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  • The Bipolar Parenting Challenge

    I should have seen it coming.

    I should have seen her face change when we mentioned the twins’ birthday. I should have seen the black cloud that parked over her head.

    After dinner, I should have tried another approach when helping her with homework. A few minutes after that, I should have taken the time, counted to 10, and not been so quick to respond in a firm voice that — under so-called “normal” circumstances — any parent would use.

    I should have, but I didn’t.

    And everyone paid for it — most of all Katharine.

    Having a bipolar child with a triple A membership (anxiety, ADHD, and adolescence) is one of the most difficult challenges I face as a parent. Day to day, hour to hour, sometimes minute to minute, we never know which person will show up.

    Is it the sweet, vulnerable child overwhelmed by the faulty wiring in her brain? The ditzy, funny, engaging 12-year-old girl who can’t stop talking? The child who watches the clock almost obsessively to ensure that you get her to school on time, yet can’t tell you what day it is?

    Is it the little girl who can’t stand to see an animal stuck outside in the rain, or the enraged, angry, out-of-control person who locks herself in the bathroom, curls up in a ball, and screams at the top of her lungs for 30 minutes? Or is it, not so simply, all of the above?

    The last question is the best answer I have.


    The above paragraphs were written about 2:30 a.m. yesterday, several hours after Kate’s most recent outburst.  Sadly, this has taken on a familiar pattern — struggle, mania, struggle, confrontation, emotional spark (or acetylene torch, depending on your point of view), outburst, regret, sadness, and finally, fitful sleep.

    The collateral damage from these incidents forces everyone to reflect on what has just happened. Could anything have been done to stop it? Or were we just delaying the inevitable?

    Afterward, I never can sleep. I have to process what just happened and my role in it. And if I’m being honest, truly honest, I don’t always come out looking so great.

    As much as I care about and love my children, I’m far from perfect at parenting. Sometimes, especially in the heat of the moment, I have difficulty in separating the child and the illness, which we have dubbed “It.”

    Think about it this way: If parenting a child is difficult, then parenting a mental illness is impossible. Add them together and see the result.

    Over the past 13 years, I have written about Kate more than any of my children; for more essays on this, go here and here. In part it’s because raising a bipolar child is such rich material, filled with opportunities to try to explain the complexities to those who want the debate distilled in more than simplistic overtones. For a journalist, it's a great story.

    But it’s also a way to process and sift through the conflicting emotions I feel as the parent of a child who, at times, is quite literally “out of control.” Writing about Kate and our family’s internal struggles in confronting “It” has been a great source of comfort over time. Writing and reflection also help me process feelings that, left suppressed, likely would damage our long-term ability to have a relationship.

    It’s definitely your traditional father-daughter dynamic, albeit one on anabolic steroids. Often it feels like I’m standing on quicksand with her. I can only imagine how she feels.

    We are blessed, however, by the fact that Kate is so open about her feelings, her fears, and her anger. We also are blessed that she has numerous gifts and talents. And we are blessed by the fact that she truly wants to help, that she doesn’t mind if we share our struggles with this with the world.

    Amid the joys, ironies, and hardships that we and others face in this holiday season of uncertainty, those are blessings I’m glad I can count on.