The Bike Ride: The Story of my Son's Diagnosis

By Meg McGuire | Nov. 06, 2017

 

At the end of the summer, I rented a house on Cape Cod for a family vacation. My 21-year-old son Ryan joined my daughter, Liz, and I when he returned from traveling with friends in Europe. It was clear he hadn’t slept for days. At dinner, he was anxious and rambled on and on. He spent a sleepless night on the couch, watching The Godfather: Part II, shouting, “Al Pacino is the man!” This odd behavior continued for days.

When we arrived home in California, he was afraid to be alone and didn’t want to sleep in his room. He set up a mat on the floor next to my bed and stayed awake all night, talking endlessly. And when I awoke, he was gone.

I called my ex-husband Jerry to see if Ryan was at his house. He wasn’t. Several hours later, Jerry called to say that Ryan had jumped on his bike at dawn and pedaled 30 miles up the Pacific Coast Highway to prevent an earthquake.

When Ryan came home, I asked him why he rode his bike up the coast. He responded, “I was trying to exhaust myself so I could fall asleep. If I don’t get some sleep soon, I’m going to lose my mind. I also had to get as far away as possible from you and Liz, because if I didn’t, the San Andreas would slip.”

“You can’t cause an earthquake,” I said gently.

“Oh, yes, I can. An earthquake’s coming. I can feel it.”

The next morning, Liz and I took Ryan to the hospital. He was transferred to the psych ward where he stayed for two weeks. He was treated with various medications, attended daily group therapy sessions, met with psychiatrists and social workers, and talked endlessly with his friends by phone. On the tenth day of his hospitalization, his psychiatrist, Dr. G, called a meeting with Ryan and the family.

“My diagnosis for Ryan is bipolar disorder, manic depression.” She looked at Jerry and me. “Is there a history of alcoholism on either side of your families? I ask because many undiagnosed bipolar patients self-medicate by using drugs and alcohol, trying to manage their mood swings.”

I spoke up: “We both have alcoholism in our families.”

Dr. G nodded. “That fits the pattern. Fortunately, the disorder is treatable with proper medication. But it’s not something to be treated lightly.” She then asked how we felt about the diagnosis.

I could barely breathe, but I swallowed hard and looked at Ryan. “I’m grateful there’s a diagnosis for Ryan’s behavior, because you said it’s treatable.” I paused. “Isn’t lithium fairly successful in managing the disorder?”

Dr. G nodded and then turned to Jerry. “What about you?”

“I don’t believe it,” he said, shaking his head and looking at Ryan. “I think he’s just an addict.”

“Why don’t you believe it?” Dr. G asked.

“Because if he has a mental illness, I’d have to look at that in myself as well.”

I was stunned. “You’d rather see Ryan as an addict than as having a treatable mental illness?”

“I’d rather see him control himself,” he replied. “I think he can choose to live his life differently; I don’t want him on medication for the rest of his life.”

Dr. G must have seen this before and made no comment—she simply went on to explain that most bipolar patients live successful, functional lives if they take their medication, learn to monitor their mood swings, adjust their medication as needed and abstain from alcohol and illegal drugs.

“But,” she continued, looking at Ryan, “bipolar patients who refuse to take their meds—because of denial or the desire to recapture the euphoria of the hyper-manic mood state they love—often endure multiple hospitalizations.”

Ryan didn’t look at her. “I don’t have an illness and my family had no right to hospitalize me. I just got some bad dope in Amsterdam—that’s all.”

“Well, then, if that’s the only problem,” said Dr. G, “I’d like you to go into a 30-day rehab program. Go into addiction treatment while you stay on the medication I prescribe. Then we’ll see how you feel.”

Ryan stood up. “I’m not going into rehab. I want to get out of this place as soon as possible and start grad school.”

“I can’t keep you here against your will,” Dr. G. explained, “You’re an adult, and at this point you’re not harmful to yourself or anyone else. But unless you stay on your meds and get serious substance abuse treatment, you’ll be back. I guarantee it.”

Two days later, Ryan left the hospital against medical advice, with an unfilled prescription for his bipolar diagnosis.

Though, Dr. G.’s prediction was right: Ryan did eventually come back. And after many hospitalizations and addiction treatment programs, he finally learned how to manage his mood swings with the proper medication.

Ryan is now stable, has a job, does yoga to manage anxiety and is becoming certified as a drug and alcohol counselor. As his illness has matured, he has matured as well. Now his purpose is giving back to others.

