A Peek Into the Life of Parenting a Teen with Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar Disorder

I haven’t had a chance to sit down and write a really honest, behind-the-scenes post in a while. I’ve kept quiet about things that were going on here at home but to be perfectly honest, I’m stressed as hell and I can’t seem to get off this merry-go-round that has become my life.

On February 6th, 5 days before my 50th birthday, my 17-year-old son, JW, was arrested for petty larceny, unlawful entry, and larceny of a firearm. Three days before that, he had a meltdown when we wouldn’t allow him out after curfew and he added a few new holes to his bedroom walls and put his hands on me. The judge wouldn’t allow him to come home on the electronic monitoring program – so off to the juvenile detention center he went.

On February 24th, my 14-year-old son, TW, was involved in an altercation with two (former) friends and was charged with two counts of assault and battery in addition to strong-armed robbery – for asking one of the former friends (before the fight started) if he had $10 on him. That wasn’t what started the fight either – the fight started with one of the friends because of what happened with his brother on February 6th. A $1,000 later and a lot of emails back and forth with the attorney, and those charges were dropped against my younger son. He’s doing 20 hours of community service and then he’s finished and can put that behind him.

However, it’s been 192 days since JW has lived at home. 

JW has been to juvenile detention, a residential treatment center that seemed no more than a step up from juvie but with better food and less supervision. There were fights on a weekly basis, riots by the residents against staff and other residents, and we were getting phone calls multiple times a day stating he’d been in an altercation with this resident or that resident. 

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So we got him transferred to a different residential treatment center. Only five other residents when he checked in, calm and peaceful. Two to three staff members assigned to each kid, a schedule that he could adhere to and keep him busy throughout the day. There is a gym inside where he can go and play basketball pretty much anytime he wants, he can play his guitar, watch television, hang out and read. Almost like being at home – with the exception of being surrounded by other residents that “annoy the shit out of me” he’s said.

First week was fine, had a few rocky weeks after that while he adjusted to new rules, new setting, new staff. He was finally doing well enough to have a 6-hour pass granted. We were able to head to the beach for a few hours and enjoy some family time together.

JW and Me

We had plans for him to come home for a 24-hour pass for the 4th of July. That was all I wanted, was to spend the evening with my boys watching the fireworks at the Diamond like we do every year. Unfortunately, JW had an episode at the center and his pass was canceled. Okay, deep breath. If he maintained the rest of the week he could come home that weekend on a 24-hour pass.

He didn’t make it past Thursday.

So we focused on being able to get him to identify his triggers, what made him angry, how he felt when he was getting angry, etc. Maybe if we could work on that, and help him to identify things he could do to calm himself down before he went off the charts, it would help.

The doctor requested to take him off Abilify (which he has been on for several years) and to put him on Buspar 10mg twice a day. We also received a request about a week later to add Seroquel XR 150mg to his medication regime. We gave our consent to add them to the Vyvanse 50mg, Effexor 75mg, Atarax 25mg (twice a day) and the Remeron 7.5mg he received in the evening to help him sleep. So that was 6 regular every day medications and his PRN medication (Zyprexa Zydis 5mg) every 8 hours as needed. 7 medications in total.

Barely made it another five days before another incident occurred. It just seems like it’s always something and that there is always an issue that he can’t deal with.

Then he finally did it – he maintained for 5 straight days and he came home for a 24-hour pass. Everything was fine that first 18 hours he was home. Normal happy family. Then we got in the car to go to his fiance’s house, he stuck his face in the phone, and went the fuck off after reading some text messages between his fiance and his best friend. 

I’m not talking normal mad like most people. He went from 0 to 1000 in less than 2 seconds. Screaming and shouting at a decibal that was off the charts. Slamming his head against the glove box and passenger window, punching the glove box. I seriously thought he was going to put his fist through the car or his head through the window.

Then he jumped out of the car as we were turning down her street – literally JUMPED OUT OF THE CAR doing about 30 miles an hour.

