The Signs My Parents Missed Before My Bipolar Disorder Diagnosis

In the 1970’s, few doctors were looking for signs of bipolar disorder in children.
Illustration of a young boy playing with toy cars

I was a quiet young boy most of the time. | Image made by author with Canva AI.

My bipolar disorder diagnosis came in the spring of 1995. I was 23 years old, confined to a psychiatric hospital, and fighting through one of the toughest battles of my life.

Things may have looked sudden, but there were years of symptoms leading up to the diagnosis. My parents never suspected I had a mental illness while I was growing up, but now we know there were signs.

Here are a few of the signals they missed.

Little need for sleep

Many of my earliest memories revolve around laying in bed staring out the window. I had a set bed time. There were no excuses. Tired or not, I had to be in bed when the time came.

Most nights, I was wide awake, at least for the first few hours. I would wish for thunderstorms, so there would be something to light up the sky to keep me occupied. The lack of a need to sleep was one of the signs of bipolar disorder in children my parents didn’t see.

As I got older, I learned how to read until late into the night, flipping off the bedside light quickly when I heard anyone stirring in the house. One of the great things about growing up in an old farmhouse was every floorboard and stair creaked. You always heard someone coming.

News of a family vacation or a school trip made me overflow with excitement. I wouldn’t sleep at all in the days before the event. During the night, I kept my mind busy thinking about what I was going to do and how many hours were between that moment and departure time.

I was a child of the ’70s, so Saturday morning cartoons were an integral part of my childhood. I knew what time my favorite cartoons started, and I was always up several hours before. There was no way I was going to miss one of my favorite shows.

My sleep problems continued throughout my teenage years. My parents never saw a reason to worry. I was a busy kid with lots of energy. It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties, after two weeks with no sleep, that the reality and severity of things became clear.

Illustration of a young boy dressed like a superhero
As the entertainer, I was unstoppable. | Image made by author with Canva AI

Shy then performing center stage

I’m an introvert and much more comfortable being home alone than being around people.

As a child, I was literally the little boy hiding behind his mother’s skirt. Adults terrified me, men especially. Meeting new kids made my heart race, making it a constant challenge to make friends.

The shy life was how I lived most of the time. Occasionally, though, another kid came out to play.

In a flash, the quiet boy, who barely said a word, would talk nonstop. I was center stage, and I wanted everyone to watch.

Year after year, my report cards listed my worst trait as talking too much in class. Yet, when my parents met with my teachers, they all said the same thing, “Usually, he’s so quiet, but then there are times he can’t seem to stop talking.”

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It was another of the signs of bipolar disorder in children no one saw.

I like to hide in the background, to be invisible. I learned young how watching people taught me more than anything. The quieter I was, the more I could learn about what was happening in the world around me.

Then there were the times it felt like a puppet master was controlling my mouth. The driving force made me act silly and do wild stunts just to get attention. I put on shows, recited comedic monologues, and danced and sang for the world to watch.

Later on, I felt embarrassed every time. In my mind, I would scold myself. I’d make a fervent vow to never do it again. Yet, time after time, the entertainer urge would overwhelm me, and I would jump back to center stage.

Illustration of a young boy playing with puppies
I loved the puppies. | Image made by author with Canva AI.

Tragedy overwhelmed me

Most of our pets while I was growing up were stray animals. We lived on an old farm in the country. Far too often, senseless people would drive out from the city and dump unwanted pets near us.

My family saved as many cats and dogs as we could. One November day, with large snowflakes piling up higher than my red and black moon boots, one stray black lab revealed five tiny black and brown puppies.

I was in love and wanted to keep every one of them. We already had two other adult dogs and two cats. Our family survived on a meager income, so there was no way we could feed five more dogs.

We found loving homes for two of the puppies, but the rest were bound for the animal shelter.

Two months later, the January sky crowded with gray clouds, I loaded the last three puppies into a cardboard box. I was already crying as I slid the box across the backseat of our blue Country Squire station wagon. My mom had me sit in back with the puppies to keep them in the box while she drove.

One of my older siblings, likely intent on torturing me, told me all the puppies that didn’t get adopted would be thrown into a furnace.

I carried the box with my three little friends into the tan block building. A young woman opened a chain-link gate and led us to an open crate. The staff person carefully placed each puppy into the crate and then locked the swinging door behind them.

