Navigating life with a teenager….who happens to have bipolar disorder

 

I found out recently that people in my life, both friends and family, feel that I am a bit of a know it all.  I could have been offended at this knowledge, but surprisingly, I wasn’t.   I personally don’t think anybody could be a true know it all, but I did think I knew a lot……….a lot about myself, my life, my kiddo’s life and our journey.  I knew these things because I had opened my mind and embraced my ability to learn.  This week I tested that ability and embarked on an adventure that would drive me to seek a deeper understanding of myself and my willingness to use that knowledge to help others.  Over the course of the week I learned more about things I thought I knew and I learned about things I didn’t realize that I didn’t know.  Most importantly, I learned about sharing my experiences in an effective way, instead of an intrusive ‘know it all’ way.

willing to learn

 

One of the beautiful aspects of the state of Georgia is that it’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities is one of the pioneering agencies in the field of mental health services…..specifically, in Peer Support Services.  For many years there have been adults working in the position of a Certified Peer Specialist in the fields of mental health and addiction recovery.  After years of advocacy for both families and youth, there are now emerging groups of Peer Specialists that are specifically centered around youth living with these challenges and parents of people living with these challenges.  This week I joined their ranks and completed my training to become a Certified Peer Specialist-Parent.

What is a Peer Specialist?  We are people who have ‘been there and done that’.  We are people who can use all of the knowledge we have gained, the experiences we’ve had and, most importantly, the emotions we have felt to provide support to others who are walking the same path.  We are the people who will ask “How are you?” ……and then listen to the answer without hesitation or judgement.

howWally

 

At the beginning of the week, I felt strong in the knowledge that I possessed all of the skills I needed to be the best Peer Support Parent possible.  What I learned, after lots of tears and self reflection, was that I don’t need to have all of the answers…… I don’t need to fix everyone around me…… I should simply be there when they need someone who understands.  I also learned that I have been drowning myself in service to others, always feeling that just because I have the ability to do something means I have to.  It was eye-opening for me to realize that I can take a breather from other’s lives to focus on myself and not feel guilty……..and that’s ok.   I didn’t learn this from the curriculum,  power points or exams…..I learned this by walking in the door every morning to 20 people who understood me before they even knew me.  I learned this by having virtual strangers sincerely asking me about my well-being every morning.   I learned this by having these strangers become caring friends by the end of the week.  In my daily life, I have a wonderful ‘mom’ friend who gets me, I have supportive friends at NAMI who get me, but having this large group of peers surround me and envelop me in kindness and understanding every day this week was a life changing experience.

As parents of special needs kiddos, we live our lives for our children and families first…….and then we love to educate others about what we know.  I have been doing this in an effort to make this world a better place for my child and others like him.  For a long time I felt that I was fighting this war alone.   I didn’t realize that by doing this to the extent I do, I am stretching myself thin.  I know I spout about self-care to others often, but I rarely follow my own advice.  I find it funny that it took me taking a class in an effort to help others to teach me to help myself.

Just goes to prove that this world is full of things that I don’t know. So I thank my teachers this week, all of my peers who taught me that’s it’s alright to care for myself and opened my eyes to the fact that I’m not in this alone.  I have warriors by my side.  Alone, I might be able to change the world, but I will burn out quickly.  As a group, we can give each other strength and a little bit of relief that we can take on the world together…….and go so much farther in our efforts.

keep-calm-and-ask-for-peer-support

cropped-Computer-repair-pc-repair-IT-Support

In our world, we tend to take the technology around us for granted until something bad happens. Imagine your computer screen started flashing uncontrollably……..  Imagine your new tablet refused to download your favorite apps. ……or even worse, imagine if your phone deleted all of your contacts and you couldn’t retrieve them. How would you feel?  Frustrated, Disconnected, not in control?  What would you do? You might try to fix the problem on your own, but if you can’t, it could result in the device being thrown against the wall in frustration, so you call support ……and then you use a working device to go on FB and tell all of your friends about every detail of your tech challenges.

