Betty Brunell

from Madison, AL

I am suffering with a 23-year-old son who has been, and continues to be, in so much trouble. He has been diagnosed with so many different things from childhood on - first PDD (pervasive development disorder) then add with hyperactivity, severe depression, but I believe what he truly has is bipolar disorder. The problem is he's at an age where he believes he is an adult and probably has had this for so long that he views himself as "normal". I mean what 19 year olds want to see themselves as different? These are the things that have happened in his life:

Age 15, started high school. As he said, he felt invisible to the world, and was so tired of being the straight-A-nerd who was socially unacceptable, he found the only group of kids he could feel comfortable with - the druggy kids who came from alcoholic/dysfunctional families, the types of kids who didn't really care what people thought of them.

Age 16, a girl he knew started the same high school. They began to spend hours on the phone middle of the night, getting little sleep. He began to stray more and more from our family as he became more involved in her and her problems. He saw himself as her "white knight," never once thinking of the consequences for himself or his family. She ran away from home. He stole my car (didn't have a license) to go find her. But he came back, very depressed and apologetic. So we began to have episodes of more and more dangerous behavior. And of course, the drug use began, too - all kinds of huffing, smoking, pills, anything. The grades slipped. I'm a little fuzzy on details with so much that has happened, but I know that his girlfriend ran away again 4th of July and he stole my car, damaged it and brought it back with a note of apology saying, that until he could learn how to live in society's rules, he was gone and not to try to find him. We called the police and reported the car stolen and him missing (trying the tough love approach). Of course, we received a call from a friend of a friend's mother and said he was there. We told her to keep him there and we got in touch with the police to pick him up. We figured this might scare him enough that mom and dad were not going to rescue him. So they brought him to the D-Home, and this time, he was just sullen and out of his mind. We were advised by the D-Home to have him admitted to Bradford Drug and Alcohol Clinic for a month as he had admitted doing all kinds of drugs and drinking. He even ran away from that place, but the cops brought him back.

That fall, we decided it was best to get him out of the environment and away from his girlfriend, who was as self-destructive and manipulative as he was. We sent him to live with his father, who lives in another town close by. He did not want to go. His dad is strict. Justin sounded severely depressed whenever I talked to him, but his dad said he was doing just great. One day he began writing some disturbing poetry that caught the eye of his English teacher, who promptly called his father. The poem said something to the effect of “splattering your blood on the new carpet.” It was written about his dad as they had just gotten new carpeting. Unbeknownst to his dad, he had run away that day anyway, but the police found him and brought him home.

We immediately took him to a psychiatric hospital (which at the time, had an adolescent unit) for treatment of depression. No one said bipolar, just depression. The psychiatrist in charge refused to let him out and recommended long-term hospitalization. We had to petition the judge to get him committed, where he went to Bryce Hospital and was put on Depakote and Serzone. In other words, the very same mood stabilizer that one would give for manic-depressive illness. He had one-on-one therapy, but whenever I talked to his therapist, all I was told was what a very bright articulate son I had. According to Justin, there was never any testing done on him whatsoever. When we visited him, all he would do was tell us funny stories about the other kids and how crazy they were and how he couldn't wait to come home to us (not his dad). He was released by Christmas of same year and came back to live with us where we began sessions at the local mental health center as a family and also had people come to our house to help us learn to deal with his behavior problems. We helped him to buy a used car, which he loved and was very careful with it at first. But as usual, things didn't last long.

Needless to say, because we couldn't afford to move, he went back to his old school with his old friends and began seeing Jessica again. He stopped taking his meds and said he didn't need them. As a working mother, I always found out things after the fact. I couldn't watch him 24-7, plus I have another daughter who is four years younger, and I had to focus on her, too. We have no family in town to help us. He would tell his sister some of what he was doing and, being she loved her brother, she tried to protect him by not telling us, but she finally couldn't help it and told me out of fear about the drug use, cutting school, and his bizarre behaviors.

