“My Son’s Battle With Bipolar Disorder”
One courageous mom is documenting her child’s ordeal to help save him — and educate others.
BY ELIZABETH GRIFFIN
“My son lost his childhood to mental illness,” says photographer Lynne Warberg, who has spent nearly two decades documenting her son Sam’s battle with his brain. As a photographer, Lynne wanted to create a record of her child’s (and her own) experience, and as a mother she wanted to document what it is like for a family to deal with mental illness. “I’ve been doing this,” she says, “so that others may better recognize and understand it.”
From an early age, it was evident that Sam was experiencing very serious mental-health issues. He suffered constantly from severe mood swings, rage attacks, and other behavioral irregularities, but doctors were unsure of the root of his symptoms.
“When these problems started 18 years ago,” says Lynne, “there was very little information available. I would call specialists all over the country, and they would basically say, ‘We don’t know that much about the brain.’ They didn’t even really believe a child could have a psychiatric problem like this. My son developed rages lasting over an hour on any given day, and at age 5 [he] told us that he wanted to die.
My family distanced themselves from me, unable to tolerate Sam’s progressively erratic behavior. One family member even suggested I needed to ‘beat the child’ — they just did not understand his condition. I felt helpless and heartbroken for him.”
“Depending on the doctor,” says Lynne, “Sam was suffering from ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, or agitated depression. These are the disorders listed for children in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), and doctors prescribe adult psychiatric medication according to the diagnosis.
My son’s first psychiatric medication was an antidepressant. His mania worsened. Next, amphetamines were prescribed, but [my instincts told me to refuse them]. I was told they could help to calm the brain, but he was already so agitated, manic, and overstimulated, and I couldn’t bring myself to put him on drugs like that,” says Lynne. “His brain was on fire.”
When Sam was 11, Lynne took him to New York to visit with Demetri Papolos, M.D., director of research of the Juvenile Bipolar Research Foundation and coauthor of The Bipolar Child, who finally diagnosed Sam with Pediatric Bipolar Disorder, also known as Juvenile Onset Bipolar Disorder.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, children with bipolar disorder “experience unusually intense emotional states that occur in distinct periods called ‘mood episodes.’ The extreme highs and lows of mood are accompanied by extreme changes in energy, activity, sleep, and behavior.
Each mood represents a drastic change from a person’s usual mood and behavior.” Sam was put on a treatment plan of medication and psychotherapy and “was mainstreamed back into classes with ‘normal’ kids,” recalls Lynne. “His life started to open up for him. School was easier, he made friends, we had hope.”
But in Florida, where Lynne and Sam live, finding a local doctor to monitor and adjust Sam’s therapy proved to be a struggle. His condition worsened over the years, to the point where he could no longer attend school.
Now age 23, Sam lives at home. Two years ago, he was in a car accident (as a result, he no longer has a license), and Lynne wonders if the head trauma he suffered in the crash exacerbated his condition. “Since the accident,” says Lynne, “Sam was diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder — or schizophrenia. He was put on yet another medication, but it has barely scratched the surface of what he’s feeling and having to tolerate every day.”
Still, Lynne is fighting for a day when her son might feel happy. “My personal goal, my goal for my son,” says Lynne, “is to get Sam to be able to take care of himself and live happily and independently, because that is what he wants.” But getting him to that place is a constant struggle.
“Some mornings I’ll hear maniacal laughter coming from his room, or I’ll hear him yelling in the shower. One morning recently, he came into my room and sat at the end of my bed and said, ‘They’re doing it to me again, Mom. I’m seeing these things that look like Gollum, and they’re coming at me.'”
Recently, Lynne was referred to a doctor at Johns Hopkins University who specializes in schizophrenia and psychosis, but because of financial constraints, she has been unsure if she will be able to afford the visit. At the urging of friends, she has set up aGiveForward page to help raise money to cover the cost of travel (she has to drive Sam because he cannot fly) and any resulting treatment. “I’ve never really asked people for money, but a good friend encouraged me to do it,” explains Lynne. “I’ve spent nearly all my money trying to care for him, so I decided to go ahead and share his and my story and let people fall in love with Sam so we can all help him.”
By sharing Sam’s story, she also hopes to help other families who are dealing with similar situations. “No one wants to believe their child is mentally ill,” says Lynne, “but many of our children are, and we need to be able to recognize the symptoms at an earlier age and make effective treatment more widely available so that not one more childhood is lost.”
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