Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

Growing Up Bipolar

Growing Up Bipolar“Were you bipolar growing up?” a magazine editor asked me the other day.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Do you think you were misdiagnosed back then as depressed?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

I wasn’t annoyed. I wasn’t rushed. I just really don’t know.

I can clearly say that something was wrong with me, but I’m very careful to throw the “bipolar” word around when it pertains to kids given all the debate today on the topic.

Friends of mine rant on another friend for medicating their daughter for bipolar disorder, who, according to the friends’ eyes, is perfectly fine.


And then I hear the sadness and utter frustration of another friend whose bipolar daughter was just expelled from school.

While I tend to be pretty conservative about meds myself (you’d never guess that, right?) — taking only what I absolutely have to — there is no way I would judge a mother who is trying to find the best possible treatment for her daughter, which may very well include hefty meds.

Karen Swartz, M.D. and Emily Bost-Baxter, M.D., discuss the controversial issue in the Fall 2007 issue of Johns Hopkins Depression & Anxiety Bulletin:

Diagnosing psychiatric illness in children, before adolescence, is difficult for a variety of reasons. First, because most young children are unable to adequately describe their mental experience, diagnosis is often based on the observations of parents, teachers, and caretakers, rather than on what the child reports. Second, research involving children is more difficult to conduct, so the body of literature surrounding psychiatric illness in children is less extensive.


Classic bipolar mania, which consists of a distinct period with an elevated or irritable mood, inflated self-esteem, decreased need for sleep, and fast or racing thoughts, and in which a person is more talkative than usual, easily distracted, and has increased activity, especially in pleasurable activities or risky behaviors, is extremely uncommon in children under the age of 12. What is more common is for a child to experience depression before adolescence and then to develop his/her first mania as a teenager or young adult.

According to a February 2010 NPR story by Alix Spiegel, the number of children diagnosed with bipolar disorder has increased 4,000 percent since the mid-1990s. It is estimated that 1 million children in the United States have been diagnosed with the disease.


Statistics don’t offer details, though. They can’t tell the story.

It wasn’t until I opened Terri Cheney’s new book, The Dark Side of Innocence, that I could recognize bipolar symptoms back in grade school and even before. I found it somewhat eerie that Cheney, raised Catholic, writes about the saints as a little girl, the significance of her First Communion to living or dying, and describes darkness of the soul, and the devil, and a black night similar to the first chapters of my memoir, Beyond Blue. Her writing has given me a fresh perspective of my own childhood, shedding some light on early manifestations of my own madness.


I could have written these paragraphs:

There were really only two avenues open to me:

1. I could win back my father’s love, or

2. I could die.

Don’t ask me how I knew about suicide at such a tender age. The Black Beast knew all sorts of things that were better left unknown. I was fascinated by death; always had been. The nuns thought it was wonderful that I studied my catechism so intently, but the truth was, to me the Bible was just a great grisly story. The same was true of fairy tales: I wolfed them down. Not the saccharine versions, but the unexpurgated Grimms, with their sawed-off heels and lopped-off heads and altogether dark and nasty vision. It satisfied something deep and hungry inside me to know that there was a way out of this life.


Just as Cheney did with her bestselling book, Manic, she provides the reader a unique perspective to the illness of bipolar disorder. Through the eyes of a child.

Photo courtesy of NPR.

Click here to subscribe to Beyond Blue and click here to follow Therese on Twitter and click here to join Group Beyond Blue, a depression support group. Now stop clicking.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Sam Gyura

    I first tried to kill myself when I was 8 years of age. 24 aspirin and a bottle of coke in the toilet of my home. Unbelievably I was fine. Disapointed big time.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Sam Gyura

    24 years later, I’m sill here. Slashed my wrists in a white trash frenzy when I was 19 and survived again. The knife was so sharp but I amazingly survived much to my dismay. Now I’m 42 and am much older and wiser. I took a lot out of your interview yesterday.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Kevin Keough


    Thanks for this.

    Prior to and after age 12 school was torture except for recess and the final bell. Things weren’t often peachy at home but when I ran outside to play there was profound relief.

    After age 12 working in my father’s business, his alcoholism, my mother’s daily suicidal impulse/intent/lethal plan and means made it increasingly hard to find the same degree of relief each time I made it out the door.

    Not long again my mother mocked the melancholy that has haunted me for the last several years stating “I didn’t have the luxury of being so filled with ‘fear and dread’ that I couldn’t function as you claim is the case for you”.

