I sat with three other moms in the lobby of the Stanford Psychiatric Services building. It was a Tuesday evening, and we were waiting for our daughters to finish their first session of group cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). We were all silent. Our eyes bounced from our phones to the clock on the wall to the busy elevator.
Mothers in Arms
I glanced at the pretty Asian woman sitting next to me. I remembered her kind smile when we’d all dropped off our girls — who ranged in age from 11 (my Sadie) to 15 — in the conference room on the third floor.
“Does your daughter have bipolar disorder?” I asked, feeling like an idiot as soon as I did. Duh. Why else would she be here?
She nodded. In a soft voice she told me that her Lily, 15, had recently been diagnosed. But she’d had problems since she was 12 and had been hospitalized four times. Thanks to lithium, Lily was doing better, although the drug made her lethargic and slow.
Lily’s father also had bipolar disorder. “He passed away a few years ago,” Lily’s mother whispered. Tilting her head back, she pantomimed raising a bottle to her lips. “He drank a lot,” she said. “He didn’t know he was bipolar.”
The news hit me like a plunge into an icy lake. I was reminded of how deadly this illness can be, and how lucky we are that Sadie is getting the help she needs.
Lily’s mom asked how old Sadie was when she was diagnosed. Her eyes widened when I said, “Six.” The woman sitting across from us leaned in to hear our conversation.
“How old was your daughter when you knew something was wrong?” I asked her.
“Right away,” she replied. “Amy cried all the time when she was a baby.”
Her husband’s denial of their daughter’s condition led to their divorce. She folded her arms tight across her chest. “Amy goes into a really dark tunnel sometimes,” she said.
The Bipolar Tunnel
We all knew that tunnel. We knew how the strain of raising a child with a mental illness could chip away at the most solid marriage. We had seen our girls flounder in school and lose friends. We’d seen the looks of skepticism from our friends and relatives when we tried to explain “pediatric bipolar disorder.” We knew about hoping that the new medication would prevent our child from crawling back into that tunnel.
The mother who hadn’t yet spoken, a blond woman with tired eyes, rose from her seat. She told us that her girl, Kylie, who was 12, was first diagnosed with ADHD. “I sobbed when the doctor told me she had bipolar disorder,” she said.
The illness had ravaged her sister’s life. We’d all seen family members sidelined by bipolar disorder and robbed of their potential. We’d watched them succumb to addiction and push away those who loved them, even with their erratic behaviors. We knew that the lure of suicide clouded their futures.
Our subdued group was suddenly as chatty as a gathering of sorority sisters — which, in a way, we were. We swapped stories and compared notes on symptoms and medications. We didn’t slow down until the elevator chimed and one of the older girls from the group swished past us in her long, bohemian skirt, signaling that the session was over.
Sadie was the last one out of the elevator.
“How’d it go?” I asked, though the grin on her face answered my question.
“Really good!” she said. “It went by fast.”
I knew how she felt. I was sure that spending time with other girls who had bipolar disorder would help her. I hadn’t anticipated how therapeutic it would be for me to hang out with their moms.