It was a bright, sunny, Monday morning. I hid under the blankets, I simply could not go to school or speak to anyone today. I could hear my father coughing outside the kitchen door over his morning cigarette as he let the dogs out. He had already banged on my door with a curt, “Come on, get out of bed!” as he passed my room. Soon my mother would make sure my school uniform was complete and that I was awake. I sunk deeper into the bed, hugging my pillow with a hollow stomach. I knew I had nothing to fear but was full of dread, worthlessness, and a haunting feeling that the outside world was something I needed to hide from. Claiming to have a stomach ache would not be a lie.
Just the previous week I was so enthusiastic to get to school, excited about life and, if anything, over talkative and extra social. Like night and day these emotions and moods would follow me through my life in waves. As a baby boomer, I was of a generation where no one was labeled ADD, ADHD, Aspergers, bipolar, or any of the many conditions that we so easily label children with today. I now suspect I was suffering from ‘early onset bipolar disorder’, something unheard of at the time––the emergent form in children of what was previously known (in acute form) as ‘manic depression’. The treatment of the day was being told “Pull yourself together!”
Bipolar disorder is a cyclic condition where sufferers alternate between moods of extreme, positive elation and deep depression. In children the moods are often worse than in adults and can alternate more frequently. This is now referred to as early onset bipolar disorder, and is becoming a label increasingly given to children based on a consultation alone. There are no blood tests or brain scans that can be used to diagnose a child with this condition. A doctor may simply ask about a child’s moods, energy levels, sleep patterns, and behaviors.
Today, bipolar disorder is becoming an increasingly fashionable label as celebrities disclose that they are sufferers, including Catherine Zeta-Jones, Carrie Fisher, and Steven Fry, who even made a documentary on the subject (The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, available for online viewing) with a surprising outcome. Each of the people he interviewed, when asked if they were presented with a button that would turn off their bipolar condition permanently, would they press it now? The answer was almost always “No!,” for the elation and inspiration they experience on the upside feels worth the dark moods that will inevitably follow. It is suspected that many creative geniuses owe both their successes and tragedies to being bipolar.
Steven Fry recently described the mood swings with an analogy that I liked so much that I have stolen it as the most effective way of explaining to others how it feels to be bipolar. He compared it to the weather. You may wake up one day and the sun is shining, the next day it may be overcast and raining. If someone said to you, “Come on, pull yourself together! It’s not raining––it’s sunny!” It won’t change the weather. If it’s raining, it’s raining––it has nothing to do with how we are seeing things, nor how we feel about ourselves. Equally, the mood swings I experience have nothing to do with life events, although they can be triggered by them. More often than not they even contradict. Everything can be great, my life going well, I am loved and successful––and suddenly I am extremely depressed and anxious, under a dark cloud for no reason at all. Other times my life situation may be extremely precarious and worrisome, but I might feel inexplicably great with racing thoughts about this wonderful new project that, although far-fetched and improbable, in my mind was sure to succeed and make me famous.
That morning my father, having fed the dogs, left for work while my mother let me stay in bed hugging the pillow. She rang the school and took my temperature. If that were today, and my behaviors were described to a doctor––I would most certainly have been diagnosed as early onset bipolar and prescribed medication. In fact, being diagnosed as bipolar today is so widespread that medical practitioners and senior psychiatrists are becoming concerned by the way anti-psychotic drugs are being routinely prescribed as a permanent solution for adults and as a preventative measure for children.
Dr. Moncrieff, a Senior Lecturer in Psychiatry at University College London, has recently written about how the re-labeling of ‘manic depression’ as ‘bipolar disorder’ was not simply a name change, but a widening of what we consider to be this condition to the point that someone feeling anxious, depressed, or simply suffering from the mood swings of everyday life can become diagnosed as bipolar and walk away with a prescription for anti-psychotic drugs. This is worrying and should be a concern for any parent who has a child who is in this situation.