Computer support companies are one of the fastest growing small businesses.  We now see IT support services on every street corner and in every shopping center.  It’s supply and demand.  We need support, they provide support, and then, of course, we tell all of our friends about our experience.

So, why is it that when it comes to our most complex, important computer, we are afraid to call support, we are afraid to identify the problem and we rarely tell our friends? Just like any piece of technology, our brains have the ability to malfunction, and just like any piece of technology, we need to service them.

Now, imagine you start having hallucinations……..imagine you have a hard time speaking or writing……even worse, imagine that your favorite memories have slipped from your mind.  How would you feel?  Frustrated, disconnected, not in control?

Mental illness happens when the brain is not functioning optimally.  Generally speaking, our brain has neurotransmitters and receptors. Just like any plug and outlet, if the neurotransmitter does not connect with the receptor in the right way, the flow of information is not going to get where it needs to go.  A treatment plan, therapy and medication can be a wonderful way to get your ‘system’ up and running again, but it is only one type of support.

In my opinion the most important supports to help you maintain treatment are the natural supports around you….your community.  Family, friends (both physical and virtual), support groups, church members, team members……any people who you are connected with on an emotional level.  When you are dealing with a mental health crisis, the people in your emotional world are the best to help hold you up.  When we don’t reach out to them is when we feel the most frustrated and disconnected.

So, call a psychiatrist or a therapist as your IT support……and then let your friends know that you need back up support.  The more people you reach out to, the more people who become educated…..and the more people who become educated, the less stigma there will be about mental health.  Maybe, just maybe, you will eventually find good therapists on every street corner and in every shopping center.

It’s supply and demand.  We need support, now go find the support and then tell all of your friends about your mental health challenges. Maybe, in the process, we all might stop taking our most valuable computer for granted……and maybe, just maybe, we will feel a little less frustrated, a little more connected and a lot more in control.

Read the rest of this entry »

When your child is screaming, crying, hitting or flailing about, what is your emotional reaction?  Can you tell the difference between a tantrum, meltdown or manic episode? I am going to let you in on a little trick that took me years to figure out…..and is still hard to follow through on.

First, let me help you decipher between the three…..but let me remind you, I am not a professional behavior specialist, just a parent who has lived and learned a lot over the past 16 years.  These descriptions are from my personal experience.

Veruca Salt

Tantrum – (Behavioral): This is a full on Veruca Salt type of situation.  A tantrum usually occurs when a child is attempting to gain control of a situation when they want or are in need of something.  This could be attention, a physical item (toy, treat), sleep, food…etc. Usually a tantrum is a child’s way of requesting something that we, as adults, can articulate for ourselves.  The truth is, their brain does not yet have the ability to reason or be rational.  From a young age they know that their parents will react when they cry and they learn to use that to their advantage.

Meltdown – (Neurological Disorder): This is when a child’s brain is overloaded, either with sensory information or emotion.  Meltdowns are highly common for children with Sensory Processing Disorder or are on the Autism Spectrum.  Neurologically, their brain simply does not process or filter information the way an average brain does.  During a meltdown, they are simply letting out all of the frustrations that have built up over a specified period of time.  More often than not, a meltdown will happen with a person they trust and will feel safe with.

Manic Episode – (Mental Health Disorder) : This an outburst, sometime verbal or violent, that accompanies a mental illness.  It usually surfaces as extremely high amounts of energy accompanied by a break from reality.  A manic episode can go along with one of my favorite sayings ‘Perceiving is Believing’. There is no challenging what they believe to be true during a manic episode.  In the midst of this type of episode, the child sometimes makes statements that don’t make sense, act impulsively or may be physically violent. A milder version of a manic episode will sometimes include hyper-focus on one topic, fast speech and movement(bouncing, rocking, pacing…etc) or an overwhelming need to hold your undivided attention.

