Bipolar Disorder: My Lesson in Parenting

by Cynthia Fernstaedt Martinez

I will never forget the feelings—cold, fear, failure—as we sat in the ER room. I wasn’t there with my 11-year-old son for any normal malady; we were there for rages. Yes, I could not control my child. I had refused to buy him a soda and here we were. His counselor was out on the phone, she couldn’t believe this was the same child who sat in her office two hours prior, smiling and drawing. I had seen the signs, heard the agitation in his voice, felt the tension in the air. After all, this is what had brought us to her just a few months back.


I would love to say this is a “feel good” story…boy has troubles, parent does everything in her power to help him and they finally find that one psychologist, that one therapist, the right combination of medications to live happily ever after. But it didn’t happen that way for us.

Max was under the care of a psychologist, psychiatrist, and therapist and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. In good times we see the loving, caring, energetic person he truly is. In his highs, he spends wildly and is careless due to feeling invincible. And in his lows, he goes into deep depression with no energy or yearning to lift even a finger. The rages come, usually, when he is coming out of a high period or angry with himself after a low period. We went through five different programs and three hospitalizations. He went to live with his father for a time, on the thought this would help; maybe it was our home environment.

At 14, Max was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, an inherited retinal disorder. He was, we found, legally blind due to a visual field of a mere 10 degrees. He would over time lose more vision. His risk taking during highs and lows would become greater. And the emotional rollercoaster that comes with such a diagnosis and loss would be wilder due to the bipolar disorder. To the point, with his agreement (he will say he had no choice), he was placed in yet another program and in foster care for six months. During this time, as my son continued the bipolar swings, struggles with taking his medications and ongoing therapy, it was pointed out to me that Max didn’t think he had any problems. He believed it was everyone around him.

During one-on-one sessions of my own with his therapist, I learned for the first time in six years to live with my son’s bipolar disorder. I learned his actions and/or reactions are his, not mine. I learned to empathize, not sympathize. I learned, as difficult as it is, not to cater to his needs after he has spent wildly. To comfort him when he is low, but not coddle him.

After the six months and a summer in an independent living program, Max had just turned 17. He became emancipated five months later. Today, he is a college student and works part-time. He continues to struggle with his bipolar disorder. Some days he tells me he wants to get help. Other days he’s calling for money because he once again overspent. Often I don’t hear from him for days at a time. Every day I pray for him, think of him and love him just as much as the day he was born.

My son has bipolar disorder. I can’t fix it. But I can accept it.

Author: Cynthia Fernstaedt Martinez • Date: 2/26/2013

About the Author

Cynthia Fernstaedt Martinez is the mother of eight children, including a child who is complex. She enjoys freelance writing and sharing her family’s experiences to help others. She also enjoys in working with other families to find resources and teaching them how to advocate for their own family members. She can be reached at

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