October 11th, 2010 was the worst best day of my life; the day I hit my lowest point and the day that changed my life (for the better) forever. After being found with my arms slashed up, and more than the daily recommended dose of Ativan in my system, I was given the choice of handing myself over to the psych hospital of my own free will or in the custody of the police department.
I went the easy way.
I was diagnosed with many things that day and the days to follow: Bipolar 1, Borderline Personality Disorder, PTSD, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and Alcoholism.
As I hugged and kissed my family goodbye, right before going behind the locked doors (an image that still brings me to tears), there was one thought cycling through my head, How did I get here?
So, that’s what I want to get in to today, my childhood. Where all of this began and we’ll move forward from there. I’m going to do my best to talk about my childhood without it coming off as too scattered. But it’s difficult. Much of it reads like a broken mirror. I can see things in the shards, but the images are distorted…difficult to make out. I won’t be able to cover everything. This is basically a small snapshot of what a childhood with bipolar looks like…and also how environment can make worse or hasten the symptoms of the disease.
I want to say I had a normal childhood…at least in the beginning. I mean, I don’t remember those parts, the early parts, but from what the pictures and old videos tell me I was a happy baby/toddler. I had birthday parties and parents and grand parents and siblings that loved me. I ran around and I smiled and I laughed. There was no sign of the sadness and the anger.
It’s not terribly common for children to develop bipolar symptoms. Usually it’s during the late teens and early adult years that this occurs. However, when it does happen, as it did with me, it’s called early onset bipolar. The symptoms tend to be much more severe during this period and the mood swings can happen much more frequently.
If I think back and I focus hard enough I can see it begin to creep in somewhere around elementary school. What strikes out at me first is the hallucinations. For a long time I thought nothing of it, I was brought up in quite the religious atmosphere so I (seriously) thought that, perhaps, God or Jesus or whomever, was sending me visions. I guess I was 9 or 10 when the first one happened. These glowing figures hovered over my bed. Now, I’d been told in church that God could speak to me directly, so here I am thinking I’m Moses with my own personal burning bush. The image lasted a good 30 seconds and vanished. I immediately ran and told my mom. I don’t remember her brushing me off exactly, but she no doubt chalked it up to a kid just being a kid and I don’t blame her.
The hallucinations weren’t always so kind. One time I thought I saw claws growing out of my dads hand, coming directly for my throat. Then there were the voices I’d hear from time to time, calling my name in various tones and dialects. Most of this went away as I entered my adult years, and vanished altogether when I got on medication, something I’m very grateful for.
The other thing that sticks out to me is the amount of anxiety I lived with. Part of that can be attributed to my illness and the other part can be attributed to the atmosphere in which I grew up.
I was anxious about everything. I was anxious about how often and what time of day to take a shower. I remember asking the kids at school when they took showers. I was hyper aware of my hands when playing with other kids, I didn’t want to accidentally touch someone wrong during the excitement of tag and get accused of being inappropriate. I was afraid to have kids over my house…what if they took, touched, or broke my toys? Then there was the separation anxiety. I tried to go to camp 4 different times. I didn’t last more than three days, often faking illnesses in order to get sent home early (one time the camp was in another state…I think that’s the last time they sent me). Even today, being separated from the ones I love for extended periods of time is an extremely uncomfortable experience.
My anxiety also came from my father, an ex-marine, Vietnam vet with his own laundry list of psychological issues. He wasn’t a good man, but I can say he loved me, up to a point. He exited my life in my early teens, made intermittent visits up until I turned about eighteen and then vanished from my life altogether. He didn’t come to my wedding and he doesn’t call. I’ve got no idea if he’s alive or dead and I don’t care…then again my eyes tend to mist over when I say that, so perhaps the truth isn’t so clear cut.
What can I say about my childhood with my father? He had moments of decency, but it’s the abuse that sticks out, looming over everything else like a shadow. I remember pleading with him, begging him, to at least tell me when he was going to hit me—it was some sick pleasure for him, I think. He never did. He’d yell and yell, his hands poised at his sides, and then he’d go off and pop me as hard as he could, no warning. He was quick with his hands, so I never saw it coming. He’d get me wherever he could land a blow. If he got tired of using his hands he’d use my toys. You know those old school paddles with the rubber ball attached by an elastic band? I went through a couple those as a kid because he liked to rip the ball off and pop me with it. “My dad used to beat me with fishing poles,” he’d say between hits, “be thankful it’s just a paddle!” WHACK
This anxiety I had from him soaked into everything. I didn’t like having friends over to begin with, but I stopped having them over altogether after he went off the handle one day in front of them, tore my shirt off, and started beating me in front of them on the porch. I remember at school one time, this kid jumped me on the playground (I was a quiet and awkward kid and an easy target) before he started wailing on me I begged him to tell me when he was going to hit me. Here I was at school, trying to defend myself, using the same words I used when my father would go into rage mode on me.
