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.
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Thank you for sharing your experience on helping a child cope. It’s so good to hear mothers speak up and speak out who are okay with their son or daughter’s decision to go it without drugs.
Dear Rael – thank you for sharing yours and Eric’s story, an inspiring and wonderful testimony to love, hope and perseverance.
It’s great to hear how you have both turned what many would say was a weakness into a strength. This is a great encouragement to me as a mother and carer.
I didn’t like much about this article, or the ERIC.com website. Standard NAMI style fare really, even if it is a little less medicalized. I will say one positive thing though, if he hasn’t been able to shed his label or speak for himself and write his own article, at least he is said to be no longer taking psychiatric drugs. It appears his mother runs a for profit program of workshops based on the notions described in the article and on the ERIC.com website.
Obligatory note to the editor:
This isn’t a personal attack. I’m allowed to be unimpressed with an article. It remains civil, and on topic.
Working with kids and their families,who are struggling to get out of the mental health system, I find that it is important to try to put myself in their shoes- imagine that I am having the experience they have had. With that approach in mind, I read this story realizing that the point of entry into the mental health system for this mom and her son was biomedical psychiatry. Prior to the emergency of an attempted suicide, this mom was hearing only that she was not parenting her son correctly. So sad that no other input from teachers, friends or family brought insight or support. Not even respite, which I’ve seen in good old fashioned thinking when extended family provides a change of scenery for either the child or the caretaker.
So, from putting on their shoes, I have to say that the recovery process looks like one from the psychiatric labeling and scaremongering that is inevitable when that is the route taken. This makes the story richer, I think. Rich in the power of loving kindness and hope that is born of it. This mom never allowed a prognosis to have any power. She never saw a license to practice medicine as authority over her beliefs in her son. That is rich in the nutrients that supply other parents with the stamina to stay the course of believing in their children’s potential.
There is a place for the organization and workshops this mom started. It is one of the important stepping stones that leads many families to me and others like me. the analogy is balance wheels on a bike.
This is where we are as a society. I think we are seeing the price paid for the hi-tech ultra materialistic culture that is the envy of people the world over. Until they come here and see how we don’t really know how to care for and understand each other’s needs on the microcosm level of society, which is the family, I think. The complex systems and our major institutions have not only failed us, but seem to be exploiting us. Woe awaits any of us who tries to find our way out of the net, so to speak.
That is why we do need to support and validate each other. Eric may or may not decide to shed his label , or to write a memoir of his journey out of the psych drug jungle. He is young, making up for lost youth and enjoying autonomy that psychiatry would have never granted him. And his mom is doing something that reflects what she may well wish she had when her son was a child. This is community building or the face to face version of networking. Compensation for creating value , or saying one’s time and knowledge/experience are valuable is what our pay checks mean. I like to see that people value any human service enough to pay out of pocket for it. But that is me in my ideal fantasy of pray,eat live.
I wrote my piece below a negative review. Not to challenge or criticize the writer of that thumbs down comment, but to just breathe a little sunshine into this space here. The thing I also hold on to is knowing that like the old 8mm films we used to watch. You can’t just look at one or two or three… in freeze frame and get the whole story. As the film keeps rolling so do we, and so does everything around us.
A compliment to anonymous for reminding me that the ideal is always just ahead of where we are now. Never diminish or reduce it to the banal status quo- no matter how long it takes to get there. Thank you for coming into this story and raising the bar rather than cheering as though the race has been won.
That’s a VERY good comment Kara. Thank you. Probably what I would have said if I wasn’t going through a period of intemperance these past few days. I know I need to calm down. I may find this article, and most articles lately, on this site, wanting, and I do, but you’re right, I have to remember there are literally MILLIONS of places on the internet and in the world where worse advocacy is to be found in this subject matter.
So again, good comment.
All I can say is Thank you! Your words are beautiful and your comment is very eloquent and well put. Your support means more than words can say and I thank you!
What role did Eric’s father play in his recovery?
Eric’s biological father stepped out of our lives when Eric was an infant. I played the single mother role for many years and at 7 I married Eric’s ‘step father’ who soon after adopted Eric. He was present for everything we experienced, however, he was really unsure how to respond to most situations. On one hand he wanted to follow the doctors instructions to the letter but on the other hand he heard what Eric and I were saying and wanted to believe he had a future. His strength and level headedness is what really helped Eric. My husband and I created a united front with both of our children as well as those we consulted for help so Eric always knew if he wanted the truth and strength he could always turn to us. More than anything Eric’s dad held me up and helped me stay strong and together we remained strong for Eric.
I’m truly happy for your son; not only has he been able to rid his life of psychopharmacological drugs; he has, moreover, found a kind of work, which (from what you describe) gives him a deep sense of purpose.
That his work is teaching gymnastics is encouraging, I feel – because it suggests to me that: probably, he has suffered a lesser degree of lasting physical damage, than some others, who, as kids, were likewise placed on meds for supposed “bipolar disorder.”