He said he was done, he didn’t want to do any of this anymore, and started walking towards the highway. I had slammed the car into park the minute he opened the door and jumped, and I ran after him. Right before I was able to reach him, he toppled over. Literally like a tree being cut down – stiff as a board – he went face first onto the asphalt and was unresponsive when I rolled him over. I had to slap his face – hard – about four times before he finally gasped for air and started choking and opened his eyes.

That took some of the fight out of him, and I got him in the car and started back to the house to get him his afternoon medications. He cried the whole way home, kept saying he was so sorry he was such a failure, kept telling his fiance he was so sorry he was screaming at her, literally curled up in the passenger seat hugging my arm like a lifeboat.

After he took his medicine we did our best to keep him calm and centered till his medicine kicked in and he was “back to normal” again if you will. He was fine the rest of the day and was able to interact with others and be his usual pleasant self.

We had about three weeks of this – the “normal” happy self. Even through the death of his best friend on August 2nd, attending the funeral on August 6th and the memorial service afterwards with all of his friends. He showed remarkable self-control. He kept it together, he cried and allowed himself to grieve, but instead of going to the extreme (as I was afraid he was going to do), when he was offered alcohol and marijuana he simply said, “Nah, thanks, I’m good.” He was able to be around his friends and not join them in their activities because we have finally (I believe) helped him to understand that alcohol counteracts his medications and can cause severe problems for him. The marijuana, honestly, I wouldn’t have cared if he smoked. Hell I want to smoke on a regular basis to be able to deal with everything. It’s one thing that seems to help him calm down and keep the voices in his head at bay and the manic episodes at bay.

The week after his friend’s funeral, we received a request for him to be given Klonipin .25mg in the morning and .25mg in the afternoon. His dad takes the same medication at a slightly stronger dosage and it has worked miracles in helping him, so we agreed.

He was home this past weekend for a 48-hour pass. The goal was/is to have him ready to return home by the end of September, since he turns 18-years-old in November. So with him receiving a 48-hour pass, we were super excited because a longer home pass must mean he’s getting better, right?

Wrong.

He came home this past weekend and was in what I can only describe as a manic state. At first I thought it was just excitement at being able to spend the entire weekend at home. As the day progressed, however, I noticed it was more than that. He seemed incapable of being still. He was completely focused on doing nothing but listening to the music he loves and having us record videos of him singing his favorite songs. We coerced him into coming to the pool with us … he brought the phone with him and recorded at the pool and refused to get in. After an hour when the phone was about to die, he made us leave so we could come back to the house and he could record more.

This lasted for 9 hours straight.

He also had developed a severe tic from one of the many medications that he is on. He was constantly licking his lips, sticking his tongue out, wiping his mouth as though he thought or felt as though he was drooling. The inside of his bottom lip was so torn up from him biting and chewing on it, that I was afraid he would get it infected. It was literally raw.

He did not sleep at all Friday night. He woke up Friday morning at 6:00 a.m. and did not sleep again until 11:00 p.m. Saturday evening – and only then because he had an “episode” that took the wind out of him and caused him to crash and burn. His body just gave out.

He begged to spend the night at his fiance’s house on Friday so that he could spend all day Saturday with us at home. Since his fiance’s mother is well aware of Jonathan’s disorders (having raised her own daughter with similar disorders) I allowed it. I thought perhaps in another environment he would settle down and sleep. 

Wrong.

Tammy said that he was the same at her house. Incapable of sitting still, constant motion, constant singing, he just could not be still at all. When I called at 7 a.m. to make sure he’d taken his morning medication, he was wide awake and wanted me to come get him so he could come home and “record a song that I just finished.” I told him I had some errands to run and I would be there to get him around 9:30 a.m.

When he did come home, it was more of the same – listen to music, record himself singing – but it was at a more reasonable level. There were breaks, it wasn’t non-stop like it was the day before. He played guitar for awhile, watched some television, hung out with his brother for a bit. 

