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

Archive for March, 2014

Wise Words of Albus Dumbledore

The Harry Potter series is a favorite in our house. Starting with The Goblet of fire, every time a movie came out my son and I had a date night.  We were very sad when the movies ended, but we have them all on disc and usually end up watching them whenever ABC Family has a Harry Potter weekend.

I always wondered if my son connected with the series because of the life altering aspect found in the first movie.  Harry found out that the very thing that made him different in the muggle world is normal in the wizarding world.  All of these strange things he could do didn’t mean there was something wrong with him.  I think my son found that fascinating. He is different and has never quite fit in, but maybe there is another time and place where he does and he just needs  Hagrid to come let him know.

This happened to be a Harry Potter weekend, so last night, as I lay in bed, I turned on the end of Deathly Hallows. There was a line after Voldemort’s horcrux was killed in Harry and he sees Dumbledore in a glowing white version of Kings Cross Station. Harry asks “Is this real or has it been happening inside my head?”, Dumbledore replies “Of course it’s happening inside in your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean it isn’t real?”

I think we, as parents, tend to forget how our kid’s brain works.  It can get exhausting and frustrating to live with a child with a mental illness or neurological disorder.  They have fears and anxiety that we may find silly. Because of this, they do or say things we don’t understand.  What we have to remember is that even though it’s in their head, it’s very real to them.

In my son’s case, if he perceives it he believes it, regardless of attempts to convince him otherwise.  If somebody speaks to him in a negative tone, in his mind that person hates him.  Not dislikes, not irritated by, not annoyed with, but HATES him. Yes, capitalization is required for the drama that comes along with the line ‘but Mama my teacher HATES me.’ (this applies to just about anyone, but I hear ‘teacher’ more often than the rest).

He also thinks that by keeping his room cluttered, it will protect him in case of a break-in.  You know, because if they get passed the locked doors and the alarm system, make their way upstairs without us hearing them and all the way to the very end of the hall where my son’s room is…..YuGiOh cards and BeyBlades on the floor will stop them.  Ridiculous, yes, all in his head, yes, but very real to him.

Here is our challenge.  As special as these kids are, and as wonderful as their own little wizarding worlds may be, they can’t go hide in a castle.  They will have to live and work among the muggles that don’t understand them.  How do we do that and still be sensitive about what is real to them?  This keeps me up at night.


Our Happy Life Agreement

In our house, we LOVE the Big Bang Theory.  For those of you that don’t watch it, it is hysterical……and sometimes very relatable to our lives. My son tends to connect with Sheldon on certain levels.  It was due to this love of the show that we came up with something that helped us define rules, behaviors and consequences in our house.

One day my son said that we should have a roommate agreement.  I wasn’t too keen on this title, as it put us as equals, and I didn’t want him to think he had as much say in the way our house is run as the adults.  I did like the idea of an agreement though.  I know, in the past, teachers have had him do something similar in their classes and it helped to keep him on track.

I decided to write our ‘Happy Life Agreement’. I listed general rules to live by in our house and it is always posted on the refrigerator. It may not always be followed, but we have tried a lot harder since putting it in place.  It also helps when I remind my son of a rule he forgot, when he tells me ‘you’ve never said that before’ I can show him the agreement and his signature next to the rule.  Written proof is always irrefutable.  I thought I would share our agreement with you.


Happy Life Agreement

General Rules for the Whole Family

1. Be Respectful – use kind words and manners

of yourself

of others

of property – this includes other people’s personal items and the house in general.

2. No Begging – If the words ‘no’ or ‘we’ll see’ are used, do not push or the answer will be a resounding ‘NO’ in the future.

3. No Verbal Abuse – Do not swear or use words of anger with each other and most definitely do not use the word Hate.

4. No locking yourself in or others out of a room, with the exception of the bathroom when in use.

5. All family members promise to knock on any closed door before entering.  If someone knocks, the person on the other side of the door must respond. If there is no response in a timely manner, the door will be opened in an effort to make sure the other family member is safe.

6. Always communicate, know that talking solves all problems. Never be too embarrassed about a subject, you will always be heard.

7. Do not play the victim or pity card – Know that life happens and sometimes it’s hard. We deal with the challenges we are given and learn how to live with the tough stuff, they make us stronger, give us character and because of those challenges, we are unique.

