two years had diagnosed her with anxiety.
The next morning, I phoned the therapist, to tell him about this ridiculous diagnosis. But to my disbelief, he stated that he knew this would happen if she saw a psychiatrist. He had suspected she might be bipolar, but thought he could treat her himself! (Hold me back!)
I immediately called her new psychiatrist and repeated the conversation. The psychiatrist told me she saw Liane rapid-cycle right there in her office. And, that the St. John’s Wort had most likely caused the dangerous rapid cycling, as it is known to do with patients diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
For days afterward, I spent hours on the computer, reading all I could find about the disorder. What I found was not encouraging. My one ray of hope was finding a few successful celebrities who had chosen to go public with their bipolar struggles. A big thank you to Maurice Bernard and Carrie Fisher for shedding light on this still misunderstood illness.
Liane’s psychiatrist proved invaluable for both Liane and me. Initially, she saw Liane weekly, and had me leave daily messages with updates on her condition. These daily phone calls continued for years as medications were started, re-adjusted, discarded, and newly-prescribed. She answered all of my questions and urged me to read “The Bipolar Child: The Definitive and Reassuring Guide to Childhood’s Most Misunderstood Disorder.”
The first of many school meetings took place at Liane’s Middle School. Liane was to be out of school for an undetermined number of weeks while medications were adjusted. Two of her teachers insisted she should transfer to remedial classes, upon her return. But her English teacher was in tears, as she contradicted her colleagues and said that Liane was an extremely bright girl who would go on to college. This teacher’s support meant everything to me, and demonstrated the importance of Liane having an advocate at school.
After that meeting, I knew that I would never again let anyone define Liane by her diagnosis.
Liane never returned to middle school; she was home-schooled for the next six months as medications were adjusted. We both enjoyed my daily reading of “A Tale of Two Cities” to her on the living room couch. We grew to love Sydney Carton, and his loyal heart. And we both struggled in our own ways with her disorder. My role was to offer support, and do all I could to keep Liane moving forward while at home. I was not going to let Liane fall into hopelessness. “When going through hell, keep going” became one of my favorite Winston Churchill quotes.
The next year in high school, Liane was assigned a counselor whose role was to provide support and coordination with teachers, and to offer a safe space, if needed. As it ended up, Liane was more likely to find refuge in the classroom of her art teacher – a wonderful man who was truly dedicated to his students. Some days Liane simply could not go to school. In her senior year, Liane applied to her desperately-desired college of choice, a top New Jersey liberal arts university – even though her grade advisor advised against it. But Liane was determined, and was accepted, in large measure due to her personal interview, written essay, and the strength of her art portfolio.
Liane had to take a medical leave of absence from college her first semester. Thankfully, by the second semester she was ready to return, along with a newly-adjusted medicine regimen. She worked hard, took summer courses, and graduated on time. She is currently in grad school for counseling and wants to be an advocate to help others understand mental illness.
Just because your child is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, does not mean that your child cannot succeed in school and in life. However, your child will need you as an advocate at school, as well as have your unwavering belief in their ability to succeed. Never let anyone define your child by his or her illness. And, it is a long road. But, your child too will develop roots and wings. Except the roots will be deeper and the wings will be broader.
Contributed by Laura.