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There are many more stories than just mine out there. Each one provides more insight and understanding into the obstactles and struggles faced by those diagnosed with bipolar disorer and those close to them. These obstacles vary greatly, and so I have tried to include as many as possible varied emails here. The letters were written to me by visitors to this site.
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The author of each letter has given permission for their letter(s), to be posted here.
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This section grows with your input. I have received hundreds of letters in the past and each contains a wealth of information. I welcome, encourage, and appreciate all the letters that are sent. They are proof of how many people are truly affected in some way by this and other mood disorders. Many of the letters I receive have similar questions, and focus on similar anxieties or problems. So to extend the reach of my answers—since it is very difficult for me to reply personally to each letter—I hope this section will help.

I have also created fully functional message boards so that you may communicate with others. There, you may also well recieve a more expeditious reply than what I am able to offer you personally.


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School Issues

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Around December 1st, 2000, I received an email from a mother of a bipolar adolescent boy. She had several concerns of which she wrote to me about, but was primarily concerned about sending him to public school. She was also worried that since her son did not believe he was bipolar, he would not learn to deal with his disorder.

Below is her letter to me. Below that, I've posted the reply which I sent to her.


"Dear [Meitar],

Thank you for your unselfishness and courage to provide this very personal website. My 14 year old son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in May. He takes his medication (Depakote and Selexa) and goes to therapy, but really isn't convinced that he has the disorder. This makes it hard to help him learn to live with and adapt to it.

I was interested in your homeschooling. my son was homeschooled through 7th grade (it's just what we do--we are a military family and move alot, so homeschooling makes the kids' education more consistent). However, by the middle of 7th grade, he required such constant supervision ("sit down and work" "leave your little brother alone") that I put him in public school the next year. It just wasn't fair to the others to have to spend all our school time getting him to study. In public school he lacks motivation--and he is so bright!--and gets into trouble alot for being rude and disrespectful and--surprise--disrupting class. Sometimes I think we would have realized what he was struggling with a lot sooner if he had been in school earlier, as there aren't quite as many people at home to bother and really object to his behavior.

Did your school know about your diagnosis? If they did, how did it affect your experience at school? I haven't informed his school. People have such stereotyped views of mental illness that I'm concerned they'll want to put him in Special Ed (and be relieved about it because he's so darn irritating), or read too much into his every move("Oh no, he's just going to explode someday and we'll have Columbine all over again!) or excuse too much of his behavior and be less likely to hold him accountable. But his discipline folder is getting pretty thick and I wonder just when the assistant principal is going to ask me, "Don't you think there is something seriously wrong with your son?" And I know my son doesn't want people at school to know--he just wants to be a normal teenager. The only way he wants to stand out is to be exceptionaly cool.

I'm going to show my son your website. I hope it will help him to find the courage to understand himself and to celebrate his own uniqueness. Thanks for listening.

-[Anonymous]"


"Hi, [Anonymous.]

I'm very appreciative of all the comments I receive, as they are what help me to continue to improve the site.

In response to your letter, there were a couple of points which you expressed concern over.

The main issue was about school. I have been in a private religious day school for 7 years, been homeschooled for 2 and a half years, was in a special education high school for a half year, and was in a 'specialized' high school (not special education, but for students with "extraordinary needs" which ranged from remedial courses to behavior problems to advanced placement courses) for another year. In each of those cases my experience was no better than miserable. In each of those cases, the school was fully aware of my disorder, and did their best (I would like to believe) to accommodate me, even though in each school they were fully aware of my disorder.

However, I was unwilling to accept miserable as the best there could be, and so last summer I dropped out of school. Despite their best efforts, I was simply not happy, unmotivated, depressed, and not learning in school. My personal solution was to drop out.

Each situation, especially with schooling, is very individual. What worked for me will not necessarily work for others. What's most important in finding a "schooling environment" for your child is to make sure that his needs are met and he is as happy as can be. A huge part of the reason I was unmotivated to do any work was because I was unhappy doing the work. Why would I want to do something which would make me miserable? No one would. That is the classic complaint of students but it is not without merit.

The classic rebuttal to that statement is that, "People have to do what they don't want to do sometimes," and that is not without merit either. The answer isn't force, however.

So, the first thing is to find a school where your child's needs are met. You've already found a school, but they do not know that he is bipolar. The school must know about this in order to accommodate him. However, if they are unable to make such accommodations (whatever they think will be needed for your particular case), then you should not hesitate to try to find a more suitable environment for him.

