The Strange Silver Lining Behind Having a Child with a Mood Disorder
While names have been changed, a friend writes: “Hey Tom,
For a long time, I’ve wanted to write to share with you something that might at first seem strange. I don’t know if it’s appropriate for you to share with the people that come to CBF or not, but here goes.
Before our Amanda was diagnosed with pediatric bipolar disorder, we were living the typical California suburban lifestyle. To say we were busy is putting it mildly. Not only did Jeff and I work (me, part-time) but Amanda’s older sister, Natalie, a seventh-grader had been a soccer star since she was eight years old. Our weekends were filled with long drives to out-of-town games, shopping, homework and socializing. If the kids wanted the latest Nintendo game or slick shoes, we bought it. We had the money, so why not. We lived in a clean and neat subdivision and shuttled between neighbors homes for dinners and beach days.
As you know, Amanda gave us trouble from two years old on. Jeff and I pedaled hard to explain away her behavior to our friends. We focused on how bright she seemed to be, but the growing stress was getting to us. Our bonds as a family began to fray. I felt always like we had to put forward a picture of us as a happy, functional family. We weren’t. We put too much pressure on Natalie to be the perfect example of a teenager, almost to make up for Amanda’s lack of friends and difficult personality. Jeff and I took our exhaustion with Amanda out on each other.
Finally, Jeff insisted she go to a child psychiatrist. I fought it the whole way. What would others think if we had a daughter had some mental disability? How would we handle it if she did?
Jeff finally won me over. When the psychiatrist handed us the list of symptoms of “early onset” or pediatric bipolar disorder, it shook our world. Amanda wasn’t just willful, fiercely independent or quirky, she had an illness. While it took us several months to come to grips with Amanda’s disorder, we soon embarked on a course of treatment that helped her symptoms.
Yes, at this point two years later, Amanda’s behavior has improved. But that’s not why I’m writing. I’m writing because, in the months following Amanda’s diagnosis, Jeff and I had to get real with each other, with our kids, neighbors, family and friends. Exhausted, I didn’t have the energy to hold up the image of the perfect family. We started attending support groups for parents in situation similar to ours. There was no striving, no “keeping up with the Joneses” in material things there. All that mattered was holding ourselves and our families together and coping with the big challenges of everyday living. The friends I made from then on were some of the best I’ve had in my life because something big mattered: the welfare and very lives of our children.
Since then, our lives have become so much more real and meaningful. We keep up to date on the latest advances in bipolar research and keep close tabs on Amanda’s medications and other therapies. We have a close-knit support group of people who comfort us as we comfort them. It took Amanda’s diagnosis to make us realize how hard we’d been striving in the wrong directions. I recommend absolute honesty and the rejection of societal “norms” like “achievement” and “well-rounded” to everyone. We’ve discovered what really matters in life.” What a relief!