My son has struggled with mood swings since he was 8 years old, and he was diagnosed as bi-polar at 16. I wish I could say that I was the poster-mom for bi-polar care giving, but I'd be lying through my teeth. I did manage to learn a few things, from trial and error mostly, and I'd like to share them with you.

  • Denial. Maybe you know this routine: 'It's not bi-polar, it's just ADHD.' 'It's not bi-polar; it's the drugs and alcohol.' 'It's not bi-polar; we've just been too permissive.' 'It's not bi-polar; it's those pot-smoking loser friends he hangs out with.'
  • I didn't listen to people who knew better. Who were they? His therapist, his doctors, his brother, a few of his teachers and one or two rehab counselors who didn't just write him off as 'not having hit bottom yet.'   Oh, I heard what they said; I even agreed that yes, there was a definite problem here. In the back of my mind, though, I clung to a stubborn hope that it wasn't bi-polar disorder - it wasn't something I couldn't make go away.
  • Guilt. There were times when I was consumed with guilt. I could not seem to let go of it. Here's the ticket to the guilt trip: 'If only I'd …' Once you use that ticket, believe me, you're in for a long, bumpy ride with very ugly scenery. It's a trip to yesterday, and it takes you farther and farther from the reality of today and the possibility of tomorrow.   For me it was another form of denial: So many times, I wanted to be anywhere other than the present; revisiting the past brought back the Mike I once knew - but the cost of the ticket was beating myself up on a dead-end guilt trip.
  • I gave in to depression. I don't mean to imply that being depressed during some incredibly stressful years is unnatural or even preventable. When I say 'gave in' I mean that slowly, I let the sadness creep over me like a warm blanket until I was too tired to lift it off my body. This led to:
  • Isolating, because it was just too much trouble to go out. There was so much to do just to maintain the household from crisis to crisis; when there was a chance to rest I retreated into a book or TV, very much alone. I stopped reaching out to friends and people who could help.
  • Lack of exercise. If I couldn't get myself to go out, you can imagine how enthusiastic I was about walking, riding my bike, hiking or lifting weights - all of which I used to really enjoy!
  • Not eating right. I'd pick up fast food because I was too exhausted to cook or clean up after I'd cooked. Of course, this meant that the whole family was not eating right, and that made me feel guilty, which made me more depressed … get the picture?
  • Acting out my anger. No apologies offered for the feeling - my mistake was in stamping it down until it blew like a bottle rocket. I tried so hard to shield Mike from my anger that I often spewed it over innocent bystanders. Since I wasn't admitting what was really making me angry -- MY SON IS DISAPPEARING BEFORE MY EYES AND I CAN'T HELP HIM! MY SON IS DYING! -- these outbursts rarely made me feel better.
  • Ambivalence. It's hard for me to commit to a plan of action unless I know all the facts and feel that I understand them. Unfortunately, it took me a long time to understand my son's condition and accept the importance of hospitalization, medication and therapy. Too often, when Mike would take a turn for the better, I'd waver from my plan, such as it was, and allow him more latitude treatment than I now believe was good for him.
  • Too much love; not enough tough. I can see now that I failed to set enough limits for my son. I think he would have felt safer had I not excused some of the really wild stuff. The fact is, I was so afraid I was going to lose him - really lose him - that every small sign that he was cooperating in his recovery made me take two steps back in my consistency.
  • All that said, it's not where I live today. My son, who will be 21 in a few months, sees a doctor and a therapist; he works a 12-step program; he has a job and is making plans to attend nursing school. He lives with his dad, but we see each other 2 or 3 times a week and talk every day.

    I believe that Mike is the bravest person I know, and I tell him that a lot. I also believe that he's been given some amazing gifts that unfortunately came with a price tag of unbelievable trials.

    The progress he's made is due to his own hard work. I'm grateful that I've managed to help at all, but that's mainly because he never gave up on himself. I thought I taught that to him, but really it's the other way around - my son has taught me that if you never give up, things get better.

