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

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My son, CJ, turned 16 last month.  That means we have been on this journey with mental illness for 13 years, since his first diagnosis of OCD was at the age of 3.  On his birthday, I sat and thought about how far he has come since his days of 2 hour meltdowns…….bolting from the house so often that I had to install a lock on the top of the door………being called to school for anxiety induced vomiting on a weekly basis.  In so many ways he has learned amazing coping skills, but we still have such a long way to go.

One of the ways CJ has learned to regulate his behavior is by removing himself from a situation when he finds himself being extremely agitated.  When he was younger, this type of agitation would most often turn into a manic episode that included violence……usually kicking, punching, biting and scratching me.  Removing himself has worked very well for him, he hasn’t had physically violent behavior in over a year. CJ has learned if he isolates himself, even for just a few minutes, it will help calm him down and ward off an episode.  He is especially careful of this when spending time with our bonus kid, he says he would never want to do anything to hurt her.

One week before his birthday, he and our bonus kid had an argument of epic teenage proportions.  As part of his safety plan, CJ locked himself in the game room to remove himself from the argument…..but being a teenage girl, our bonus kid wasn’t having it.  When she made an effort to open the door, he panicked and jumped out the window…..from the second floor…..a 17 foot drop…….and then proceeded to run to the other side of the neighborhood, where he stopped to call me.  Luckily, I wasn’t far from the house and was able to get there within minutes to pick him up.

I didn’t even know how to respond to his actions.  My first thought was to lecture him on how much he could have hurt himself. His response was to tell me he would rather hurt himself than to hurt her.  My next thought was to praise him on making an effort to de-escalate the argument by removing himself from it.  How do you effectively reward and punish at the same time???? If you can’t, how do you choose? For me, praise was more important. We could talk about the consequences of his actions later, for now, he needed to know that I was proud of his effort to not fall down the manic rabbit hole……although I wasn’t thrilled that it meant falling down the side of the house.

Consequences came the next day after he woke up in pain and could barely walk on his left leg.  We spent many hours in the ER waiting on X-rays.  That allowed us many hours for us to discuss alternate plans of actions rather than jumping out windows.  At the end of all of this waiting, we were told that he fractured his ankle in 3 places and needed to see an orthopedic in one week to evaluate further.  They splinted his leg, put him on crutches and sent us on our way.

That week had to be one of the longest in history.  Our house is filled with many stairs and the following days altered between CJ being upset that he couldn’t do anything for himself and playing go-fetch with me.  Luckily, at the end of the week, we saw the ortho and he said the ER misread the x-rays, there were no fractures and he would treat it like a bad sprain.  I wasn’t until I let out my breath that I realized I was holding it.  The thought of a full cast on a sensory sensitive kiddo and crutches for 6 weeks scared the crap out of me. We left with a walking boot, which he was out of within 2 weeks.  The worse part of it was that the kids didn’t speak to each other for the next few weeks.

I now get nervous every time I leave the house.  The kids have taken to avoiding each other completely when ever they are home alone….which is probably best.  They spend time with each other when we are all together as a family, but not one on one.  It makes me sad, they used to be best friends.  That is how she came to be in our lives to begin with.  I can’t help but think that it just one more part of his life that has become a casualty of his illness.  I also can’t help to think how brave he is.  Bipolar disorder has taken so much from him, but he is still fighting to become the best person he can be.  He has come so far and his intentions are so good……his execution, on the other hand, may need a little bit of work.

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