Things I Wish I’d Known While Raising A Son With Bipolar Disorder by Mädchen Amick

By May 21, 2015Blog

My husband and I raised a seemingly happy, healthy, and talented son, who flourished throughout his childhood until his freshman year of college. Beneath his tall, handsome, athletic, easy-going exterior was constant emotional turmoil. To everyone else, he was called the “golden boy” and it seemed like he had it all, but inside he was struggling with crippling swings of anxiety and depression. As he was entering the University with exceptional grades and a D-1 Athletic Scholarship, we thought we had equipped him with the best tools we could give him to become a “successful” adult. In hindsight, there were indications that our son was battling the onset of bipolar disorder, and that we, as a family, lacked the mental health knowledge that we would eventually need. Thankfully, we had a very strong family unit: father, mother, son and daughter that always had open communication, strongly advocated for each other, and unconditional love for one another. Unfortunately, all of this didn’t guarantee that our family would be shielded from a disease that almost took our son’s life. Even though we were thrown into uncharted territory, and had to take the “learn as you go” approach, I do believe that through some very dark times, the trust that we had built was key in the eventual outcome of seeking help and recovery. Now that our son is a young adult, working hard to piece his life back together, I would like to share our experiences along our journey in hopes that it may help other families during theirs.

Beware of Mis-Diagnosed Learning Disorders:

High-school counselors called us in for a family meeting with concerns that our son may have ‘Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder’ (ADHD). At the time, we considered this “hysteria” and “over-diagnosing”. Therefore, we took our time, did some research, spoke with other professionals, and as a family decided to not medicate but to closely watch his symptoms. In hindsight, we still believe it was the right decision. We have since learned that medications to treat ADHD or depression, unfortunately, can bring the early onset of a ‘psychotic episode’ (if one has an underlying mental illness). I point this out not to discount the legitimacy of learning disorders but merely to encourage families to educate themselves about mental health. I worry that when educational counselors and teachers call in families with concerns of a child having a learning disability that we aren’t always looking at the “complete picture.” In the way that our school system feels strongly about requiring vaccinations and annual physicals, I feel strongly that it is essential to add a mental health component to that annual physical.

The Signs of “Self-Medicating”:

As I said earlier, we sent both of our kids off to Universities with all of the tools we thought they would need to succeed. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the facts or education to know that when our son seemed to derail from his goals because of “excessive partying,” this was a sign that he was “self-medicating” the onset of a mental illness. Our son was unknowingly using alcohol to battle severe depression, along with marijuana to counter his mania. We struggled trying to understand why he would jeopardize his scholarship and academic career after how hard he had worked for them. What we later found out, and not until we were in the throws of his hospitalizations and treatment programs, was the impact of the biochemical imbalance that occurs with his illness. As parents, we have to walk that fine-line of letting our kids leave the nest to grow on their own and keep tabs on what could be warning signs of a much bigger problem. A classic sign, like in our son’s case, was binge drinking to the point of passing out. In most cases, the onset of a mental illness shows itself between the teenage years up until the mid 20’s. This is when our kids like to push the boundaries and experiment with drugs and alcohol. 1 out of 10 people in the U.S. will develop the disease of addiction after the age of 12, and 1 out of 3 people affected by the disease of addiction have a co-occurring mental illness. I want parents to know that while it may seem “normal” for college kids to experiment and push boundaries, sometimes there are deeper issues, and kids might be “self-medicating” in order to attempt to gain control of their feelings.

The Treatment for Addiction is Different than Mental Illness:

“Tough love” from family and friends for people who are struggling with addiction can be important in them seeking sobriety. However, when someone is having a “mental episode” (mania or depression), a different approach may be needed. In both cases, the individual needs to make the decision for themselves that they need the help, but someone who is in the swing of a ‘psychotic episode’ is experiencing delusional thinking. The biochemicals in their brain aren’t allowing them to think rationally. At first sight, your loved one can appear to be “high” but in actuality, they might be completely substance free. It can be so confusing when you’re dealing with two separate illnesses at the same time, like in our son’s case: his disorder initially presented itself as addiction. In hind-sight, we now recognize that our son’s grandiose thinking, rapid speech, and hyper sexuality (opposite of his “normal” behavior) were all classic signs of mania. The behavior of a person ‘intoxicated’ and a person having an ‘episode’ can look similar, but this is when family or friends who are familiar with their “baseline” need to intervene and make sure their loved one gets immediate medical attention.

