memoir, adoption
Skip to content

Are there Early Indicators for Bipolar Disorder?

by Laura on June 14th, 2013

The death of a child is unfathomable.

The suicide of one’s young adult child after his suffering through years of a mental illness? Awful beyond words. … Painful to the point of, How do I get beyond this and not kill my own self? … Devastating, like, I’ll just live on anti-anxiety pills for the rest of my life.

Madeline Tasky Sharples’s young adult son committed suicide after battling bipolar disorder. She survived, chronicling her experience in Leaving the Hall Light On, A Mother’s Memoir of Living with Her Son’s Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide. You can read my Amazon review here.

I’m so pleased to host Madeline today. Please be sure to comment below for a chance to win a copy of her amazing memoir!


Which came first, the bipolar or the stress?

Laura – Paul–your eldest son and the one you lost to suicide, was a creative, gifted musician.

In trying to make sense of his death, you discuss events that could have indicated he was bipolar (or at least had an inherited tendency towards it), and life experiences that may have triggered the disorder’s onset.

With the emergence of bipolar–family history vs. stress … It’s almost a chicken or the egg question.

Whether the cause is a chemical imbalance in a still-maturing late adolescent brain, or rather the stressful experiences of that particular life phase (finding independence, first loves, embarking on a career) …  we may not know exactly.

You spend a large part of the first sections of your memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On, exploring these questions. Can you talk a little about what indicators you could have seen at the time–had you known more about bipolar disorder?

Madeline – Probably the first indicator was his reaction to the possibility that my husband would take a job on the East coast and move us away from where he grew up and was going to school. We actually went into family therapy about it, and Paul ended up staying with that therapist on his own for about a year. The job change didn’t happen so Paul was relieved, but as a result he became quite introverted around the house.

Other indicators: he was anal about his things, he was very tender after the older woman broke up with him, he was a night owl, though he walked a lot he didn’t get much exercise or eat very well, he was an underachiever in academics and an over achiever in music.

Another thing that should have indicated he had a problem outside the normal was an incident that happened while he was home for holiday, just a couple months before his first manic break: he became quite upset because his brother Ben had decided to exchange bedrooms with him at our home. Ben thought he wouldn’t mind because Paul had clearly let us know he wouldn’t be returning to California after he graduated from the New School in New York City. Paul minded very much and behaved quite irrationally about it.

Emotional triggers and bipolar disorder

Laura — I want to talk a little about triggers. As a teenager, Paul’s first lover was a much older woman. You mentioned–and I completely agree with you–that this inappropriate relationship made a huge impression on Paul, emotionally immature by comparison. I think the effect of this relationship on Paul is not to be discounted. It affected his later relationship with Janet, a woman his own age, who you deeply admired. Paul just couldn’t get it together with her; he had unrealistic expectations. He loved Janet deeply, but as Janet said to him: he loved not taking his medications more.

Madeline – I kick myself still about not reporting the older woman to the police. She was a child molester. But I worried I would lose my son as a result.

In those days he acted way older than he actually was so he always had an answer for everything. The other thing–something not in the book–is that he got her pregnant twice. The first time at his urging and of course our agreement, we paid for the abortion. The second time she aborted spontaneously, and he was very upset about it. Those situations weighed very heavily on this boy–just seventeen and eighteen at the time. It is no wonder we thought of Janet as his savior.

Unfortunately, in the long run, Janet couldn’t go through another one of his manic episodes. When she found out he wasn’t taking his meds, she needed to move on.

*  *  *  *  *

This is part one in a three-part series. I’ll be taking more with Madeline on future Fridays about surviving a her son’s suicide. Madeline has generously offered to give a free book to one random commenter.

Madeline Tasky Sharples is the author of Leaving the Hall Light On: A Mother’s Memoir of Living with Her Son’s Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide (Dream of Things) and Blue-Collar Women: Trailblazing Women Take on Men-Only Jobs (New Horizon Press).

She co-edited The Great American Poetry Show and wrote poetry for The Emerging Goddess photography book.

Her articles appear regularly at Naturally Savvy and Aging Bodies and on her blogs, Choices and Red Room, and she is writing a novel. Madeline’s mission since the death of her son is to raise awareness, educate, and erase the stigma of mental illness and suicide in hopes of saving lives.

Connect with her here: Facebook / Website / Twitter:@madeline40.


From → Mental Health

  1. Dear Laura and Madeline, The depth of both the questions and the responses here takes my breath away. What an insightful and gripping interview from two woman who have faced devastating challenges and bravely survived/thrived to help others. I love how you both break through the barriers and share with such raw honesty. I find myself questioning how anyone could survive such pain and yet you show me so clearly how it is possible. Thank you and blessings to both of you.

