The Train Wreck

Trouble was brewing. I could sense it days ahead of time. My 10-year old daughter was headed for a major meltdown and although I could see it coming, there was no stopping it. And it was like knowing ahead of time there was going to be a terrible train wreck but also knowing I was helpless to prevent it. I knew people would get hurt, and I knew it would be a horrific mess, but the train wreck was destined to occur regardless of how hard I tried to prevent it.

My little girl has been “diagnosed” with a variety of mental shortcomings, among them ADHD and “oppositional defiance disorder”. It has also been suggested that she may have or eventually develop bipolar disorder. As a sufferer of the disease myself, I pray she’s not bipolar. It’s extremely difficult to diagnose in a child, and she does not exhibit signs of deep depression. But her “train wrecks” bear striking similarities to manic episodes and have definite cause for concern.

My daughter gets very anxious when there is a big event on the horizon, like a ceremony or school deadline or, in this case, a vacation. She is traveling tomorrow by plane, without me but in the company of her older siblings, to visit her grandma in California for a week. Although she is happy and excited to go, and although she is a very well-traveled young lady, the anxiety involved in preparing for the trip has left her nervous and short-tempered. I can sympathize with her, because getting ready to go away always caused many of the same feelings for me in the past.

The past couple of days I felt like I was tip-toeing around her, sensing her anxiety and trying to avoid confrontation of any kind. In these situations, when she is snappy and quick-tempered, it’s usually best to leave her alone. But today I needed her assistance in preparing for her big adventure and I asked her to put down her iPod in five minutes and help me get packed.

“No”, she replied.

Wrong answer.

I have tolerance for a great deal of her behavior. Those of you who are familiar with ADHD and ODD will understand that tolerance is a necessity when dealing with these children, but often they cross the line of respect and obedience. I had told her she could play for five more minutes because I’ve learned that spontaneity is not a strong suit with her – she needs advanced warning before we can switch gears. But this time she simply refused to comply, so I threatened to take the iPod and keep the device until she returned from her vacation if she did not go along with my request.

She again refused.

So I took the toy.

One thing I have always found astounding is how quickly my child can crumple. To say that she can collapse into a screaming, writhing heap on the floor in less than five seconds is no overstatement. Now, I know what you’re thinking: what a spoiled rotten brat. And believe me, I have thought the same thing on many occasions. But those of you who have experience with kids who are bipolar or who have ODD will recognize that in the middle of a tantrum or manic episode, their emotions are totally out of their control. There are no brakes on that train.

My daughter’s tantrum evolved quickly from sobbing to hysterical screaming, with my older children running through the house shutting the windows so the neighbors wouldn’t hear the hysterics and call Social Services. When she falls to pieces, we’ve learned that she doesn’t want comfort. She doesn’t want distractions. She doesn’t want to listen to reason. She simply wants the bloody iPod and she wants to get her way. But as a parent, no matter how hard I want to hold her and try to calm her, and no matter how much I want to scream back at her, or to give in and return the stupid toy just to shut her up, the only thing I can do is disengage. I walk away, leaving her in a screaming heap on the floor of the kitchen and I go to my “quiet place” and pray she exhausts herself. Typically, she cries herself out, then switches gears and lies on her bed, sobbing softly, “Why do I do this? Why can’t I stop myself? Why am I like this?” This is often followed by profuse apologies to anyone who witnessed the tantrum, and over-the-top exemplary behavior, trying to make up for her irrational antics for the rest of the day. Her remorse is heartfelt and genuine.

But this train wreck was a real doozy. She simply could not pull it together. First of all, she hates to be ignored and when we all walk away, it infuriates her. That is typically what leads to a manic-like episode during which she doesn’t even know why she’s upset any longer. She’s just beside herself with screaming and hysteria and cannot recover.

And then comes the hurt. My sweet, beautiful and kind daughter evolved into this hurtful, hateful monster. Paranoid and delusional, she screamed “I hate you!” over and over. It was like a dagger through my heart, which she then twisted around inside me when she yelled, “You are a horrible mother!” through the closed doors of my bedroom. She then went off on a tangent and accused us all of lying to her and stealing her things, and then she put the icing on the cake when she screamed, “YOU are the reason I’m like this”. A hateful blow from a 10-year old girl who knows exactly what button to push on her bipolar mother to drive her to tears of her own.

And then, just like the snap of fingers, her train came to an immediate stop. After crashing through all of her anxieties and steamrolling across my heart, her episode was over. She lay outside my door panting from exhaustion and wiping her tears, and then came the whispered apologies. 27 minutes of screaming had finally come to an end. She asked to come in, and stood hesitantly at the foot of my bed, watching me dry tears of my own. She said she understood when I told her she would not be getting back the iPod for a while, following such horrific behavior. And I struggled, as I always do, with whether this IS my fault. Did she inherit my bipolar? Are her meltdowns a result of the biological or behavioral forces at work? Is my little girl a manic mess with genetics working against her, or is she just a brat? Maybe a little of both? Nobody seems to know for certain. And my biggest fear is that she’s going to grow up to be just like her mom.

