QUESTION: Our 17-year-old son has recently been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. This has come as a complete shock to my husband and me as there are no other bipolar children in our family backgrounds. Our son is under the care of a competent psychologist whom he trusts. This means we are his only caregivers. I must admit that my husband and I are broken-hearted with this turn of events. We have three other normal children who are high-functioning and very productive adults. We don’t particularly feel good about our negative reaction to our son’s disorder, but we are already beginning to sense his condition will commandeer our lives. We are in our early 60s, and hopefully have many years ahead of us. But my husband brought up yet another distressing challenge recently: What happens to our son when we are both gone? To be honest, we are overwhelmed. Can you offer any words of support and encouragement?—Penny and Hank
ANSWER: As difficult as this news is to hear, try to think of the positives: First of all, your son now has an accurate diagnosis, and you and your husband can support him in locating the help he requires. You can guide him in making good decisions regarding his health. While this new piece of information has been a shock, you are fortunate he is still legally in your care. Second, your son is already under the care of a mental health professional that he trusts. Often with bipolar children, this process takes longer.
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Bipolar disorder is a lifelong and recurrent illness, so your son will need long-term treatment to maintain control of the symptoms. Effective treatment includes both medication and psychotherapy to help him stay in control of his life. Bipolar children can become high-functioning and productive as well. It will take some work, but with your help, your son will get there.
For now, try not to worry needlessly. Stay in the present and tackle the challenges directly in front of you. As caregivers, you must consider yourselves and your own mental health. Continue to enjoy activities and hobbies that fill you up. Do what you can to remain in good health so you and your husband will be available to all of your children as you age.
Right now, the best path you can travel is to be knowledgeable about bipolar disorder. A good place to start is the National Institute of Mental Health website (www.nimh.nih.gov). Also, check with your son’s psychologist for thoughts on locating a support group that’s right for you. Chances are that you and your husband will benefit from the experiences of others who have successfully learned to balance their lives as caregivers. One last thought, depending on the relationship your son has with his siblings, he might do well knowing his siblings are members of his caregiving circle. Some psychologists and psychiatrists recommend family-focused therapy wherein family members attend sessions to improve communication and work together on the challenges faced by bipolar children. Not only will supporting their brother enrich their lives, but it could help form caregiving patterns that will allow him to be cared for if and when you and your husband are no longer able to maintain that role.
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Patricia Smith is a certified Compassion Fatigue Specialist with 20 years of training experience. As founder of the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project© (www.compassionfatigue.org), the outreach division of Healthy Caregiving, LLC, she writes, speaks and facilities workshops nationwide in service of those who care for others. She has authored several books including To Weep for a Stranger: Compassion Fatigue in Caregiving, which is available at www.healthycaregiving.comor Amazon.com.