Regardless of which type of episode your child is having, tantrum, meltdown or manic, there is one trick that I have found to help my emotions in the middle of it.

As a parent, our first reaction is usually to make our child stop any type of behavior we see as upsetting….either to the child, to other members of the family or to ourselves.  It causes us anxiety or frustration to see our child flopping on the floor, punching their pillow or screaming at us.  What I have learned is that a big part of how your child approaches these situations lies in how you react to them.

My trick?  It’s actually really simple…..ask yourself, am I looking at The What or The Why?????  Are you only looking at what your child is doing or trying to figure out why they are doing it?

Most of us look at The What.  How can you not?  Your child just had a meltdown and flung a book across the room, barely missing his sister.  The first thing we are inclined to do is say ‘We don’t throw books….apologize to your sister…..now go to your room until you’ve learned your lesson’.  Do you think they are learning anything??? Have you learned anything???

When we try to find out why your child threw the book you start learning what their triggers are and you can teach them coping skills on how to deal with those feelings when they come up.

I know, it sounds too easy to be true….but the truth is, it’s not easy at all.  It’s about reconditioning our brains in how we approach handling our children’s behavior and how we discipline them for that behavior.  I am in no way saying discipline is not important, your child still needs to understand there are consequences to their actions……..but in the middle of this behavior, when they are not being reasonable, is not the time to do it.  Wait for them to calm down, figure out the cause and then work on solutions to help them take responsibility.

Believe me, I still feel the urge to just scream the worst punishment I can think of at the top of my lungs when my son is behaving in a way I simply don’t understand.  The truth is I slip up quite a bit, but years ago, when I started approaching my child’s meltdowns and manic episodes by using this little trick and teaching him coping skills for his triggers, the episodes went from four or five times a week to once a month….and that was when he was 8 years old.  Now that he is 16, they are even fewer.  Using this approach for the past 8 years has helped him talk through his feelings and frustrations.  He has become great at articulating what is going on inside his head and has learned to be a wonderful advocate for himself.  Using this approach actually made our relationship even stronger and has also lead to a deep trust between us.

So I challenge you to try it…….Figure out The Why instead of just seeing The What.  It just may change your day-to-day.

Sticky frog

If you are reading this, thank you.  It means that my lack of writing over the past months has not lost you to me forever.  I know, I have been an irresponsible blogger.  Our household has been on a bit of a rollercoaster for the past 9 months or so.  Truthfully, the main reason I haven’t written very often is because I have been experiencing a bit of depression in that time.  This has made the challenge of raising a kiddo with a diagnosis that much more challenging, since we are kind of connected like ET and Elliott.  On top of that, I have had this over-whelming feeling that this blog has not been serving the purpose that I intended it for.   I have come to realize that, even if I only reach one person and make them feel a little less alone in this world of mental illness, then this blog is doing exactly what I want.  Thank you for your patience.  Hopefully, I will be writing much more.

If-we-neglect-taking-care-of-ourselves

“If you don’t tell me what’s wrong, I can’t help you find a solution.”…..I have found myself saying that to my son a lot in recent months. As parents of children with special needs, we tend to always be on the search for solutions to our kiddos challenges…..but how often do we search for solutions to our own challenges?

One of the things that has helped me in recent years was finding a caregiver’s support group.  I am going to be honest, in the beginning, I felt guilty.  Up until then, my ‘alone time’ was grocery shopping by myself……but that was still doing something for my family.  Once I started going to support group, I was taking a couple of hours a month to do something for myself.  After a while, though, I realized that I wasn’t just doing it for me, I was doing it for everyone in my family.  It helped me to express my feelings to other people who understood what my life was like.  It helped me to relate to my son better.  It helped me and my husband communicate better.

There are so many of us that don’t have a great personal support system.  When our child was diagnosed with a mental illness or neurological disorder, many of our family members or friends simply didn’t understand.  Our child’s school didn’t understand.  There were even medical professionals that didn’t understand.  Once you are sitting in a room with a group of people who have been in your shoes, it can be a life altering experience.