We had plans to have dinner and then have a movie night with the family. Munch popcorn and watch horror movies and comedies. He managed to last about 35-40 minutes into Sausage Party while I was cooking dinner and then it all seemed to start all over again. He was becoming manic, where he couldn’t sit still. His fiance asked him something about a text message that came across her phone for him and he hit 1000 in 2 seconds again. His anger peaked, he threw his electronic guitar at the wall in his bedroom, had words with his fiance, and then did his best to shut himself down. He grabbed a blanket out of the linen closet, crawled into his bed and buried himself in a cocoon. I tried several times to get him to come out in the living room, but he refused. When I asked him what was wrong, to come talk to me, he told me to fuck off.

I know he did not mean it – but oh those two words cut me to my heart.

I am the one person who is there for him through everything, being his supporter, his champion, his voice when he is so upset he cannot speak for himself. I am the one person in this family who would die for him without hesitation if it would make him better.

I left him alone after that, and I sat here and watched television by myself. An hour or so later his fiance texted me and said he was scaring the hell out of her. (They were in his room with the door shut). He was talking in his sleep about killing everyone in the house and then killing himself, he was punching the pillows, then he was complaining it was too hot in his room, then it was too cold. He said he was going to sneak out of the house while everyone was asleep and run away and never come back.

This went on for about 3o minutes. I told her I wasn’t going to sleep. She had been awake for two days straight and could barely function and needed sleep. I told her to try and sleep and I would be in the living room watching and listening for any signs of trouble. 

Around 2:00 a.m. he woke up and came out to the kitchen to get a drink. I looked at him warily and asked how he was feeling and his response was fine. He said he was sorry he didn’t do movie night with me, he just didn’t feel right, and then he hugged me tight and said he loved me and went back to bed.

I asked him in the morning if he remembered anything from last night. All he recalled was getting angry about the text messages and then talking to me in the kitchen at 2 a.m. and wondering why I hadn’t gone to bed yet. It was the start of a more serious issue that I should have been able to tune into.

When he returned to the center on Sunday, I gave them a letter detailing our concerns about the medications, the tic that had suddenly appeared in just 4 days time, and I showed the nurse on duty the video of him and the tic that was ever so present. I told them I needed to speak to the doctor as soon as he was available on Monday, and Jonathan was instructed to talk with the doctor as well and tell him how the medication was making him feel and which he though should be changed or adjusted. 

Now, it seems as though we are entering the manic phase again. I want to blame the medication, I want to blame people not handling him with kid gloves and “triggering” him to set him off. Realistically though, I can’t expect the world to tiptoe around on eggshells around him to keep him calm and happy. That’s not a real life, and I don’t want him to grow up to be ill-equipped to deal with painful emotions and situations that are going to arise.

Wrong Medications = Serious Problems

Tuesday night at the treatment center, the director and another staff member were having a simple, honest talk with him and another resident to discuss the things that they could do at the treatment center to earn funds for the restitution that they needed to make for items that were broken. Something this simple, this innocent, set him off. There had to be more to the story to make him want to try and attack a staff member (which I will get to in a moment) and the fact that he became combative and had to be restrained and then just full on blacked out is scary. They begged him to go to the emergency room after beating his head several times against a concrete wall, but once the EMTs arrived and all his vital signs were completely normal (not to mention his adamant refusal to go to the ER) I told them that if he wasn’t bleeding profusely from his forehead and had no other injuries, to leave him be, or they would only make the situation worse.

They gave him his PRN (Zyprexa Zydis) and he returned to his room and cut out the lights and just asked to be left alone. They perform bed checks every 10 minutes at this center, and after about 30 minutes they said he was resting comfortably and doing fine. 

The following morning; however, I could tell he was “not fine” because he woke up and as he was going about getting ready for the day, he made a comment that just chilled me to the bone. He told one of the nursing staff, “If I see Ms. So-and-So today, I’m going to do my best to snap her neck and kill her,” and went on to the bathroom to brush his teeth and shower and get ready for the day.

