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  • Raising a Bipolar Child

    Note about this entry: This essay was printed in the May/June 2009 issue of Exceptional Parent, a national publication for families dealing with children and disabilities. 

    As I write this, my daughter is sitting at the turn of the stairs between the main level and second floor of our home. Feral sounds are coming from deep in her troubled soul. 



    The fact that I’m writing this now should tell you something. Sobs and screams are nothing new, but rather part of an ongoing bipolar cycle. 

It's a cycle that storms from “I can do anything!” to “I can’t do anything and no one understands me!” — from inviting the neighborhood to an impromptu basement sleepover to “Everybody hates me!” 


    I witness, and often participate in, this mental ping-pong match, with a field-level position for the square off between the opposite extremes of my daughter’s personality. But when the spillover begins, when anger and confusion turn to this horrible, morale-crushing sadness, I’m usually not welcome. 


    “MOMMY! MOMMMM-EE-EEE!”

    I go to check on her, but she curls tighter in her fetal ball. She looks up and says, “Leave … me … alone” in an almost guttural voice, then screams for her mother again. It’s pointless to argue, so here I sit, living a version of the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan.

    I’ve written about my daughter for her entire life. It’s how I explain to myself and others what it’s like to be her parent, one of the two people most responsible for her well-being. The right words elude me more often than not.

    My wife — bone weary from the day, the week, the responsibility that work and raising three children bring — tries to soothe our firstborn. Heroically, she helps our daughter navigate the tangled world of activities, adolescence, friendships, siblings, and sixth grade. 


    More often than not, I feel helpless.

    At times, my daughter talks in a rat-a-tat-tat cadence, tapping from topic to topic with little rhyme and less reason. So much information is being processed that she can’t get the words out fast enough. 

In quiet moments, when she is acutely self-aware, she says her brain is constantly pounding because she has so many thoughts to sort through. She calls it "eating steak through a straw." 


    Then at times like tonight, you pray that she will just come back from the deep dark hole, that soon she’ll be standing in front of you, yearning for love and approval, knowing that what happened just wasn’t “right.”

    Since I started writing, this part of the cycle has begun. She has calmed down, come in for a hug, said she was sorry, and quibbled briefly with her mother over getting something else to eat. It’s 9:30 p.m., and she is asking, with dark circles under her eyes, for something sweet. 
Mom knows better than to relent. (Remember this formula: Late Night Sugar + ADHD + Bipolar = False Energy with a HUGE Downside.)

    Fortunately, for all concerned, there is no further argument. This is not always the case.
This also is not your typical adolescence. It’s not how any of us imagined it; no parent or child would.

    It’s almost unfathomable to think we are the lucky ones in terms of the bipolar spectrum. 

But, from what we see and read, we are. She’s doing well in school, relatively speaking, although holes in her learning are becoming more exposed as she gets older. She’s gifted in many ways, none in the traditional, linear sense. And she holds it together outside the home, which serves as both her cage and her sanctuary.

    Amazingly, she has maintained a sense of wonder that remains childlike even as she approaches the teen years. She’s extremely artistic and creative, never more than while manic. But even in non-manic modes, she loves—needs, desperately so—to be doing something. 

Down time is for sissies.

    She is drawn innocently to similarly wounded souls, fawning over animals and friends until something (who knows what?) draws her attention away for good. She’s not being spiteful; truly she is not. It’s just impossible to focus on anything for too long, so we follow behind and inevitably pick up the pieces. 



    Blessed with a dancer’s lithe body, she moves across the floor with a grace and beauty that will make your jaw drop. When her jaw juts to the side, you should worry. 

That’s when you can see “it”—that place behind her eyes. 

“It” courses through her movements, gestures, actions, the tics that may or may not be medicine related.

    All are hints that something isn’t right; more often than not, “it” is quite wrong. 


    A few minutes ago, I checked on her. She is finally, fitfully asleep. In eight to nine hours, the starter pistol will fire again, beginning another cycle full of promise, dread, and the question, “Who knows what the day will bring?” 


    Who knows, indeed? 

Friends who don’t know ask if nights like this leave me numb. That’s not the right word, but I struggle to explain my daughter to myself, let alone to her siblings or to others who aren’t in this position. 

You can’t allow yourself to be numb; parental diligence demands that you not. Mostly, I manage to separate the two — the child and “it” — understanding that we’re not alone. Other parents and families deal with much worse.

    
All I can say is damn “it.” 

I will never say damn her.

  • The Oldests

    We should have known then that something was different about Kate. And I think, deep down, that we did.

    She walked at nine months, graduating to running two months later. She was talking in full sentences at a year. Her tantrums had a ferocity to them — “This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System!”

    And she never slept. To this day, I don’t think she ever rests.

    Kate, our oldest daughter, is ADHD/bipolar. She also is very bright, yet she wrestles with paranormal forces that lurk inside her brain. At times, she is a hard child to embrace, as if the disorder creates a force field that prevents you from warming up to her, even though that’s what she wants and needs more than anyone.

    ••••••

    He wants nothing more than to be on stage — it’s his calling, he says. And he has to sit on the sidelines while his younger brother moves (seamlessly it seems) from show to show, graduating from recitals to the Washington, D.C., stage to New York in a remarkably short period of time.

    Nicholas also is a child of divorce, the oldest child in our family. Geography requires him to travel at least 250 miles one way to see us.

