Talking to Bipolar Teens: What Can I Possibly Tell Them?

John McManamy Health Guide
  • Not long ago, my good friend Nanci at the Child and Adolescent Bipolar Foundation (CABF) emailed me. She wanted me to participate in a podcast aimed at bipolar teens, put on by their affiliate site,


    Any regular reader of this blog knows by now that parents of bipolar kids are my favorite people. Both my initial education and continuing education into early onset bipolar came through these parents, mostly ones associated with CABF. For some reason, we just keep hitting it off.


    To anyone who has any doubts about whether kids with bipolar really exist or that the illness may be overdiagnosed, my rejoinder has been consistently simple: talk to these parents.

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    But as much as I support bipolar parents and the work of CABF, I was reluctant to do a podcast for them. I never had classic early-onset bipolar, which is far more severe than the adult version. Yes, I had full-blown depression as a kid, and very clear early warning signs (what they call prodromal features) that something wasn't right, but my manic episodes did not manifest in full measure till my late teens-early adulthood.


    I hadn't walked in these kids' shoes. Why should they listen to me? Even if I could find a common bond, let's face it, I'm an old fogey. I don't even know how to text message.


    But Nanci wouldn't take no for an answer. I wrote a book, after all. Well, so did Stephen King. Why not get Stephen King? It turned out that Stephen King was unavailable, which is why they contacted me. So one or two days after I got home from my most recent conference, I was on the phone with a smart and affable interviewer named Chris.


    Chris asked me a question about making the right choices when it doesn't seem like as much fun. I hemmed and hawed a bit, then came out with: "The best way to get people talking about us and pointing funny fingers at us and not being able to participate in activities is by trying to fit in too much."


    Namely by adopting some of the bad habits our peers have, such as partying all night, and indulging in too many bad things.


    Somehow I went straight from that to: "Guess what? We have talent. Bipolars are the most creative people on earth. If it wasn't for us we'd be still shivering in caves. We have created civilization."


    See, Nanci. I told you that you should have booked someone else. Hold on:


    "We have an enormous pool of talent, but we have to preserve it and conserve it at the right times. We can be popular, we can lead the pack, but we have to pace ourselves. Your friends are running a sprint, we have to run a marathon."


    Wait, that almost makes sense. Chris picked up on the cue and asked about having to lead a regimented life. No more hemming and hawing:


    "The regimented life is a small price to pay for the wonderful brain you already have, okay? Because I'm saying our brains are better than these poor normal people. We have wings, but one of the responsibilities in having wings is using our gifts wisely. So it looks like we may be more regimented, but our minds can fly. But for our minds to fly, we gotta pay attention. It means we have to sleep at certain times, it means we have to say no to certain substances, it means we have to organize our time, it means we have to have routines because we don't want surprises in our life ..."


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    I was only just getting started:


    "Often teachers and psychiatrists don't appreciate what kind of wonderful minds we have. Because we're different. We were born different. Often we think different. But take it from me - I've been through this - we think better."


    I had talked to enough parents to know who my audience was. Kids who had picked up the message from teachers and clinicians and perhaps even the juvenile justice system that something was terribly wrong with them. Kids who needed special assistance to survive in a regular school, kids who needed to be sent to special schools. Kids who picked up strange vibes from kids their age, didn't fit in, weren't invited to birthday parties.


    Kids who felt threatened by their environment, got stressed out and disoriented over little things. Kids who couldn't sleep at night, suffered terrible nightmares, then couldn't wake up. Kids who flipped, who would erupt into manias that made yours or mine look like a relaxing soak in the tub by comparison. Kids who whiplashed from mania into horrible depressions and back again in a matter of hours.


    Just the fact that these kids need special attention sends a certain negative message - that they are different and different can only mean one thing, not as good. I was laying it on the line: Yes, they think different, we think different. But we think better.


    It just popped out.


    I have no idea if I got through to these kids. I haven't walked in their shoes. I'm an old fogey. I can't text message. But maybe it's the first time they ever heard this message. Or maybe it's the first time they heard it from someone who really means it.


    We think better.


    Who knows? Maybe I was the right person for this podcast, after all. Maybe I did something right.


    You can check out the podcast here. Mine is entitled "Living Well." I enter the podcast about 17 minutes into the production.

Published On: September 13, 2007