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

Posts tagged ‘anxiety’

Diving Off the Deep End of the PEER

 

I found out recently that people in my life, both friends and family, feel that I am a bit of a know it all.  I could have been offended at this knowledge, but surprisingly, I wasn’t.   I personally don’t think anybody could be a true know it all, but I did think I knew a lot……….a lot about myself, my life, my kiddo’s life and our journey.  I knew these things because I had opened my mind and embraced my ability to learn.  This week I tested that ability and embarked on an adventure that would drive me to seek a deeper understanding of myself and my willingness to use that knowledge to help others.  Over the course of the week I learned more about things I thought I knew and I learned about things I didn’t realize that I didn’t know.  Most importantly, I learned about sharing my experiences in an effective way, instead of an intrusive ‘know it all’ way.

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One of the beautiful aspects of the state of Georgia is that it’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities is one of the pioneering agencies in the field of mental health services…..specifically, in Peer Support Services.  For many years there have been adults working in the position of a Certified Peer Specialist in the fields of mental health and addiction recovery.  After years of advocacy for both families and youth, there are now emerging groups of Peer Specialists that are specifically centered around youth living with these challenges and parents of people living with these challenges.  This week I joined their ranks and completed my training to become a Certified Peer Specialist-Parent.

What is a Peer Specialist?  We are people who have ‘been there and done that’.  We are people who can use all of the knowledge we have gained, the experiences we’ve had and, most importantly, the emotions we have felt to provide support to others who are walking the same path.  We are the people who will ask “How are you?” ……and then listen to the answer without hesitation or judgement.

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At the beginning of the week, I felt strong in the knowledge that I possessed all of the skills I needed to be the best Peer Support Parent possible.  What I learned, after lots of tears and self reflection, was that I don’t need to have all of the answers…… I don’t need to fix everyone around me…… I should simply be there when they need someone who understands.  I also learned that I have been drowning myself in service to others, always feeling that just because I have the ability to do something means I have to.  It was eye-opening for me to realize that I can take a breather from other’s lives to focus on myself and not feel guilty……..and that’s ok.   I didn’t learn this from the curriculum,  power points or exams…..I learned this by walking in the door every morning to 20 people who understood me before they even knew me.  I learned this by having virtual strangers sincerely asking me about my well-being every morning.   I learned this by having these strangers become caring friends by the end of the week.  In my daily life, I have a wonderful ‘mom’ friend who gets me, I have supportive friends at NAMI who get me, but having this large group of peers surround me and envelop me in kindness and understanding every day this week was a life changing experience.

As parents of special needs kiddos, we live our lives for our children and families first…….and then we love to educate others about what we know.  I have been doing this in an effort to make this world a better place for my child and others like him.  For a long time I felt that I was fighting this war alone.   I didn’t realize that by doing this to the extent I do, I am stretching myself thin.  I know I spout about self-care to others often, but I rarely follow my own advice.  I find it funny that it took me taking a class in an effort to help others to teach me to help myself.

Just goes to prove that this world is full of things that I don’t know. So I thank my teachers this week, all of my peers who taught me that’s it’s alright to care for myself and opened my eyes to the fact that I’m not in this alone.  I have warriors by my side.  Alone, I might be able to change the world, but I will burn out quickly.  As a group, we can give each other strength and a little bit of relief that we can take on the world together…….and go so much farther in our efforts.

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When Our Most Important Computer Crashes- The Importance of Support

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In our world, we tend to take the technology around us for granted until something bad happens. Imagine your computer screen started flashing uncontrollably……..  Imagine your new tablet refused to download your favorite apps. ……or even worse, imagine if your phone deleted all of your contacts and you couldn’t retrieve them. How would you feel?  Frustrated, Disconnected, not in control?  What would you do? You might try to fix the problem on your own, but if you can’t, it could result in the device being thrown against the wall in frustration, so you call support ……and then you use a working device to go on FB and tell all of your friends about every detail of your tech challenges.

Computer support companies are one of the fastest growing small businesses.  We now see IT support services on every street corner and in every shopping center.  It’s supply and demand.  We need support, they provide support, and then, of course, we tell all of our friends about our experience.