[Your son] doesn't have to tell his friends, and neither does anybody else. That choice is entirely up to him, but it is very important for the adults involved in the school and any other relevant institution (such as a camp or sports league) to be informed. The only way to eliminate incorrect stereotypes is to educate uninformed people about the truth. Bipolar children are no more likely to blow up a school building than any other average child. In fact, [your son] is more likely not to do something like that because of all the love, care and attention he is getting from you. I can see by your letter that you care for him very deeply, and whether he shows it or not I'm sure he can sense that too.

Educate yourself on the disorder as well. That way you can also answer any questions the school might have very well. You will appear knowledgeable and in control, which will put the school at ease.

The second thing you expressed concern about was that your son doesn't believe he has the disorder, and so you feel he will not learn to live with it. That might seem like more of a problem than it actually is. That's not to say it isn't an important point, though.

Instead of focusing your efforts on trying to make him believe he is ill, I would suggest redirecting those efforts to trying to make him more cooperative with the treatment he is receiving. What I mean by that is this, really: it is less important for him to believe he is ill than it is for him to stay in therapy and take his medications. For now, your priority should be on making sure he stays in therapy and takes his meds, not whether or not he actually believes he is bipolar. He will grow up and in time he will learn to live with it, even if it takes him years to believe it. Your job during all this time is to prepare him in the best way possible to live with that in the future. And the best way for you to do that is make sure he takes his medications and goes to his therapist now. It is his therapist's job to help him accept and ultimately live with his diagnosis.

One more important point to make, however, is that even his therapist can't force him to believe it, or accept it. Only he can do that—and he will but in his own time.

I hope this will help you.
Best wishes to you and yours,
-Meitar"


Very recently, I received this email from another mother. She is contemplating the pros and cons of homeschooling versus public schooling, and is having a hard time deciding which is best for her daughter.

The following is her letter, after which I've posted my response.


Jayne writes:

I noticed that you mentioned that you had tried homechooling a little later on (high school). I was wondering if, upon looking back, if you would feel that it would have been beneficial to homeschool when you were younger, like elementary age.

A brief 411 on me: My name is Jayne, I am 24, and the mother of four. I was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder at the age of 16 (although I knew I was sad a lot even younger). My oldest daughter, is almost seven, and I strongly suspect she may have bi-polar disorder too.

She is a smart girl and very sweet, but she definately has characteristics of bi-polar disorder. She is nice and helping a boy in her first grade class with his work, but she hasn't made any real close friends and she even has a hard time getting out of bed to go somedays, and says she is "sick" which I am strongly suspecting is more physcological than physical.

I don't know if any of that sounds familiar to you, but I have to say it sure does to me. Although, my only concern is with the bi-polar teaching the bi-polar! (chuckle). Seriously, I am sure that we would be fine, but I am wondering if you think it is better for the bi-polar student to be at home, or if the challenges of life that public school offers (baptism by fire, or something like that) are important for them to face.

I really have a hard time deciding, because I know that I "barely survived" the public school experience. In fact, I dropped out in high school... But, I just thought I would ask your opinion.

For bi-polar students, in general, would you recommend home-school?

Thanks,
Jayne


Dear Jayne,

As a matter of fact, what I did was try a program that the New York City Board of Education has called Home Instruction. It is similar to homeschooling in the sense that instead of attending school, you receive instruction through a private tutor. However, that's where the similarities end. Though a home schooling curriculum can be as traditional as a school's mandated courses, the parent or tutor gets to choose exactly what is being taught, and when.

In my Home Instruction situation, several teachers were assigned to me and given very specific curriculum instructions based on my previous school's approach to education. Home Instruction is supposed to be a temporary placement for students who are unable to attend school because of any problem that could not be otherwise taken care of.

Also in Home Instruction, it is usually assumed that the child's other needs (such as social interaction) will be provided for, whereas in Home Schooling, the parent or guardian does not usuall have a pre-determined outlet for their child's social education. This, in my view, is the main pitfall of the home schooling method of teaching, simply because most parents do not provide an adequate level of social interaction for their children to engage in.

In my particular situation, (where homeschooling me would have been in all practicality impossible anyway) I don't believe it would have made any more a positive impact on me than school did. It's a very hard question to answer though, and the fact that I've responded the way I did does _not_ mean that I don't think home schooling can be an extremely effective and healthy way to raise a child. I speak for my position alone, and am answering in the same light.