Then his girlfriend got pregnant and there was a question as to whether the child was his, but when asked to take a paternity test, he became outraged at the thought, because he "loved her" and it could be nobody else's. He dropped out of school in 11th grade because he'd missed so much school that he would have to repeat (but I did insist he take his GED). He got a job at Denny's. So against our better judgment, they got married at the age of 16 and 17. He worked two jobs and she stayed home with the baby. She didn't do anything all day except call her friends and have them come over to keep her company, smoke pot, and who knows what else she did. He was working from 3:00 pm to 11:00 then from 4:00 to 5:00 am. Then he would stay awake to keep her company and listen to her whine. They always seemed to have people over there and many times we threatened to take the baby if they didn't clean up their act. I can only imagine how much sleep he was actually getting. They began fighting and one cheated on one and vice-versa, and before long, they broke up. She went back with the baby to live with her mother. He did not come back home to live, but began living with "friends" who would take him in. All his friends came from broken homes where they were either kicked out, or just abused and they did drugs, etc. He was too ashamed and "proud" to come back to ask us to live with him, and we didn't ask him to.

The next serious thing he did was while we were away on a vacation. He broke into our house, stole a credit card, activated it and went on a $3,000 shopping spree for himself and his friends. He claims he was high when he did this. We had no choice but to press charges, and when they found him, he was arrested and he went to jail. When he was picked up by the police, he was visiting his old high school (where he was warned previously not to go to), hanging out with some guys he hardly knew. When the police took him to the station and he let these guys (“friends”) take his car, which was still in our name! He was so out of control by then and just didn't care what happened to him. He would call and beg to be bailed out, but we didn't. He said he was ready to kill himself, etc. so we made sure he was put on suicide watch. His father stepped in again and he made a deal with the district attorney, that if he joined the Navy and completed basic training, the charges would be dropped. Again, he appeared before the same judge, who probably had no memory of him. Of course, by this time the car was found, too, and it was inoperable, totally trashed. He just didn't care.

I believe at first, he was excited about going to the Navy. He wrote to me from the Navy and sounded fine. Then the letters became more depressed sounding. Next thing I hear, from some friends who lived near where he was stationed, he'd gotten a discharge based on mental problems.

His father was furious and we were all dumbfounded. We were sure if he came back, they would re-arrest him since this was in violation of his terms, but all the court did was give him probation. We let him come home to us to start over again and for awhile he was stable, still had to be told to shower, get dressed, comb his hair, pushed into finding a job, etc. He liked working the night shift he said, but I could see he was getting less sleep during the day because he wanted to still see old friends or use the Internet. Since he had no car, it meant one of us would drive him to work and one of us would pick him up. I made him go back to the mental health center and he was seeing a therapist, but no meds were being prescribed and he didn't want to take them. He said he wasn't depressed. Since he was now 18, legally I couldn't force him to go. We had about three months of steady work, he would still go out, he was still doing drugs (ecstasy, I believe), because he loved going to raves and listening to the fast playing techno music. But he didn't have a car, so he had to rely on people to pick him up and take him home. He wasn't too eager to see his child, because he felt guilty that he could never save enough to pay the child support he owed. I tried to sit down with him and make set plans and goals, but there always seemed to be something in the way, like a speeding ticket that he had gotten from awhile ago.

We got a computer along with the Internet for our daughter to use for education. He would grow addicted to it, finding people to chat with and downloading his crazy music. Then he met a 15-year-old girl, same age as his sister, who by now was disgusted with him. His sister told him this girl had a very bad reputation in school. He didn't care; he liked her.

One would think he would learn, but obviously not. They were "in love". The more we tried to discourage the situation, the worse it got. Apparently, her family was dysfunctional and didn't care or know that their 15-year-old daughter was spending all hours on the phone with him. She told me she loved her mom and had to take care of her, because her mom would drink and get depressed. I felt sorry for this girl. I told him she was too young for him and to break it off. We did not need any more headaches in this family. He said she was very mature. We began arguing about it. After a while, she started to “get on his nerves,” but he still would see her whenever he could. Sure enough, he announced to me in tears that she was pregnant (didn't know if he was the father) and she refused to tell her mother. They were going to run away, and if I told her mother, she would kill herself. So I did the unthinkable and arranged for her to have an abortion, which my son paid for at least. I did not tell his dad or my husband about any of this. I felt like my back was against the wall.

Sure enough, about a month after, they had another fight. She took off with some other boy and ran away. They got into an accident and she told the hospital what had happened to her. Of course, her mother found out, and after many phone calls, I thought she understood the position I had been put in. Apparently, she did not. She began to call and ask more bizarre questions. She would call at all hours very drunk and curse me out. I was so sick with guilt and grief and frightened at this point, that I told my son not to have anything to do with them. But this girl kept trying to call and tell him her mother was just mad, etc. Naturally, our relationship with Justin just deteriorated from there and he soon left during the summer of 2001. He started living in the park downtown; picked up another girl and took off with her and her mother, and headed for California. The phone calls stopped and it was relatively a peaceful summer.

