|Author Tracy Anglada|
I hope you enjoy our chat and, please, feel free to pass it along to anyone in your life who is raising a child with bipolar, teaching one or just cares about one. There is some great information here.
CHYNNA: Tracy, welcome to ‘White Elephants’ and thank you for being our very first guest! Why don’t we start with a little bit about your background.
TRACY: I’m a coal miner’s daughter, born and raised in Southern Illinois. If you’re thinking Loretta Lynn – you’ll be sadly disappointed. I rate a zero in the area of musical talent. However, I did discover at a young age that I possess a talent for writing. While my talent may be writing, my love is for people. So my goal was to become a missionary and help people. The course of my life would eventually meld both my love and my talent.
CHYNNA: I could feel your love of people and your passion for helping others from the first paragraph I read in your book. Your son has a condition called bipolar disorder. People have different ideas of what bipolar is, most of these perceptions are very inaccurate. Would you mind explaining what this condition is and your son’s unique form of it?
TRACY: Bipolar disorder is an illness that affects the most complex part of the body - the brain. This disorder involves both abnormal structure and functioning of the brain. Bipolar disorder affects a person's energy levels, thoughts, moods and behaviors. The person suffering from bipolar disorder experiences extreme shifts in mood ranging from depression to mania. Studies report that half of all cases of bipolar disorder begin with symptoms prior to the age of 18. Further studies show that children with bipolar disorder display deficits in processing facial expressions (neutral faces are processed as being hostile) and in processing the emotional meaning of language.
My son is at least the third generation in his family to suffer from bipolar disorder with various other family members on both sides having the condition. He also has a learning disability which complicates his illness a bit.
CHYNNA: That clarifies things wonderfully, Tracy, thank you so much. At what point did you ‘know’ something was wrong with your son beyond normal developmental stages? What was the diagnostic process like?
TRACY: While I can look backward and see difficulties since infancy, it was not until my son was 6 years old that I truly ‘knew’ something was wrong. Before that time, I found a way to explain whatever difficulty he was having. He had difficulty with sleep and was easily overstimulated as a baby. Rocking, noise, music and light would over stimulate him. When he was old enough to talk, he told me, “No sing Mommy,” when I was trying to put him to sleep. (I warned you that I wasn’t Loretta Lynn!) But, seriously, he had to have complete quiet and dark. Even then, he would sometimes sleep for only a half hour at a time.
As he grew older, I had difficulty with him behaviorally but chalked it up to his age and being a boy. He was unpredictable and his moods were all over the place. At the age of 6, things took a turn for the worse. He suffered a depressive episode complete with wanting to harm himself and then flipped into a mixed episode with continued thoughts of self-harm mixed in with increased energy, racing thoughts, anger, agitation, irritability, etc. It was right after my son turned 7 that I sought professional help for him. I took him for a complete evaluation with his pediatrician who made an emergency appointment with a psychiatrist. I’m not sure what the pediatrician said to this very busy psychiatrist but it motivated him to work my son in for an appointment the very next day.
On that first visit he spent an hour with our family. Diagnostically speaking, our family had it easy. Back then, the time it took to receive a correct diagnosis for a child with bipolar disorder averaged 10 years with wrong diagnoses and meds in between. We found a doctor who immediately saw the family history and symptoms as a warning sign. While he did not technically diagnose my son immediately with bipolar disorder, he felt strongly that we must proceed as if ‘this may be bipolar disorder’ and avoid any medications that would make the condition worsen. Even with the best diagnostic scenario, treating the illness, understanding it, parenting and living with a child who suffers with bipolar disorder is a long and difficult road.
CHYNNA: WOW! That must have been so difficult for you early on. But how fortunate that you had amazing professionals on your side. That’s wonderful. I’d like to talk about your incredible book, Intense Minds for a bit. You’ve broken the book down into five different sections. As a daughter of a mother who lived with bipolar, I recognized each of these key features of bipolar. Did you break it down this way to make it easier for readers to digest the information? Can you describe each of these features for us?
Intense Minds is to convey the internal experience of children with bipolar disorder. I want the reader to see through their eyes. In order to accomplish that task, I spent a year interviewing both children with the illness and adults who had a childhood onset. The children had a fresh in-the-moment perspective and the adults had the advantage of both the experience during childhood and an adult vocabulary to convey it. The result was a massive amount of information that had to be presented in a way that the reader could grasp. To that end, I divided the mood states- Depression “Darkness Within” and Mania “Riding the Wave.” Next, in World’s Collide “The Wind Changes,” I dealt with the experience of mixed states. After giving the reader insights into how all these mood states feel, I wanted to give it context. Kids with bipolar disorder don’t get to deal with all these chaotic feelings in a bubble. Living “Survival” deals with the child at school, with friends and family. The fifth and final section, Making a Difference “Plea for Help” is a call to action. I want readers to walk away from this book knowing that they can make a difference.
CHYNNA: I thought you did a fantastic job putting it all together the way you did. This is a difficult condition to understand yet you presented it all in a clear, easy-to-understand way. My favorite aspect of your book is that you had children and youth who live with bipolar contribute their experiences on the various sections in the book. How brilliant, as I honestly don’t think people have any idea what it’s truly like to live with this disorder. Was it difficult listening to their stories or was it more healing for you? What was is like for the kids?