True ‘Dual-Diagnosis’:

After four agonizing years of our son going through multiple hospitalizations and eight rehab centers, we have yet to find a true ‘Dual-Diagnosis: Substance Abuse and Mental Illness’ facility. A sad and nearly fatal incident was when our son, who was in a “highly reputable” and we feel, well-intentioned “dual-diagnosis facility,” was discharged and kicked out into the street for “non-compliant behavior,” when in reality, he was having a manic episode. The rehab center acted appropriately if (in their view) it had been “drug seeking behavior,” but this was not the case with our son. A true mental health facility would have had him see a doctor immediately to administer medication in order to stabilize his condition. Because his manic episode was allowed to spiral out of control, he ended up in an ICU, having to be resuscitated from alcohol poisoning. Unfortunately, as of now, our medical field has divided treatment for addiction and mental illness, and, quite frankly, there is very little funding for the mental health side. This has created a situation where the money lies in “addiction treatment”, and the facilities can get additional funding if they meet the “dual diagnosis” standard. The only criteria to qualify their facility, is if they provide the client the opportunity to see a psychiatrist once a month, when in actuality, what is necessary is an on-call psychiatrist, weekly psychotherapy, nurse administered medication compliance, and a staff trained and experienced in mental health. This means the responsibility to seek out the appropriate treatment center lies in your hands! Do your research to make sure that the facility is primarily a mental health treatment center. Be prepared to appeal to your insurance company and fight for an “adequate facility”. Advocate for your loved one!

Trial and Error:

1 in 4 people will be affected by a mental illness in the course of their lifetime. The biggest advice I can give loved ones who are supporting someone navigating a newly diagnosed mental illness is: patience, patience, patience. It can take up to a year for the brain to recover from neurological damage of a single ‘manic or depressive episode,’ so prevention of multiple episodes is crucial. Medical professionals will need to evaluate your loved one for an extended period of time in order to give a proper diagnoses. It will then take some frustrating “trials and errors” to find a successful combination of medications and psychotherapy. Once a balance of medication, therapy, and healthy living has been achieved, the work begins… Setting up a support system, being “med compliant,” and on-going communication with a psychiatrist is essential. Also, remember as the biochemicals in the body naturally change, the medications may also require adjustment. As much as I wish there was some “magic pill” to make it all go away, there just isn’t. This is a lifestyle adjustment for the whole family, and the sooner you can accept that, the sooner you and your loved one will heal and begin to flourish.

Stay the Course:

When someone is diagnosed with an illness like cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, or Parkinson’s, we immediately feel compassion for his or her struggle. The latest research proves that the five major mental illnesses – depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD, schizophrenia, and autism are genetic. It just happens to affect the brain instead of another organ. Be sure to keep a calm attitude and attentive approach to your loved one’s needs. You are going to have to learn to separate your loved one’s “rational thinking” from their “biochemically induced delusional thinking.” Remember that even though people in the medical profession have good intentions, they don’t know your loved one the way you do. Family, friends, and significant others are the ones that know his or her “baseline.” What is their “normal” behavior? This is an essential key to the doctors’ ability to evaluate what medications and / or therapies are working. Working closely together with your loved one and their ‘treatment team’ will be essential in piecing together a rhythm that will eventually emerge. It is imperative to establish routines, and it is just as important to avoid triggers.

