When Your Child Refuses to Acknowledge His Bipolar Disorder

John McManamy Health Guide
  • Last Thursday, I was speaking to our local NAMI. A woman asked me a question. Her 22-year-old-son had yet to accept the reality of his bipolar diagnosis. This was putting the family through all kinds of hell. What could she do?

    I am no stranger to this issue. Indeed, back in Dec 2006, I wrote a post here addressing this very concern. The One Question I Couldn’t Answer, I titled it. The one question I still can’t answer.

    I owned up to this bitter hard cold fact of life upfront. I started off by acknowledging this woman’s concerns. Then I made her aware that she was not alone with this - that a good deal of those in the audience had been through virtually the same thing. The nodding heads in the audience confirmed it.

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    The conventional wisdom is that your kid has to fall hard - real hard - before he or she wises up. Meanwhile, you hope and pray that after the fall the family is in a position to put the pieces back together. Often, they can’t.

    Not very encouraging.

    But that’s the way it is, said the faces in the room. I could see by the look in my questioner’s eyes that she had been pretty much resigned to this kind of response.

    I remember what it was like, myself, being 22. I knew there was something wrong with me. I wasn’t like other people. I didn’t fit in, I didn’t feel comfortable inside my own skin. I really needed for the world to conveniently end. That was my wish. A pre-emptive Soviet nuclear first strike. Every night just about, I prayed for it to happen.

    Or else, I thought, maybe I could just go to sleep for the next 200 years and perhaps wake up to a world more accepting of me.

    But all that was wishful thinking. If I were really serious about extinguishing my reality there was but one option. Should I or shouldn’t I? Every day of my life at age 22, that was my major decision of the day. Something obviously wasn’t right with me, but still, still ...


    I had to be. I only needed to figure out how to pick the lock to this strange entity called normal, then my world would open up to me. People would be glad to see me when I entered a room. I would have friends, a girlfriend. I could go back to college, or maybe just give college a miss and set out on a bold new path of my own ...

    It wasn’t to be.
    So here I was, back in the present, addressing a gathering at our local NAMI. I couldn’t just leave the woman in my audience with the stock response. I had pondered the issue many times over the years, so what I had to say next wasn’t entirely new to me. It’s just that my thinking had yet to congeal into something that could pass for words of wisdom.

    I paused, drew in a breath, then tried to synchronize my thoughts with the words coming out of my mouth.

    I don’t have any answers, I opened. I don’t know if this will work. Your son simply wants to be normal, I said. It’s a very confusing time in his life. This is when kids are searching for their place in the world. But whatever choices he makes, he still wants to fit in, especially with his peers.

  • And what’s the best way of NOT fitting in? By behaving in a way that has your peers talking about you and avoiding you. Call it the normal paradox - if you want to come across as normal, then first you need to acknowledge you’re not normal.

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    And this means acknowledging certain limitations in your life and not tempting fate by doing all the crazy things kids that age do. If you want to fit right in - then leave the party early. If you want people talking about how weird you are, on the other hand - then party on and face the consequences.

    In essence, I said to this woman, your son’s incentive for coming to terms with his illness (and adjusting his behavior accordingly) is his most basic need to be accepted as normal.

    But your son’s version of normal is going to be very different from the rest of the world’s version of normal, I added, and this is a good thing. In many ways, bipolar can be considered a gift, one we tend to pay a very heavy price for. But once we get a handle on our illness, we can use our gifts to good effect.

    So it’s okay for your son to be the way he is, I said. He doesn’t have to be like everyone else. He can still be himself, and - important point - he can be accepted for being himself. Maybe this is how you get through to him. But, I confessed, I don’t know if it will work.

    My response was nowhere near as coherent as what I am typing here. I rambled back and forth and from side to side and circumnavigated a host of issues which I could not possibly hope to string together. At last I broke off in mid-sentence. I hope you get what I’m driving at, I said.

    I don’t know if she did, but she did appear grateful over the thought and effort I had put into my reply.

    The reality is she will be going home to a son who refuses to acknowledge his illness. Alas, this remains - the one question I still can’t answer. As I concluded in my original piece from nearly five years ago: “Sometimes I really hate this illness.”  

Published On: October 10, 2011