So, why is it that when it comes to our most complex, important computer, we are afraid to call support, we are afraid to identify the problem and we rarely tell our friends? Just like any piece of technology, our brains have the ability to malfunction, and just like any piece of technology, we need to service them.

Now, imagine you start having hallucinations……..imagine you have a hard time speaking or writing……even worse, imagine that your favorite memories have slipped from your mind.  How would you feel?  Frustrated, disconnected, not in control?

Mental illness happens when the brain is not functioning optimally.  Generally speaking, our brain has neurotransmitters and receptors. Just like any plug and outlet, if the neurotransmitter does not connect with the receptor in the right way, the flow of information is not going to get where it needs to go.  A treatment plan, therapy and medication can be a wonderful way to get your ‘system’ up and running again, but it is only one type of support.

In my opinion the most important supports to help you maintain treatment are the natural supports around you….your community.  Family, friends (both physical and virtual), support groups, church members, team members……any people who you are connected with on an emotional level.  When you are dealing with a mental health crisis, the people in your emotional world are the best to help hold you up.  When we don’t reach out to them is when we feel the most frustrated and disconnected.

So, call a psychiatrist or a therapist as your IT support……and then let your friends know that you need back up support.  The more people you reach out to, the more people who become educated…..and the more people who become educated, the less stigma there will be about mental health.  Maybe, just maybe, you will eventually find good therapists on every street corner and in every shopping center.

It’s supply and demand.  We need support, now go find the support and then tell all of your friends about your mental health challenges. Maybe, in the process, we all might stop taking our most valuable computer for granted……and maybe, just maybe, we will feel a little less frustrated, a little more connected and a lot more in control.

16 Steps Forward, One 17 Foot Drop Back

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Shall We Dance……Around the Issues?

Once I became the parent of a child with a mental illness and neurological issues, I started seeing them everywhere.  If you have a family member with any type of diagnosis, you know what I mean.  You start diagnosing everyone you come in contact with.  Even more than the world around me, I started to notice things in the worlds I escaped into…..books and movies all of a sudden had underlying themes of depression or emotional challenges.   Movies I watched as a kid and loved, no longer had as much joy to them; they were filled with sadness and struggles.

Last week I watched Shall We Dance?……the Richard Gere version.  It is a movie I had seen many times and never thought much about.  There is a line toward the end, after Gere’s character, John Clark’s, wife finds out he has been taking dance lessons secretly. He says “If I sometimes couldn’t tell you that I wasn’t happy it is because I didn’t want to hurt the person I treasure most in the world”.

Now, it probably isn’t surprising to you that I think John Clark was dealing with a horrible depression….and dancing was his anti-depressant.   Once his family found out, he was ashamed……not only of the sadness, but of the fact that the people he loved weren’t the ones he chose to help him through it.  The reason for this is that he had so much, he felt guilty that they weren’t enough to make him happy.

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Why I am I breaking down this Saturday afternoon matinée to you all? Well, I think it is a good way to explain why parents are sometimes the last ones to know that their child has been dealing with depression.  Suicide has become an epidemic in our country….especially for teenagers and young adults.  According to the CDC, approximately 4600 young people between the ages of 10-24 take their lives every year.  Last year, Ebola took 2 lives in our country and it was headline news…..people were talking about it….everywhere.  Why don’t we talk about the 4600 young people losing their lives?

There are so many people out there thinking “not my kid”.  Honestly, a lot of the teenagers that are attempting or following through with their suicide plans are kids that no body would expect to.  Honor society, athletes, class officers, club presidents…..no one is immune to depression.  It’s these kids I fear for the most, they are alone in their struggle.  So many times we hear about a young person taking their life and people around them say, I thought he was fine or I thought she was happy.  They kept their sadness hidden from the people they loved……why?  I think so many of them were like John Clark, afraid to tell anyone that, even with all of the good in their lives, they still aren’t happy.

My son is diagnosed with bipolar disorder.  In a way, that makes me one of the lucky parents.  I know what to look for in my son’s moods.  I know what changes in his temperament might mean.  I also make sure to talk to my son about his emotions on a regular basis.  In truth, in our house, we talk about emotions just as often as we have precautionary conversations about drugs, sex or social media.  Would I have included it in our regular conversation if he didn’t have a diagnosis? Probably not.  Nobody would have clued me in on the importance of mental health education to our kids.  Even once I had a child with a mental health diagnosis, I had no suggestions on how to talk to my son about his feelings.  I was handed a prescription and told to call if it didn’t help.  If I didn’t start doing research on my own as to how to effectively communicate with my son, I would probably have had a child that is one of the 4600.