The Importance of Healthy Living:

As parents, we knew that sleep and exercise were essential to our family’s health, but we didn’t necessarily know how important they were to keep mood swings stable. In some people, like our son, not getting enough sleep can trigger mania. In fact, if you notice your loved one getting less and less sleep, it’s a strong indication they may be entering a manic phase. On the other end of the spectrum, regular exercise has proven to combat our son’s depression. We also knew that a good diet was needed for our bodies’ overall health, but like most people, we didn’t necessarily know the importance of eating specific “brain healthy” foods. We raised our kids with a focus on balance, structure, and routine, and even though we were sometimes accused of being the “strictest parents in town” by our children, we have since learned that these are key elements in not only the recovery of addiction but also maintaining mental stability. In addition to his medication, our son has found consistent ‘Transcendental Meditation’ practice to be extremely helpful for his mental stabilization. Finding the right form of meditation for the entire family can be very helpful.

In closing, I feel that the media can tend to sensationalize and only report the very dramatic and tragic events surrounding mental illness. I choose to focus on the many, many success stories. It is possible and very common to overcome and manage a mental illness. There isn’t any one “type” of person that it can affect; it doesn’t discriminate. You would be shocked at how many extremely successful individuals are not “suffering from”, but “living with” a disorder. Although, it is important to accept a diagnosis and work towards recovery, a label doesn’t solely define anyone. I hope to be joined by many others to work together to erase the stigma around mental illness and have an open and brave conversation about how important mental health is for everyone!

Thank you for allowing me to share my story,
Mädchen Amick
Ambassador, Bring Change 2 Mind

23 Comments

  • Andrea V says:

    This was an awesome article and story! I relate as my son has gone through the exact same thing. It has been a very hard road very similar to Madchen’s son — we now know what we are dealing with. I thank God for that.

    Thank you for such a complete and all around panaramic picture of what bipolar is really like. I loved how she explained all of the facets like how important a healthy lifestyle, counseling etc. are. This CAN BE managed. Along with a solid support system. People enduring bipolar are stronger than most of us and should be praised and respected for their endurance and given a lot more grace!

    Thank you for getting this info out there — I also believe more needs to be done to change the inaccurate stigma. People just don’t know. If they knew first hand they would think differently. Plain and simple its just ignorance.

    Great job on the article!!! All the best to you!!!

    • Sterre says:

      I realy like this story. My son has a serious mental ilness but is now married happily 9 years and is a good father to his 2 children. He takes his meds and sees the psychiatrist and councillor once a week! He also earns on free lance realestate. Keep courage it can change for the better

  • Kelly says:

    You make a really important point about proper dual diagnosis treatment. I don’t know where you’re located, but in the Boston area there are several facilities, psychiatric hospitals, that specialize in true dual diagnosis treatment. There’s one in particular for men only at the Arbor Hospital in Jamica Plain. MA.

  • Susan says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. I have 2 sisters that are bi-polar and several family members that are living with depression, anxiety and a host of other things. I’m thrilled that so many public figures, such as yourself, are working to help remove the stigma associated with mental health issues so that we can work on the actual problem.

  • John says:

    Thank you to Madchen Amick for such a well written article about bipolar. My son has had a substance abuse/mental illness problem for many years, but He’s your family, we didn’t recognize the signs until he began to self medicate with crystal meth. He has schizophrenic episodes. Like Andrea V above says, I admire my son’s, intestinal fortitude for battling this disease, but he also is very resistant to psychotherapy and going to meetings for support, unless forced to do so by being in rehab. He enjoys group therapy, but won’t go now that he’s out of rehab. This for us has been the most frustrating part of working with him and this whole situation. For most people with heart disease, etc, they will go to the doctor in a more proactive way than some with a substance abuse/mental illness. I understand about stigma, but with one in four people in this country experiencing a mental illness, not to mention their families, there is no excuse in my mind why more people don’t “come out” and voice their thoughts about what needs to be done to aide families; from better coverage from insurance, more willingness from medical/ rehab providers to be classified as “in network” to reduce the costs of care to the family, to laws that disregard the HIPPA law that prevent families from placing their loved ones in rehab when the loved one is resistant/has no insight as to just how sick they may be.

