One Mom Shares How Early Intervention in Bipolar Disorder Saved Her Daughter’s Life

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Emily lives with bipolar disorder and is in recovery
Amy's Daughter, Emily

Amy McClellan’s young daughter Emily had what seemed like normal tantrums in early childhood, but as they progressively worsened into bouts of manic, self-destructive behavior, it became obvious that something was wrong. That was the beginning of a family’s struggle with bipolar disorder that included a misdiagnosis, detrimental medications, a suicide attempt and ultimately the promise of recovery.

“We started noticing things when she was about 4 years old," explains Emily’s mother Amy. “She would have periodic tantrums and tended to be a very irritable, high-strung, precocious kid. But it got worse as she got older. We took her to a psychiatrist when she was 7 and were told that she was very angry, but there was no diagnosis made.” It wasn’t until she was 13 that Emily, with great insight and intelligence, independently researched her symptoms and diagnosed herself with bipolar disorder. “I dismissed it at the time,” explains Amy, “because I didn’t know anything about this mental illness. It wasn’t until later that I learned about our family history [of mood disorders] and that Emily was right.”

At 14, a psychiatrist misdiagnosed Emily with depression and prescribed an antidepressant that triggered manic behavior. Amy describes that period: “It was terrifying what happened to her behavior in 8th grade – she turned into this angry girl, cutting herself, dressing in goth clothes, unhappy, with suicidal thoughts, along with mania and hypersexuality. She lost a lot of friends. If you don’t know what’s going on it can be very scary and shameful.”

The right diagnosis, confirming Emily’s suspicions, came when she was 15. A new psychiatrist recognized her rapid cycling (fluctuating episodes of severe depression and mania) and diagnosed her with bipolar disorder.

“Love, love, love each other, and keep trying even if it takes years to get the right treatment. Fight for it!”

The next 10 years of Emily’s road to recovery were difficult: she tried 30 combinations of meds, as well as ECT (electroconvulsive therapy). “We finally found the right combination which includes 2 antidepressants, a mood stabilizer and talk therapy,” says her mother. “I also found a program in North Carolina for her – a healing, residential farm program for those with mental illness called CooperRiis. It changed her life. It was there that she discovered how much she loves working with animals─she even volunteered at a wildlife sanctuary.”

Emily’s recovery inspired her mother to join other parents in starting a local clubhouse following the International Center for Clubhouse Development model in her community. These clubhouses are free and provide a work-focused, dignified rehabilitation environment similar to CooperRiis. Today at 28, Emily is not only stable but thriving. She is about to graduate with a biology degree, and looks forward to a career working with animals. She is a straight-A student, and is engaged to be married.

Amy supports the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation because “I learn so much from the Foundation. You can’t learn about the research being done in regular press—the Foundation has symposia and their publications are fascinating.”

“I’m just waiting for the next generation of medications.” She continues, “I look forward to medications that are less damaging to the human body. If my daughter wants to get pregnant, it terrifies us to think of her going off the meds [for the baby’s sake] and to stay on the meds [which could harm her unborn baby].”

Reflecting on the journey and how far the family has come, Amy emphasizes the importance of recognizing early warning signs and seeking professional help. She also notes that support and openness about the illness is key to recovery. She offers this advice for other families: “Talk to everybody you know about it, even if you think you are being annoying. People will come forward with their stories too.” She concludes, “Love, love, love each other, and keep trying even if it takes years to get the right treatment. Fight for it!”

Article comments

Wonderful. As a member of NAMI I've met many parents who would find themselves somewhere in this story. We also started an ICCD clubhouse in Fort Wayne IN - now considered one of the best in the country. What an accomplishment - and I stand amazed at the power of the program to give persons with brain disorders back their lives. It is far different from the usual drop in centers, and an absolute miracle

I am glad your daughter received the correct diagnosis and is doing well. I would like to encourage her to have a baby if she would wants one. However, she should work closely with her ob-gyn and her psychiatrist prior to her pregnancy.

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1981 at age 20. I had suffered two major depressions in college and one manic episode after I dropped out of college. Once I was diagnosed, I began taking lithium and graduated from college. I am a vice president at a large financial institution.