8. All personal items are your responsibility – If you have misplaced something, ask politely for help in finding it.  If other family members are not engaged in something, we will help you. If we cannot find the specific item, do not get verbally abusive of the person helping you.  If you do not wish to lose items, maintain your personal space, this will help you to know where things are.

9. Always Know That You Are Loved.

Kid Specific Rules


1. Wake up with an alarm for school and prepare to leave in a timely manner. To get to school on time you must be ready no later than 7:30 for the bus, 8am for Michael (step-dad) or 8:20 for mom.

2. Get homework done before bedtime without argument.  Never use the excuse of ‘I am stupid’, be aware that your IQ proves that you are far from stupid.

Outside Activities

1. Always ask before leaving the house without an adult.

2. Always stay at the location where you are going.

3. Always have a phone with  you and keep it near-by.

4. If that phone rings, answer it……..use proper phone etiquette and never hang up on the person calling.


1. Always ask before friends come over.

2. Always have friends enter through the front door, never the basement door…..the exception to this rule is if friends are already here and you are utilizing the backyard for play, you can then enter and exit through the basement.

3. If it is not a good day for friends to come over, accept that and we will try to make plans for an alternate day.


1. Meds will be taken in the a.m. and before bed without an argument or complaint.


1. If you are frustrated and having an overwhelming day, communicate that.

2. If you need to take a time out, do not yell and scream, let adults know and remove yourself from a situation until you are calm.  Once you have calmed down, you are expected to come back and discuss your frustrations reasonably.

3. No physical abuse – Hitting or swinging items at a person, animal or wall is not accepted……this rule applies to flowers or flowering bushes as well.

Travel Plans

1. All travel plans must be discussed with mom first, never make plans with out-of-town relatives on your own.

Items on this agreement will be changed by mom only as the need arises or as requirements change due to growing up. if any items on this agreement are violated, consequences may include any of the following, loss of times with friends, loss of all electronic equipment, shut down of Netflix and/or Hulu accounts, loss of Thursday skate night or loss of Saturday YuGiOh tournaments.  Punishment may be one item listed above or a combination of the items listed based on the severity of the violation.


My son’s counselor fell in love with our agreement and actually had me give him a printed copy .  He also suggested that we create a consequences addendum to go along with each broken rule. We did so, but it is very specific to my son and at the point where it needs to be updated, so I don’t think it would be helpful to post it here.  Each section was initialed and the entire document was signed by every member of the family.

I am not saying that this always works.  As many of you know, when you have bipolar disorder or any neurological or mental disorder present in your home, things can be very unpredictable.  It does, however, remind us all that we are a family. We found, by doing this together, it helped us define the type of home-life we wanted to have.   Even when we disagree, having a happy life is something we all agree on.

Non-Productive Rant due to Exhaustion

Did you ever have one of those days when absolute exhaustion makes you want to slap the first person that tells you to get some rest? …….or at least switch lives with them for a day so they can see why you are so tired to begin with.

That happened to me this morning. The worst part for me is that the person in question is someone who truly wants the best for me and probably wishes that I was able to actually get some rest.  She didn’t deserve my irritation towards her. Even though I didn’t verbalize it, I felt it, and that frustrated me. It’s times like this that I can imagine a little bit of what my son goes through every day. Lashing out for no other reason than the fact he is tired of being sad or upset or even over energized.

We have had an overwhelming week around here. We celebrated my son’s 14th birthday with a family dinner on Friday, followed by our weekly karaoke night with friends. Saturday we had planned a fun gathering that included a paint war. Five of my son’s friends were here and although there was a little teenage drama, we did pretty well by the end of the day. I always worry about my son in these situations, but he had been having a great few weeks, so I tried to relax a bit and spend some time with a friend of mine that came for the party.

Sunday everything imploded. My son had a horrible manic meltdown. By the time it was over, it was time for bed, but he refused to go.  I was able to get him to take his meds and lay down in his game room. He was still awake at midnight, when I was finally successful in getting him to go to his bedroom. Usually, once he takes his meds, he is out within an hour, the fact that he remained awake for almost 5 hours beyond that means that he was really wired.