What you describe here may very well be bipolar disorder, but I'd like you to remember that this can easily be the effect of an inumerable amount of other causes to which you have not yet considered. Even someone with no disorder or sickness at all can easily begin to feel "sick" and even depressed. Regular day-to-day stress can all to often masquarade as an emotional disorder, when things are really not all that complicated. :)

Still, a concern like yours is often well-founded, so I would advise you to immediately seek the evaluation of a medical professional (or medical professionalS, as second opinions are always a good idea) whom you can trust. If there are early roots for a serious problem, better become aware of everything now.

Again, this is a difficult question to answer because there are so many variables that have to be taken into account. What kind of schools are available to you in your area? How effectively do you think you would be able to teach your daughter? How do you think your daughter would respond in a homeschooled environment versus a classroom setting? Financially, can you afford to send your daughter to a school or for that matter, stay home to teach her?

In my opinion, the possible difficulties that could be faced by a bipolar teaching a bipolar, as you put it, could be greater than or less than the difficulties faced by a teacher who is not bipolar. It hangs on the relationship between the teacher and student, just like ANY OTHER TEACHER-STUDENT RELATIONSHIP. The wild card in a bipolar-bipolar relationship is that you will both be prone to exceptional mood swings and irritability. Of course, as we both surely know, when a student is irritable or upset you're not going to be easy to talk to, far less teach. Also, if _you_ (the teacher) is irritable and upset, you're not going to be a very good teacher.

If you are to succeed in being your daughter's teacher and in homeschooling her, you will have to learn how to create a working relationship with her. This _may_ be more difficult due to the fact you are also her mother (obviously some psychological implications there) but you could also use that to your advantage. The point I'm trying to make throughout this letter is that _everything_ in each situation can be a beneficial to you if you just figure out how to make it that way.

For you, the first step would be in learning how your daughter's moods work. The way you start to do that is by listening to her, (the patient's own intuition is always an invaluable resource) charting her cycles, and seeing a medical professional.

On the other hand, sending her to school may be easier for you to do, and might give her a more-complete educational background. My personal opinions regarding the school system are _very_ harsh, mostly because of my personal experiences as a bipolar child, but also as just another student.

There are many, many bipolar children who go to regular schools and do _not_ have extraordinary problems with it. There are also many, many bipolar children who go to regular schools and _do_ have extraordinary problems with it. Whether to send your child to school or not, I believe, should be based foremost on whether or not your child has too much trouble in school. Any number of things from depression to behavior to failing grades could be reasons for your child not to be in school, but you must make the determination of where the line to take your child out should be.

The reason behind this is because school _is_ the standard by which our society measures our children. Sad as I believe that is, failing to acknowledge the reality is worse than the worst possible reality. Therefore, placing your child _first_ in a school will allow you to determine if she can indeed survive within the standards of this society. If for any reason you feel she should be taken out, then you can do so. The only thing I would have you seriously consider if you decide to remove your child from public/private education is that you DO NOT NEGLECT HER SOCIAL AND EMOTIONAL NEEDS.

This is more important than any book-learning she must do to pass tests, and even more important than any "trial by fire" she must face in school. Making her face a trial by fire is pointless without first giving her the strength to overcome it, and book-learning can be done at any age. Emotional and social development, however, is of the UTMOST importance for every child, especially for those suffering from a mood disorder.

I hope this helps you make a better decision for your daughter. :)

Best wishes,
-Meitar

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Advice for Parents of BiPolar Adolescents
In the beginning of this year, I recieved a letter from another mother of a bipolar son. This time, the mother simply asked "Any advice on how I can help him?" That struck a chord with me because I realized that so many people probably don't even know where to begin asking questions.

What follows, is a copy of my reply to that question:


"Dear [Anonymous],

...It is an extremely new phenomenon that children as young as your son are even being considered to be bipolar. But for anybody, young and old, any disorder--mental or not--can very often be detrimental to self-esteem, confidence, and self-worth. Especially for a boy as young as 8, to learn that he has a mental disorder must be devastating. It totally alienates him from everyone else because it means he is no longer "normal," and the feelings of isolation he is probably experiencing can be terribly depressing.

I'm not trying to give you professional psychological advice, because I'm not a licensed psychologist. I would definitely suggest, however, that therapy--if he is not already in therapy--would help.