When I got pregnant in 1996 at age 36, I was terrified. At the time, my ob-gyn and psychiatrist disagreed about whether I should stay on lithium during the pregnancy. Ultimately, I went off of the lithium once I found out I was pregnant. I had a successful pregnancy and now have a beautiful, healthy 14 year old daughter. I did not have a relapse and began taking lithium after I gave birth.

Unfortunately, my creatinine level increased and I had to change medications after being on lithium for nearly 29 years. The first medication did not work well and I became very depressed at one point. Luckily, I responded better to a mood stabilizer and an antidepressant and am now stable once again.

Your daughter is lucky because there is so much more information and medication now than there was when I was diagnosed. I wish her the best of luck!

Emily's intelligence and courage to move through her illness and find a better place are awesome. The fact that this led Amy to create a community resource to help others makes this a very inspiring story! .

Wow! I'm really not alone! I'm sitting here crying, because I have felt my family was truly alone in this matter. All your daughters symtoms mirror my daughters. I don't think there has been suiside attempts, but everything else is there.

My daughter is 19 years old and has only been dignosed for almost 2 years...she keep asking when she was younger for help, but my husband I didn't know what she was asking for . Then one night almost two years ago she was in what we now know as a manic state and we asked her to check herself into a mental hospital...that is when the news arrived. Our world has never been calm since.

She went to live with my sister.

At almost 20 she is expecting a son in September. She has been on no meds since January. Do I really need to say more? It has been hell for those who barely knows her and even worse for those who know and love her. The baby's Daddy loves my daughter and crys most nights because the anger and confusion and....is consuming my daughter. To talk to her about it just frustrates her, because she thinks we all thinks she is crazy. When the baby is born we are all hoping she goes back on the deakote ( med she was on before getting PG).

I live in Chattangooa, Tn and wish there was some where or someone totalk to that really understood. This not only has destroyed friendships for my daughter, but has for my husband and I as well.

I pray daily God will shed light and give peace and comfort. But mostly that He will heal my sweet loving daughter of this horrible mental disorder.

Thank you for posting this. It makes such a difference to hear encouraging information about others struggling as much as I have. We need for others to grasp this so they can begin to have compassion and we can lift the shame for an illness we didn't induce. We need all the social support we can get.

Stories such as these are very empowering to us that are struggling to find the right treatment. They give us hope and we need to hear about them. Thank you so much for sharing.

I'm always happy for someone who's enjoying relief from bipolar symptoms. I am concerned that such stories may mislead readers into thinking that once you get past the difficulty of diagnosis, the rest is simple. Even after some trials to find the appropriate medications, you have no way of knowing if the recovery is a response to meds or a remission. And you have no way of knowing how long it will continue. Understanding bipolar disorder requires more than reading a few anecdotes or just studying statistics. A variety of anecdotes can help you understand how differently the disease manifests and plays out among individuals. Reading the statistics can be discouraging, but it can prevent unpleasant surprises (not necessarily, unfortunately, unpleasantness) and enable informed decision-making about treatment. Understanding what little is known about the long-term effects of pharmacological treatments and other medical conditions also improves decision-making, though obviously most people would opt for some health risk over suicide.

I wanted to cry when I read this article but my anxiety medication keeps tears at bay. My daughter just turned 14-years-old. She had tantrums that could last two hours when she was little and had so many anxieties and fears that we took her for counseling at age five. She had all the issues that Amy described in Emily -- anger, unhappiness, suicidal ideation, the goth look, losing friends, hypersexuality. We were just watching our precious child change into a stranger. She just completed her second nine-month stay at an adolescent treatment center. She has tried to commit suicide twice by taking an overdose of medication and has cut herself more times than I can count. She has been physically aggressive to the point of breaking mirrors and doors and being charged with assaulting a male classmate. She has had many diagnoses over time but was just finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder this last year. She also has reactive attachment disorder and sensory processing disorder. She finally seems to be on the right medications and is learning to verbalize her feelings. We are thankful for every day that goes by without problems but I don't know if we will ever go through a whole day where we are not holding our breath, just waiting for a meltdown. It was wonderful to hear a story with a positive outlook, because we have read about all the problems and have heard enough about the medication side effects and really need some happy stories. Thank you for sharing your story Amy.