The severity of the manic episode on Sunday meant he would not function in school on Monday. He stayed home and slept for most of the morning. I, unfortunately, had to work and was not able to sleep. He also fought going to school yesterday and curled himself up into a ball under his bed, refusing to come out.

The highlight was an attendance hearing that I had to go to yesterday. I was given a lovely contract stating that if my son misses more school, I could be fined or go to jail. The people I met with didn’t even know about my son’s diagnosis until I told them. They didn’t even bother to look at his file before meeting with me. I brought a note from his doctor, every email between me and his teachers attempting to gain work for the days he was out and information to educate them on bipolar disorder in adolescents. They took it all, shoved it in a file and proceeded to rush me out of the office before a fire drill. I wanted to scream.

I came home and was able to nap for about an hour. I think I really need to nap for a week……in a hammock……on a beach……on a deserted island. That would be nice.

Bipolar Breakfast Club

When you have a child with special needs you find that you categorize people in your life based on their level of understanding.  I have found that in my world, I have 5 such groups.

  1. The Clueless

The clueless are the people who are completely ignorant to everything you deal with on a daily basis.  This isn’t always their fault, sometimes people are put in this category because we choose not to open up our world to them.  The ones we do open up to, but still ignore our child’s challenges really frustrate me.  These are the people who tend to put road blocks and obstacles in our way to trip us up. There are so many people who fall into this category for me.  I have had family, friends, doctors and many teachers in this group. It would do our world a lot of good if this group could be eradicated by education.

  1. The Tolerant

I think we sometimes mistake the word tolerant as a positive word. It can be, to an extent, I guess, but if you really think about it, who in their life wants to simply be tolerated? How would you feel every day if you dealt with people who simply tolerated your existence? It’s not necessarily hurtful or harmful, but it’s not an enjoyable experience to be in the presence of ‘the tolerant’. To me the tolerant are the people who acknowledge my son’s illness, but disregard it or don’t make an attempt to understand it. A large number of people in this group for us have been teachers.  Yes, it is helpful that some of them will read his IEP and follow the guidelines set, but if they don’t take the time to learn about my child’s diagnosis and how it affects his learning, they won’t be able to teach him.

  1. The Accepting

Acceptance is another one of those words that can sound good, but doesn’t make the impression on me that it used to. There are many people in this world that are accepting of mental illness. They are aware that there is a problem in the way it is viewed. There are even people out there that are fighting to change the stigma that is placed on people with any adversity. As great as that may be, and as helpful as that will be for us in the future, I feel that a lot of people simply consider us a cause to participate in.  Don’t get me wrong, being accepting isn’t a bad thing. If I didn’t have a child living with bipolar, I would probably be in this group. It is wonderful to be passionate and fight for human rights, whatever they may be, but those who don’t live it, will never see it the way we do.

  1. The Understanding

The people in my life that fall into the understanding category, have been my cheerleaders.  These are the people who have taken this journey with me and my son. These are the friends who have listened to me cry and were there to let me lean on them.  These are the family members who took the extra step to learn my son’s needs so they could spend one on one time with him to give me some respite. These are the few doctors who spent extra time with us in an effort to find out what was wrong and how it could be treated.  These are the people who, when I was at my wit’s end, would encourage me and tell me that I was doing a great job, even if I didn’t feel it. These are the people who help me find my strength.

  1. They ‘Get It’

The people who ‘Get It’ are in a very special group for me. In them, I have found kindred spirits. The people in this category are other parents and caregivers of kids with special needs. I have discovered them in the parents of my son’s friends and people in the N.A.M.I support group that my husband and I attend.  I went for years thinking ‘Why doesn’t anyone get it?’.  It made for a very lonely life. About a year ago we met another family who changed that and through them we met other families.  It has altered our world. Yes, when you have a child with special needs it can place certain restrictions on your activities, but once you meet other families that ‘Get It’, you will find it is much easier to be social.  In turn, that can help guide your child in social activities that they may find overwhelming. The fact that this category of people now exist in our lives has set me free.


I try not to pigeon-hole people the way my son has been over the years. Many of us fit into all of these categories, depending on the subject matter. However, on the topic of mental illness,  I hope and pray that I can help people move up the ladder from Clueless to Understanding, simply because I think it would make the world a better place in general.  Although it is nice to find people who are already in the ‘Get It’ category, I never pray for them to end up there.  I wouldn’t wish the heartache and pain my son feels on any child or their parents.

