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

The Winds of Change

For those who have lived in both the north and the south, you will know that the wind is different down here.  It seems to circle a different way than I ever experienced before. It tends to be louder and blows stronger.  It sometimes comes out of nowhere.  That’s how I felt about our life during the first few months after moving here.

My son fell in love with life in the apartment complex.  There were dozens of kids that he could hang out with.  He was out riding his bike and playing football every afternoon.  We had never lived in a place where he could walk out the door and have any number of kids right there, ready to hang out.  The problem was, he enjoyed it so much and relished in the freedom it gave him, that he fought any rules regarding coming home. Once he did get home, he would fight everything that was said.

I know, I know, all kids buck the system in adolescence. The difference was, when he pushed back, he literally pushed, shoved, hit and kicked.  He has this way of emotionally manipulating a situation.  He starts out being obstinate in an effort to get his way. When it doesn’t work in his favor he gets agitated, he will clench his jaw and ball his fists. He essentially pushes himself over the edge.  I have learned to differentiate between the look on his face when he is manipulating and when he has truly lost control, but there is a fine line between the two.  The fact that he was forcing himself into a manic state was maddening.   It showed us that he needed more work on his coping skills, since he obviously had some sense of control.  The trick was teaching him to use it for good instead of evil.

I scheduled another appointment with the psychiatrist we had seen after we first moved.  I explained that the explosive and abusive behavior had started again.  She asked if I would be willing to try a new medication in addition to the Risperdal he was on.  At this point, I was willing to try just about anything.  She started him on Depakote.  Again, we saw a drop in behaviors.

He had begged for me to home school him when we were in NY.  I thought this transition was the perfect time to try it.  I would be working part-time from home and would have more time to spend moderating his on-line program.  We had decided to break up his school day and allow him to ride his bike or go for a walk for 15 minutes between each class. Initially, this seemed to help.  Very quickly I realized that he thought not having to go to a school building, meant not having to do school work.  One afternoon, while waiting for his friends to get off the bus, he mentioned that he wanted to start going to school again.  He realized that, even though school was hard, he liked being around other kids all day.  This was a relief for me.  I knew he needed more structure in his day than I could give him, not to mention the damage this process was doing to our relationship.

We live in a fairly large town geographically, so there are four middle schools.  We enrolled him in the school assigned to our area of town.  It didn’t take us long to figure out that it was a bit of a nightmare.  It was difficult sending a kid who didn’t think twice about equality and acceptance into a racially charged school. At first he thought some of the kids treated him poorly simply because he was new, that is hard on any kid, but when he was told that they didn’t want him to join the anime club because he was white he came home a ball of tears and confusion.  He said “What does my skin have to do with anime?”.  It was shortly after that the physical threats started. It had gotten so bad that he would have a panic attack just walking in the front door. I approached the special ed director and asked her what we could do. I was having a hard time convincing him to go to school. She suggested that if we move him to another school in the district, maybe he would feel safer. This was fine with me, since we were looking for houses in different areas and he would probably be switching schools shortly anyway.  It took about a week for the transfer paperwork to go through.  It happened to be the same week of the benchmark testing.  The principal was helpful by letting my son take all of his tests in the conference room attached to the front office.  This way, he wouldn’t feel like he was walking into the school and wouldn’t have to maneuver his way through the crowded hallways.

The following Tuesday he started at the new middle school.  As part of the transfer, I had to agree to drive him, since there wasn’t a bus available from our apartment. We headed out a bit early, since it was a 25 minute ride and I wasn’t quite sure where I was going.  Once we got there, they gave us a tour of the building and we met the principal and office staff.  They all seemed very willing to accommodate all of his needs.  When I picked him up that afternoon I asked him how it went.  He said it seemed ok, but that was probably because he didn’t talk to anyone, but maybe he would try tomorrow. The next day happened to be my birthday and it turned out to be a horrible day, but a blessing in disguise.

I woke up to a smiling face and breakfast in bed.  My son had gotten up early to help my husband cook and he was in a great mood.  We got ready and started out to school.  While we were in the car, I noticed him getting antsy and fidgeting in his seat.  As I pulled up to the entrance to let him out, he refused.  He started crying, saying he couldn’t go in. I pulled out of line, since I was holding other parents up, and parked in a space.  I figured, if I gave him a little time to talk through his feelings, we would be ok.  He still refused to go into the school.  He did eventually get out of the car and sit on the ground.  I decided to go into the school to see if the counselor was available.  I thought maybe talking to somebody other than me could help.  Both the counselor and the principal came outside with me.  When my son saw them come out of the building, he took off.  The school is in a wooded area and set very far back from the road. He had no idea where he was or where he was going.  The counselor went inside to get the police officer that was on duty at the school.  The police officer told me to pull my car back around to the entrance and he would go get my son.  By the time the officer came back, he didn’t have my son….but he did have his shoes.  Apparently, my son attempted running into the woods and came across a red ant pile.  They covered his feet and socks.  In a panic, he took off his shoes and tried to keep running…..but his feet weren’t too happy with the rough, pine-covered ground, so he stopped.  That was where the officer found him.  He tried to convince him to get into the patrol car and come back to the school.  My son said he would walk back.  The officer reminded him of his shoes, but my son didn’t want to pick them up because of the ants.

