What One Star Learned From Raising a Bipolar Son


Mädchen Amick, pictured here with her son, Sylvester Amick-Alexis, rose to fame on Twin Peaks (and will reprise her role for the show’s reboot). She has also appeared in Gossip Girl, Mad Men, Damages, and Californication, among other shows. (Photos: Courtesy of Mädchen Amick)

My son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder as a young adult, and I’m telling our family’s story as part of Discovery Life Channel’s Psych Week, a series of thought-provoking documentaries that will air next week and shed light on a spectrum of mental illnesses. My husband and I thought we had equipped our son with all the tools needed to become a “successful” adult. He entered college with exceptional grades, had an athletic scholarship, and for a while many considered him the “golden boy.” In hindsight, there were indications that our son was battling the onset of bipolar disorder and that we, as a family, lacked the mental health knowledge to identify his symptoms.

After four agonizing years of our son going through multiple hospitalizations and eight rehab centers, he has finally found the right balance: He’s been properly diagnosed, he’s med-compliant, and he has a good support system. Now, that he’s working hard to get his life back on track, I’m able to look back and reflect on the things I wish I had known earlier on.


Beware of Misdiagnosed Learning Disorders 
At one point, high school counselors called us in for a family meeting because of concerns that our son might have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). At the time, we considered this hysteria and overdiagnosing. Therefore, we took our time, did some research, spoke with other professionals, and as a family decided to not medicate but to closely watch his symptoms. This was the right decision for us. We have since learned that medications to treat ADHD or depression can trigger the early onset of a psychotic episode (if one has an underlying mental illness). I point this out not to discount the legitimacy of learning disorders but merely to encourage families to educate themselves about mental health. I worry that when educational counselors and teachers call in families with concerns about a child having a learning disability, we aren’t always looking at the complete picture. In the same way that our school system feels strongly about requiring vaccinations and annual physicals, I feel strongly that it is essential to add a mental health component to that annual physical.

Watch for Signs of Self-Medicating
In college our son began to derail from his goals because of excessive partying. At the time, we didn’t realize he was actually self-medicating the onset of a mental illness. Our son was unknowingly using alcohol to battle severe depression and marijuana to counter his mania. As his parents, we struggled to understand why he would jeopardize his scholarship and academic career after having worked so hard for them. What we later found out, and not until we were in the throes of his hospitalizations and treatment programs, was the impact of the biochemical imbalance that occurs with his illness. In most cases, the onset of a mental illness first shows itself from the teenage years up to the mid-20s. I want other parents to know that while it may seem “normal” for college kids to experiment with drugs and alcohol and push boundaries, sometimes there are deeper issues, and kids might be self-medicating in order to attempt to gain control of their feelings.

Finding the Right Treatment Facility
We have yet to find a true “dual-diagnosis: substance abuse and mental illness” facility. Tough love from family and friends for people who are struggling with addiction can be important in motivating them to seek sobriety. However, when someone is having a mental episode (mania or depression), a different approach may be needed. People who are in the swing of a psychotic episode are experiencing delusional thinking because the biochemicals in their brain aren’t allowing them to think rationally. It can be so confusing when you’re dealing with two separate illnesses at the same time, as we were in our son’s case, since his disorder initially presented itself as addiction. The behavior of a person who is intoxicated and a person having an episode can appear similar, but this is when family or friends who are familiar with the person’s “baseline” need to intervene and make sure their loved one gets immediate medical attention. Unfortunately, so far, our medical field has divided treatment for addiction and mental illness, and quite frankly, there is very little funding for the mental health side. This has created a situation in which the money lies in addiction treatment and the facilities can get additional funding if they meet the “dual diagnosis” standard, which is very low. This means the responsibility to seek out the appropriate treatment center lies in your hands! Do your research to make sure that the facility is primarily a mental health treatment center. Be prepared to appeal to your insurance company and fight for an adequate facility.

Trial and Error
One in four people will be affected by a mental illness in the course of their lifetime. The biggest advice I can give loved ones who are supporting someone navigating a newly diagnosed mental illness is: patience, patience, and patience. It can take up to a year for the brain to recover from the neurological damage of a single manic or depressive episode, so prevention of multiple episodes is crucial. Medical professionals will need to evaluate your loved one for an extended period of time in order to give proper diagnoses. It will then take some frustrating trials and errors to find a successful combination of medications and psychotherapy. Once a balance of medication, therapy, and healthy living has been achieved, the work begins. Setting up a support system, being “med-compliant,” and ongoing communication with a psychiatrist is essential. Also, remember that as the biochemicals in the body naturally change, the medications may also require adjustment. As much as I wish there were some magic pill to make it all go away, there just isn’t. This is a lifestyle adjustment for the whole family, and the sooner you can accept that, the sooner you and your loved one will heal and begin to flourish.

Stay the Course
When someone is diagnosed with an illness like cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, or Parkinson’s, we immediately feel compassion for his or her struggle. The latest research proves that the five major mental illnesses — depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD, schizophrenia, and autism — are genetically based. It just happens to affect the brain instead of another organ. Be sure to keep a calm attitude and an attentive approach to your loved one’s needs. You are going to have to learn to separate your loved one’s rational thinking from their biochemically induced delusional thinking. Remember that even though people in the medical profession have good intentions, they don’t know your loved one the way you do. Family, friends, and significant others are the ones who know his or her baseline. This is an essential key to the doctors’ ability to evaluate what medications and/or therapies are working. It is imperative to establish routines, and it is just as important to avoid triggers.

The Importance of Healthy Living
As parents, we knew that sleep and exercise were essential to our family’s health, but we didn’t necessarily know how important they were to preventing mood swings. In some people, like our son, not getting enough sleep can trigger mania. In fact, if you notice your loved one getting less and less sleep, it’s a strong indication they may be entering a manic phase. On the other end of the spectrum, regular exercise has proven to combat our son’s depression. We also knew that a good diet was needed for our bodies’ overall health, but like most people, we didn’t necessarily know the importance of eating specific “brain-healthy” foods. We raised our kids with a focus on balance, structure, and routine, and even though we were sometimes accused of being the “strictest parents in town” by our children, we have since learned that these are key elements in not only the recovery from addiction but also maintaining mental stability.

In closing, I feel that the media can tend to sensationalize and only report the very dramatic and tragic events surrounding mental illness. I choose to focus on the many, many success stories. It is possible and very common to overcome and manage a mental illness. There isn’t any one type of person that it can affect; it doesn’t discriminate. You would be shocked at how many extremely successful individuals are not “suffering from” but “living with” a disorder. Although, it is important to accept a diagnosis and work toward recovery, a label alone doesn’t define anyone. I hope to be joined by many others to work together to erase the stigma around mental illness and have an open and brave conversation about how important mental health is for everyone!

Tune in to Psych Week on May 25-29 on the Discovery Life Channel.