Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Knowledge is Power - Telling Them They're Bipolar

Sam, currently 16, knew from the time he was diagnosed in fourth grade with ADHD, that he had it and what it meant. He understood why he had to take his pills every morning, and he saw the difference they made. Kids have been getting diagnosed with, and treated for, ADHD since I was a kid in the 60's (my brother has it). It seems like a disorder that has been de-stigmatized and none of us is terribly uncomfortable speaking of it. A good friend of mine whose son was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) at the time, confided in me and made sure I swore not to share with anyone. I said I understood because Sam had a diagnosis as well, and I was aware that people often have confidentiality issues. She thought it was ridiculous to make the comparison - ADHD and OCD carried entirely different stigmas! And they do.

We had figured out Tommy and his younger brother Will had Sensory Integration Dysfunction (SID) when Tommy was in first grade and Will was in preschool. We had no trouble telling Tommy and Will that they had SID, and explaining what it meant. It did not seem to be a scary diagnosis. In fact, having "sensory issues" almost seems to be in vogue these days. We did not know at this point that Tommy was also Bipolar. The SID diagnosis helped Tommy to understand why things were so different for him and why he could not go to school at the time. It seemed like a reasonable explanation for what was going on, and several other kids in school suffered from the same thing.

We did not consider the Bipolar diagnosis until Tommy was in 2nd grade. And initially, we called it a mood disorder. Once we had concurred with his docs and therapists that Bipolar was the problem, we did not tell him. The label seemed much more serious and frightening to us than anything else we had dealt with. We feared that if he (or we) told people he had this, other parents would not want their children to play with him. In the shame, secrecy and confusion department, Bipolar was in a completely different league than the ADHD and SID diagnoses.

About three fourths of the way through third grade Tommy seemed mature enough to handle it. He had had a lot of therapies and was stable on meds. By this time we had become much more comfortable ourselves with the label Bipolar. We went to great pains to educate ourselves on the illness and were gifted with a much greater understanding of it. Our son was not, and should not, be an outcast - he simply had an illness that needed treatment. We took on the attitude, as cliché as it sounds, that if someone wanted to end a friendship over this, they were not worth having as friends.

The first time Tommy shared with someone that he was bipolar was a "nails on a black board" incident - I cringe when I think of it. He was invited to a friend's birthday party, a friend who he had not seen in a while, and a friend who was a girl. Her older brother was also celebrating his birthday. The parents convinced us to go out to dinner and relax - Tommy would be fine. Besides, we had our cell phones with us. I did not realize at the time I dropped him off that the dynamic would be all girls his age, all boys several years older. Tommy was odd man out.

The older boys started throwing water balloons and using squirt guns and would not listen to Tommy when he asked them to stop. He jolted into "fight or flight" mode from the sensory overload and the lack of control and expectations. He picked up rocks and started throwing them at the older boys. The Dad asked him to stop, and when he did not he grabbed him, dragged him into the house, locked the two of them in a bedroom and tried to calm him down. Tommy just kept screaming "I'm Bipolar, I'm Bipolar," over and over again. The Dad didn't much care what Tommy was; he just wanted him to stop throwing rocks. Getting that cell phone call at the restaurant was not exactly a "feel good moment."

But there have been true "feel good moments" now that he has this knowledge and has accepted it as part of his identity. Tommy goes to a reading lab at his school. Several other boys from his class go in at the same time. The reading specialist reported to me, with much pleasure that one day, that one of the boys just said aloud, "I'm dyslexic," another commented "so am I," another one replied "I have eye tracking problems," and Tommy said confidently, "I'm Bipolar." She told me "gee, I was kind of wishing I had a disorder to brag about!"

In fact, every other time since the rock throwing incident that Tommy has shared this information with people, it has been in a positive light. And, fortunately, it has always been received in that spirit. Every person who has shared those experiences with me has been almost as proud of him as I am. I am proud of everyone who accepts our differences. And the thing that makes me happiest is to see how Tommy feels empowered to be who he is. His acceptance of himself has been a more graceful process because of that knowledge. He is less angry and confused than he used to be. Part of this comes with meds and therapies, and part of this comes with accepting and owning his identity. He feels as if he has more control over something inside of him, something that most certainly gets out of control. He can name it, label it and own it. So, I think telling Tommy was the right thing to do; but that might just be because it worked out so well.

1 comment:

Howard said...

What a smart mom! Sharing the knowledge with your children is so beneficial. Perhaps what you did is a lesson learned for Massachusetts State Senator James Marzilli Jr.'s mom. Today, the senator's lawyer said today that his client has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but he declined to provide any medical specifics.

Marzilli faces four counts of annoying and accosting a person of the opposite sex. He was also indicted on charges of attempting to commit indecent assault and battery, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest.

Full article: http://www.boston.com/news/local/breaking_news/2008/07/state_senator_f.html