Here's a photo of me and my parents when we said goodbye the day I left for my mission. At that time, neither they nor I had any idea about the life-long demon that was about to surface during my service. One of the greatest lessons I learned on that manic-depressive mission was that my parents loved me more than I had ever imagined.

For Parents of Children (of all ages) with Bipolar Disorder

“…It’s like you’re drowning right in front of me, and I’m reaching out but you can’t see, There’s something holding on to you so tight, so I guess this is all I’ll say to you tonight: If you ever need me, you know where to find me, I will be waiting, where I’ve always been…right by your side.”   Matthew West

I love the message of this song. It describes well an emotion that so many parents experience as they watch their child battle bipolar disorder. When I say “child” I mean child of all ages. Parents are parents no matter how old their children get. Almost all parents love their children deeply and it rips their hearts apart to see a child suffer all the emotional, spiritual, and physical agony that depression and mania can cause.

My parents are no exception. Growing up I had symptoms of depression and mania, but no one suspected they could become as extreme as they did. At 19 I went to Taiwan on a volunteer mission for my church. My assignment was for around 24 months. However, after just ten months, my parents received a phone call I’m sure they will never forget.

The phone conversation went something like this, “Your son is experiencing some kind of psychotic breakdown. He can’t respond to simple questions. He has been restrained in a church house. Sometimes he screams out, or bursts into hysterical laughter followed by crying like a baby. This and other very bizarre behavior has gone on for several hours. He even bit another missionary on the leg. Can you tell me what is happening and what we should do?” 

I can’t imagine the anguish my parents suffered during that time in my life. I think any parent that receives this type of news suffers similarly. My parents had a small understanding of what was happening because my mother had been diagnosed with mental illness years before. She too had suffered a mental break breakdown. It’s hard to say if this personal understanding was helpful or hurtful though because my parents knew all-too-well the anguish I was suffering, and they also knew this was only the first explosion of a lifelong war.

Under the direction of my parents, my leader along with some other missionaries in Taiwan took me to a hospital where sedative injects were the only option to gain control. So much medication was needed to put me under that I didn’t consciously wake up for a whole week. When I finally “came to,” I found myself back in the USA locked in the psychiatric ward of a hospital. My parents made a two hour drive every day to see me during visiting hours.

As I tried to figure out just what happened to me and how I should deal with it, my first reaction was to throw blame at my parents for things they had said and done while raising me. As I cried and criticized them during our therapy sessions they were very loving and willing to try and correct things from our past. I’m sure they knew that my problem was more “nature” and less “nurture” (meaning the chemistry in head was the main cause of my bipolar disorder, not the way they raised me) but they were willing to try and help in any way they could, even if it meant me pointing my finger at them, all the while not being willing to admit, in even the smallest way, that any of my attitudes or personality traits needed to be corrected as well.

How much love does it take for parents to willingly take verbal lashings of criticism and blame for a life-shattering breakdown when they know they weren’t the reason for it? As they say in Chinese: A great big pile of love. Looking back at it now, 20 years later, I can see the love my parents showed me was similar to another great and loving Person who lived a perfect life, but willingly suffered the pain of every person, just hoping that by doing so some of us wouldn’t have to hurt so much.

The issues of my past with my parents were important to address and talk about. I’m sure my parents would be the first to admit that imperfections in their parenting cast loops and knots into the attitudes and thought processes I reeled in during my childhood and teenage years. Add to the snarl the fact that during that time, my mother was also fishing for understanding of mental illness with many of the same kinks and twists in her own line, and you get a very tangled mesh of influences. I’m pretty good at untangling messed-up fishing lines, but sometimes the best way to fix the problem is to simply cut the line, discard the tangles, and restart with the line you have remaining in your reel.  Sadly, at that point in my life I focused only on the tangles and didn’t appreciate or even acknowledge that at the end of my parents’ line was a golden hook of love stuck in the belt loop of my waist that lifted me up and saved me from drowning again and again.

After a month in the hospital I was reassigned to Montana to continue my volunteer mission. There, after just three months, I quit taking my medication and suffered another breakdown even more severe than the first one. Once again, my parents got the frantic phone call. Living in a neighboring state, Mother and Dad were able to get a quick flight to Bozeman. Arriving at the psychiatric ward, the staff of the Bozeman hospital informed them I had been given sedative injections to stop the psychotic madness. The nurse led them to the padded, locked holding cell where I was asleep on a thin mat on the floor.

When I awoke, the psychosis had cycled to depression. This meant I was sane, but very down and extremely anxious in mind and body. When the hospital told my parents they wouldn’t allow my release until the next day, my loving father couldn’t stand the thought of me in the cell alone all night. So he came in and spent what felt like an eternal night with me locked inside the padded room. More injections through the night forced me to sleep, but interrupted what little sleep Dad had. I slept on the mat and he tossed and turned on the cold, tile floor. Although I was drugged and loopy, blue as toilet water, confused, cold and stripped of any dignity, the love my father showed me that night touched my heart in a way I had never felt before.

The next day, my parents flew with me back to my home state. Straight from the airport, they immediately drove me to a local clinic for behavioral medicine. As they started filling out the paperwork to check me in, my mother asked the director what their program was like. The director described a program with strict enforcement of curfews, early morning rising, and busy, intense therapy. Feeling like I was being checked into a boot camp, fear caused my body to tremble and shake. I knew I had no say in whether or not the clinic was for me. I’ll never forget the relief and gratitude I felt when my mother lovingly looked at me, tore up the registration papers and said, “Andy doesn’t need this. Let’s go home.”  The night with my dad and the understanding of my mother sparked warmth in my heart that began the thaw of my ice-hard stubbornness.

Choosing to bring me home did not make life for my parents easier. Rather, it was “the hard way.” Although a trickle of refined, clean humility had started to clear my eyes and allow me to see glimpses of my parents’ love for me, in my brain, bipolar disorder was now a raging, roaring, full-blown flash flood. To someone observing my manic depressive storm from a distance, the love my parents showed me during that tumultuous time would seem as obvious as a giant rainbow gleaming through the pouring rain. But through the following weeks, months, and even years, I kept my eyes focused mostly on the muddy memories of manic yesterdays, and my hands grasping for a sandy future that the bipolar flood had washed away. Choosing to swim my bipolar flood alone and face down in the cyclone waters of denial, ignorance, and confusion, my parents could only watch as my life continued to spiral lower and lower. When the inevitable crush of rock bottom forced me to admit I needed help and to realize I couldn’t get back afloat alone, guess who was there to mop up my tears, take me by the hand, and lovingly start lifting me back up? Of course, it was the ones who had been there all along; my parents.  

In conclusion, I’d like to offer this to my parents and all parents of children with bipolar disorder or any other mental illness. Thank you can’t be said enough times for your love, patience, and care. For too many years the pain and confusion of my own suffering blinded me to yours. You suffered as much or more than I did! But you never despaired nor abandoned me, and when I finally looked inward to find the problem and outward for help, instead of the other way around, I finally saw and appreciated that your love was a precious gift that I had been taking for granted. Now I know you are the unsung heroes of my bipolar war; the ones who had and continue to have my back in every battle. Thank you. Thank you.

To those parents whose children are still so blinded by the pain and confusion of their bipolar battles that they don’t see how much you suffer in their behalf, won’t hear the healing words you offer, and can’t appreciate or even feel the love you carry for them, I just want to say, thank you for caring and thank you for continuing to try. I believe as long as you don’t give up, your children will always have hope. Keep trying, keep praying, and continue on where you’ve always been…right by their sides.

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