But what really strikes me about my father, now, was his admission into a mental institution, twice. I’ll never forget, on my 13th birthday,he and my mom took me out shopping (he could be decent) and he just had a full on mental breakdown, right in the middle of the store. Curled up on the floor. Crying. Rocking. As a 13 year old…I didn’t know how to process. He was admitted that day and I remember visiting him a few times and promising myself that it’d never happen to me.
Never say never, right? Seems like I got all the best parts of him.
Anyway. Then there was the anger. It was flash anger. I could be fine one minute and putting my fists and feet through walls the next. Calling my mom a bitch. Shoving and hitting her (this is me as a younger kid…12…13) and I’m not proud of that. It breaks my heart thinking about how out of control I was. But I was just a rebellious child, right? That’s what we thought. Some kids are just bad.
Or I could lose all interest in toys and people and be writing suicide poems…again, keep in mind, I was a young teenager.But I mean, I always wanted to be a writer, I knew that I’d had a turmoil ridden childhood, I was just venting, right? And my mom felt the same way, I was just venting. Neither of us knew about bipolar or anything else.
Sure, I got prayer at church for these issues, but that was also part of the problem. Many churches don’t preach mental illness. They chalk it up to demons and rebellious spirits and, often times, that’s what I thought I had. If I just prayed a little harder and got a little more Jesus in me, well, my problems would just disappear. Hearing that, as a kid, and then praying your ass off and having nothing happen, is downright confusing. It also makes you resentful towards the big guy upstairs real quick.
I’m not here to tell you my entire child hood. There were countless other situations and signs that pointed to my illness. The only thing was, we knew nothing about it. The only thing I knew about bipolar growing up was that it was a metaphor that people used when they couldn’t decide on what they wanted to do or wear.
And you know what? That’s really sad. There’s no education on it. I grew up thinking my suicidal behavior, hallucinations, destructive fits of rage, and my aversion to other humans was normal. My mom just thought I was a bad kid…that perhaps I’d grow out of it. But, no, my illness just matured…it turned inward…and became a dark stranger that followed closely in my footsteps, tripping me up at the most inopportune times, whispering mischief in my ear and coaxing me to act against my own self interest.
But more on that in my next blog.
Mental illness…there’s such a stigma on it. People are scared to talk about it.
FACT: 1/4 of all U.S. adults suffer from some sort of diagnosable mental condition. It’s time for us to start talking about it. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not real. People are suffering every day. They’re dying by their own hands, no longer able to bear the loneliness of the great shadow.
Maybe if I’d gotten the help I’d needed as a kid my illness wouldn’t have been able to mature. Perhaps I’d have had a more successful adventure into adulthood. Perhaps I wouldn’t have ended up an alcoholic. Perhaps I wouldn’t have tried to kill myself and I wouldn’t have ended up in a psych hospital. Perhaps I wouldn’t be sitting here writing these words, able to help others through my experience with the hard road.
You see, everything happens for a reason and I’m not resentful of my journey. It’s molded me into the person I am today, for better or worse–I’m proud of that person, I accept that person.
Anyway, that’s an image of what a childhood with bipolar looked like for me. Perhaps it’s familiar? Perhaps you know a child that mirrors this behavior? I’m going to paste some information about it below, some symptoms to look for. If any of it is familiar, get help, please? Talk about it. The tides can be turned, but it’s going be a one person at a time process.
I just wanted to do a broad blog over my childhood to sort of show my journey and how I developed. Future blogs…I want to focus in on single issues since, now, you know where I’m coming from. I’ll be working forward in these blogs, to the moment I was hospitalized, but it took 26 odd years to get to that point, so there’s some ground to cover.
Until next time.
What are the symptoms of bipolar disorder?
Bipolar mood changes are called “mood episodes.” Your child may have manic episodes, depressive episodes, or “mixed” episodes. A mixed episode has both manic and depressive symptoms. Children and teens with bipolar disorder may have more mixed episodes than adults with the illness.
Mood episodes last a week or two—sometimes longer. During an episode, the symptoms last every day for most of the day.
Mood episodes are intense. The feelings are strong and happen along with extreme changes in behavior and energy levels.
Children and teens having a manic episode may:
- Feel very happy or act silly in a way that’s unusual
- Have a very short temper
- Talk really fast about a lot of different things
- Have trouble sleeping but not feel tired
- Have trouble staying focused
- Talk and think about sex more often
- Do risky things.
Children and teens having a depressive episode may:
- Feel very sad
- Complain about pain a lot, like stomachaches and headaches
- Sleep too little or too much
- Feel guilty and worthless
- Eat too little or too much
- Have little energy and no interest in fun activities
- Think about death or suicide.