Notably, you don’t say, “bipolar disorder”; and, that’s interesting to me; you aim to remove the word “disorder” from his “bipolar” diagnosis (and, also, you attempt to de-pathologize his “condition,” by insisting, “Those with bipolar are not sick…”).
On your web site we find these two paragraphs:
“No one should be ashamed of who they are or a condition they may be living with. That is how I view bipolar. It is a condition. I know science says it’s an illness, technically categorized as a disorder. But I see ‘disorder’ as being out of order and to take it a step further ‘out of order’ means ‘does not work’. Given the opportunity everyone I’ve ever met with bipolar works just fine. When I hear ‘illness’ I think of someone who is sick. Those with bipolar are not sick. I don’t see it as a disease either. It’s not contagious and it’s not terminal. I have always seen illness, disease and disorder as such negative words so I consider it a condition.
“So if bipolar is a condition, and a person has bipolar instead of is bipolar than what’s the point? The point is someone with bipolar has no reason to feel shame or guilt and should not be embarrassed of who they are! Stigma is all around us and the only way to remove the stigma is to advocate for yourself. Prove everyone’s opinion of you wrong and don’t back down. Don’t assume you’ll become an outcast when the truth is revealed. Use the opportunity to educate the naysayers because chances are they’re speaking from a lack of knowledge. Stigma fuels inaccurate perceptions. It’s important to remember that wrong information comes from 3 places; previously relayed misinformation, emotion and opinion. Correct the information so when it’s passed on again it’s done so accurately, acknowledge the emotion with understanding and empathy and together those can transform the opinion. You alone have the power and insight to alter the way you are viewed by others, thus the way bipolar is viewed and ultimately accepted. Be proud of who you are. Accept your name as your identity and not your diagnosis. You have a lot to offer the world around you!”
In my view, what you’ve done, essentially, is develop a ‘cognitive-behavioral’ approach, to dealing with your son, who was apparently suffering what I’d call “mood swings” as a child (but, yes, it was more than just “mood swings”; there was a great deal of rebellion involved); your careful use of language fairly well sidelines much of the classic/conventional psychiatric paradigm (of, “mental illness” and “disorder”).
But, I wonder: would it not make sense to go a step further – and eliminate “bipolar” itself from your equation??
I mean: Why call him “bipolar?”
After all, in the eyes of most people, it does continue to suggest psychiatry’s “bipolar disorder” – which is widely considered a “serious mental illness” and, more specifically, a “brain disease.” (Those are its description in NAMI literature, which is guided by the ‘wisdom’ of the American Psychiatric Association.)
And, that diagnosis, “bipolar disorder,” is applied to many people who are terribly dysfunctional, even criminal – and, indeed, sometimes, quite dangerous.
One hears about supposedly “bipolar” people doing extremely antisocial (if not just plain ‘crazy’) things, in the news, rather frequently.
Indeed, many highly troubled people seek to be called “bipolar” by psychiatry, so they can be excused (more or less) from certain transgressions. And, “Virtually anyone at any given time can meet the criteria for bipolar disorder NOS or ADD. Anyone,” Explains Dr. Stefan Kruszewski, Addiction Psychiatrist.
“Criteria in DSM-IV are so sloppy that I often tell people I could diagnose a ham sandwich with bipolar disorder,” explains one Australian, dissident (i.e., nonconventional) psychiatrist, whose name is Niall (Jock) McLaren. (That quote is from Dr. McLaren’s Youtube channel.)
In terms of kids who are stuck with that label (as was your son); perhaps, you are familiar with Ross Greene, author of the book, ‘The Explosive Child.’ He, “shies away from labels and instead focuses on what he calls ‘lagging skills.’ Outbursts, he argues, arise from developmental delays in three areas: flexibility, frustration tolerance, and problem solving. ‘Kids,’ he told me, ‘do well if they can.’ He spends a lot of time weaning his patients off multiple medications—some are taking almost a dozen of them when they show up in his office—and teaches them behavioral strategies instead. (Every now and then, he does recommend medications but only for very specific issues.)”
(That paragraph, on Greene, is excerpted from an article by Darshak Sanghavi, which appeared on Slate.com; the link is no longer active.)
What disturbs me, after all, is your clinging to the label.
The label “bipolar” is extremely stigmatizing; for, besides suggesting “mental illness” and “disorder” and “brain disease,” it is, according to most official sources, a supposed “serious illness” which is permanent.
Why saddle your son forever with such a label, which indicates he’ll never fully grow out of the supposed “condition” that was ostensibly responsible for his childhood sufferings?
Finally, I wonder if your son did not suffer, in some regards, from social circumstances – i.e., conditions in his home; that is not to suggest you were a ‘bad mom’; you did your best, I’m sure; but, to quote Ginger Breggin (wife of Peter Breggin, M.D., author of the book,’Toxic Psychiatry’): “Labels [are] not useful clinically.” For, the, “patient’s story and personal issues are lost.”
FYI, here is a brief blog post, of my own experiences, entitled, “None cared to listen to my reasons for how I was behaving…”
And, here is an interesting post, entitled, “PEOPLE – Not labels or categories.” (It’s by a British psychotherapist whom I ‘met’ via Twitter.)
