I would suspect that it is nearly impossible to tell if a teenager has bipolar disorder. First off, there usually is no reason to suspect it. Which parent thinks to themselves “My son/daughter has been acting moody lately and their grades have been slipping and OMG, they must be manic depressive.” What teenager thinks so.
In fact, unless there is a complete meltdown, parents and friends are unlikely to notice that things are starting to go seriously wrong. They’ll notice things are different, but they may not realise how bad / difficult things are really getting. And at the early or mild stages, from the outside – and even the inside – manic depressive signs look very much like normal teenage issues.
However, I remember the following happening to me. So if you are a teenager and start having some or most of these signs, it may worthwhile to check to see if something might be wrong.
1. Studying / Classes Got a lot Harder.
I used to be able to effortlessly do very well at classes. I would have to put in the time to read the stuff, but once I read it, I understood it. However, at around age 16 1/2 – January of my final year at high school – I found myself having to struggle to understand the work in my physics and chemistry classes. If I thought I understood a topic, and then revisited it a week or two later, I’d realise I still didn’t understand it clearly. Or at all.
I was also easily distracted while trying to concentrate, moving to some other topic or just daydreaming. At the time, I just thought the studies were just getting harder because, you know, they tend to do that. I did worry about the fact that I had to put in much more effort to keep up, but I just responded by putting in more time and effort (hey, I was a good student). I do know that the topics that I covered in the last six months of my final year in high school, I don’t know as well or as comprehensively as work I did earlier.
Perhaps most importantly, from the outside these problems never showed up. Because I had so much momentum of the previous six years studying, it carried though and I did very well in my final year exams.
However, when I had to start over studies with new topics at university though, it was a disaster.
2. My Memory started Getting Worse
Again, this was most noticeable in studies – I would have an exceedingly difficult time remembering facts and figures. In fact, if there wasn’t a pattern to the facts and figures, I had a hard time remembering them.
Because patterns were subject specific, it turns out that those with strong patterns – like math and physics – I’d be good at. Those with no clear pattern – like history – I’d be spectacularly bad at because while I could remember the narrative of what happened, I couldn’t get the dates or names right (Did Christopher Columbus reach the Americas in 1492, 1498 or 1342? Did he land at San Salvador or St. Lucia?).
Subjects with a mixture of patterns and facts – like Chemistry and Geography – I could do well in, but I would have to sweat to learn the stuff – hours and hours of reading and rereading the same stuff just to memorise it. And I could still get it wrong in an exam.
I had an amusing workaround for memory problems in Math and Physics exams. I’d memorise formulae just before the exam, and as the exam started, I’d spend the first 5-10 minute just writing down what I just memorised. So obviously I knew there were memory problems, but I didn’t really do much more than adapt to it.
The memory problems also happened on social occasions. I was known for repeatedly getting times and dates wrong – Did we say we’d meet at 4 pm or 5 pm, or was the movie starting this weekend or next weekend. And it didn’t just happen once or twice, it happened frequently enough that my friends got into the habit of getting a second confirmation from other people if I mentioned dates and times. I also had a hard time remembering the names of people that I met. But lots of people of people do this so I didn’t consider it abnormal.
Did I consider any of the above memory issues a problem. Not really – I simply gravitated to subjects that were easy for me – so I studied the hard sciences rather than the social sciences or languages. Lots of my friends were doing this too, so it didn’t feel odd at the time – I’m adding explanations years after. I was terrible at languages because of memory issues, but everyone else in my family were also terrible at languages, and it felt more like keeping up a tradition rather than being a problem.
3. I started having trouble being in Big Groups of People
This probably should have been a tipoff that something was wrong. I had a huge family – 19 aunts and uncles and over sixty cousins. And when I was young we were all close – so much so that I still joke that it took me until age 14 to realise that you could have a party and invite people who were not family. And on top of all that we were a loud family. If there was something that I learned early in my life was how to get along with large amounts of loud friendly people all competing for my attention.
However somewhere around age 15/16, I started finding that I couldn’t cope with large groups any more – whether they were family or friends. They were too loud, too distracting, to energetic. I couldn’t function in them any longer. More specifically…
(a) I found that I would pick up the energy of the group and it would make me hyperactive. So if everyone was noisy or excited, I’d get louder and more boisterous and hyperactive (and irritating to other people). I wouldn’t be able to control becoming hyperactive either – to calm down, I’d have to leave them and go somewhere quiet for a while. And if I came back into the group I’d become hyperactive again.
(b) Unlike in the past, I wouldn’t be able to keep several conversation going simultaneously (something one learned in our family early on). Instead, I’d start getting confused as to what conversation I was following. This may not be a symptom in its own right as much as a combination of memory issues and being hyperactive and easily distracted.
As a result, being part of a loud group would become hard / painful / irritating instead of fun and enjoyable. I started avoiding being parts of large groups of friends and family and started gravitating to quieter one on one conversations or just staying away from crowds of people. Being in a car with a bunch of excitable friends and loud music was also hard to cope with – I remember one time when we were going to the beach and I told the others in the car “You’ve got to calm down so I can can calm down.”
4. I had periods when I Wanted to be Alone
Mind you, this never felt like a problem. When you come from a busy involved noisy family like mine, quiet time is a luxury to be treasured. I only consider this as a sign because it was sometimes mentioned by my mother or aunts – “Oh, J. likes to have quiet time to himself.”
In retrospect, these were probably either mild depression episodes, or just wanting to get away from the noise/energy of other people to protect the stability of my moods. But during these times, I never felt depressed or down. These were times I would just sit in the back garden or go for a walk by the river, and come back feeling recharged. And that sounded pretty normal to me.
5. I Complained of Vision and Hearing Problems
For my entire high school years from about 12 onward, I used to complain of not being able to see properly or be able to hear properly. In fact I complained en0ugh that my parents got me tested many times over a five year period by both eye and ear doctors. Each time I’d come back with reports that my vision and hearing were perfectly normal.
Here’s the thing. Nothing I mentioned above would appear to be a problem – they could all be taken as part of normal growing up, or be the kinds of things a teenager might experience. None of it sounds like mood swings or being bipolar – it’s only with hindsight I recognise them as signs.
These are the signs that I first showed. Other signs showed up when I went to university – around 18/19 but I supposed these could show up earlier in some people. I’ll talk about those in my next post.