But there is a difference between our separate train rides. My life was a series of wrecks that eventually caused my husband to leave me. He couldn’t deal with my behavior any longer, so he got off the ride. He just could not love me anymore. And although he makes allowances for our daughter’s behavior that he never made for mine, allowances for which I am envious because he loves her unconditionally and could not do the same for me, I recognize myself in her behavior. And I cry because she says such hurtful and mean things when she is out if control, and I realize that I have said those same hateful things to my husband. Things that can never be taken back because my train doesn’t do reverse.

But I can’t divorce my daughter, no matter how bad things get. And I’m angry with her father because he gave up on me. He didn’t want to stick around to see if my train slowed down. I love my daughter so very much, and her behavior hurts me and it hurts her but it doesn’t in any way lessen my love for her, and I’m angry with her father because I wonder why he couldn’t love me in the same way. Why did he give up on me when I know he has the strength to not give up on her? We are both committed to helping her get better, but I wish every day that he could see my potential for mental well-being as he sees hers.

So, to my little girl, I can only say that I will never give up on you. Not ever. Even if I have to throw myself in front of your train to prove it.


Chute Me Now

My 10-year old daughter sees a therapist to help deal with her bipolar disorder.  Although she adores her therapist, her favorite part of each session is the time spent in the waiting room prior to each appointment.  She begs to go early so she can check out the “old fashioned” board games on the shelf in the lobby, hoping to coerce me into losing to her at a game of “Battleship”, “Connect Four”, “Clue” or maybe Jenga.  She is intrigued by the lack of batteries or electricity required to play these games, and treats them like relics at a museum.  Her favorite game to play with me while we wait for her appointment to begin is “Chutes and Ladders”.

Have you ever played this game?  Each player has a “guy” who makes his or her way up the game board space by space, the object being the first to reach space #100.  There is no pair of dice, but instead you choose how far your player moves by spinning a “spinny wheel”, as my daughter calls it.  On the road to space #100, there are a variety of ladders and chutes (which resemble the tubed slides on a playground).  If your player lands on a ladder, he climbs up to a higher level; it’s like cheating, in my mind.  You get a shortcut from space #7 to space #29.  Totally unfair, of course, because in all the time I’ve been playing this stupid game with my daughter, I have never once, not ever climbed a ladder.

I am the queen of the chutes.

Should you spin the “spinny wheel” and move your player forward and land on a chute, you are immediately sent down the chute and you lose several, if not dozens, of spaces.  Just as you make progress, you hit a chute and lose all of the momentum you had gained.

Even more aggravating than the chutes are the pictures of the children drawn on the game board.  At the bottom of each ladder is a happy child.  At the top of the ladder is an ecstatic child.  At the top of the chute is a tentative-looking child, but the child at the bottom of the chute looks devastated and depressed.  Clearly that cartoon child recognizes that being sent down the chute stinks.

Today, we were at the therapist’s office and my daughter, of course, was winning at “Chutes and Ladders”.   She “climbed” so many ladders, I’d lost count.   But she noticed that I hit the top of the exact same chute three times in a row.  And after the third slide down the chute of shame, she asked me, “Mommy, doesn’t it bother you that you have slid down that same chute three times?  Aren’t you upset?”  Oh, how I wanted to answer her truthfully.  That my entire life seems to have been a series of “chutes” that I have barely climbed to the top of before I plummet down again, only to have to start over.  Again and again and again.  I wanted to tell her that my life has been a game of “Chutes”, but with very few ladders.  I can never seem to get ahead.  I had the ladder of a beautiful marriage which rescued me from a deep depression and shot me to the top of my game where I remained happy and continuously climbing with the addition of my three beautiful children on their subsequent ladders.

But then I started hitting the squares with the chutes.  My dad’s death, my diagnoses of bipolar, my husband leaving me – those were the long chutes, but there were many shorter chutes in between.  Just when the “spinny wheel” got me a few spaces ahead, I would land on another chute.  Just as I thought I was crawling out of my hole, I was sliding – no, plummeting – back down another chute, landing at the bottom next to the cartoon drawing of a miserable-looking child.

But I can’t say that to a 10-year old.  Instead, I tell my beautiful daughter, “No, honey, it doesn’t bother me at all that I keep hitting the same chute over and over.  Because as long as you keep climbing the ladders, that’s all I need to be happy”.

And that’s the God’s honest truth.

That was then, this is now.

I remember a lot about my childhood. Surprisingly, my memories are pretty clear. I especially remember summers. When I was young, I never went to camp and we rarely traveled during summer vacation, so I enjoyed my break from school in the idyllic setting of a small town. I grew up in northern New England and recall riding my bike to my best friend’s house by the lake almost daily and floating with her in the cool water for hours, doing cannonballs off her dock. I never wore sunscreen, I drank Coke out of glass bottles, sang along to the radio, made s’mores and pretended to be Princess Leia. I remember picking red clover from the field near my house, plucking the purple spikes from the stem and chewing on their ends. I fished for tiny perch with my brothers, and caught fireflies in a mason jar with holes poked in the lid, hoping they’d live through the night. I remember the chirping of crickets as I lazily rocked in a hammock.

