Reporting Live: Child and Adolescent Bipolar Disorder

John McManamy Health Guide
  • Last week, I spent two days at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, CA attending a conference on child and adolescent bipolar disorder.

    “I definitely like the gender ratio,” I joke, as I sit down with my box lunch at a table with all women. Our table is representative of the entire conference – about nine women for every man. My little icebreaker, unfortunately, is more in the way of gallows humor. I already know that the burden of raising a child with bipolar disorder falls disproportionately on the mother. The mothers there amply illustrated this. But the conference also has a large sampling of clinicians and educators. Did only the women among them care enough to attend?
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    I have a section of a table set up where I have flyers and promo material on my forthcoming book, “Living Well with Depression and Bipolar Disorder,” due out Oct 17. From my spot on the midway, I get to strike up a lot of conversations. The stories I hear would break your heart. These kids typically have an illness that is far worse than the adult version, and that literally wears out the parents. The kids are nearly always misdiagnosed with ADHD or something else, and generally decompensate on the wrong meds before finally getting a correct diagnosis, often after many years. Even then, their outcome is problematic.

    The people I talk to at first assume I must be some kind of clinician. After all, I am promoting my book. But no, I tell them proudly, I am a patient, the first one to write a book on the diagnostic and clinical and scientific issues.

    Did you have bipolar as a kid? they ask, almost to a person, now intensely interested in my story. They’re looking for hope. I look normal, after all. They have already mistaken me for a clinician. “When I was seven I sat on a bull,” I tell them.

    People usually look at me weird when I disclose that bit of information. But here, my audience is relieved and delighted. Their kid has a chance of turning out okay, after all, say the looks on their faces, just like me (heaven forbid).

    But I never had the full-blown thing as a kid. What I had back then was more like a head cold to their children’s pneumonia. Inside the auditorium, the co-authors of “The Bipolar Child,” Demitri Papolos MD of Albert Einstein University, and Janice Papolos, a writer, elaborate on why the early onset version of the illness is different than the adult version. Their book, when it came out in 1999, literally put early onset bipolar on the map. It is one of the best-written books in all of mental health literature, and has just come out in its third edition.

    Adults typically cycle in weeks or months, Dr Papolos explains. Kids generally cycle in the space of hours or even minutes. You literally have to drag them out of bed, but in the afternoon “the rocket thrusters go off” and they become impossible to control. Prolonged and often violent temper tantrums can rage on for hours. Getting to sleep is a literal impossible dream.

    Janice Papolos compares a day in the life of the family of a bipolar child to the television series “24 Hours,” only no one yells, “Cut!” There is no hiatus. Parents wake up with their stomachs churning. At the office, the parent is living in dread of the phone call from school. The poor child in school, meanwhile, is hemorrhaging anxiety. They don’t fit in. They can’t handle many tasks involving working memory. Things go wrong …

  • Maybe the child has managed to hold it together in school. But it all comes apart at home. Dr Jekyll becomes Mr Hyde. After dinner, these kids are too revved up to do their homework. Sweet dreams to them are night terrors. Another 24 hours begins.
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    I always enjoy being around parents of bipolar kids. Despite their horrific stories, they are very upbeat and friendly. I could admire them for their heroism – and believe me they are heroes - but what is really going on is we connect. They know from their own children what a terrible illness that I have to live with. They “get it.” I don’t have to apologize for being a little crazy. I know from my own illness what they have to put up with. I “get it.” They don’t have to worry about what I may think of them as parents.

    Tomorrow, this illness will raise in each of us new challenges, new demands. Today, however, we can relax and have fun. Someone gathers a bunch of us together in a group photo. I’m smiling because I made some new friends.

Published On: September 21, 2006