We need to talk to our children……all of us…..and we need to start when they are young.  We need to let them know that sadness is a normal part of growing up, but sometimes it can get so bad that we have a hard time finding happiness again.  As they get older, we need to explain a little more in-depth about depression and how it can affect people.  Not only so they know for themselves, but so they can be aware of changes in their friends, too.  We need to let them know that we will listen without judgement and help them in any way we can.

Until we start talking to our kids about their emotional health, how can we expect them to talk to us? If they don’t start talking to us, how can we prevent next year’s 4600 deaths?

 

The Choice is Up to You

Suffering

This past weekend, my husband and I attended an advocacy training class hosted by NAMI.  At one point in the training we were read sample stories, letters and emails in an effort to learn how to be more concise when reaching out to others.  One of the sentences sparked a short debate within the class, it was a simple sentence….and one I use often “My son is living with Bipolar Disorder”.  When we were asked what stood out to us in the letter, I cited this sentence because they used the word living instead of suffering.  The word suffering has become all too common within the mental health community and there are many of use that would love to ban it all together.  There were others in the class that did not agree and stated that by erasing the word from our stories, it lessens the struggle we have all gone through.  Here is why I no longer use the word suffering in my son’s diagnosis:

My son has wonderful days. Most of the time, he is a happy and healthy 15-year-old boy.  Is he different? Yes.  He has to take multiple medications daily, he has to see doctors more often than most, get blood work done more often than most, and he needs to recognize when he is in a situation that may cause him lose control of his emotions.  These are all things he is learning to do very well……better than a lot of teenagers, if I do say so.  Does he have days when he struggles; when the highs and lows of bipolar disorder are so overwhelming he feels out of control?  Of course, that is the nature of the illness, but I feel the good days out-weigh the bad.

I believe true suffering is a choice not a diagnosis.  I have met people diagnosed with cancer, living with the horrible symptoms of their illness every day, but looking towards life with a positive attitude…..I have also met people with cancer who choose to let the symptoms control their life and their mood.  Same illness, same symptoms, but different attitudes had a huge effect on whether or not they emotionally suffered. Mental illness is no different.

People with mental illnesses have days where their world can be turned upside down…….and their families have those days, too.  It is how you pick up and move on to the next day that determines if you are choosing to suffer through the illness or live with it.  I have made a point of telling CJ that he is not bipolar, he is diagnosed with bipolar disorder.  The illness does not determine who he is or how he is defined.  Only he can determine that.  In the same sense, the illness does not determine whether he is suffering or not…..that choice is up to him.

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NAMI is the National Alliance on Mental Illness – a national organization that advocates, educates and supports people with mental illness and their families. For more information go to: https://www.nami.org/

Walking On Eggshells Will Just Hurt Your Feet

walking on eggshells

 

In the past few months, I have been coming to the realization that I sometimes revert back to the ‘eggshell’ behavior of my past.  Not all the time, but in certain moments, when I know the kiddo is in a bad place, I have been letting him have his way.  Why have I been doing this?  I am not sure.  Maybe it is because I have been trying to get my own head on straight lately. Maybe it is easier than dealing with a blow up.  Maybe I have been trying to be ‘nicer’ to help repair the rough relationship he and I fell into while he was trying to home-school last semester.  Whatever the reason, I am over it now.  I am tired of tiptoeing.  Just to prove it, I had another one of my ‘meanest mom in the world’ moments a couple of weeks ago.

Since starting his new school in January, our mornings had been getting worse.  He was refusing to wake up and get ready.  The private school he is attending only has a 4 day school week….but he was missing 1 or 2 days every…. single….. week.  In the state of Georgia, it is the parent’s responsibility to make sure their child is complying with the school attendance law.  If your child is absent a specific number of days, they call a meeting.  If they continue to go miss school, parents can be fined (or go to jail, although I have never heard of that actually happening). In CJ’s case, his medical issues can be brought up in the initial ‘meeting’ and they drop the whole thing.  For kids that don’t have medical issues, the only way to take the consequences off of your plate and hand them over to your child, is to file a complaint against them yourself.  I kept thinking about this over the past few months.  CJ was turning 15 this month….I thought it was about time for him to have to take legal responsibility for his poor decisions.