For those parents who don’t have anyone that gets it, if you need to speak, there are many of us out here to listen.  Whether it be online or in a support group, you can find others that know what you are living through. I know that we all create a type of safe zone for ourselves, but I found that if you take the time to step outside of it….just a little, you might find a whole different world for you and your child.


*** N.A.M.I is the National Alliance for Mental Illness.  To locate a support group in your area, go to




Don’t Take it Personally

I have been told by many doctors and psychologists not to take things my son says or does personally.  This can be nearly impossible to do at times.  It’s especially hard when he says cruel and hurtful things to try to get me to lose my calm. In the middle of major meltdowns or manic episodes, I am usually able to keep my cool and help guide him to a better place.  The times I have challenges in this aspect is when his actions affect others.  Like when I know he is going to make us late for an appointment, or to school, which will then delay his doctors or bother school friends that get upset if he is not in class.  I also tend to get more upset if I know that he has damaged property or hurt feelings.  These are the things I don’t process easily.

Master of Manipulation

My son knows how to push my buttons, he knows when I am at my breaking point and will use it to inch me over the edge.  I am well aware that this is not a bipolar thing…..this is a 13-year-old thing.  I joke all the time that I am the president of the ‘I Hate 13’ club.  I am pretty sure I hated 13 when I was 13. The problem in our life is that a normal teenage action can turn into something more.  There are days when something as simple as waking him up in the morning can become an epic battle.

My son is aware that I tend to be a bit frazzled in the mornings.  He knows that I stress about getting him out the door and he will use that to get me frustrated. Like a lot of teenage boys, there are mornings when my son will simply refuse to get out of bed.  How do you challenge that? He is not a little kid any more.  I can’t pick him up, get him dressed and put him in the car.  He is taller than I am and I can’t quite figure out a way to handle this type of situation….yet. We have attempted both reward and consequences.  In that time and moment, he simply doesn’t care what he might lose or gain. It’s also in those moments that he knows that I am at a loss. I am still trying to teach myself ways to stay relaxed in these situations. Until I figure that out, he knows he can use this to try to control my feelings……but I am not supposed to take it personally.

No Place Like Home

Ever since he was little, if my son is in the midst of a meltdown, he gets destructive.  It started with physical violence towards me.  Usually kicking and scratching until I bled. As he got older, he would punch walls or throw things. When I remarried, we moved into my husband’s house which was surrounded by many flowers.  If my son was in a fit of rage, he would go outside and behead the flowers, simply because he knew we enjoyed them……but we were not supposed to take it personally.

Growing up, my son would always tell me that all he wanted was a normal life in a normal house with two parents.  When we purchased our new home in GA, my husband and I were so excited to have this beautiful house that we could create that type of life in.  The day we moved in, we set up a game room in the basement for my son.  It didn’t take long for him to start taking out his anger on the walls. Within six months of living here, I had to spackle and repaint the walls in the basement and in his bedroom.  I have watched him when he takes a stick or golf club to the walls.  He gets this look on his face that challenges me to stop him.  He knows it will upset us to damage this home that we have worked so hard to have…….but we’re not supposed to take it personally.

Making it Personal

In an answer to our holey wall problem, I have taught my son how to spackle.  I also got him involved in a painting project in the basement.  We created life-size silhouettes of him and his best-friend all over the walls (pictured above).  My hope when doing this was that he would take personal pride in the space and will be less likely to damage it.  Since we have done this last November, he has only put one hole in the basement wall, so it seems to be working.

I know that I have been told time and time again not to take things personally, but sometimes I think it is important for things to be personal. My son needs to understand how his actions make other people feel.  He needs to know the hurt and pain he can cause to the people who love him.  Walls can be spackled and painted, but it’s not so easy to repair a damaged heart.

Music, Laughter, Furry Friends and Ellen DeGeneres

When you have a child with bipolar disorder, or any neurological disorder, it is important to know what their triggers are.  It is also very important to find regulation tools. A regulation tool is a means to allow them to reorganize their brain in an effort to calm down.  If you find effective ways to do this they, in turn, will start learning how to self-regulate.


