The Bipolar Lens

My view from the rollercoaster.

The Dark Side of Innocence

Growing Up Bipolar

My new book, The Dark Side of Innocence: Growing Up Bipolar, just hit the shelves. I'm more than a little nervous about it. As the title indicates, it's a childhood memoir about my experience growing up with an illness that at that time had no name. I just called it the Black Beast, and let it have its way with me.

Childhood bipolar disorder is a relatively new phenomenon -- until recently, it was thought that the disease didn't usually manifest until around the early twenties. But since the mid-1990s, there's been a staggering 4000% increase in the diagnosis in young people (and no, that's not a typo).

Not surprisingly, this has created a firestorm of controversy. Are we over-diagnosing, over-medicating, over-scrutinizing our kids? Childhood and adolescence are inherently volatile times. Kids are moody, adolescents even more so. Are we pathologizing perfectly natural behavior by slapping a diagnosis on it? And what are the consequences of exposing a child to the stigma of mental illness?

I expect tough questions like these to haunt my readings and interviews -- questions for which I have no absolute answers. All I can offer is my own experience: I personally believe that I was bipolar from a very early age. I'm still enough of a lawyer to be impressed by evidence, and the evidence of mental illness in my case is pretty overwhelming.

I was seven years old when I made my first suicide attempt, by swallowing a bottle of my mother's pills. I was terrified of failing a homework assignment, and death seemed like the only available option to me. Sound outrageous? It was, in retrospect; but at the time, it felt perfectly reasonable. So did stabbing my brother with a fork because he sat in my chair. Or cutting myself with my father's razor to calm my nerves. Or careening through the desert on a drunken joyride that nearly cost me my life. For as far back as I can remember, my emotions have always been too extreme, my reactions too intense.

I grew up in a picture-perfect suburb of Los Angeles, in a fine home with a pool, a two-car garage, and loving parents. But my interior didn't match this idyllic exterior. All throughout my childhood and adolescence, I had black, swampy periods where I couldn't move and was barely able to get out of bed; followed by giddy, soaring days where I spoke too fast and a million thoughts outraced my tongue. I compensated for my extended absences from school by out-producing my classmates when I was "up." As a result, I was a straight-A student with a gleaming array of trophies and honors. On the outside, I was all shiny and bright; on the inside, an intolerable murk.

Because of this imposing facade, no one ever questioned my erratic moods -- not my parents, my teachers, my friends. No one. It's burned a hole in my heart to realize that I may have been partly responsible for this: I worked so hard to keep my madness hidden. I often wonder, what suffering might I have been spared if only I'd had the courage as a child to speak up? Or if someone had had a sharper eye? Studies clearly show that early intervention can make a tremendous difference in the course and severity of pediatric bipolar disorder.

But it was a very different age back then, when "such things" simply weren't discussed. Now, perhaps we discuss them too much -- or so those critics would claim who dispute the extraordinary increase in the diagnosis of mental illness in children. I say, there's no such thing as discussing too much. There's no such thing as looking too closely. There's still tremendous stigma and fear to be overcome, and it won't be conquered by looking away. 

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

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