    I protected her from a reminder that I didn’t have the luxury of deciding which parental genes I’d pass on nor did I ever have the luxury of turning away from the her loud exclamations of her hell, the innumerable times I was awakened to protect her from my father or force Ipecac down his throat “respectfully” after he’d overdosed, or an absence of a smile of on my face was cause for serious reprimand.

    Nor do I claim the right to tell her perhaps she hasn’t a clue about the difference between Melancholia and Major Depression.

    Silently, I keep to myself things that would cause her more pain as the first anniversary of my sister’s suicide approaches.

    The things we do for love.

    A long way to say this to you : I am very very sad to know your struggles began well before mine. You remain in my prayers.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Jean

    I know I was incredibly depressed, even in kindergarten, because I can recall looking at a calendar on a Sunday afternoon and dreading Monday, as if it were the gateway to hell. I also recall hearing my family discuss the suicide attempt of an acquaintance, and giving it a ‘try’ – by eating soap bubbles from the bathtub – it didn’t work, obviously. Still not sure if I’m bipolar, even though I know my dad was, for sure. His rants were terrifying to a child; I often say that my parents should have remained childless.

  • Mike Leach

    “I don’t know” is the wisest answer to most questions I know. Your honesty and sharing is helping a lot of us get through what we don’t know either. Thanks, Therese.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment barb

    i too hated school. loathed sitting there every day especially when the weather was getting nicer. my mother was institutionalized when i was 6 or 7 for about 6 months, so i know that i am living with depression and anxiety disorder as a result of receiving her genes. my brother was also hospitalized for a nervous breakdown when he was 19. he found drugs, cigarettes and alcohol to manage his short life. i was more fortunate.
    i commend you therese for your wisdom every day. you help us so much words will never tell you how much. thank you.
    and to kevin keough, i commend you for sparing your mother more pain. you will be redeemed in heaven. thank you

  • Mama Bear

    We believe our 10 year old son has Bipolar 1 Disorder. It is our psychiatrists opinion, but he won’t receive the official diagnosis until he is older. Kinda strange how this works being he has the symptoms and is receiving treatment for it. Since he started Lithium he has made a huge improvement. He says that Lithium makes him feel happiness for the first time and he says it also makes him feel reborn. Thanks to lithium his symptoms have improved. We don’t see the depression, rapid cycling, suicidal thoughts, anxieties, too much energy etc. But for the sake of society feeling comfortable, he won’t be diagnosed until he is older. Seems silly to me.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Marc

    Very honest and insightful, Therese. I agree with you about not judging parents. My experience, personal and with my son, is that psychiatry is always as much art as science, and especially with children because there is still so much to learn about how to diagnose and treat kids whose brains are still so much a work in progress. I highly recommend Judith Warner’s We’ve Got Issues. It’s a very balanced and humane perspective–from someone who once shared the knee jerk assumption that kids are being over medicated but looked more closely and developed a more nuanced view.

Previous Posts

Seven Ways to Get Over an Infatuation
“Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered am I” wrote US songwriter Lorenz Hart about the feeling of infatuation. It’s blissful and euphoric, as we all know. But it’s also addicting, messy and blinding. Without careful monitoring, its wild ...

posted 12:46:43pm Feb. 19, 2014 | read full post »

When Faith Turns Neurotic
When does reciting scripture become a symptom of neurosis? Or praying the rosary an unhealthy compulsion? Not until I had the Book of Psalms practically memorized as a young girl did I learn that words and acts of faith can morph into desperate ...

posted 10:37:13am Jan. 14, 2014 | read full post »

How to Handle Negative People
One of my mom’s best pieces of advice: “Hang with the winners.” This holds true in support groups (stick with the people who have the most sobriety), in college (find the peeps with good study habits), and in your workplace (stay away from ...

posted 10:32:10am Jan. 14, 2014 | read full post »

8 Coping Strategies for the Holidays
For people prone to depression and anxiety – i.e. human beings – the holidays invite countless possibility to get sucked into negative and catastrophic thinking. You take the basic stressed-out individual and you increase her to-do list by a ...

posted 9:30:12am Nov. 21, 2013 | read full post »

Can I Say I’m a Son or Daughter of Christ and Suffer From Depression?
In 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, we read: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” What if we aren’t glad, we aren’t capable of rejoicing, and even prayer ...

posted 10:56:04am Oct. 29, 2013 | read full post »


Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.