If I were your child, I would want you to let me know I wasn't the only young boy with this so-called "disorder." You can go onto the web with him and surf the personal sites about bipolar disorder. A good place to look for a few is About.com's mental health section. You can even run simple searches through Yahoo or Excite. Let him know that you are doing your very best to try to help him, in any way he needs it, and that you understand what he's going through.

Also on the web, you can find online support groups and newsgroups for both parents and children who have a mental and/or emotional disorder. I'm not sure where to precisely find them, but look for them in the same ways you would any personal site.

Another thing to do, and this is possibly the most important thing I can think of, is to SUPPORT AND VALIDATE HIS FEELINGS. This disorder can turn your entire understanding of emotions inside out, and so you must let him know that whatever he feels is okay to feel.

Best wishes,
-Meitar


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Medications

Not exactly an e-mail response, but instead a short essay of my own opinion:

12/3/2002

Nobody likes medicine, but here's the bottom line: in my opinion, if you are prescribed medication by your licensed psychiatrist you must take that medication because your life does, indeed, depend on it.

I was first prescribed medications for the treatment of bipolar disorder when I was at the tender age of twelve. Ever since then, I have hated my medication with a passion rivaling my personal beliefs and convictions. There was even a time, two years after I started taking the medicine, when I fell into a common place trap and stopped taking it because I felt like I didn't need them; I felt "better." Two weeks later I attempted suicide, spiraled into a pit of depression, and faced one of the darkest periods in my life. Looking back on the experience with 20/20 hindsight, I can see that I felt better because I was taking the medication.

My point in all this is that medications are a valuable tool for you to use to help make your life livable. Implicit in that belief is the assumption that you are taking the correct medicine for you, at the correct dosage. When I say "correct" I mean whatever makes you a functioning entity in your life. It took me a good full year to find the correct dosage of lithium that I am on now, and from the many people I have spoken with, my understanding is that one year is an awfully quick time. I was lucky. Patience is not just a virtue, it's a necessity. But once you've found a working treatment, it's helpful to understand these are variables in an equation designed to help you function in your life. If at any point things aren't working, discuss altering your medications with your doctor.

Your treatment is just that -- your's, and you'll find that it is both more effective and easier to handle emotionally if you're the one behind the steering wheel.


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Dealing with Family
This young mother is struggling desperately with her diagnosis as well as with her family. They do not understand the difficulties she is going through, and consider her "weak" for not being able to cope with her life. Even her current doctor is unwilling to treat her, despite the diagnosis, and so she is searching for another who will. She asked for advice on how to help her family understand her.
Hi,

i just wanted to tell you that you have a lot of courage. I was diagnosed with Bipolar in November of 2000, I am 18 years old. Of all the people that i told, which was few, all had very different opinions and almost none of them were pleasant. Some told me that i was just plain out nuts, some told me that i had split personalities and some told me that i was weak and i just can't deal with life's struggles. For the fact that you can openly come out with your illness is something I admire.

I am currently trying to find the right doctor and to start medication. The doctor i am currently seeing thinks that i should try to deal with it on my own. I think that he is wrong. My family is haveing a hard time dealing with me and my moodswings and my rages and to be honest, so am I. Like most kids with BiPolar i was misdiagnosised with ADHD when i was 15. I got pregnant when i was 16 and it slowed me down a lot and everyone thought that i had outgrown my ADHD. But i didn't. Actually i had gotten worse and i had a major depression episode and then a manic episode which I tried to kill myself.

That is when they realized the i had manic-depression. It is a hard illness to deal with especially when you have a child. My moodswings pretty much range daily and my mom is moving out just to get away from me! i know that i am driving my whole family crazy and myself, but i just don't know what to do or what i can say to them to help them understand that it is not my fault. I try to control it but self control and impulse control are two things i lack greatly.

Do you by any chance know of anyways i can help them understand?


Hello.

Thank you for visiting my web site. Please accept my apologies on the late reply to your letter, as I find responding to each letter I receive personally quite a challenging undertaking.

I greatly apreciate the subject of your email, ("your admirer") but I believe that it is I who should be admiring you. From the sound of it, I would not be too surprised to learn that after being misdiagnosed, you were the one who prompted your correct diagnosis, and at 18 that is an incredibly inspiring achievement! Not only that but you too have come out of the closet, so to speak, about your mental illness to several people whom you know, and despite the negative reactions, continue to seek professional help!

To be frank, I am appalled at the reaction of your doctor specifically. It is a very sad statement on our society when medical professionals tell their patients to deal with their problems on their own. As a doctor, s/he should be the one to provide you with the most help. You are right to seek another doctor, one who will listen to you.