    10 Things I Did Right
  • I admitted that I was powerless over my son's bi-polar disorder. I'm talking here about a 12-step-program powerlessness. For me, it meant no more denial. I accepted that Mike had bi-polar disorder and I had no power to change that fact. Trying to make it go away was a waste of time and energy.   Once I admitted that lack of power, however, I discovered many things I could do to help him get healthy.
  • I did everything I could to help Mike get his high school diploma. In first grade, my son tried to drown himself in the sink after an episode involving a girlfriend, a rival and a poorly aimed block. So, over the years, I've developed a working knowledge of the rights of children with disabilities. I listened to the teachers and counselors who wanted to help and argued with the administrators who didn't. I'm certain that I am classified by the State Board of Education as a major pain in the neck.   In the end, though, I simply refused to let the school administration sweep him under the rug. When he was classified as learning disabled and put in remedial classes, I found I could use that classification to get him more testing and more help. When it was discovered that his IQ was in the 99.9 percentile, his classification still qualified him for extra help and protection. When school administrators said they would no longer allow him to attend school, I insisted on his rights as a disabled student, and finally, they found him a tutor.   During his senior year, although he continued to self-medicate with alcohol and pot and his rapid-cycling mood swings were unbelievably intense; although he was in and out of rehabs and hospitals more times than I can remember, he managed to meet with that tutor enough times to graduate from high school.
  • I faced my own fears, finally, and shared them with supportive friends. My worst fear was that Mike would take his own life, and of course that fear was the most difficult to share. It wasn't unfounded - he'd tried.   In response to my voicing this fear, someone in a 12-step program shared with me one of AA's unofficial slogans: 'Don't quit before the miracle happens.' It's comforted me from the day I heard it, and brought me strength when it seemed as if only a miracle would save my son.   Here are some other things I learned because I spoke honestly to my friends:   It's okay to be afraid. It's okay to be angry. It's okay to be sad. The only way to get over those feelings is to feel them. You have to take care of you. Yeah, sometimes people really don't understand.
  • I found a therapist. This was essential for me, because I had so much guilt and sadness to talk out and I was so confused by it. So much was going on in my son's life, in mine and in my whole family's that didn't make any sense to me. My therapist helped me out of the black hole of depression and showed me how strong I could be.
  • I cried when I needed to let out the pain; I meditated when I needed to quiet my mind; and I laughed when horrible things struck me as funny. And I still do.
  • When I became overwhelmed by my son's needs, I asked for help from his father. This was hard, because I was still angry that he'd left us. However, I was also raising Mike's younger brother. Mike's schizophrenic episodes and attempts to hurt himself were taking a terrible toll on Jack. Because I now had to work full time out of my home, I couldn't always be around to help when situations got hairy.   Much to my surprise, my ex agreed to have Mike come and live with him for awhile. Even more surprising to me was that Mike began to get much better in his new surroundings. His father, with a few years of lower stress levels under his belt, had more energy to pour into unraveling the insurance red-tape, arranging doctor's visits, helping him get to group therapy sessions and monitoring his meds.
  • I read everything I could about bi-polar disorder. Much to my surprise, there's a lot out there. In fact, there's so much information that it can get confusing to sort it all out. I read about medications, because Mike's doctors were trying quite a few, and I wanted to know more than they always had time to discuss in detail. I read what other people with bi-polar said about their condition and what other caregivers said about their experiences. It's empowering to find out as much as you can.   I realize, however, that all the reading in the world will not make me an expert, and I don't pretend to be. I've learned some coping strategies; I can discuss Mike's problems with him a lot more cogently; I can talk with a doctor without turning into a ball of clay, and I can encourage Mike to cooperate with a course of medication when I understand some of the side-effects he describes.
  • I listened to my son. There were times when Mike's manic delusions took him places I really didn't want to go, but when he spoke about them I tried to hear what he was saying and tell him what I thought.   Listening to Mike in a manic state was very much like viewing an incomprehensible piece of modern art. The longer I studied it, though, the more I could see that while the artist was interpreting life through a different perspective than my own, inside the work there was a kernel of reality that we could share.
  • I tried to be honest and positive with my son. I can't tell you how many times my gut reaction to my son's ideas about life could be summed up in one sentence: 'That's crazy!' Well, yeah, it was. Hello. And yet, the hardest thing to hear was Mike telling me, 'I'm crazy. I know it; I'm crazy.' Then, all I wanted to say was, 'No you're not!'   So it wasn't always appropriate to offer gut-wrenching honesty. However, I believe that my son needs to take medication to even out his mood swings, that he needs to share his thoughts with a therapist he trusts, and that it's very important for him to stay away from pot, drugs and alcohol. These were things I could always share from my heart. These were things that would help him to get better.
  • I always kept in my heart, and still do keep, a vision of my son as healthy. I keep many pictures of Mike by my bed, the adorable child snuggling up to his brother; the gangly pre-adolescent hanging out with basketball buddies; the moody teenager; the handsome man.   During the bad times, I could look at one of these snapshots and remember that as hateful and difficult as his disorder was, there was still that loving gentle soul in the eye of the storm. During times of peace, these captured moments remind me of how very much I've been blessed to have Mike as a son.