The puppies were crying, at least in my young mind, and I begged my mom to change her mind. She repeated the reasons we had to leave them and dragged me back out to our car.

After we left, I couldn’t get the images of the sad puppies faces out of my mind. For weeks, I cried throughout the night thinking of the puppies. I was sure no one had adopted them and those sweet puppies were now dead.

I blamed myself, sure there was some way I could have saved them. The unreasonable grief was one of the signs of bipolar disorder in children no one picked up on.

Later, when one of our adult dogs died, I went into a similar period of mourning. Images of our lost pet filled my mind, night and day. I cried whenever I was alone for weeks after.

Illustration of a young boy paging through a catalog
I loved dreaming about toys. | Image made by author with Canva AI.

Intense concentration and fixations

As a little guy, I often got lost in what I was doing.

When I was playing, I could go for hours without eating or drinking. I never felt hungry or thirsty. It’s probably why to this day, decades later, whenever my mom sees me, she asks if I’ve eaten anything.

Now, I wish I could forget to eat a few meals.

If I was building a snow fort, I couldn’t come in until the fort was done, no matter how cold I was.

When video games came into my life, they became another fixation. Nothing mattered while I was in the digital world. I had to keep playing even if I missed dinner or the ice cream dessert.

More than just play, I also became consumed with things.

I lived for the time of year when the thick Sears and JC Penney Christmas catalogs came in the mail. I spent hours carefully poring over the pages of the toy section. Day after day, I meticulously jotted notes of every toy I wanted, the stock number, what page it was on, and how much it cost.

With our money issues, there was no way I would ever have any of those toys. Even so, it didn’t stop me from reviewing those glossy pages every chance I got.

After several months, the catalogs always disappeared. My mom never admitted to it, but I think she grew tired of hearing me talk about the toys of my dreams.

Even with the catalogs gone, my thoughts stayed with the toys I wanted.

Picture of the author in 1978
Me in second grade ~1978 | Image by author.

My parents did the best they could

I can’t fault my parents for missing signs of bipolar disorder in their children.

The late 1970s and 1980s were a different time.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders’ (DSM) third edition, published in 1980, marked the first identification of bipolar disorder by that name. Most people still referred to it as manic depression but were clueless about what it meant.

Families joked about locking their eccentric aunts and uncles in attics, only to bring them out on holidays and special occasions.

Everyone knew who in the family had issues, but no one ever talked about it. Naming a mental illness was considered rude and the subject taboo.

My “crazy” uncle was just that. Everyone knew he was “a little off,” but we never talked about it. No one imagined I would grow up to be the “crazy uncle,” but here we are.

Things are better now because I can and do talk about it.

Looking back, it’s hard to imagine my parents missed seeing the warning signs. Even if they saw reasons to be concerned, there was little guidance on how to help.

On top of everything else, I was an unhealthy child. From birth on, I fought one illness after another. As a baby, I nearly died from an allergic reaction to penicillin. When I was seven, I had a mysterious illness that lasted for months.

After so many blood draws that I looked like a junkie, we were the first family in our circle of friends to learn of Lyme’s Disease. My medications and doctor’s visits overwhelmed my mom’s schedule.

I also had two older brothers and two older sisters. My parents had a lot on their plate. Even if they thought I was suffering, they could take on nothing else.

Today, most of my writing centers on mental illness. I want people to understand the truth about conditions like bipolar disorder. I also write so everyone knows it’s possible to live a full life regardless of your diagnosis.

My parents may have missed some signs, but they did the best with what they had. I’ll be forever grateful for all they did.

Until next time, keep fighting.

Sign up for my FREE Sunday All Things Bipolar Newsletter (off-site link) and I’ll send you a few downloadable gifts to improve your life.

This post first appeared on Medium.

Pinterest Pin:
When it comes to mental health, parents may not always have the answers. 

In this captivating story, one writer shares his first-hand experience of how bipolar disorder manifested during his childhood. 

Explore the journey of discovery and the importance of recognizing signs in children suffering silently. 

Don't miss this eye-opening read. Read Now!

#SpeakingBipolar #mentalhealth #mentalillness #bipolardisorder #mentalillnessawareness
Please share on Pinterest. Graphic created with Canva AI.

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