 

Meg McGuire is a mother, writer, psychotherapist and the author of five internationally published nonfiction books. She is an activist in mental health and criminal justice reform and teaches memoir in southern California. Her newest memoir, Blinded by Hope: One Mother’s Journey Through Her Son’s Bipolar Illness and Addiction, shines a light on mental illness, illuminating the shadow of family dynamics that shame, ignorance, and stigma rarely let the public see. 

Comments
Yvonne
I have a son who was diagnosed with bipolar at age 18 and since then it has been a roller coaster ride mostly a lot of downhill rides he is now 35 years old and has been in and out of jail and in and out if hospitals in and out of Christian homes, in and out of independent living homes, sober living homes and in and out of our home. He was homeless at one time. I am overwhelmed and don’t know what to do anymore I feel horrible for not wanting him to live at home. Being in and out of jail has really affected him. I love him and I feel sad to see him suffering. He has no friends and isn’t enjoying life and I know he wishes he could just live a normal life. Please pray for him and me there are so many times that I just want to give up.
11/14/2017 12:00:38 AM

KELLY HALL
I HAVE A 23 YEAR OLD SON.MY WIFE AND I DONT HAVE ANSWERS.I JOINED NAMI TO TRY AND DEAL WITH HIM.WE PUT HIM IN A HOSPITAL ONCE .HE WONT TAKE HIS MEDS OR AGREE HE NEEDS HELP. HE TRIES TO RUN US AND THE HOUSE WE ALL LIVE IN.HE HAS GOTTEN PHYSICAL WITH ME AND THE WIFE.
11/11/2017 6:12:48 PM

Jorie Doyle
I am a Bipolar with only a husband of 3yrs that supports me. I have felt it’s been a curse since my family refuse to learn about my disease. I feel alone!
11/9/2017 11:46:04 PM

Colette M Duranleau
I've had major depressions since age 10, having had three (3) years long episodes before I was 18. At 21 I was diagnosed but could not afford treatment and wouldn't take the medication then offered (which I also couldn't afford). Twenty years and one first cousin suicide later I relented and started taking medication regularly. Counseling, family and medication are the only reasons I'm alive today. Otherwise, there would have been a third suicide in my family.
11/8/2017 6:18:38 AM

Kyra
Did his father ever get it? like realize the doctor was right?
11/7/2017 2:30:06 PM

robert smolensky
excellent article
11/7/2017 9:25:01 AM

Myla Fuller
My daughter and I have been on that same merry-go-round for 8 years...Im a widow and I am all she has...She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder about 9 years ago about a month before my husband died suddenly...Lark has been in and out of hospitals every single year and because we are living below the poverty line we sometimes cant afford the meds...Im a student pursuing a Masters degree in psychology...it's taking me forever...especially with my wonderful daughter suffering...If it weren't for school I would probably be hospitalized too...I dont know what to do
11/7/2017 5:52:59 AM

Jan Blumenthal
Thank you, Ryan, and thank you NAMI!!!!!
11/7/2017 2:10:23 AM

Jan Blumenthal
I was waiting for the tragic ending to Ryan's story, as one who suffers from bipolar disorder. But, as one who worked with the mentally ill for over 20 years and volunteered for NAMI, I know there are many success stories just waiting to be heard! Keep up the good work, NAMI!!!!
11/7/2017 2:07:53 AM

Thomas Hurley
Living with an adult bipolar is so frustrating
11/6/2017 6:48:53 PM

Lizanne Corbit
Thank you so much for sharing your story. It's moments like these that remind me of the power and grace of individuals and I'm so moved by it. There are so many individuals and families facing stories of their own very much like yours and I know this is such a comfort to come across.
11/6/2017 5:55:32 PM

Tom N
As someoneWITH, schizo-affective disorder: I,too--felt,this "initial denial"; it was Not Until, I submitted-wholeheartedly--to medication& psycho-therapy//AFTER, a"72hr. Hold"/hospitalization, I endured..Did i-_experience,relief& 'recovery' :)
11/6/2017 5:53:30 PM

Coby Seibel
I was diagnosed bipolar many years ago, and have controlled it with lithium and various other drugs for about 25 years, however I crash occasionally, I would like use my experiences to help others and create a network of support for help as needed.
11/6/2017 5:23:41 PM

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