Sure enough, he came back after never having made it to San Diego. The people he was living with were alcoholics and crack addicts and somehow his brain turned back on and he knew there was no future for him there. So he saved his money from working at McDonalds and took a bus. We took him home and told him that this was just temporary, which he agreed. This was October. Needless to say, and coincidentally, I received a call saying that I was to turn myself in for aiding a minor; I was under arrest. So no matter how many times he tries to start over, all his past mistakes keep coming back to haunt us. I had to go to jail, have my face splattered on the news, and face the embarrassment at work. We had to hire a lawyer to represent me and finally I had my trial in December. I received 2 years probation, community service (100 hours), fines, other charges that the girl's family tried to get me to pay afterwards, and had to write a note of apology to the girl and her mother. I will suffer from this for all time.

Where was Justin in all this? Oh, he was back to work at the old job he had before with us taking and picking him up, again trying to behave, but getting back to the Internet where he could meet girls again. This time, he took off with one from Boaz and didn't return the next day. Her mother called our house.

I said this is too much deja vu and told him that's it. He tried to explain himself, but we weren't listening any more. He left and went to stay with another friend. One night she called me and told me she was scared because he took a bunch of pills and was becoming abusive to her and her other roommates. I told her I can't take him back anymore; if she was worried, she should call 911.

So he went back to living "in the streets" again, more or less, living with whoever would take him in for awhile. His charges at this point: one for drug paraphernalia (he's on probation for that one) and three felonies: he was with some "friends" who broke into an unlocked car, found a guy's wallet, used the guy's credit card, etc. He claimed he was drunk when he did this and his friend kept the stuff, but guess who went to jail?

The only reason why he is living with us again after being out of the house for the last six months (I would hear from him from time to time) is because there was a chance that he might be HIV positive and as it turns out, he's not. But the future does not look bright for him. With all this behind him and things still facing him, he is still living in a fantasy world. He is now staying up continuously 24 hours a day with little sleep, just talking on the Internet with friends, and downloading music. He got a job working from 2:00 to 10:30 pm. He comes home and immediately goes on the Internet and plays his techno music, gets into chat rooms with his friends and stays up till 6:00 am. He is not taking any drugs. He says he doesn't stress out and is not depressed!

Believe it or not, I still love my son. He can be very loving, patient, thoughtful and affectionate. I've noticed something different about him this time. From reading all the materials on bipolar disease and giving him the tests, he sees that he passed with flying colors. I believe he has had it since early adolescence, but due to all the drug abuse, it has become worse. I don't see as much "depression" in the classical sense of the word, but his actions speak for themselves. He doesn't change his clothes for days, doesn't shower without being told, is still addicted to that computer (which he says is better than drugs) and finding the perfect girl. However, he does want to go back on some kind of medication to stabilize his moods. And for the first time, he is worried about what the future holds for him. I just can't stand to see him go out of control again and we never know what will trigger it.

At this point, I really don't know what more I can do other than wait until he's either sentenced to go to jail for his crimes where he still won't get any help, or try to have him committed again.

Written in 2001

Looking back, what could have been done at the time to improve the situation: treatment, medication, a different approach, or understanding from others around you?

Since this was written, not much has changed, unfortunately. Justin is now 23 and still has no car and currently no driver's license, due to too many speeding tickets. He's had numerous jobs. He was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder as I'd suspected. He goes to therapy (thanks to my insistence) at our local mental health center, takes lithium, works, but still gets rides with his loser friends and comes home too late. He also drinks now. He seems to have no direction, and is in no rush to get a life going, go to college. His daughter is six years old and he doesn't seem to care whether he sees her or not. He has two more legal issues to contend with. I feel like he's wasting away.

To answer your question, we've tried the treatment and medication, but probably need a different approach and mostly the last one - he gets zero understanding from family members. His dad still thinks everything he does is because he wants to and never calls him to just talk, so they have no relationship to speak of. His older step-brother, who is also bipolar, is cold, arrogant and never calls him at all; they only see each other at his dad's family get-togethers.

Justin still lives at home. I have a husband who is disabled, chronically ill and cannot work We've lost so much income, we had to file bankruptcy and still cannot get by. I am so tired of it all after having recently been diagnosed with bp, myself, after a mild suicide attempt last October. I don't take any medication except for anti-depressants and anxiety meds. My own bp and co-dependency issues are something I have to work on. I have an online support group for my help; it's all I can afford.

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