A couple of weeks ago, after a particularly manipulative morning argument, I told CJ that if he did not go to school that day, I would be heading out to the courthouse to file papers.  He didn’t believe me……so he stayed home. Since I work from my home office, he didn’t venture out of his room all day.  When I logged off my computer, I called out that I was running an errand and left the house quickly.  I drove straight to the courthouse and filled out the paperwork needed….I didn’t want to stop anywhere in between, I wanted to maintain my determination. They gave me a court date and I headed home.

While I was driving home, I got a call from the bonus kid to pick her up from school.  When I got home, and Megan was with me, CJ assume that the ‘errand’ I ran was to get her.  He had a ‘know it all’ smirk on his face when he said “Ohhhh, that’s where you went”. I replied “You know exactly where I went and your court date is on the 12th”.  I never saw somebody’s face change so quickly (and given that I have a bipolar child, that is saying a lot).

He spent the next couple of weeks thinking that he was going to miss his birthday because he was going to jail.  My real mean mom moment came when I didn’t correct him. Up until the day of his hearing, I let him believe that there was the possibility of him going to juvenile hall. I knew that this hearing was just a part of an intervention program that our county had put in place….but I let him think otherwise.

The judge was soft-spoken, but tough.  CJ shook through the entire thing and promised, emphatically, that he would most definitely go to school……and he has. Last week marked the first time all year that he got up and went to school every day. It also marked the first week in years that we didn’t fight every morning.  He got up early, got dressed and was out the door on time every day.  He knew that manipulating me or fighting with me wasn’t going to help him…..it was out of my hands now.

As parents of kids with disabilities……any disabilities….we sometimes forget to step back and ask if the ways we ‘help’ our kids are really helping them at all or are they hurting them….and us, in the long run.  When CJ was little, his developmental coordination issues hindered him from easily tying his shoes.  I thought about it and came to the conclusion that it wasn’t a big deal….it wouldn’t hold him back in life.  When all else failed, there would always be slip-ons.  I need to start doing that again….in every aspect of his life.  I need to start looking outside our house again and help him make decisions from the world’s perspective….not my mama bear, over-protective….sometimes, over-exhausted point of view.  Knowing that refusing to go to school would hurt him was an easy one….but there are other decisions that we make on a regular basis that aren’t as cut and dry.  For kids that deal with bipolar disorder, the slightest thing can send them into a manic tailspin.  Should I not say something that might upset my child?  Should  I not push him to clean his room or take a shower because he will flip out about my ‘controlling’ him?  Should I let him live with is illusion that the world revolves around him?  Those seem like easy questions to answer, but when you live with a child that could snap at any moment….it isn’t as easy as you think.  My answer to all of those………he is eventually going to have to learn to live by society’s rules. Society will not walk on eggshells for him…..why should I?

 

 

My Unexpected A-Ha Weekend

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As I awoke, unusually early for a Saturday, I felt a bit nauseated.  I was approaching, what I considered, a challenging weekend.  You see, for some time now I have dealt with mild social anxiety.  It has become especially difficult for me since CJ’s challenges have gotten harder.  I have come to the conclusion that it is directly connected to CJ’s diagnosis.  My theory is that, for most people, home is routine, home is monotonous and they look outside their door to find something to spice up their life or to experience something different in their world.  For us, life at home is unpredictable.  When I wake up each morning, I have no idea what to expect from my day.  When you live like that, who wants to face even more unpredictable situations outside your door?  Not me.  I tend to stick to what I know…….the stores I shop at, the restaurants I eat at and the friends I spend time with.  Putting myself into new situations can sometimes make me physically ill.

