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

2009/2010 was an eventful year for me and my son.  After years of intermittent bad dates and short-term relationships with men that simply couldn’t understand or accept the challenges we lived with, I met a guy who truly cared to take the time to get to know us, all the good and the bad.  Christmas day, he proposed to me, and that meant major changes to come for all of us.

Getting married meant moving 3 hours away, to where my fiancé lived with his 2 boys.  This excited my son.  He had asked me for years for a step-dad and siblings.  The day we got engaged, my son was ready to move in, but we had some additional planning to do before we could pack up our apartment and move across the state.   We decided to move over the course of February break.

Initially, the move went pretty well.  Like our first move 5 years earlier, my son adapted easily.  Our biggest challenge came when he started his new school.  It was a small school, with kids that had been together for years.  Although my son had a best friend in his previous school, they had met in kindergarten and his friend accepted all the idiosyncrasies that came along with the friendship.  My son didn’t blend well with these new kids.  He would come home on a daily basis upset, telling me that he just wanted to be normal. He didn’t like being different.  He didn’t like having to be pulled out of class for counseling or to take his tests, as stated in his IEP.  He told me that he had this image in his head that by having 2 parents at home and living a regular life like other kids that he would start to be ‘normal’, but now he realized that wasn’t going to happen.  This revelation broke my heart.

My son had always had anxiety; he worried more than the average kid should. Over the course of the next year, the bullying increased. As the bullying increased, his anxiety got worse. He would have panic attacks in the morning before school. These panic attacks would create pain in his chest that would bring him to his knees.  His meltdowns increased again to multiple times a week. They started becoming incredibly violent and verbally abusive.  The abuse was always aimed at me.  His previous therapist had explained that he would always take out frustrations on me because I was his constant and he knew I would always love him no matter what.  In more recent years, he has also said he takes out his anger on me because it was my fault he was born. If he wasn’t born, he wouldn’t have to feel this pain all the time. Logically, I know he doesn’t feel this way all the time, they are just words used to hurt……and they do.

He started a new phase of his meltdowns, self-punishment.  After he had hurt me in some way or damaged some possession, whether his own or someone else’s, he would feel the need to hurt himself.  This usually came in the form of punching the ground.  He would kneel in the front yard, and slam his fist into the ground until it would bleed.  If I attempted to stop him the meltdown would start all over again.

It was also during this time that the suicide threats started.  After he would calm down from an outburst, when I would tell him he had to have consequences to his behavior or he needed to make amends for something he had done, he would cry and tell me that he couldn’t be the good son I needed and that he should kill himself to make the pain go away.  I tried to call helplines and local medical facilities. I was told over and over that he didn’t fit the profile of kids in their programs. I was so frustrated. I knew there was something wrong with my son, but when I tried to seek help it seemed as though he didn’t have ‘enough’ wrong with him.  I had started the process with a local psychiatrist’s office to get him help.  It was maddening that we lived in the capital area of NY and they simply didn’t have enough psychological care for kids.  We were on a waiting list with hopes for an appointment in 3 months.

During that wait, on one school break, he was out-of-town visiting family.  When I got there to pick him up, he had locked himself in a bathroom and was threatening suicide again.  This time, he seemed even more out of control, so I felt we needed to call 9-1-1.  They got him out of the bathroom and into an ambulance. By the time we got to the hospital, an EMT had gotten him calmed down.  We spent the day with multiple doctors and psychologists.  He was discharged and I was told, “He seems fine. Just find him a good psychologist”.  Here was yet another doctor that was only seeing the calm version of my son.

Once we were able to get into the psychiatrist’s office, they heard what was happening and determined that, given his behaviors and his previous reaction to the medication we had tried, he did NOT have ADHD.  They wanted to try him on an anti-psychotic medication to see if it would help with the violent outbursts.  He started on a low dose of Risperdal.  We saw a difference almost immediately.  The anxiety attacks all but stopped for the next few months. His meltdowns were fewer and farther between.  However, the depression side started to kick in full force.  He would be miserable going to school. His grades started plummeting and the bullying was getting worse….or as we learned, his perception of the bullying was getting worse.

My son kept asking for us to move away.  I, too, wasn’t very happy where we were.  As much as I loved my husband, I didn’t feel welcome in his community of friends.  Very few people took the time to get to know me.  Although I had some great co-workers, I didn’t have a life outside of work and home.  I had a hard time putting myself in situations where I met new people. Most people don’t understand when you have to cancel plans on short notice, and I started second guessing who I could share my son’s challenges with.  I knew that my unhappiness did not help my son’s moods at all.  My husband and I discussed a move and came up with a 5 year plan.

We started researching cities where we might want to live.  Our requirements for a move wasn’t a long list, it had to be affordable, we would like it to be near someone we knew, it had to have decent medical care within reasonable driving distance……and my preference was that it should be somewhere warmer than upstate NY. I was never a fan of winter and my son always did better emotionally in the warmer weather months where he could be outside to expel his energy.

Our 5 year plan quickly became a 5 month plan. While doing our research, my husband came across an amazing job opportunity in the Atlanta area. After intense discussion, we determined that it would be too good to pass up.  My husband would have a job he loved, my current employer didn’t want me to leave the company, so they allowed me to set up an office from home where my hours would be flexible for doctor’s appointments and such.  We also found that the recent housing crisis in the country had hit GA incredibly hard, if we could sell the house in NY, we would be able to afford a nice home in the metro area and being near a major city like Atlanta gave us access to a multitude of doctors for my son. One of the biggest bonuses for me was that one of my best friends lived about an hour outside the city.

The summer of 2012 was a busy one.  My husband had to start work in July, so he moved to Atlanta ahead of us and lived on the campus where he would be working, while navigating the surrounding areas to find an apartment for us.  My son and I stayed in NY to pack up the house and get it ready to put on the market.  My dad, who had recently retired, was a blessing to us. He would come and stay for days at a time to help with yard work, painting and packing.  Finally, in late August, my husband flew back and we packed up a moving truck and headed south.

Even before we moved I had done my research and set up my son with a psychiatrist.  We were able to get an appointment for the week after we arrived. This meant one of two things to me, either this doctor wasn’t any good to have opening so quickly, or things worked differently in the south……I was so happy to find out it was the later. Also before we moved, I had signed my son up for an on-line homeschooling program.  He had been begging me to home school him, so I thought this was the best way to give it a shot.

My husband had found an apartment complex in a relatively suburban area about 30 minutes outside of Atlanta.  An apartment was not my favorite situation, given that I had a child that would have screaming fits on a regular basis, but it would have to do until we sold the NY house.

Thus began our southern life.  The nightmares that came along with this new adjustment over the next few months had me second guessing this choice on a regular basis. As hard as the change was for us, I soon found that it was one of the best things we could have done.


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