The Bipolar Lens

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Dangerous Façade

Beware the Perfect Child

There's been a lot of hoopla lately about our underachieving children.  You can almost feel the collective cringe every time another story runs about how American kids rank below other nations in essential subjects like math or science.  We are being out-thought, out-tested, out-performed, and it's worse than just embarrassing:  it's a national scandal.   Something has to be done.    

Hence the meteoric popularity of the "Tiger Mom" concept – if only we can be strict enough, even savage enough with our kids, we can whip them into shape.  We can turn them into little prodigies with 4.0 grade point averages.  They will beg to practice the piano.  And they will beat the pants off all those other countries in standardized testing, even in technology.  Our children can be, in a word, perfect.

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I'm here to tell you, it's a dangerous fantasy.

I was one of those straight A, straight arrow kids.  As I chronicle in my new book, The Dark Side of Innocence:  Growing Up Bipolar, I spent my entire childhood and adolescence racking up honors and stockpiling awards.  I took classes at Pomona College when I was only ten years old.  I was a National Merit Scholar and high school valedictorian.  In my spare time, I dabbled in varsity cheerleading and Student Council.  I was every Tiger Mom's sweetest dream – and my own worst waking nightmare.

That 4.0 GPA turned out to be a bulletproof facade, behind which no one could apparently see.  They couldn't see that every couple of months or so, I would drop completely out of sight.  I'd claim to have asthma or the flu, but the truth was, I didn't know what was going on.  I just couldn't move.  I was swamped by a sorrow so vast and so deep I felt like I was drowning, and I'd lie in bed for days at a time, paralyzed and hopeless and deeply ashamed.

But after every one of my "spells," as we called them, I'd come charging back to life.  I'd finish up all the homework I'd missed, then do a couple of extra credit reports on top of that, just to make sure.  Maybe I was talking a little too fast, maybe my ideas were a bit grandiose – when I was twelve, I tried to convert the entire sixth grade to communism.  It didn’t matter.  When I came back home with that beautiful A+, it was like a stamp of good mental health on my forehead.

No one ever recognized that this particular overachiever had a rip-roaring case of bipolar disorder.  When I was manic, it was easy to sparkle bright, to shimmer like a star.  Mania put embers in my eyes, so all my parents and teachers could see was my burning ambition.  They didn't know that I worked myself to a frenzy because I simply had no other choice.  I had to divert attention from the nameless, godless thing that was so obviously wrong with me.

It’s a simple truth, but hard to acknowledge:  Just because a child excels doesn’t mean that he’s okay.  Look closer.

I have to admit for the sake of fairness that the perfectionism I so rigorously honed as a child did enable me to achieve as an adult.  I couldn’t have made it as an entertainment lawyer in the shark-infested waters of Hollywood had old habits not run deep.  No doubt the Tiger Mom would say, "See?  The system works."  My reply to that would be, "Yes, I was successful.  But I wanted to die the entire time."

It's an evil thing, perfectionism.  It's not the Holy Grail – it’s the path to hell.  Excellence at everything is unrealistic and unhealthy.  Kids desperately need to learn their limits, if only to practice failure.  I never learned that essential lesson; all I could think to do when I failed was to try to kill myself.  And so I did, multiple times, starting when I was only seven years old.

We laugh a little at the Tiger Mom because she's so extreme.  We wink at our own chauvinism, never really believing for a minute that American kids aren't the best and brightest in the world.  They may well be – but they're not perfect.  And for that we should be extremely grateful.

 

Terri Cheney is the author of Manic: A Memoir and The Dark Side of Innocence: Growing Up Bipolar.

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