I don’t remember being bipolar.

But my 10-year old daughter will spend her summer suffering from the disease I unwittingly passed down to her. She will know too well the symptoms I didn’t experience until my twenties. Her summer will be full of therapy, and medications and their side effects. She will continue to lose friendships and not understand why. She will cry herself to sleep, asking why she has to be “like this”. And I will have no answers for her. I can give her cool lakes and hammocks and Coca-Cola, but the joy she might get from those experiences will be only temporary.

I wish I could have my youthful summers back. Because I would give them to her. Instead, I gave her bipolar disorder.


What is it about slamming doors in the middle of a manic episode that feels so good? Everything about it – the sound and the resulting shake, the reverberation of wood against wood, the physical exertion required to break it from its frame. It’s incredibly satisfying. I don’t hit people, I don’t punch walls or break dishes. I slam doors.

I think I’ve mentioned in past posts that my mania doesn’t manifest itself in the more common ecstatic episodes or euphoric highs, but as violent outbursts over which I have little or no control. And during those violent outbursts, few things feel better to me than the good hard slam of a door.

I’ve broken three door frames that I can remember. Four, if you count the door that was already broken when I slammed it again, knocking the frame even further apart from the wall. I’ve probably slammed doors a hundred times, but have only broken four that I can recall. I do not say that with pride.

The first doorframe I broke was our bedroom door in the first home I shared with my husband 18 years ago. I slammed it in the face of my brother-in-law following an argument during which I was the only one arguing. I think it was the first time my husband and best friend, who lived with us, had ever experienced the peak of one of my manic episodes. And they were blown away by the “Jekyll and Hyde” change in my personality in such a short period of time.

The next door was five years ago, connecting our kitchen to the garage. I was, again, “peaking” and was furious with my poor husband for some minor incident which, in my mind, was inflated to catastrophic proportions. I was making a dramatic exit from our argument, planning to tear out of the garage in my car, tires squealing. And that dramatic exit involved slamming that sturdy door so hard that the entire room shook from the force. It took us four years to get around to fixing that frame, and since I could see it each morning from where I sat at the kitchen table eating breakfast with my children, it served as a daily reminder of the place I didn’t want ever to be again.

It is with shame that I admit that the third (and fourth) door I slammed hard enough to ruin was that of my youngest daughter’s bedroom. My sweet love, who also suffers with manic episodes. Even more shamefully do I admit that she was in the middle of her own manic hell and in her bedroom both times I slammed her door. I couldn’t take her screaming and crying another moment, her hysteria and violence. And most shameful of all? I felt better after doing it. It’s as if I could displace so much aggression with the simple act of “closing a door a little too hard”. And that poor little girl stopped her hysterics in the middle of her meltdown both times, most likely scared to death to see the grown up image of herself screaming back at her and breaking door frames. She was probably recognizing with fear that this is what she might become.

I had that door repaired soon after the incident. I didn’t tell her dad, from whom I am separated, who had been present the second time it happened. I couldn’t look at it when I tucked my little girl into bed every night. The shame of having broken that door in her presence was too much to be reminded of. Too much for her to be reminded of. Maybe my husband will notice on his own that it didn’t take me four years this time to get help. To make repairs. Maybe he will someday notice that it’s back to normal and that I did it without being asked, without being begged to try to fix what was broken. Maybe he will notice that it’s better. That I’m better.

Then again, maybe not.

A side note: to my sweet little girl, should this post be available to you when you are old enough to read it, I’m sorry for scaring you. I am so desperately sorry.

Just like Mom!

My 10-year old daughter and I have been prescribed the same medication by our respective doctors. Different doses, of course, but the same drug. She thinks it’s cool, because it has to be taken with food and we’ve instituted a new bedtime snack/pill popping routine. We can remind each other when to take it, and we are even experiencing some of the same initial side effects together. How fun! Kind of like back in the ’80s when moms and daughters wore matching Laura Ashley outfits!

Yeah, not really……

It runs in the family……

I have a 10-year old daughter. She is smart, and beautiful, and talented. She is funny and charming and compassionate. She is also bi-polar, which means in addition to all of those aforementioned traits, she is manipulative, emotional, alternately manic and depressed. She is hypersensitive both emotionally and where her senses come into play. Noises are too loud and annoying, light is too bright, touch is too prickly. Keeping in mind that this child is only 10, it goes without saving that she is also confused. And me? I’m guilty. Because the bipolar genes came from my side of the family, not her daddy’s. Her therapist once said, “What were you going to do, NOT have children because there was a chance you’d pass this illness along to one of them?” To be truthful, there are days when I wonder how I could have done this to another person. How I could have invited this disease into her life? What kind of mother would take that chance, knowing full well how my child would suffer should she have the misfortune of inheriting not only my blonde hair or straight teeth, but also claim this illness that has caused me so much pain and heartbreak? What kind of mother would take that chance? Apparently, this kind.