As for your family, I am sorry to hear that they are having a difficult time accepting that you are bipolar. There are many reasons why this may be, including plain ignorance to the subject of mental illness to complete denial of its existence. I can't tell you precisely why they are so unwilling to deal with the problem, and that makes it far more difficult to give you advice on how to make them understand you. It does however offer a path to follow:

The very first thing you should do is begin to educate your family on bipolar disorder. The more they know about it, the more they will understand you. For both your family and yourself, I would highly recommend reading "An Unquiet Mind" by Kay Jamison. This is not a medical textbook, but rather one of the most famous and personal stories of a bipolar woman. It will help you and your family understand so much more about why you feel the way you do sometimes, and will give your family a glimpse into your mind.

This will help them understand how you think as well as how you feel, and will begin to give you a vocabulary with which to communicate your thoughts and feelings with your family. This is the next most important step. As you develop the ability to explain your feelings to your family, try to keep a written record of how you feel from day to day--a kind of chart--so that you can better see your pattern of cycling and better predict when your next mood swing will come. To every fall into depression there will be a rise into mania, and the reverse is true as well. Anticipating these changes is the first step to controlling impulsive behavior during these mood swings.

Also, try to give yourself from breathing room from your family. When you're feeling like everyone is getting on your nerves, try not to be around them. If it's unavoidable, one of your most powerful preventative weapons against a fight with them is the old "think before you act" excersize. I understand it's harder said than done, but if you remember it enough times (even if you fail in preventing an arguement) you'll get better. Remind yourself that you are very touchy at the moment, take a deep breathe, and then respond.

Don't forget that being completely direct with them is extremely helpful as well. "Mom, I'm feeling extremely irritable right now. Please, if I can have some time alone for a little while, I'll feel more able to talk with you later," said in a calm, respectful tone, will halt any unwanted intrusioni to your personal space. However, being respectful, being calm and being collected, are _key_, and this should not only be going one-way.

You should be getting the respect you deserve too. If you're not, expressing that concern _respectfully_ (and absolutely clearly) is the only way you'll get it. One outstanding book which can be instrumental in helping you to learn self-control and raise your awareness to others around you is called "Emotional Intelligence," and was written by Daniel Goleman. It's a bit on the technical side during the first few chapters, but it is definitely worth the read.

Control your own reactions to other people's annoyances, and you'll control the situation around you.

One last word: don't ever let anyone have you believe that you are weak, or just can't cope. You are stronger for asking for help than trying to handle things on your own. _ALWAYS_ make sure to take care of yourself before you do anything else. You are no good to yourself (or your baby!!) if you do not keep yourself as healthy in every sense of the word as possible.

Goodluck and best wishes to you and yours,
-Meitar


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Friends and Friendship
Not exactly an e-mail response, but instead a short essay of my own opinion:

11/25/2002

I've heard an estimate that about one percent on the world's population suffers from bipolar disorder. Think about that. Out of every one hundred people you've seen on the street, chances are that at least one of them are struggling with the same things you are now. Beyond that, one hundred people isn't that large a group and when you factor in the possibilities of your friends' friends, you can begin to see how one hundred people is truly infinitesimal.

In my experience, many of the people whom I've told that I'm bipolar have already had previous experiences with someone else, so they're both receptive and understanding. Sometimes if a person is unfamiliar with "bipolar disorder" they are still well aware of what "manic-depression" is. Those people who aren't familiar with either term may not understand what a mood disorder is and the concept can seem very perplexing.

I think you'll be reassured to know that I have not heard of any situation in which the fact that someone is bipolar caused anyone to say, "Oh, that's wierd, I'd rather not speak with you again." Even so, using common sense, a relaxed tone of voice, and gentle and patient explanations in response to anyone with questions couldn't possibly hurt you. Your friends want to know that you're still the same person they befriended. If you don't feel comfortable explaining the biology, refer them to a web site or other resource (some are listed on my links page) where they can learn the particulars on their own.

Bipolar disorder is something that affects the very core of who we are. Oftentimes, it becomes important to distinguish my feelings as entities separate from my actions and even separate from myself. It is just as important for me to understand that I am not my feelings as it is for my friends to understand that my feelings don't always reflect a precise picture of who I am. That's why what I need from them is a patience to let me go through my cycles — to have that sad mood swing or that giddy night — when it happens and not try to impose on my mood something it won't accept.


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