This was my son’s answer when I was questioning him, trying desperately to find out what was going on in his mind. Why did he do the things he did, say the things he said and think such thoughts. He was 9.
It all started when Eric was much younger. I knew that he was somehow different than his peers. He was much smarter than his classmates but he was also much angrier. An anger very unnatural for such a young child. Multiple trips to the doctors yielded nothing beyond accusations that I was a bad mother. I was inconsistent and coddled him too much. That was until he was 8.
The day started out like any other day. Get up, have my coffee and plan out the events of the weekend. I had long defined the ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ Eric and today I was dealing with the ‘Bad” Eric. I always knew because he would get this look in his eyes resembling Jack Nicholson from The Shining – and that’s exactly what I was facing the second he woke up. Just like all the times before, I braced myself for what I knew was going to be a day filled with screaming, fighting, uncontrollable rage and undoubtedly a hole or two in the wall. As expected we had all of that but nothing could have prepared me for the newest chapter we were about to face. By mid-afternoon I had had enough. I told Eric to go to his room. He wasn’t allowed to come out until he had gotten control of himself and calmed down. As before, he stormed to his room, slammed the door and the war began. Banging, thumping, screaming, a thud on the wall, then on the door and so on. The second hand seemed to have stopped on the clock as time crept by and I listened to complete chaos. In reality it had only lasted about 15 minutes and then everything got quiet. I expected to see him emerge from his room exhausted, tearful, filled with remorse just like he had done so many times before. Not this time. I waited a few more minutes and had decided he had worn himself out and fallen asleep, thankful there would be some peace in the day, but I had to check just to be sure. Relief quickly turned to panic when I opened his door and found him hanging by the cord to his blinds.
Whether you believe in fate, luck or the grace of God I walked in at just the right moment and Eric lived to see another day. That incident led us to Eric’s first psychiatrist. After close evaluation and many appointments he had determined what was ‘wrong’ with Eric. He said “Eric has an adult form of bipolar I rapid cycling”. I said “OK, what do we do about it?” “Absolutely nothing” he replied. “Your son will commit suicide before the age of 15 so personally I wouldn’t waste your time”. That was our induction into the world of mental health.
Needless to say, that was an unacceptable answer and the last time he saw us. We quickly found another doctor who concurred with doctor #1, however, this time he explained the significance of Eric’s diagnosis. Apparently this was not something that was common in such young children so he asked if Eric would be willing to take part in a study. Reluctantly we all agreed. Appointment after appointment, each one filled with the same questions over and over and over, it was exhausting. But I thought for sure, in this sea of doctors, someone would have a better explanation, a different answer and most of all a more positive outlook. My fears were confirmed – they all agreed. Every single one of them. All the while Eric sat and listened to what was promised to be a life destined for failure, misery and unavoidable dread. He listened as they instructed me how to proceed with making him a ward of the state just in case I wanted a way out.
I never wanted a way out. I wanted a way in. Inside my son’s mind so I could understand exactly how his mind worked. Maybe then I would have the answers I needed so I could help him. Failure was not an option. Doom and dread were not going to be part of our equation. I wouldn’t allow it. And our journey together through the sea called bipolar truly began.
The next 9 years saw us through 23 psychiatrists, 32 psychologists, 6 schools, 5 arrests, 2 hospital stays, 1 expulsion and 1 attorney. The number of times I had to report to the school or accompany him to court are too many to count. Mix in several additional suicide attempts and numerous cocktails of medications, yet I was still unwilling to admit there was any truth in what those first doctors had said. Eric would realize happiness and success and together we were going to find a way. I would not take NO for an answer.
Looking back I realize these were very formidable years. We learned a lot through everything we experienced and together we learned to use tools that worked. I learned to identify the signs that he was cycling. We learned the things that helped Eric quiet his mind and calm his anxiety – like his art, music and sports. We both learned the importance of ‘Not right now’. No opinion or statement was so important that it couldn’t wait. So if Eric was cycling and I didn’t pick up on the signs he had the responsibility to say ‘Not right now’. He would then go to his room and do what we called re-group. This is when he would draw and listen to his music. Other times he would go for a walk or to the gym. When he would say ‘Not right now’ I had an obligation to back off. Give him space but always stay close enough to be there if he needed me. I was one of his tools. My job as his tool was to listen. Not offer advice or opinions but just listen. We learned to see the gifts bipolar offered and focus on the positives rather than the negatives. When we did this we realized the list of positives was longer than the list of negatives. I learned that I too had tools I could use to help me navigate through his maze of moods. First and foremost I learned not to take his outbursts personally. I realized it was helpful to him and imperative to the situation that I remain calm. Other times I was the one going for a walk. We always made sure to make time to talk when the storms had passed. We reviewed what happened, took time to reflect on the emotion and discovered that perception was key. What I saw was not always what he was feeling or thinking and vice versa.
At the age of 17 Eric made a conscious decision to stop all medication. Up to that point I had insisted that he remain on medication. I hounded him every day “did you take your meds?” He hated it. All of it. He used to complain incessantly about how they made him feel, claiming they dulled his senses and made him feel like he was thinking through a wash cloth. The side effects were horrendous but I always argued that was better than the alternative. Like I knew. So he educated himself on all the different medications he was taking and all psychotropic medications available. We discussed it and although I admit I was against it I quickly realized this was a battle I was going to lose. And I trusted Eric and knew this was one of those times I had to follow his lead. So he slowly weaned off all medications and that was that.
Eric will be 24 in May. There are no words to describe how proud I am. He is an amazing young man that I am honored to say is one of my best friends. He has found his success in gymnastics as a coach. He loves every day he gets to spend in the gym and is most proud of his students. He’s now a mentor to others both in and out of the gym. But more importantly through our journey Eric has learned to embrace his diagnosis and not allow it to define him. He’s proud of who he’s become and feels no shame for the bipolar, feeling tha,,t in a way it lends to his success. He lives a very healthy lifestyle, has a beautiful home and a crazy cat that he adores. He continues to use his tools to manage his moods and finds that’s what works best for him. Medication has no place in his regiment. And personally, I love that he comes home every Sunday night for family dinner.
In 2001 Eric and I started The E.R.I.C. Program. Named for Eric it stands for Everyone Remains in Control. We recognized a need for a more positive approach to the resources available for those living with bipolar. It was important that a person’s support network be involved because bipolar affects everyone so it only made sense that everyone play a part. We were confident the tools that worked for us could work for others. Together we teach others how to identify the tools that work for them. We show them the gifts and help them focus on the positive sides to bipolar. They learn these tools sitting alongside their friends and family who in turn learn what tools they can use to navigate their own path. The result? It is possible to succeed with a mental health condition and not fail because of it.
I invite you to visit our website at www.ericprogram.com for more information. We have workshops available throughout Colorado and welcome the opportunity to bring a workshop to your area.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.