I saw my son walking in his socks back across the parking lot, head down looking defeated.  He came up and sat on the curb in front of the school.  The principal and counselor both attempted at talking to him, to let him know that this school was different from his last one and that there was no reason for him to be afraid.  The tears started again and then he looked at me and said ‘You just don’t get it, do you? I don’t want to be here. It’s too hard to be anywhere.  It would be so much easier if you would just let me kill myself”.  In that moment, all decisions were taken out of my hands.  Once suicide is mentioned on the school grounds the police can step in.  The officer pulled me aside and said that I could take him to the hospital or he could take him.  In that moment, I knew that if I took him to the hospital on my own, it would be the same as every other time we were in this situation.  Maybe, if an officer took him, they would have to pay attention to the fact that this is not just some over-concerned mother.

After being evaluated at the hospital they determined that they wanted to ambulance him to a psychiatric facility in south Atlanta. By that time my husband had left work and met me, so we went home to pack my son a bag and headed down to the facility.  When we got there, they had my son in an in-take room and said that he wanted to speak with me.  He said ‘Mommy, I love you, I would never kill myself. I am too afraid of being hurt. Please don’t leave me here.”  It was heartbreaking.  He was so angry when he found out that they were going to keep him there for at least 4 days. By the time we left, he said he didn’t love me anymore.

My son ended up staying there for 7 days. It was determined that they would add Zoloft to the list of meds he was on to help with the anxiety and depression.  Throughout that time, I got phone calls from his doctor every day.  She really took the time to listen because she wanted to know all that we had gone through.  At the end of each call she would tell me that he was in good care and that I should take this time to get some rest myself.  I had no idea how she thought that was possible.

At the end of the week, she told me that after reading his records, talking to me and spending time with him, she was pretty positive that he had bipolar disorder.  To be sure, she wanted me to take the extra step of having him evaluated at a specialized autism center, where they would do a deeper evaluation than had been done when we were in NY. At the end of the evaluation at the autism center they confirmed that his diagnosis by the psychiatrist was correct, his diagnosis was bipolar disorder.  It’s bittersweet to be validated as a mother, being told something you knew all along, when at the same time you are finding out that your child has a mental illness that he will live with for the rest of his life.

In the year and a half since that diagnosis we have had our ups and our downs. My son still struggles with school and controlling his emotions both there and at home.  On the bright side, we moved into our new house. My son has made 2 amazing best friends. My husband and I have joined a support group for caregivers and we have met other families that understand what our daily life is like.  My son’s medications help him function through each day. He is still seeing that wonderful psychiatrist and we have added an amazing therapist to our team.

This move and all of its changes proved to be a bit of a refresh button for us.  It helped us determine a path for treatment and a fresh start for our family. If ever we are having a bad day or I am missing my family and friends, I think back onto a day last spring.  It was shortly after we moved into our new house, my son and I were driving into town to go shopping. The sun was out and the sky was blue. He was gazing out the car window and he sighed deeply. I asked if he was ok and he said “I just realized how happy I am and how much I love it here.  Thank you, mommy.”.


I want to thank you all for getting to know us a bit. I know our story took me days to tell, and may seem long and tedious at times…..but that is life with a bipolar child.  From here on out, my posts will be more topical.  If there are any behavioral challenges or topics you would like to read about, let me know.  I will also be working with a special ed professional to get some informative posts out there as well.


Comments on: "The Winds of Change" (4)

  1. Adjusting to new situations, whether new school, new school year, return from summer break or even unscheduled snow day breaks has always been difficult for my 8th grade son (HFA, anxiety, OCD, LD, speech impaired).


    • Wendy, My son has always had a challenge returning from school breaks. If it is a long break, he wants to go back to see his friends, but does not like the routine of his school day……even if emotionally he needs the routine to function. He did much better with this when he was younger, I think primarily because he only had 1 teacher each year that took the time to understand him and his quirks. Now, in middle school, with 7 or 8 teachers throughout the day, even if the classes are rountine….different teacher’s personalities are not. He never knows what to expect and that causes extreme anxiety…..which in turn makes our afternoon a ball of joy.
      Thanks for reading. It means a lot when people are willing to share a little bit of their experiences with me. If there is ever a specific topic that would be helpful to read about, let me know. I am working with some other people to write informative pieces on school, IEPs and therapy options.


  2. I think my son is at same school as your son.


    • Wendy, I have found a great community of parents that ‘get it’ since moving here. If you ever need to talk, or vent, or just have a day out with someone that understands, don’t hesitate to email me.


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