TRACY: The voice of the children is the heart of the book. I conducted the interviews almost exclusively through email. Because the answers were so personal and so emotional for those being interviewed, it was necessary to space the questions out. Parents helped out by asking the interview questions to the youngest children in the group and typing in their answers. Participants were at different levels of stability during the interview process which meant that some had to take quite a bit of time before feeling well enough to respond. It was a learning process for me as well as for the participants. Many came to realizations that were new to them or found comfort that others in the group felt the same way. This particular book left me both emotionally exhausted and triumphant. I am a naturally compassionate person and my heart ached when I read the responses to my questions. I would sit in front of my computer with tears streaming down my face. The motherly part of me wanted to reach through the computer screen and hug the person on the other side. In order to write the book, I had to find a way to take that emotion and distill it into the book. I hope that is what I have done.
CHYNNA: I think you achieved exactly that, Tracy. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for you to interview and organize the information in this book. You are very courageous. Another section of the book that I thought was incredibly important to include was your first Epilogue. Here you went into the perspective of a child living with bipolar and showed how it would be if he had accommodations (or assistance/support) in school and what it would be like if he didn’t have that support. It is so important for these kids (all kids with special needs) to have what he or she needs to function. As you know, with the right support they are more than capable to succeed, right? What inspired you to write this? Did your own son have difficulties with support in school/community? What did you do to ensure he got that support?
TRACY: You can thank my father (the ex-coal miner) that this epilogue made it into the book. My School Day With and Without Accommodations was an essay that I had written and was already available on my website when I was writing Intense Minds. Because it was already available to print from the website, I didn’t even consider putting it in the book. After reading my first draft, my father was adamant that the essay should be put in as an epilogue. And so it was! The right support in school makes a huge difference for kids with all kinds of special needs. That essay was written to help the teachers see through the eyes of the child and also to see that even very small things make such a huge difference in their day. We saw that first hand with our son. We have had teachers that truly made a difference and teachers that made it a nightmare. From early on, I took a very proactive approach to advocating with the schools. The first draft of my brochure for teachers (currently a free download on the bpchildren.org site) was literally written for my son’s second grade teacher. I went to advocacy training programs through Wrightslaw and spent a great deal of time making sure my son had the help he needed. That has come in the form of a 504 plan, then an IEP, and for the past year a correspondence course to finish his high school credits at home. He is on schedule to graduate this May.
CHYNNA: Absolutely brilliant! Many special needs caregivers wondering how to help their child in school should take notes here. THIS is what advocacy is. Thank you for sharing all of that. Can you describe what the main symptoms are for bipolar disorder in our children and at what point caregivers need to be concerned that it’s more than moodiness ‘typical’ for his age?
TRACY: The primary symptoms of bipolar disorder include both depression (lack of motivation, reduced energy, difficulty concentrating, thoughts of death, self-harm or risk taking, crying spells, anger or irritability and altered sleeping and eating patterns) and mania (overtalkativeness, irritability, decreased need for sleep, grandiosity, hypersexuality, racing thoughts, and increased goal-directed activities). Children with bipolar disorder may suffer from chronic irritability, abrupt changes in mood and energy levels, low tolerance for frustration, sudden changes in thinking and odd or oppositional behaviors. Even prior to full blown symptoms, children who later go on to develop bipolar disorder frequently have difficulty with anxiety and attention. If your family has a history of bipolar disorder and you begin to see signs in your child, it is good to have him or her evaluated by a child psychiatrist. Symptoms that interfere with the child's ability to be safe, happy, make friends, and function within the family should be of concern. If they are interfering in these ways, the child should be evaluated. Even if he or she is suffering from a different condition, it's still important to address.
CHYNNA: I appreciate you breaking all of that down for us as we can see how many of these symptoms can appear as other conditions. How are things for your son today?
TRACY: We had some difficult months this past autumn. After a series of stressful events which included the death of a family friend, my son destabilized. Stress can trigger a worsening of symptoms in people with bipolar disorder. Fortunately, we have a good doctor and supportive family who helped us through. After some medication changes, he is back on track and as of today he is doing great. Bipolar disorder is very treatable but it takes vigilance to keep it under control. As he approaches adulthood, we have been working to help him self-identify mood changes, self-report to the doctor and stay consistent with taking his medication. I’m pleased to say he has avoided the pitfalls of drugs and alcohol and has made friends with people who will encourage him along a healthy path.
CHYNNA: Isn’t that fantastic! How inspiring to hear that he’s getting strong peer support. That is so important, especially in the teen years. I’m so glad to hear things are going good for him right now. With all that you’ve been through, I would absolutely love to hear any pearls of wisdom you have.
TRACY: Surround yourself with supportive people; be willing to go the extra mile; listen with your heart; and don’t ever be afraid to write your own story.
BP Children. That is a ‘must-have’ resource to add to your favorites with information, links, newsletters and so much more. That’s not all though! Tracy wants to give our readers a chance to win a copy of her newest book, “Swivel To Success: Bipolar in the Classroom”. All you have to do is join our blog and leave a comment. We’ll have the contest open until January 29th so enter soon! We'll give bonus entries for helping to spread the word on your social media accounts like Facebook or Twitter. Just be sure to let us know you did so in your comment. =)
Good luck to everyone and thank you again to Tracy for joining us. Please come back again with an update or to let us know of any events you have coming up!