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My Teen’s Bipolar Disorder Problems Nearly Destroyed Our Family

Illness can change everything. A mother and daughter share their experience diagnosing (and misdiagnosing) bipolar disorder, finding treatment that worked, and facing the truth. Then an expert weighs in.

DAUGHTER | Elizabeth Drucker

At the end of my sophomore year of high school, my mom and I found ourselves standing in a place no family should have to encounter: the locked doors of a child/adolescent psychiatric unit. Instead of standing over the Bunsen burner in my morning chemistry lab, I was watching a nurse go through my backpack to look for sharp objects. My mom was worried about so many things: How would I finish out the rest of the school year? Which psychiatric medications might the doctors try on me next? And, what would we do if I didn’t respond to treatment soon?

A few days prior, a crew of paramedics had delivered me to a quiet corner of the nearest emergency room because I had purposely taken an overdose of my psychiatric medication. As I tried to get comfortable on the stretcher, I agonized over how my mother would react to this life-threatening behavior.

More than anything, I wanted to be normal.

I wanted to do all of those things that my peers were doing, like studying, cleaning my cluttered bedroom, working at an after school job, and sitting down to dinner with my family each night.

I couldn’t help the way that I was unraveling.

My struggle with bipolar disorder was affecting everything. I was laughing when things were not funny and crying when there was nothing wrong.

As I continued to fall apart, my mom found her heart breaking over and over. She had seen some version of this behavior in my own bipolar father. We all knew that mood disorders can be genetic, but my mother had never believed that she would be so scared of my own moods one day.

My mother had always been so proud of me, and despite everything, we all hoped that I would still get into a prestigious college. If I could find a way to do this, then all the pain I had endured in high school would be worth it. She also had to face the judgments other people made about my condition and how she should parent me. Each time the school social worker called my mom down to the school, my mom’s co-worker suggested that I was just looking for attention. I hated the way I behaved at school and at home but couldn’t find a way to stop acting out.

I knew that my mom was worried about me, and I often sensed that I was going under, too. With her unyielding support and some good psychiatric medication and therapy, I was able to pull myself together and graduate as the salutatorian of my high school class.

Elizabeth is a freelance writer in Chicago, Illinois. She has a BA in Sociology from the University of Arizona and a master’s in Educational Leadership & Policy Analysis from the University of Wisconsin—Madison.

MOTHER | Cathy Drucker

When my daughter was 10, I believed she suffered from depression. She also fluctuated between high and low moods, but at that time bipolar disorder was not being diagnosed in children and teens. I took her to several psychiatrists, trying to obtain the treatment she needed to resolve her depression. We decided on one psychiatrist who started her on the antidepressant Prozac. Then, after about a month, we realized that instead of helping her, the medication was actually making her worse. It caused her to experience agitation and insomnia. We thought Prozac wasn’t the right fit for my daughter, so we tried various other antidepressants, none of them working.

Then we were back to square one. We found a psychiatrist who took a detailed family history and discussed the fact that Elizabeth’s father (and his grandfather) had bipolar disorder. After six months of observing Elizabeth, the doctor gave the bipolar diagnosis. Elizabeth’s father had no symptoms when we met, and his bipolar disorder was at its worst after we split up—so my biggest impression of this disease was that the actress Patty Duke had it and that it had seemed to destroy her life.

I fell into denial, thinking that it just couldn’t be true that my daughter had a severe mental illness.

I discussed the diagnosis with my parents. My father said that her problem was a matter of discipline, and that it was mind over matter. My son had a different reaction: He didn’t like all the attention that I was giving to my daughter. He felt that I had no time for him, exclaiming that, “Just because I’m healthy doesn’t mean that I don’t need you, too.”

Elizabeth’s journey with bipolar disorder has gone through many ups and downs, but mostly downs. Some say that people with bipolar disorder are creative. I saw this in Elizabeth and her writing of poems and short stories.

More profoundly, the downs of her disease almost destroyed me.

I experienced her countless attempts to end her life, with one attempt putting her in critical condition. I actually had to sleep on top of her medications so she couldn’t have access to them. The paramedics also pleaded with me to change her current psychiatrist since her treatment plan wasn’t working, but Elizabeth refused to do this.

I finally did get Elizabeth to change her psychiatrist, and things started to get somewhat better.

We also found an extremely helpful medication called clozapine that eventually gave my daughter a life. After decades of experience with this disease, I have accepted my daughter’s diagnosis, and I realize that bipolar disorder is a disease that can be managed with the right medications, management of stress, and good self-care.

Cathy Drucker is a licensed clinical social worker in private practice in Lincolnshire, Illinois.

EXPERT | Michael G. Pipich, MS, LMFT

Elizabeth and her mother’s experience is quite common. Bipolar disorder typically surfaces during adolescence; however, it can still go unrecognized, undiagnosed, and mistreated for a very long time. Tragically, many young people with bipolar can needlessly suffer with severe mood swings that frequently result in suicidal thoughts and actions. This can devastate families, who often don’t know what to do or where to turn.

One part of the bipolar disorder problem is that some doctors or therapists will just treat presenting depression and not look deeper into the patient’s personal and family mental health histories to discover bipolar symptoms, which require specific mood-stabilizing medications.

When the wrong medications are prescribed for someone with bipolar, as in Elizabeth’s case, that person can become manic, resulting in even greater consequences to their health.

When Elizabeth was accurately diagnosed with bipolar disorder, her treatment improved substantially, but not until she went through many difficult days and nights of wondering what was happening to her.

Another part of the problem is denial, which is common in bipolar disorder but isn’t limited to the person with the condition. Family members can be in denial about bipolar, too. Parents can be especially resistant to a bipolar diagnosis because no one wants to think their child has a mental illness, especially one that needs lifelong care.

As is often true with teenagers, Elizabeth cared about what her mom thought of her and wanted her mom to be proud of her accomplishments. Elizabeth’s behavior wasn’t about seeking attention, and it couldn’t be resolved through mind-over-matter exercises. Her actions were the result of bipolar disorder, which is a genetically based mental illness that affects how the brain develops to handle emotional regulation.

Like anyone with bipolar disorder, Elizabeth couldn’t take control of her life without the right diagnosis and treatment plan.

There’s no doubt that her mom’s acceptance of the bipolar diagnosis helped Elizabeth find greater support and courage in facing her bipolar disorder. Parental acceptance can also provide opportunities to heal the wounds of bipolar with other important family members impacted by the condition. Working together with her mom and a proper treatment approach, Elizabeth can manage bipolar disorder and become successful in her life goals. This is what I call owning bipolar, and Elizabeth and her mom are great examples of it.

Michael G. Pipich, MS, LMFT, is a psychotherapist and the author of  Owning Bipolar: How Patients and Families Can Take Control of Bipolar Disorder.

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