Hindsight is 20/20. Even so, I showed signs of a mood disorder early in life, and denying them did not help.
Bipolar Moods in Childhood & Adolescence
Looking back at my childhood and adolescent years, I can see that bipolar was lurking around every corner:
There were the withdrawn, depressive moods, and a whole lot of anxiety that caused me to miss school and social outings with my friends.
And there was another side of me that would sometimes take over: I would be distractible and giddy, laughing at everything around me. My “high” moods got me kicked out of drama club and English class.
But when I think about my childhood, the sadness was the most pervasive.
It was painful for me to be around my classmates, who all seemed so “normal,” so in control of their moods.
Even as a fifth-grader, I remember this perpetual roller-coaster ride of highs and lows that dictated how I was to spend my time.
Seeking Help in School
I never wanted to go to school.
At an early age, I became an expert at coming up with new excuses to get out of class. My teachers knew that they had a problem on their hands but did not have the psychiatric training to decipher my volatile mood swings.
I ended up spending hours at a time, pacing through the guidance counseling office, hoping that a counselor would be available to talk me down before I “cracked.”
I clearly had some sort of mood disorder, but because I always managed to find a way to get my assignments done—and in advanced placement (AP) classes too—the counselors did not insist that I have a psychiatric evaluation.
Maybe they should have.
The Detective/Doctor & My Misdiagnosis
One spring day, in the middle of junior high, that is exactly what my parents did.
My mom made an appointment with one of the best child/adolescent psychiatrists in the city. This doctor wanted to know about my sleep and eating habits and if I was having trouble concentrating on my schoolwork. And she had even more questions about how I spent my free time and if I was still able to enjoy the activities that had always given me pleasure, like reading and gymnastics.
She was like a detective, trying to inhabit every corner of my adolescent experience, so she could find a way to help me.
This doctor called my parents into her office and gently closed the door behind her. My parents looked nervous, and I was biting at one of my fingernails. I knew that something important was about to happen, that whatever came out of this doctor’s mouth was going to forever change the way our family functioned.
I suspected that I might be going “crazy”—my moods were so erratic, and thoughts were always racing through my head more quickly than I could make sense of them.
Even though she didn’t have much to say about my periods of hyperactive giddiness, “Dr. L.” was quite concerned about my depression—or the “down days,” as I described them. She had also uncovered another important risk factor: there was an abundance of mood and anxiety disorders in my family.
Psychiatric Evaluations & Prescriptions
My parents refused to even take the prescription for antidepressant medication that she offered us. How could I be that depressed when there were also periods of fast talking and laughter?
I suspect that it was easier for them to walk out of her office with the belief that she really didn’t know what she was talking about.
I assume that having a child with depression is a demoralizing feeling for parents, but sweeping it under the rug isn’t helpful, either.
Later, after my parents divorced, and I found myself inside another child/adolescent psychiatrist’s office.
That’s when the “high” moments were getting even worse, when I could hardly control my behavior at school or during my extracurricular activities. But I was also going through the motions of life as a very depressed teenager.
Panic & Mania
During the first semester of high school, I struggled to focus on textbooks and exams. My thoughts started racing and my anxiety level accelerated to the point where I was having regular panic attacks.
This time, my mom accepted the prescription, and we picked up my first antidepressant medication at the local pharmacy.
But then, I became more than a depressed teenager—I couldn’t sleep anymore.
I spent the nights pacing through the shadowy corridors of our house while my mother and brother dreamed and snored. I couldn’t sit in one place, and every minute was excruciatingly painful for me.
Over the course of high school, I tried many other antidepressants, but each gave me a similar response.
Would an Earlier Diagnosis Have Helped?
I wish that my bipolar disorder had been diagnosed during that first psychiatric evaluation I’d had in middle school. But I also wonder whether having the correct diagnosis would have better prepared my parents for that painful unraveling I dealt with in high school.
Even if “Dr. L.” had diagnosed my bipolar, I’m not sure if my parents would have wanted me to try a mood stabilizer.
A diagnosis of bipolar disorder can feel new and scary. More than anything, I think my parents just didn’t know what to do. As is often the case with bipolar disorder, the person’s moods are so conflicting that parents just end up bewildered. When I would have a good day, my mom might feel relieved, trying to block her fears that another dark mood was coming soon.
For Parents, Education about Bipolar Is Essential
I think that for parents who are dealing with the emergence of bipolar disorder in their child, the best thing to do is to get educated.
There might be a tendency for parents to think that only adults can be diagnosed with a mood disorder. But children and teens can have bipolar disorder—and their symptoms are highly treatable.
At the slightest suspicion that a child or teen has bipolar, parents should seek treatment.
Life just gets even more complicated as teens get older: before parents know it, their children will be visiting colleges and moving away. Because the transition to college life is wrought with unease and anxiety, I think it is best to fully understand any mood-cycling issues way ahead of time.
It’s Not about “Attention-Seeking”
Last, I think it’s important to talk about the tendency of adults to react to a child or teen’s mood disorder as if they are “acting out” or just “want attention.”
Saying something like this shows that a person is ignorant about, or doesn’t understand, how complicated a teen’s life can become when they are living with bipolar disorder.
When I was struggling in high school, some of my mom’s friends would frequently comment that I “just wanted attention.” This statement and/or belief devalues a teen’s experience in a way that is harmful.
I know that I would have preferred going to school and getting through each one of my classes.
I would have chosen an easier path if I could have.
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