  2. Dear Kathy,

    Thank you for being here. Yes, this interview went beyond where I've been before so it was a challenge. But these questions needed to be answered so that others can benefit. Paul was such a beautiful and brilliant boy, and so hard to deal with at times. Perhaps that all led to his ultimate downfall. And surviving is still a process. Love to you always, Madeline

  3. Lesley Earl permalink

    Thank you for sharing with such raw honesty

  4. Fascinating. I've added the book to my "to read" list on Goodreads. My stepdaughter is bipolar. The concept of losing a child to suicide is heartbreaking, but I applaud Madeline's honesty and willingness to address this subject. Thanks, Laura, for bringing this book to our attention.

    • Thanks so much, Monica. I hope your stepdaughter is doing well. Hopefully there is more help and knowledge out there than when my son was struggling with bipolar. I wish you and your family all the best.

  5. Kimberly Bain permalink

    I've worked as a psych nurse for 14 years now, mostly with children and adolescents. From a clinical view, doctors are reluctant to put a bipolar diagnosis on kids, but rather try to rule it out. As we all know the stigma associated with a mental health diagnosis can be devastating. Your story breaks my heart! My adult son, who I've been in reunion with for three years, is diagnosed with bipolar disorder. After the first year we got to know each other, I noticed all the red flags. With much encouragement from me, and much resistance from his adoptive parents, he finally sought treatment from a psychiatrist that I trusted and worked with for many years. After many med trials, we found the right combination to stabilize his mood. Unfortunately without the support from his parents, he stopped his medications and started self medicating with numerous drugs. His substance abuse was out of control to the point that he and a friend had a suicide pact, his friend went first and hung himself in the garage of my sons parents while my son watched. He said seeing the life leave the eyes of his friend he just couldn't do it, and I got quite an emotional phone call about an hour later. That was exactly one year ago yesterday. Since then he has completed an inpt rehab program, holding down an ok job, and finally being honest about his feelings and what he needs to do to be well.

    Thank you for writing this book and sharing your story.

    • Anne Brocklesby permalink

      Madeline, I do think that there are early indicators for bipolar. In fact I was not diagnosed until in my 40's. But childhood anxiety is a fact.

      I am so sorry that you lost your son Paul. We had a lovely wedding with Paul, my husband's brother as our best man, and he also was godfather to our two children.

      Madeline, there is very little more that I can add here, but the title of your book, 'Leaving The Hall Light On' is so evocative.

      • Dear Anne,

        You may be right. I of course am always looking for ways I could have known and could have helped him early on. But in reality his first manic break was a huge shock.

        It's lovely that you have a Paul who is such a big part of your life. My Paul would have made a great godfather. He loved children.

        All best,

        PS. I know an Ann Brocklesby in England. What a coicidence.

    • Dear Kimberly,

      Your story is so raw and heartbreaking. Thankfully your son found his way and did not complete his suicide pact. Self-medicating can be deadly.

      I'm so glad the medical profession is reluctant to label kids bipolar. The drugs are mind changing and it's bad enough when adults need to take them.

      Thank you so much for sharing your story here. All best.

  6. Madeline, As the mother of a bipolar son, I can't imagine a more gutsy woman than another mother who has written about the loss of her bipolar son. Not only that, but you also have the guts to write and discuss the incidents that led to his end. This means you must have to relive the pain of your ordeal, but at the same time you are helping mothers like me to understand and accept the situation with our sons.

    Laura, I know you've had to overcome big problems of your own and I admire you for facing them head on. People like you offer others hope.

    • Thank you Penelope.

      My mission is to erase stigma and help prevent suicide. The only way I can do that is to write and talk about my story – as hard as it is. If I can help one person, I'll feel I've been a success.

      I wish you and your son all the best.

  7. Rhonda permalink

    This is such a beautiful post as your questions and answers stir up so many emotions. Thank you both for sharing with us…may this story help save lives. Bless you and write on my friends!

    • Thank you, Rhonda.

      Saving lives is definitely my goal. (see my comment above to Pnelope's post)

      And thank you for always being here for me, my friend.

      With love and xoxo

  8. Dear Laura,

    Thanks so much for inviting me to your blog and for asking such probing questions. You were absolutely right, they attracted a lot of readers and comments for which I'm very thankful. I look forward to the next two Fridays.

    All best, Madeline

  9. Laura and Madeline, I'm catching up here to move on and read Part 2 of this fascinating and in-depth interview. As most of you know, I have a bipolar stepdaughter. These questions and answers will obviously help me to understand her life choices and situations in a more gracious way, but if these posts reach far enough, many more will be helped. Thank you both for your constant willingness to share the painful parts of your histories to perhaps benefit someone else.

Leave a Reply

Note: XHTML is allowed. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

CommentLuv badge

Notify via Email Only if someone replies to My Comment