Reporter's Notebook

by Karen Brown

As I worked on this documentary about children with bipolar disorder, there was a persistent mantra running through my head: "There but for the grace of God go I."

Often when I do intimate stories like this one, I try to share a bit of my own life with my interview subjects, in part, as an ice-breaker, and in part, as a token offer before I ask them to bare their souls. But in this case, I quickly noticed that whenever I brought up my children in an off-handed manner - "Oh, we had trouble getting out of the house this morning. They forgot their lunch and almost missed the bus. You know how kids are!" - the response I often got was a sad, trying look that seemed to say, "If you think that's a problem, then you really don't understand what we're going through."

They may have been right.

I have two children who, as far as I know, have no major mental health problems. But even writing those words gives me a case of superstitious shivers. Because I now realize that no matter how well you feed, care for, and love your child, there are some things you just can't control.

Still, I am a mother, and I was able to empathize with the intense worry parents have about their children. I believe that empathy helped build trust between the families and myself throughout the year and a half I met with them, documenting the ups and downs of their children's bipolar illness.

That's not to say the reporting process was seamless, though.

Part of the challenge of reporting a story like this is that the illness at the center of it, bipolar disorder, is by definition, unpredictable. It was virtually impossible to coordinate interviews around the frequent mood swings. If a child was going through a rough manic or depressive patch, the parents were, understandably, not eager to introduce a reporter into the mix. And it wasn't unusual for the child to change his or her mind at the last minute about having me come over. So a number of interviews were cancelled, rescheduled, cancelled, and rescheduled.

Another challenge was portraying the suffering of these families within the context of a professional controversy. Some experts still don't think bipolar illness exists in children as young as Athena, or as young as Eric and Erin were when they were diagnosed. Yet the families in this documentary rely on the bipolar diagnosis as a guidepost to treatment, and they're frustrated that anyone might doubt it. Nevertheless, I felt it was important to explain the controversy for the benefit of other families who are still looking for a diagnosis for their child.

I will always be grateful for how much the children and their parents opened up to me for this project. Whenever I ask people to share sensitive experiences with me, I hope that the act of unloading their thoughts will somehow help them cope with it. But in fact, I have no way of knowing that, and neither do they. These children, and their parents, spoke to me so candidly and honestly, not because they thought it would make things easier for them, but because they hoped it would make things easier for other families. And that's quite a heroic act for people who already have so much work to do keeping things together on a daily basis.

Looking back, I also had a humbling realization about the relationship between a journalist and her subjects. After I completed the bulk of reporting for a Mind of Their Own, I spent about six months putting the piece together and then broadcasting an earlier version on my home station, WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts. When I started to adapt the piece for American RadioWorks, I revisited each of the families. And this may sound na´ve, but I was actually surprised to find out their lives had not stayed in freeze-frame like it did on my computer script. I had structured the piece around discrete episodes in the children's lives, and tried to conclude on an optimistic note, but that didn't mean the lives of these families were tied up as neatly as my conclusion. Returning to their homes, I discovered that Erin had been in the hospital twice since I last saw her. Athena was facing juvenile justice charges for an episode at school and had been kicked out of her beloved cheerleading squad. And Eric had just gone through several weeks of rare outbursts following a very stressful school semester. In other words, even when my project was done, their lives would still be going on. And without a script.

Having said that, I still think it's warranted to end this on a hopeful note. Erin, Eric, and Athena each have a wonderful sense of humor, a generous spirit, true empathy for others, the capacity to love, and a sincere expectation that their lives will get easier. They show a resilience that may well surpass that of people who haven't gone through so much, so young. And I plan to remember that the next time I worry about my own children.

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