One of my son’s favorite ways to get ‘out of his head’, as we put it, is to lose himself in song. He loves to sing, dance and simply listen to music. I know this is common of most teenagers, but for him, it is a way to shut off all of the excess, anxiety-riden thoughts in his brain and relax.

In recent months, his anxiety attacks have been getting worse during the school day.  He is a regular in the nurse’s office and I get a call to pick him up at least once a week, if not more.  I have taken to turning up the radio in my car as I pull up to the school.  This way, as soon as he gets in, the first thing he hears is a song. It will relax him and actually be a tool to start a conversation in an effort to divert his brain from the stressors that caused his anxiety attack at school. He will ask “What do you think the person was thinking about when they wrote this?”.  That will give me a chance to dissect the lyrics with him and talk about love, relationships and friendships as seen through the eyes of the song writer.  I will then apply it to his life and sometimes it will help me get to the heart of his challenge that day.


It is true what they say, laughter really is the best medicine.  We have come to find that, even on the worst of days, if my son can find a way to laugh during a manic episode, it will immediately stop his actions.  There is a trick to this, I have found.  I can’t be the one to try to make him laugh.  If I attempt to be humorous while he is in a rage, it will agitate him even more.  He feels as though I am making fun of him, and that goes over like a lead balloon.

We have realized that funny or stupid videos are the key.  Once I learned that episodes of America’s Funniest Home Videos were on Netflix, life got a little bit easier.  If I look him in the face and tell him that he needs to go downstairs and watch AFV, he knows that I feel he is on the verge of losing control. Sometimes, I don’t have to tell him.  There are times when he will say “I can’t talk to you” and go down to his game room in the basement.  Shortly after, I will hear gales of laughter coming up the stairs and I know that the direction of our day has changed for the better.

Furry Friends

Animals are another outlet for my son.  Although he is very articulate and can communicate extremely well, he much rather talk to the animals.  When he was younger, my mom used to take him to a local farm.  He could sit for hours and converse with the goats.  He recently had some equine therapy sessions and even though he loves horses, he rather sit in the goat pen playing with the babies.  It has taken some convincing that we can’t have a goat at home.

One of the options we have been considering, that was recently suggested by his psychiatrist, is a therapy dog.  There are some programs that provide service dogs trained specifically for bipolar patients.  The dogs can wake them up in the morning, remind them to take their medication and help calm them during an anxiety attack or manic episode. We have weighed the option of simply adopting a dog to keep him company against going through the process of applying for a service dog. This morning my son told me that he would prefer a service dog because it will be trained to stay calm if he is melting down.  He is concerned that an average dog would get scared and bite him if he is out of control.  We are still discussing this since, even though we know it will be good for him, it is still a big responsibility to bring a dog into the home……especially when we deal with more than the average family on a daily basis, both emotionally and financially.

Ellen DeGeneres

Where is a place where you can find everything I mentioned above? That’s right, on Ellen.  She always has great music and funny videos…..especially funny animal videos. My son and I have always enjoyed watching Ellen together, but I didn’t realize how much her show helped him until last year.

After a meltdown that culminated in a suicide threat, my son had been taken to the hospital by the officer on duty at his school.  They wanted to evaluate him before sending him on to a mental health facility. The work up included bloodwork.  As I have said in a previous post, my son has an immense fear of needles. When he realized that they were going to take blood, he started to panic.  I asked him if it would help if I turned the TV on.

It just so happened that Ellen was on and doing one of her pranks with Dennis Quaid, which my son loves.  He kept his eyes glued to the screen.  The nurse came in and he barely flinched when she took his blood. As the nurse was heading out, she said “You should get some rest, do you want me to turn the TV off?”. My son got a worried look on his face and in a desperate voice said “No, I NEED to watch Ellen today.”.

In the year and a half since, I have used Ellen as an ally in my daily battles.  Her show airs at 4 pm here. I make sure it is on when my son walks in the door after school at 4:30. I know how his day has been by how he shuts the front door.  If it is a loud slam, I tell him to come to the living room and sit for a minute.  I don’t talk or ask him how his day went.  I just turn up the TV a bit. As he catches a glimpse of it he will visually relax into the sofa and start smiling.  That is when I will ask him about his day.  Since he is now calm, he can relay his frustrations of the day to me without getting overly worked up.  We will sit and watch the end of the show together and then move on with our evening.  I have found that our days end a lot smoother when I do this. So thank you, Ellen.