I cannot believe it, but I feel like I am reading my biography in this story. I was also diagnosed at 15, given antidepressants and went manic. I also tried over 30 different medications and had ECT treatment. I was plagued with such bad rapid cycling that I descended into an almost perpetual mixed-state of horrible painful confusion. I also self-harmed for years and my whole arms are scarred. However, with the unconditional support of my family and friends I pulled through. I found the right combo of meds and I've been episode free for the past 6 years. I graduated from college at 30 with a degree in Political Science and I am currently finishing my masters. I got married a few months ago, and just like Amy, my family and I are terrified about pregnancy. I also wish new research can come up with new meds that are less harmful, and of course, treatment that is suitable for pregnancy. So, please, more research on bipolar disorder and pregnancy. People like Emily and Me, and our families; we've worked hard and fight day in day out to live happy and fulfilling lives. Part of lives journey is to form a family, and for many of us, it is a risk we take. Another battle to fight I suppose. Help us out.

My daughter has a child and a partner. Their lives seem upside down at times - My daughter is kind and loving and clever - artistic - beautiful and can turn on a dime to be aggressive towards me - saying very cruel things - feels that I am telling my grandchild negative things about her (I don't - I feel an important part of her life so that she will be grounded) - She does not drink or take drugs (thank heavens). Whenever we are together things seem to spiral downwards - she blames others for everything that is wrong in her life.. Up Down Up Down - She wants to sleep all the time. I have begged her to get help but she migrates towards her partners family who do NOT believe in medication - this is killing me because I feel she is getting worse and during the bad episodes her mothering is not the way I know that she wants it to be - and the wee one is so confused..... I am afraid for her but cannot help - Feeling very lost and frightened

My story is very similar. I have 2 daughters with the illness. One accepts medication management and does well but not married and doesn't want children because of her Bipolar 1 diagnosis. The other is bipolar 2, with 2 children, husband left and he isn't their father. She has been non med compliant due to each and every man in her life tells her WE are medicating her to manage her. Our grand kids are7 and 8. They are starting to ask a lot of questions. I'm here living it with you sandy.

My son was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder 2 years ago. At age 16 he began acting erratically smoking marijuana daily, arguing with us, &sleeping all day. Initially we thought this would pass. He enrolled in comm college but dropped out. He would stole from us would go missing for days: not eating, sleeping or bathing. He would not talk to us or make eye contact. We thought he had a drug problem, tried counseling & tough love. Finally he became manic & delusional & was hospitalized. We were heart broken, sad that we did not understand what he was going through & thought wehad lost him forever. At the hospital they gave him Risperdal, the psychosis subsided & he was released. We took him home but we could not get him to take medication daily. We put him on an injectable sister medication Invega Sustenna that lasts 30 days. We let him stay at our home as long as he goes for his shot. He works part time, and occasionally dates. Our lives and his are much improved! Insurance reimburses us for the meds after a difficult fight. We also attend NAMI. Medication is so important, I he more long acting meds become available, because it seems drug effectiveness diminishes over time. Our family could have been spared years of heartache with early diagnosis & intervention? I have a second son who is now 17 that I worry about, schizoeffective episodes often appear in the 20s.

It is a gift to have come upon this site and read about the love and hope and pain we share.
I am feeling overcome with grief of not knowing how to help my daughter.
She is 23 and has struggled since an early teen and your stories are ours.
She is a new mom and baby's daddy has been overwhelmed with her anger ,unpredictable mood swings, energy highs and lows. He is worried about her safely and the baby's. She is on antidepressants for postnatal depression, and we know this is not the answer. She has been to psychologists as a teen, who only told us that she had been experiencing normal teen girl stuff.
Now she is adamant about not talking with anyone else. She says that is willing to seek help but does not follow through.I am hopeful that as a family we can help her.

Thanks!

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