I have always been uncomfortable with the diagnostic processes psychiatrists use to identify mental conditions in children, how labeling affects them, and the crossroads where education and medical intervention meet. However, it is the use of anti-psychotic drugs on patients with mild symptoms and particularly children that is the most worrying. We simply do not have adequate research. These are serious drugs with side effects that may outweigh any benefit to the child. Drug companies and medical consultants have made huge profits since the surge in diagnosing bipolar disorder and the promotion of anti-psychotics as being suitable for children.
These drugs were developed in the 1950s to treat serious mental disorders. What was formerly referred to as manic depression, on which the original trials were conducted, is far more acute and very different to the disposition of a child diagnosed with early onset bipolar disorder today. Researchers originally believed these drugs ‘realigned’ a chemical imbalance in the brain. This, according to Dr. Moncrieff is a perpetuated myth, and that they work by simply damping down the brain’s activity, a rival theory that was brushed under the carpet at the time. The outcomes of this on the developing brain of a child are simply unknown––I wouldn’t risk them on my children and am glad I never went through school as a semi-zombie myself. The highs and lows of my childhood are a part of me that I couldn’t imagine living without.
There is now a growing wave of opinion that many of the behavior traits that lead to a diagnosis of early onset bipolar disorder are actually the result of emotional disturbances, environmental toxins, lack of exercise, and a diet full of sugar, processed foods, and additives. There is also a compelling argument to re-evaluate the umbrella term bipolar and separate the acute condition from the mild symptoms that may just be natural mood swings and responses to an environment or diet that can be changed.
That day I was sick and off school, my father came home from work with a comic for me to read and some sticky candy. My childhood diet in the 1970s was not particularly good––fun but not very sensible. Before I become too worried whether any of my children have inherited my condition, I will be having a serious think about their diet and well being. I do worry about the artificial ingredients in all the foods that tempt them, foods that are so much a part of our culture that they are often hard to avoid.
As an unschooler I do not have to worry about my children’s behaviors fitting in with the artificial community of a school regime. This is predominantly the reason medication is given to children. If my children are a bit hyper and can’t sit still, we’ll go outside and run about. If they are dreamy and gazing out of the window seeming detached, I’ll put on some Debussy to match the mood. However we homeschool our children, we can adapt the environment and activities to the child. A schooled child behaving the same way, out of sync with a class routine, or going through an angry and emotional phase, can easily find themselves labeled and medicated in order to fit in.
I have met too many parents who seem almost eager to have their children labeled as bipolar to explain away behaviors. Their children may be angry, emotional, at times extremely hard to cope with, and sometimes so depressed that they just want to disengage from the family and hide in their bedrooms. These could all be symptoms of early onset bipolar disorder. Equally, they could be normal responses to growing up and adapting––valid fears and anxieties that are as human as depression and elation within an explainable context.
A doctor relative of mine once described clinical depression as a condition to be diagnosed and treated only when emotions were completely out of proportion to one’s life events, existing with no explanation or valid cause and therefore possibly caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. But all too often normal or ‘reactive’ depression is treated the same as a the medical condition. However, depression is a normal human coping response when faced with events and situations that are negative in our lives. I believe depression is beneficial, leading to change by enforcing time for inward reflection and contemplation. Darwin described it nicely, “Depression is the sadness that informs as it leads an animal to pursue that course of action which is most beneficial.”
As an adult, I consider myself to be what I like to refer to as a ‘functioning bipolarist’. I have learned to ride the waves of my mood swings as not only an essence of my character that defines who I am, but in a way that they can positively enhance my professional and private life. The highs drive the passion and focus behind all that I consider personal achievements, spur an enthusiasm that has inspired students into action and adults to join me in creative projects that have at times been hugely successful. Ideas that a more level-headed adult would never have embarked on due to being too ambitious, outlandish, or financially risky. The lows are necessary periods of reflection and contemplation. Today when I hug a pillow, turn off the phone, and hide in bed away from the world, I just embrace it as a means to re-charge and re-align my focus. For the most part this works for me, I have a self-awareness that I have developed that prevents me from going too far in either direction, and on some subconscious level I manage to fit my pillow-hugging sessions around my responsibilities. However, this has not always been the case. I am convinced that if I had been on medication as a child and young adult, I would not have been able to evolve these self-checks and even use the condition as a positive aspect of my very personality.