For the past year and a half, my husband, Michael, and I have been a part of a family support group for caregivers that is part of the NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) organization.  It has proven very helpful for us and we have a nice group of people locally that I am very comfortable with.  In an effort to help others, we had decided to sign up to train as facilitators so we would have more people able to run the meetings in the event that someone was ill or out-of-town.  I didn’t think much of it when we initially inquired about the training.  Last week, we received an email that there was a training class happening about an hour from where we lived and they had an opening.  So, there I was, Saturday morning, nauseated and driving along hwy 20 feeling like I was going to be sick.  Little did I know that this weekend would not only be full of new challenges….but give me a lot of insight on how lucky I am.

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Couldn’t resist inserting an actual A-Ha moment.

A-ha moment #1:

Throughout the weekend, our training was filled with scenarios and role-playing that reflected many situations that families with mentally ill loved ones deal with.  It wasn’t like I didn’t know all of these situations happen…..but the fact that they were written into a training class somehow made me feel different than just hearing it in a support group.  I have met people in similar situations that have gone through what we go through regularly and it is always comforting to know that there is someone out there like you.  What hit me this weekend, with this training class, was that there isn’t just ‘someone’ out there like me….there are so many people out there living in these situations that they created a training scenario about it. I don’t know why it took this class for me to come to that realization.

A-ha moment #2:

By lunchtime on the first day of training, my nausea was gone and I was quite comfortable with everyone in the room.  Feeling included with other people has always been hard for me.  Even as a teenager, I didn’t feel as though I was ever a ‘part’ of a group.  I had friends and was acquaintances with many people in many different ‘cliques’, but was never a true part of any specific one of those cliques.   Even with family, I can sit at a dinner table and feel as though I am not seen or heard.  I have just always been so much better one on one than in a group.  I am quickly finding that I can feel at ease quickly with just about everyone I have met through NAMI.  I don’t know if it is because we all have a story, we all have a life that others may judge…..so we don’t judge each other.  It’s like a permanent ‘safe zone’.  From my regular support group, to the NAMI walk, to this training class, even though I have started out nervous, I have felt comfortable pretty quickly.  Kind of like a fraternity or sorority, you can meet someone new, find out that they are involved in NAMI and there is an immediate bond and understanding.  It may have taken me until the age of 39….but I think I have found my ‘group’.

A-ha moment #3:

One of the topics that came up a few times this weekend was the fact that NAMI helps so many people feeling lost and lonely after losing friends and family that don’t understand what you go through when you are caring for someone who is mentally ill.  This was brought up on Saturday in conversation, but I didn’t think about it much in the context of my own life.  Saturday evening, after class was done, I had planned on spending the night at my best friend’s house as she lives close to where the class was being held.  I got there at 5pm and we started talking…..I don’t think our conversation ended until we fell asleep at 2:30am.  I love nights like that with her, where we can talk about anything and everything, but I think I sometimes take for granted how lucky I am that I have a friend like that.  In the car the next day, I started thinking about the fact that she has been in my life and CJ’s life since he was a baby. One of my other best friends has been a part of our lives since before he was born. They are my biggest cheerleaders and supporters.  As I thought about it more and more, I realized that I have not lost anyone in my life due to CJ’s illness the way that so many others have.  At first I thought it was because I am lucky that my friends accept CJ’s illness. As my drive home wore on I changed my mind as to why. I think it has more to do with my acceptance of CJ’s illness.   I have never hidden our struggle.  There may not be many people in our lives, but most of them have been on this journey with us. They don’t just know the good, happy, parts of our lives…they know all of it.  They share the highs and lows with us.  If anything, my vocalization of our life has brought more people into my world.  The more people, the bigger the support system.  I have gained better friendships with people from high school, people from church, people from social media….heck I even now have a friend overseas that I consider a part of my support system.  I don’t think I would have been able to have gained such a great group of people and surrounded my family in so much love if I hadn’t been willing to accept CJ’s illness and educate others. This realization has made me feel like, somewhere along the way, I made a few good decisions in how I handled the challenges life has thrown at us.

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So after 2 exhausting and emotional days……..with a long night of girl talk sandwiched in-between, I am now a certified NAMI Family Support group facilitator.  I am also now planning on training to be a NAMI Basics class teacher, to help other parents of kids and teens understand more about mental illness and navigating the educational and health care systems.   This weekend has taught me that I still have a lot to learn…..but at least I can take what I do know and help others in the best way I know how.

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To get more information about NAMI or to find a support group in your area, please go to

 http://www.nami.org/”>