-Jonah (@BeyondLabeling on Twitter)
Very thoughtful. Good points.
“Labels [are] not useful clinically.” For, the, “patient’s story and personal issues are lost.”
There came a point in my life where a single word was produced out of so much “self” processing. I went and had the word tattooed on myself. It was an excellent way for me to *identify* who, how or what I am. I no longer associate with any previous so-called diagnosis, and it’s because of the word I now wear on my chest – right in the place where a name tag or “label” would go. The best part about it is that no person gave it to me, and no person could ever take it away. People love to ask me what it means and each time they do, I can’t help but Smile. No diagnosis label in the universe could ever do that.
Rael, what a beautiful name.
“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.” – Yep, I’m a believer and I absolutely do see God in yours and Eric’s life. I love reading personal stories; thanks for sharing.
Some children are just born “highly strung” and need parental help to channel that excess energy. If that help is not available, these children tend to be explosive and contrary and difficult to handle. I know, I was one of them. My mother couldn’t handle the likes of me. Luckilly I had a grandmother who understood me and knew how to use my excess of energy and how to teach me self-control. While most adults thought that I was a pain in the neck, my grandmother gave me love and self confidence and trusted me that I would do right thing. That love and trust meant an awful lot to me. Luckily nobody was labeling and drugging bright, feisty kids in the 1940/1950.
Alix you could not have been more acurate if you had tried. What you have just described is exactly what I was thinking when I read this article.
Unfortunately though we live in a society where you either blame the parent or blame the child, and no one blames the fit between the two and gives the parent the tools and supports they need to parent the child. Which in my opinion was all that was required here. But the mother either got told to just parent him better, which is standard practise, and that tough love will cure all, which is simply crap, it usually creates more problems than it solves, but they did not give her the tools that she needed to support her son to channel his behaviour in a positive way. The system has let down both of them, and not just because they kept saying he couldn’t get better, or that they blamed her, but because none of the so called professionals could see that the issues lay in the relationship between them, not in either one of them. It is about blame. No one is solely repsonsible for something like this. If anything he was simply born with a bloody difficult temperament, but rather than support and skill up the mother to support the child, we blame either one of them. In the end they accepted the version that places the blame anda label on the child. Sure to some degree he has come out the other side, but it could have been so much eaiser and so much less traumatic and so much less damaging. Equally though you can’t blame them for not looking hard enough for help, I agree more than any they kept trying, problem was how many incompetent professionals there are out there. In fact rather than say how many incompetent ones, one should probably ask how many competent ones there are, as they are so few and far between you can count them on one hand – well that is how it feels to me.
Yes, we parents are told it’s not the child’s fault (it’s biochemistry) and it’s not our fault (because psychiatrist don’t want to point the finger at parenting), but when people get married, or when a child is born, there is a huge adjustment period in temperaments. This can take years to get right, to get the know the person, to learn how to dance with them.
Right on! I am finally learning how to dance with my son and I hope to get in synch with my daughter as well!
An amazing story of courage, strength, tenacity and love. Labels or not, I hope your family continues to thrive, individually and together! Thank you for sharing…
I was disappointed by the use of labeling in this article. My son also attempted suicide after having a run-in with the corrections system and experiencing out of control anger, difficulties coping with emotional issues, and substance abuse. He too, acquired a psychiatric diagnosis of bi-polar, rapid cycling. He self admitted himself to a private hospital after his suicide attempt where they gave him extremely high doses of seroquel for thirty days and three hots and a cot. He gained a pound a day for thirty days but he was happy to be there and felt safe. He successfully weaned himself off the meds after about 40 days, claiming that they helped him through the roughest patch of his life by enabling him to sleep. Since weaning himself off the meds, I have seen him swear off pot, work out at the gym, become employed, enroll in anger management classes, AA meetings, etc. He is becoming the young laid back man I remember before he enlisted in the military and went through Seals training. he is calmer, more relaxed, and fun to be around. he spends his time harvesting wild seed from the forest around our home, cultivating wild plants in our greenhouse, and watching his two year old son in his spare time. I too, am very proud of him but by mutual consent we don’t use labeling in our household. It isn’t useful to continue to perceive him a someone with a permanent psychiatric condition. This plays right into the hands of the originators of the ‘chemical brain imbalance’ theory that we now know is bunk. People go through hard times, With luck, hard work, and support, they recover and realize their fullest potential. I think labels enable us to feel like we know more, when in reality, we know very little about the complexity of the human brain and the psyche, the way it is hard-wired, the way we are uniquely affected by trauma and experience in general, bio chemistry and nutrition, and spirituality. Why can’t we allow ourselves to co-exist with more mystery? Why do we have to continue the archaic use of labeling and explain every little thing within the context of labels? Why can’t people co-experience extreme conflict, change, and trauma and accept one another other as unique individuals without labels?
I cannot agree to the label nor the meds. Great that your son is doing well, however I hope other parents don’t think that now it is okay to have the label. It is really endorsing it.