  • Robin G says:

    I struggled with issues similar to your son.
    I still don’t like the “label” bipolar, or the diagnosis, but that’s mainly due to the shame I have about that word.
    Thank you for speaking out.

  • Kim says:

    My husband and I experienced the exact same thing with our son. It has been and still is a struggle. He hasn’t come to terms with his illness and we don’t know how to move forward. He goes to therapy and for the most part will take his medicine however has gone off on occasion and we have to start monitoring again. Does anyone have any suggestion?

  • Cory says:

    We do a lot of work with children and a fair amount diagnosed with various psychological ailments. I also have a step-daughter who has been diagnosed as bi-polar and we saw a massive improvement in her when we began increasing her exercise and watching her diet. It hasn’t been perfect and she definitely has her moments but it has helped her tremendously. Great blog and wonderful story!

  • Boyce N-M says:

    I’m almost too happy that there has been an organization made to bring awareness to these types of happenings. I, myself, have bipolar depression and schizophrenia, two things I honestly have never liked to admit to people, but now everyone knows in some way or form, whether it be catching me on a day where I’ve crashed and burned, or people seeing the scars on both of my arms, the countless times I’ve felt regret or sadness to that extreme since the age of fourteen. This brings me to a peace knowing that research is being done to help people with preventing the happenings of psychotic breaks earlier in people’s lives so it doesn’t occur too late. Knowledge must be obtained, symptoms must be sought out, and awareness must spread out to form solidarity on mental illness. Thank you for letting this be known.

  • Jo Badenhorst says:

    Thank you very much for the insightful article. My bipolar son is 29, married a has a small child. He is a loving and caring parent but that is unfortunaty where it stops. He takes his medicine, but it doesn’t seem to help. He is in and out of jobs and he displays very self-destructive behaviour. He is unwell, to put it very mildly. He currently eexperiences a manic episode but although he acknowledges his condition, he cannot and will not recognize it as such. He refuses therapy and is very very defiant. My heart breaks and aches for my lovely daughter-in-law and his 1 year old son. He constantly ‘divorces’ us when we try to warn or discourage him from taking very irresponsible financial choices. In fact, we bail him out and recently took a second bond on our property to help him with his huge debt – just to learn that this has triggered his mania – he left his job and ‘started his own business’, with money that he believes he has already earned. We don’t know what to do. He has gone without sleeping for four days in a row. Things are spiralling out of control. He doesn’t acknowledge his current behaviour as an episode – he is impossible to reason with at present. ANY advice will be welcome. We’re at our wit’s end.

  • Shelley says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. It sounds as though you took the words right out of my mouth. I continue to pray to God daily for strength, patience, and guidance to help my son though this illness. Thank you for being so inspiring.

  • Annie G says:

    Our Son was recently dismissed and won’t accept the diagnosis or take the medication . We live in Seattle Wa . Does anyone know of a good place for dual diagnosis besides Harborview medical center. I pray for all the families affected . Our lives has been turned inside out. Just trying to get as educated as possible . They are strong individuals and can live productive lives . We have just begun to fight . Great article . Thank you.

  • Annie G says:

    Correction. Our son was just recently diagnosed with bipolar affective diorder

  • Donna I says:

    Our son is freshman at a great university and we are experiencing exactly the same problems. The school is not helping to get him assessed and they would rather take disciplinary actions while his judgment is completely impaired and he is unable to do anything on his own. In a way we do not have access to medical professionals either because I cannot find one or because he cannot keep appointments. Also the assessment and diagnosing process is unclear. We don’t know what to do.

  • Sue R says:

    Advice for anybody with a child between 16-25 and showing signs of depression and anxiety. Please look for a early psychosis program in a city near you. In Pennsylvania there are two, Univ Of Pennsylvania and John Hopkins. Our son found help after he had his first and only psychotic episode, our program was free for first six months. These programs were funded by funds from Congress after Sandy Hook incident.

