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

We Bend or We Break

Over the past year, I have been finding myself watching Dr. Phil occasionally.  I don’t really watch it for Dr. Phil’s wisdom or his unabashed self-promotion. Where most of his episodes are about topics that don’t draw me in, I have found that the episodes regarding out of control teenagers have helped me to not feel so alone.  It also helps when I have CJ watch those episodes with me.  The biggest learning tool that seems to help is watching a video of a kid losing control, screaming at a parent, and getting incredibly violent.  Because I don’t take video of CJ doing these things, it helps to show him a reflection of how he acts when he is in the midst of a rage.  The lesson doesn’t always stick with him, but it usually helps calm things down for the next week or so.

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The other day, I found myself watching Dr.Phil on my own.  He was doing an interview with Kelli Stapleton.  If you don’t know who that is, you may have read the headlines over the past year about the mom who attempted to kill herself and her autistic daughter, Issy, with CO2 poisoning.  This past week she plead guilty to child abuse and is awaiting the sentence that could be life in prison. I have read many articles about the case…..as well as many people’s comments on those articles.  I then watched her interview with Dr. Phil intensely before I formed my own opinion.  Although I can’t really wrap my head around someone attempting to kill their own child….the first thing I thought when I read all of this was “how desperate must she have been to think that was the only option?”.

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I can’t personally speak to her case, simply because I didn’t live in her home, with her child.  I do, however, live with a child that can be abusive and aggressive.  My son isn’t autistic, but the rage that can come with early onset bipolar in children can mirror the same type of aggression found in autistic children.  So much so, that it is a common misdiagnosis, as was the case with my son at the beginning of our journey. What bothered me most after reading the reactions to the articles was the outrageous ignorance that came along with them.  It frustrates me that people pose such opinions on someone else’s actions and motives when they are not the one living that life.   So many comments stating Issy’s aggression could only be because she was mirroring her mother’s behavior or if they only taught her coping skills she would ‘be just fine’.  The one comment that I read on multiple articles said that Issy must have hated her mother, since that was who seemed to be her prime target.

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Like I have said, I can’t comment to their life…..but here is the truth about many kids with neurological or mental illnesses.

*These kids have a brain disorder.  They are not aggressive or abusive because it is a learned behavior, they simply don’t have the same impulse control that someone with a normal, functioning brain would have.  When a person suffers from a traumatic brain injury that causes damage to the limbic system, we understand that they will have issues with aggression……. why can’t people understand that patients born with brain disorders may have issues with aggression, as well? It doesn’t have to be a learned behavior to exist.

*Teaching coping skills is a wonderful tool……..that doesn’t always work.  My son has been seeing therapists since he was 7……he is now 14.  That is 7 years of coping skills being taught.  Has it helped, yes……has it eradicated the problem, no.  The truth is, although the coping skills help in many situations it is not going to ‘fix’ him or heal him.  Bipolar does not have a cure, only treatment.  So if he is out of control or in a rage, he is not always in the right mind to use all of those helpful coping skills.

*Of course, I have to respond to my favorite comment regarding ‘mother’ abuse.  In most cases, these kids do not abuse their caregivers because they hate them or because they feel abused by them.  It is actually the opposite.  They abuse us because they love us, and because they know we love them unconditionally.  We are their safety. They know that we will always be there, regardless of how they hurt us, emotionally or physically.  We are their constant in a world that is very scary for them.  They can’t navigate it on their own……and that can cause agitation of its own.

In a rage, a couple of months ago, my son said he hated me.  That used to upset me……it doesn’t any more, because I know it’s not true.  I simply looked at him and said, “No you don’t, you love me.”.  His response to that was “I hate how much I love you!”.  Sometimes that is the truth.  I think sometimes my son lashes out at me because he is so reliant on me and he wants his independence so badly….he just can’t function in a way to obtain that independence yet.  Maybe someday he will…..but I don’t see that happening any time soon.  I will pray that it does, sooner rather than later.

That last statement may be taken out of context, as I think many ‘venting’ statements were on Kelli Stapleton’s blog.  I am not saying I want my son to find independence because I don’t love him, or because I hate living with him……I am saying it because I wish a better life for him……and maybe for myself, too.  It would make me so happy and proud to know that my son faced his challenges and succeeded in spite of them.

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There are going to be people who have negative comments about the choices that the parents of special needs children make. It frustrates me and saddens me.  All of the parenting advice in the world means nothing if you don’t live the life we live.   We are tired and stressed…even on the good days.  It seems like there is very little help out there for us…medical, financial, educational, or emotional…and what help there is takes tons of red tape and road blocks to obtain. Personally, I am also always on guard.  I am always wondering if CJ’s meds are still helping or if things are going to stay calm today or tomorrow or next week.  This can be an emotional trauma on a caregiver.  It is not only in the midst of the tornado that we feel the strain of this life…..the calm can feel pretty windy, too. We can either bend with the wind or let it break us. We need help so there aren’t more caregivers feeling the desperation and breaking the way that Kelli Stapleton did.

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