    He’s split between two families with five half siblings, all with different interests, strengths, and challenges. He’s divided between parents who genuinely don’t like each other. He is so ready to get on with life after high school, but deep down I think he’s nervous about his future and what it holds for him.

    He looks just like my ex; in many ways he acts just like me.

    ••••••

    Nicholas and Kate are my oldest children.

    On the surface, they’re like many above-average, middle/upper middle class kids you see today, navigating that all-too-difficult phase from 12 to 18 that captures, enraptures, exhilarates and frustrates them and us. They will be the first to tell you that their families love them. They will be the first to say that life is fun, but not easy.

    Welcome to the club, you think. You'll learn.

    At times, you want to shout how much worse they could have it. (Remember the speech your mom and dad gave you when you wouldn't finish your food?)

    And while all of that is true, this is their reality.

    It’s our job to show them how to navigate it. A daunting task, indeed…

  • "Fragile"

    The other night, as I left the grocery store in the all-too-familiar rush to get somewhere, I heard Sting's song "Fragile" pour through the speakers.

    “On and on and on and on. How fragile we are. How fragile we are…”

    Hearing the song — when did I last hear a Sting song, I wondered, especially from his solo career? — made me pause as I watched my daughter walk quickly toward the car.

    How fragile we are — indeed.

    Jill and I have come to dread this time of year, when the days get shorter, the gap seems impossibly wide between fall and spring sports, and the mundane, day-to-day nature of the school year moves into a high-pitch duet of sharps, flats, and off-key moments in time.

    Our oldest daughter, who turns 16 next month, is ADHD/bipolar. For the past two years, the period from November to March has been an unsettled, contentious time in our household, tension always simmering under the surface.

    Tension that, like a pot of boiling water, sometimes overflows.

    ••••••

    Writing is my form of therapy. And over the past three years, I’ve written about Kate and the trials she and we have faced many times — in this space and in other places. If anything, this blog is as much about raising her as it is about raising a family of performers.

    I haven’t written recently, even though my Facebook friends will attest that I haven’t lacked for things to say. I’ve even started using Twitter, if for no other reason than I can’t seem to focus for more than 140 characters at a time.

    I’m definitely the ADD part of Kate – the “H,” if I had it, was squeezed out years ago by parenting and my profession. My gene pool also contributed to her stubborn, dig in your heels, and win-at-all-costs nature of rhetorical discourse, even if that discourse is simply yelling at the top of her lungs. Our arguments feel like they come from some bad sitcom featuring ethnic stereotypes, or a reality show on TLC.

    In the end, however, it’s “our reality show,” and fortunately for us, the cameras are not on when these things happen.

    ••••••

    Five random thoughts about parenting:

    • Nothing exposes your flaws like being a parent. It’s the single hardest job anyone has.

    • Don’t get me wrong, I love my kids – all four of them. And I  can’t believe how quickly time seems to be flying by, especially since they’ve become teenagers. I realize that, in many cases, we’re coming quickly to the end of the adolescent marathon.

    • Parenting has taught me about life in a time-suck continuum. Blink and your toddler is a teenager. Blink twice and they’re off to college. (A three-time blink is not recommended, however, because that means your now-grown child will be living on your couch.)

    • There are days when I would rather take shelter in a Home Depot than face another parenting problem, and I can’t stand Home Depot.

    • I don’t see how President Obama does it. Being the parent to two adolescent girls is enough to turn anyone gray.

    ••••••

    This is the time of year, however, when my flaws are more exposed than ever. The usual stress that the holidays bring, along with the addition of four teens’ birthdays in a single month (December no less), is enough to put anyone on edge. And then there is “It.”

    “It” is our name for the illness, which always lingers but tends to take a long-term sublet in our daughter as soon as the sun starts setting before 6 p.m. I’ve always said that Kate’s implied motto is, “If at first you don’t succeed, try something else…” The always-restless nature of the ADHD child exacerbates that, and puberty has been no help.

    “It” is interested in stirring things up, in keeping the family’s mood on a flying trapeze. When her body runs out of energy, or when faced with something too difficult to deal with emotionally, “It” shuts down and takes a brief nap in the middle of a conversation.

    “It” is what happens when the days become shorter and less structured, and she starts to run out of options. “It” tells her to stay home from school, to raid the fridge for comfort foods and sugar, to be combative when confronted.

    “It” is all about feeding “It.”

    ••••••

    Early on, Jill and I made the conscious decision to be open about parenting and this illness. This summer, representing the American School Counselor Association (where she works), Jill spoke to a group of dance teachers from around the state and country about the dealing with teens with mental health issues. It was a huge success; everyone in the audience appreciated her advocacy and sincerity.

    Being open pays other dividends. Over the past couple of years, Kate’s siblings and relatives have become much more sympathetic and understanding as their knowledge has deepened. And we have had conversations with other parents who, like us, find themselves in a quandary about what to do and how to help their child navigate the social and emotional landmines.

    We don’t know any more than anyone else, but we can listen and share.

    And that’s important, because the day-to-day intensity and lack of stability that this illness nurtures is tough for us as parents. Navigating the teenage years along with the frustrations that build among others and us in dealing with “It” is never easy. How I respond to those frustrations and confrontations is imperfect, even on the best days.

    Nowhere am I more flawed or vulnerable than in my role as Kate’s father. But the same can be said for my dealings with Ben, Emma, and Nicholas as well.

    How fragile we are. Indeed.