  • Irma says:

    Thank you all for for sharing your stories. My son is 26 and has recently diagnosed with bipolar and schizophrenia. Now I know why the ups and downs. The binge drinking his levels of alcohol were at 317 not once but regular. He has been to jail countless times for drugs and alcohol consumption. He has gone to jail for mtr many times. He has tried to commit suicide many times . As I’m writing this he is sitting in jail for failure to appear. He doesn’t keep appointments of any kind. In a months time he has been arrested 3x. He has been to rehab many times. Each day I pray to my lord for clarity. He attempted college for 5 semesters and each time he failed to attend classes and failed all together. The cost of college, rehab , attorneys, bail bonds, and hospitals has taken a toll on our lives. My husband and daughter refuse to see him they say they have nothing in common and that they have nothing to say. He doesn’t have children and I’m glad for that. He cannot hold a job . My story is very similar to the ones on this blog. My son is a very handsome man and I love him so much. I’m not giving up on him not today, not tomorrow and not as long as I’m living and breathing. I pray for HELP for my son.

  • Patricia R says:

    Wow this really really is an important story! Thank you so much. I was looking for stories like this for a long long time and your story is so much like so many people’s stories and that sad sad tragic thing is there really isn’t much understanding or treatment for Co-occuring disorders in our country.

    My son is very attractive and extremely intelligent and talented. It’s hard to comprehend how this these disorders can mangle his ability to use his God-given talents…it’s really hard for me to wrap my head around it. That’s why we need more research and programs that can help sooner rather than later because more damage is getting done with every episode and every binge
    People wonder why the mentally ill with bipolar schizo affective schizophrenia and addiction cycle in and out of jail. there’s no help for them. Our sons and daughters need to be diagnosed early on before more damage is done including Trumatic brain injury. I’m really wondering if my son has a chance anymore. I mean I know I can’t give up hope never but it’s just so painful. I live in Los Angeles and one of the ways I have been dealing with my emotional roller coaster in hell is to become an advocate like I’m sure so many of you are. Now with the new drug Medi-cal waiver there is an opportunity to try to get the mental health providers and the substance disorder providers trained and cross trained so that our love ones when they’re young can understand how much more complicated it is to have these co-occuring disorders and how much more damage they can do their lives if they don’t understand where it’s going to lead. I know there are angels that have been looking over my son because there’s no way that he would still be breathing having so many near death experience he’s had unless there are angels intervening to save his life. So thank you angels! I know also without Nami I would really be in deep deep trouble. I recommend Nami to everyone who is reading this post because being with people who understand is the best way to deal with the anguish we go through.

  • Yvonne F says:

    Thank you so much for this insightful article.

  • Yvonne F says:

    Thank you so much for this insightful article. Many families including myself will benefit. Everyone will need different treatments but the true etiology is finding the right diagnosis and treatment.

  • AB says:

    Great article! It’s a lonely experience to be mother of a child diagnosed with bipolar disorder… my son’s doctor said family support of someone living with this illness is the most important factor to recovery. When I am consumed with worry, it’s hard to take care of myself so I can be as supportive as possible. That’s my task right now.

  • Stephanie R says:

    My 17 year old son, who was just recently diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, was FIRST diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome. He began rapid eye blinking that morphed into repeated sniffing around the age of two. By the time he was entering the fifth grade, his tics had turned into LOUD and very distracting vocal tics and that year we pulled him out for home bound schooling. He got a Tourette’s Syndrome diagnosis from Arkansas Children’s Hospital during that time and was put on Guanfacine to quieten the tics. He went back to school and had a nice 6th, 7th and 8th grade year … but was slowly liking school less and less and slowly starting to withdraw more and more as well as become more and more angry. By the time E entered his 11th grade, he couldn’t take being in school anymore. He asked to finish by taking online classes and I allowed him to try this, but he couldn’t find the motivation to make much headway with it. He completed three class with my pushing and prodding and nagging and it was destroying our relationship. I finally suggested he just get his GED and call it good … and he did. He WAS able to manage that very quickly because he is very smart … though it was difficult to keep him going through the process since those who suffer from depression have a hard time staying motivated and a hard time focusing. –
    Over the past two years, he had experienced numerous depressive episodes that had made it impossible at times to even get out of bed. My beautiful, smart, curly-haired boy who had made all A’s, sang like an angel, played piano, guitar and violin … who was on the state Junior High Quiz Bowl Championship Team, member of Junior National Honor Society, was asked to be a mentor to new 7th graders coming into junior high, was an All-Region violinist with 10th grade school orchestra, popular, smiling, laughing, lots of friends, engaged in life … was slowly withdrawing from all of these things … one at a time. E began to threaten suicide in 2015 and did so at least a half a dozen times in my presence. Later that year I took him to his first psychiatrist who put him on Trileptal which is a mood stabilizer. The doc began treating E for depression and though E seemed a little better after starting the med, his condition eventually got worse and worse. Sadly, though I loved this doctor, his staff of women in the business office were complete hags and totally uncaring. What a place for people like that to work .. with the mentally ill and their struggling families! :/ Last fall (2016) E began drinking and smoking cigarettes and pot. I would have NEVER dreamed that he would do these things. In many ways, his is not even the same person that I knew the first 14 years of his life. I then moved E early this year to a new psychiatric facility. I suggested that he be put on an anti-depressant. When E’s condition did not improve, the Advanced Nurse Practioner increased the dosage and E then went into a full blown manic episode where he barely slept for a week. I now believe the Prozac triggered the manic episode and feel responsible for this since I was the one who suggested the anti-depressant in the first place. After Ethan’s second stay in a psychiatric hospital, he told me he had been researching his condition and believed he had Bipolar Disorder. I documented many of the things he said to me and when he had his next appointment, I told the ANP that E believed he had this condition. Based on his answers to a series of questions she asked him and based on the things he had said to me, she said he indeed suffered from Bipolar Disorder and finally we had, what I believe to be, a correct diagnosis. I write all this to write, we are in the trenches right now. I have no idea how bad this thing is going to get. I know that regulated sleep and nutrition and stress management and counseling and psych visits and strong family support are all extremely important. The problem is that you are dealing with someone who is mentally “unwell” and at times uncooperative. I feel for all of you on here. It is a very sad thing to have to watch an illness like this wreck the life of someone you cherish and adore. It’s like cancer of the mind … a monster that is trying to kill our beautiful children. I live, eat and breath this thing. It is scary. All of us on here are dealing with the day to day struggle of trying to do the right thing on behalf of our loved ones and sometimes we don’t know WHAT to do or where to turn. I wish you all the very best and hope we all find the right treatment plans that work for those we love. The one thing they have going for them though is US and our undying love and assistance. Without it, they will end up homeless, in jail or dead.

  • Donna J F says:

    My son is 30 years old. He is single and presently living at home with me. He recently was diagnosed and treated with meds for depression and bipolar disorder. He wants so badly to find answers, get proper and effective treatment, and be able to lead a peaceful and productive life. However, he feels his life is worthless, that things will never change for the better, and that his condition is not helped or taken very seriously by healthcare professionals. I am so afraid for him. I see the pain, the sadness, the lack of self-esteem, and dwindling hope of ever living the life that most people enjoy naturally. He is very intelligent and constantly searching for how to cope. It is sad also knowing there are so many of YOU struggling with it as parents. I pray for my son, for the proper help to come. …as I will keep you too in my prayers. God Bless you all.

  • Catherine says:

    Thank you, my son is 16 and had been suffering his entire live. I was the only one that could see it until now. He is in a IOP but he is resisting all treatment. We have been in the hospital 3 times. 2 our of 3 they think it’s me. I am so sad for him, he is very self distructful, it is painful to watch.

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