If you are in a situation where you do not have a support system around you, it is important to find the support you need using alternate avenues.  There are many ways to do that.  I am listing a few links that can help you find resources or support groups in your area.  Please take time for you, so you can take care of them.

National:

NAMI

Mental Health America

Center for Parent Information and Resources

Here in Georgia:

Georgia Parent Support Network

have the courage to ask

newtown

I remember, I was sitting on the sofa watching television in the small apartment we had rented 3 months earlier when we moved to Georgia.  It wasn’t home.  It wasn’t a place I felt safe.  It was just a roof over our heads while we tried to sell our NY house and find one here.  As I sat there in this unsettled place, a story came on the news that broke my heart. A shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  It was the first time one of the increasingly frequent acts of domestic terrorism stopped my world.

I know that for most people, 9/11 effected them in that way.  For me, September 11th was extremely surreal, like I was watching a horror movie on-screen.  The personal emotional effect didn’t hit me right away……but Sandy Hook…..well, Sandy Hook hit me hard and fast.  You see, I know Sandy Hook, I know Newtown.  It is a place ingrained in my blood….a place ingrained in my past.  It was the place my parents grew up, met and got married.  It was where my sister and I spent winter afternoons ice skating with my grandmother….and where I spent Saturday nights indulging in my love of the Muppets with my grandfather.  It was where I first held my breath underwater in the ‘deep hole’……..and where my cousins and I would have adventures in the woods.  It was where generations of my family were born…….and are now buried in Zoar cemetary.

There I was, sitting in this foreign place, hundreds of miles away and Sandy Hook came on the news.  For the first time, it wasn’t like a movie on a screen….it was a real place, real people, real terror.  It took me a while to truly grasp what had happened in that school when the news stories started putting out ‘diagnosis’ theories about the shooter.  My 12-year-old son had just been treated in a mental health facility 6 weeks earlier and diagnosed with bipolar disorder.  He had been exhibiting extreme aggression and anger, with me as his primary target.  So, this new development that the shooting wasn’t in an attempt to make a political statement or an act of retaliation….it was just a boy who clearly needed some type of treatment, that hurt my heart even more….if that could be possible.

When my son came home from school that day, he found me crying….still watching the news.  Once he figured out what was happening, he started asking a lot of questions.  I tried to answer them the best I could and then he asked about the numbers.  He kept hearing 26 killed at the school….but then the reporter would say 28 dead.  I explained that one was the shooter…..and one was his mom, because he shot her first before he left home.  My son looked at me, horrified, and hugged me….hard.  Under his breath he whispered “I promise I will never kill you, mama”.  Just a small sentence, but it was filled with compassion and an understanding of my fears that I am not sure he had before.  Just a small sentence that punctuated a day I will never forget.

*******

As I reflect on the happenings of that day 3 years ago, I can’t help to be reminded of an assignment many of us had in elementary school.  You know, the ‘Where were you when?’ assignment.  For those of us 80’s children, we were usually told to ask a family member one of two dates…..’Where were you when President Kennedy was shot?’ or ‘Where were you when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon?’.  It’s not that other things didn’t happen during our parent’s and grandparent’s lifetimes….but those were the two that ‘stopped’ most people in our country.

What would that assignment look like if it kids were to ask my generation that question?  I remember school stopping to watch the Challenger launch….and then explode.  I remember where I was when Desert Storm started ……the Oklahoma City Bombing…..Columbine……Binghamton Civic Association……9/11……Sandy Hook…….San Bernardino.   There are so many others to list….but these are the ‘few’ that I can tell you the place I was when it happened.  Can you imagine what this list might look like when our children are our age…..or our grandchildren?  Will they have a list at all or will it be so common place that they won’t even stop for a moment of compassion when tragedy happens?