Trial and Error

Although my son has many other interests and hobbies, they don’t all help him refocus his negative or manic energy.  It has taken us a long time to find the tools that work.  Most of the time you will know immediately if something is helpful or hurtful.  My suggestion is to take the time to simply watch your child in their daily activities.  Look at their face……really look at it.  You know your child.  You will know when they are truly happy or content.  Pay attention to what they were doing when they had that look.  You may find regulation tools that you weren’t even aware of, if you are trying to seek them out.


The Dreaded ‘S’ Word

No, that’s not a typo.  It is ‘S’ word, not ‘F’ word.  In our lives there are a lot of ‘S’ words that I hate. Stupid, Stereotype and Stubborn are on the list, but the most dreaded ‘S’ word for me is Stigma.

Stigma:  A set of negative and often unfair beliefs that society or group of people have about something.

I have had doctors tell me that giving my son a diagnosis of bipolar disorder made them nervous.  They didn’t want him to have the stigma of living with it.  This frustrated me to no end.  Stigma is society’s problem. Regardless of what society thinks, if my son needs the correct diagnosis in order to be treated, then it is a doctor’s responsibility to do so. I wanted to scream “Let me worry, let me deal with public view. Doctors, do your job and help my kid!”.

The problem is: there are too many parents that are afraid of this word.  They fear that the diagnosis will define the child and what everybody thinks of them, and their family.  We know our kids better than anyone. We know that this illness does not define them.  There is so much more to them than this diagnosis. If we don’t start talking, how are other people supposed to know that? And how are other parents going to feel safe enough to get their children the help they need?

Ask. Tell.

After an intense conversation on the phone the other day regarding this topic, my son asked me why stigma was such a big deal.  The only way I could explain it, that seemed to make sense to him, was by explaining the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy that plagued our country for almost 20 years. It was essentially telling military personal that you are protected as long as you don’t reveal yourself.  I feel like when there is mental illness in a family, people tend to enforce their own ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy. In my opinion, by doing that, it teaches our children to be ashamed of something that is beyond their control. If we don’t open up about the challenges we face on a daily basis, how do we expect to gain understanding from the world around us.

Start with the community around you: friends, family and teachers. Talk about the struggles you deal with day in and day out, but also talk about the wins. I talk about our bad days a lot, but I also make sure to let people know about our good days and especially our great days.  I am not saying that it always works, some people don’t want to let go of the image they have of mental illness.  That’s when I start using facts and statistics.

Educating Educators

At a recent IEP meeting, we were discussing my son’s increasing number of absences. I was getting a little frustrated.  A lot of people don’t understand the symptoms that come along with bipolar or anxiety disorders.  My son tends to have a lot of stomach issues.  I get called on regular basis from the nurse’s office because he has been vomiting.  He tends to  miss more of his afternoon classes than morning classes.  I brought up the fact that, if my child had been diagnosed with cancer, leniency would be given in this matter.  Because it is a mental illness and not something as visually debilitating, they assume that he is going to function like any healthy kid.

My argument: in 2012, childhood cancer (which they state is the leading cause of death in children) took approximately 1400 lives. That same year, suicide took over 4000 kids under the age of 19. How many of those kids do you think suffered from depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or another mental illness that had not been diagnosed? I have read other statistics that stated approximately 25% of children with early onset bipolar disorder will commit suicide. Those numbers are simply too high for me to sit back and watch the world shame these kids for having an illness.  What is most frustrating to me is that with other illnesses such as cancer or diabetes, they are still doing research every day to try to find a cure.  That research has decreased the number of deaths significantly.  With mental illness, however, we know there is no cure, but we have it in our ability to prevent these deaths by making sure patients get treatment.

Parents, doctors and teachers simply need to throw of all of those dreaded ‘S’ words out the window and help these kids get the help they need.  Education goes a long way to start erasing the stigma that society holds.  Yes, there will always be people who judge, that is human nature. If we let other people’s judgment dictate our lives, we will always be in a bubble.  I used to think “Please let us just survive today”, but who just wants to survive? I want to live a full life, I want my son to live a full life.  If it takes me screaming at the top of my lungs, I will use my voice to break down these walls that are surrounding this illness.