He apparently had dreamt that she emailed something about him that was not true to his treatment team and wanted her dead because of it. The director herself contacted everyone who works at the center to inquire as to what email was received about JW, and not a single person had received any information from this particular person or anyone else about him.

The Seroquel XR 150mg had been discontinued on Sunday when we took him back, and he began Seroquel 50mg on Monday evening. He told them Wednesday morning he was not taking the Klonipin any longer, that it made him feel too strange, so that has been discontinued as well. As the day went on, it was plain to see that he was more himself again, that he was able to go about his day without incident and interact with others appropriately. 

He even pulled the director aside and apologized to her for his behavior Tuesday evening and for any problem he had caused for her. 

He is making great progress at this treatment center, but nobody seems to be addressing the underlying problem – something we have been asking about for the past 9 months – to have our son formally tested and diagnosed to see if he has bipolar syndrome. Everything about his actions and his demeanor, the mood swings, everything, lead us to believe that this is one of the major mental health disorders that needs to be treated and dealt with. He needs to learn how to manage the various stages so he can maintain a regular life outside the treatment center.

There is so much more, the minute details that just come with the territory that I have not mentioned. The relationships with others, learning how to discipline for what is an actual teenage disobeying the rules and understanding when certain actions are done as a result of his mental illness and not something he is in full control of. 

A Parent’s Perspective

I love my son dearly – never, ever doubt that. There are days, weeks, months, however, when I am on this roller coaster with him and I wonder just how I’m going to make it through the next 24-hour period. I can’t bare to see him in so much pain emotionally, unable to do what he thinks society expects of him, what we expect of him, and sinking into a depression because he feels worthless and useless and that we would be better off without him here.

Because then I worry about him committing suicide. I worry about hiding the knives in the house, I worry about having any medications at all in the house, I worry about him destroying his bedroom and the rest of the house even more when he goes into a rage.

For the past three years, my level of worry has increased ten fold. He is the first thought on my mind when I wake up and the last as a I fall asleep as the sun is peeking through the mini-blinds. When he sleeps, I can sleep. When he’s awake, I dare not sleep in case he tries to do something like sneaking out of the house and getting into trouble. The last time I fell asleep while he was still awake, he was arrested back in February. I still blame myself for not being awake to stop him from sneaking out the house that night.

I spend my days wanting to hide under the covers and sleep until I can’t sleep any longer. I have reached a point where I feel as though I need to seek out some mental health services of my own before I sink into this depression so far that I cannot pull myself out. I have to keep it together for my son, to be an example for him, to be there to help him.

I just have trouble forcing myself to pick up the telephone and make the call. I don’t want to leave my house. It’s safe inside these four walls. I can shut out the world, turn off the phone, and just pretend that everything is fine and happy and normal and not have to talk to people, not have to answer questions about my son, just not deal. With anything.

For the past three years, this has been building

He was diagnosed with ADHD when he was in elementary school, then came the Oppositional Defiant Disorder, the panic attacks, the anxiety attacks, the mood disorders. He became suicidal when he was 15-years-old and went through a breakup that just tore him apart. Over the years there has been trouble with school (even though his IQ is extremely high), being promiscuous, experimenting with drugs and alcohol. 

I tried to be a “good parent” and dealt with these issues as you would with any regular teenager. Regular parenting skills don’t work on a teenager who has bipolar disorder. I don’t know what will, I’m still learning. We are a work in progress, him and I. 

I do know, however, that I will always be there for him. He and his brother are the two people that I will drag my ass out of my own depression for. To be their champion, to be their protector, to be there for them – no matter what.

Have a Great Week!

Love and Blessings

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Susan Hartman

I wish you and your family peace. I have a friend whose husband has bipolar disorder and has done well most of the time on his meds. Yet another young woman who I have friended has struggled. She does have an alcohol problem that complicates an already difficult situation. Life is not easy.