With her daughter grown and stable, Lori* was hit with exhaustion, depression and a financial crisis leading to her own diagnosis at age 58.
Q. What made you think there might be something amiss with your daughter?
Looking back, my daughter came out of the womb as a difficult child. My first, and only child, she refused to enter the world until three weeks after her due date during an emergency C-section on Christmas. I tell her she was my gift that year! Through her early years, there were intermittent bursts of anger and, at first, I thought I needed to wrestle that anger by time-outs and taking toys away. But there was no containing it. So, I began to try and hug it out with her. That wasn’t easy because I had to reign in my own anger at her behavior. But I did that and it seemed to help. At age seven, after a lot of rages, I got her the professional help needed at the time. I still chalked her behavior up to the stress she was feeling because her father and I divorced that year.
Q. It took you a while to finally get the diagnosis though?
The middle school journey was especially difficult. In a new school, she struggled. She either made the honor roll or was failing. The guidance counselor told me she was eating too much sugar, but I knew that wasn’t true so that’s when our real journey began to figure out what was going on. I looked for a therapist that she clicked with, but without much luck. We lived in a rural area and the options were few. Finally, in 8th grade, I took her to a doctor specializing in ADD/ADHD and we found a therapist who was just right! She was diagnosed as ADD (no hyperactivity) and began meds. She was better focused in school although her rages continued.
Looking back, my daughter was very impulsive for material things and I complied as much as possible to avoid the angry outbursts. In high school came the onset of a major depression. She had lost a lot of weight and the school thought she had an eating disorder, but I knew she didn’t. After finally agreeing to see a psychiatrist at age 15, she got her diagnosis of bipolar II. Then came the meds merry-go-round.
Q. What would have made things easier for your daughter when she was younger?
Getting accommodations in the school district. I knew the law as I had worked as a trainer for parents of kids with disabilities for 14 years. I knew how to get what she needed in school and I got her a 504 determination. Yet when I met with her teachers, I sat there and cried (a word to parents: always take a friend with you because you get emotional when talking about your kid and miss a lot of the conversation.) They really didn’t understand what she and I had been through to get where we were and ultimately very little accommodations were actually made.
Q. How has living with bipolar with your daughter affected other family members?
Probably the most difficult issue I had with family is the constant sabotaging of my efforts. Her father kept telling her she didn’t need to take meds and that there was nothing wrong with her; that I was making all of this up, despite many doctor’s reports saying otherwise. This was a battle for years. My family didn’t really understand bipolar disorder. Most still don’t. It’s easier for them to see depression. But unless you’ve experienced a deep one, you can’t really understand. They support us as they can and I’m OK with that.
Q. Please describe what you personally went through during this journey.
Through this journey, I felt mostly exhausted and alone. Fortunately, I was also able to have sessions with my daughter’s therapist, which helped a lot. Once she had the diagnosis, I read every book ever published on bipolar. I wanted to understand it and how it impacted her.
I was exhausted from all the pushing and fighting for my daughter. Our family doc put me on an anti-depressant which would help for a short while but nothing seemed to help me long term. I just chalked it up to exhaustion. There were many days I felt I couldn’t take it anymore. But I didn’t have any other options. Friends tried to support me the best that they could, but there was (is) a stigma attached to mental illness. I shared with them that she had mood swings. The term bipolar was scary to people who only saw it on TV portrayed in the most negative ways possible.
Q. When your daughter was 25 and stable enough to hold a job and get her first apartment, that’s when things changed for you. Please explain.
That’s when my REAL exhaustion set in and for two years I struggled with a deep depression. It was so deep that I could barely serve my clients in my own business, resulting in a financial crisis. But I didn’t care much. Eighteen months into this depression, I lost my house to foreclosure. I was so numb, it didn’t really hit me. My sister swooped in and gave me one of her rental homes to live in but I had to move 3.5 hours away—away from my daughter and from my close circle of friends who had become family to my daughter and me. But that was my only option. I am lucky to have good friends to watch over my daughter.
Q. Then you received your own diagnosis of bipolar II…
Six months after moving and still in the throes of depression, a long-time friend encouraged me to see a psychiatrist. I received my diagnosis at age 58 – bipolar II. So now I’m on the med merry-go-round, which is very frustrating. I don’t think I’d have ever been diagnosed if I hadn’t gone through what I did with my daughter.
Q. Looking back at your own life, does it make sense now?
At that time with my daughter, I had little idea that I also had bipolar because I was so focused on my daughter’s needs; I didn’t see where I was. The constant exhaustion was a symptom of depression and I had hypomanic episodes when I felt I could take on the world, like starting my own business when things with my daughter were still not settled. This is the way I had always been. My first depression hit me in high school and I had a number of experiences since then with hypersexuality, hypomania and depression.
Q. What is your most valuable coping strategy?
My most valuable coping strategy is to get enough rest. I sleep to reenergize myself. I also have four dogs and have been involved with a nonprofit greyhound organization for 15 years. Your life cannot only be about your child’s illness.
Q. What about a message out to other parents of children/teens with bipolar disorder?
My advice to other parents is to never give up fighting for your child—at school, with your family doc, with your spouse. You know your child best. Learn about this illness. Read. Ask questions. At the same time, give yourself some grace. This is a long-term process with set-backs and successes. Do fun things with your child. Build positive memories. It can’t always be about bipolar. Find someone to lean on. You need the support. Take baths, long walks; make time for you. You’ll be healthier and happier. Your child is worth it!
Q. As a mother, where do you find inspiration?
My daughter is my inspiration. Watching her grow and bloom despite this illness makes me appreciative of how we have worked together, with the help of professionals, to get her balanced and living a successful life.
Q. How has this experience changed you as a person?
I think I’m more compassionate and approachable. I look to understand behavior instead of judging. I’ve learned to listen.
Q. What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned?
I’ve learned to trust my gut when it comes to understanding my child.
Q. How is your daughter doing today? Do you have specific hopes/dreams for her?
She has blossomed into a young woman who holds two jobs, takes online courses toward her Bachelor’s degree and is part of a statewide rural leadership program. She is balanced. Now at 28 is becoming an advocate! She’s joining a mental health awareness club at her university to design public campaigns about mental health in her local community. She is driven to get the message out!
My hope for her is that she finds the right and understanding man to settle down with. I want grandchildren!!
*Lori, not her real name, lives in a small house with four large dogs in northeastern United States. She has begun her own journey down the bipolar path and looks forward to the day when she is balanced. She encourages other parents to have love and compassion for the journey their child is on. And most of all, take care of yourself!
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