I am wary about being ‘officially’ diagnosed as bipolar, a mental illness, and what implications that may one day have on me. Only occasionally during phases of extreme anxiety, full of fear and dread, have I temporarily used medication such as Xanax or Valium. And then only for a few days when the pillow just couldn’t be held tight enough to my stomach to quell the darkness that felt as physical as it was frightening. But there were always other factors in my life that had pushed it that far. There have also been times when the mania was so intense that my excited nature would be disturbing to friends and family around me. I was once convinced to follow a course of anti-depressants that removed the lows but also killed the highs and positive energy I craved creatively. Equally, consoling has never worked for me. The mood swings are not due to personal problems and talking through any problems I may have makes it worse; dwelling on the negative only emphasizes something that will pass. My moods and behaviors may have lost me a few fair weather friends in the past, but have filtered out my circle to those who are a supportive and an understanding influence.
In both children and adults, the condition is often masked by addictive behaviors and can go undetected. The highs and lows of the mood swings are comparable to being drunk and then having a hangover. I believe many gamblers, and particularly alcoholics, are bipolar, the ‘three-day-bender’ masking the mania, and the resulting hangover hiding the depression. Self-medicating like this can be hugely destructive for someone with bipolar disorder, who often also has an addictive nature. Equally, the compulsive behavior that accompanies the manic phase can attract toxic friends that feed off the energy in a negative way.
As an impulsive English teenager in a dysfunctional family, I left home at age 15, before leaving the country completely. It wasn’t until I was 27 that I had found a balance to my life. I was lucky enough to attract creative and caring friends, and stoic enough to effectively bring myself up, avoid toxic influences, and put myself through college. Not everyone is as lucky. Age 27 is often a watershed time for finding oneself, a pivotal point. Looking back, I can see now that my mother displayed the behaviors that typify my condition, as did my sister and aunt, both of whom committed suicide at this age.
Let’s face it, neither growing up nor parenting has ever been always easy for anyone. However, as home educators, we are in the perfect position to know and adapt to the rhythms of our children, and whether their emotions and behaviors are explainable. I in no way mean to deter anyone from seeking professional advice if they are truly concerned about their child’s extreme behaviors. I just think we ought to be careful not to automatically assume our children’s ‘ups-and-downs’ and difficult phases are possible signs of an underlying illness. It is simply too easy to become worried and overly concerned, and too easy to label a child and find medication for what could simply be part of the difficult road that growing up and fitting in has always been.
As one who has openly labeled himself as bipolar, I simply hope I have provided some food for thought for parents concerned with what is often a phase, and part of the natural, human condition. I do not believe in labeling children so easily, nor in using medication as a solution (my sister and aunt were both using anti-depressants). Coming to terms with my condition, and the way I have adapted to not only be more self-aware, but even learning how to utilize the alternating phases of positive energy and reflective moods to my advantage, could never have been achieved on medication.
By Wednesday morning I was ready for school, I wasn’t as excited as the previous week, but more calm. It seems my sister had since caught my mystery stomach ache and was staying home herself today. I fluffed my pillow up neatly as I made my bed before eating a bowl of sugar-loaded cereal as the dogs scratched at the kitchen door to be let back in. It was no longer the bright, sunny morning that seemed so foreboding just days before, but overcast and raining. Although I would have preferred to stay at home and finish the book I had started reading, I was happy despite the weather.
Lee A. Elliott has been internationally involved in alternative education as a teacher for the past 24 years. He and his wife Karen now embrace a radical unschooling lifestyle along with the youngest of six children. Touring together in a 1978 motorhome, he documents his thoughts and experiences on learning as they search for the perfect community in which to settle.
This article was published in the March-April 2014 issue of HEM