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How Talking Openly Against Stigma Helped A Mother And Son Cope With Bipolar Disorder

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

It was December 2012 when the country learned about the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, that left 20 children dead at the hands of 20-year-old shooter Adam Lanza.

After the shock and the initial grief came questions about how it could have happened and why. Reports that Adam Lanza may have had some form of undiagnosed mental illness surfaced.

The tragedy drove Liza Long to write a blog post on that same day, titled "I Am Adam Lanza's Mother." She wasn't Lanza's mom, but she was raising a child with a mental disorder.

Her 13-year-old son had violent rages on a regular basis. He was in and out of juvenile detention. He had threatened to kill her. She detailed all this in her essay that took off online.

Now, four years later, her son is speaking out too.

This week on For The Record: a mother, a son and life on the edge of bipolar disorder.

Eric Walton, Liza Long's son, is now a 16-year-old high school sophomore in Boise, Idaho. After a series of misdiagnoses, he's been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

But four years ago, he didn't know much about his condition.

"I knew that there were times when I would have rages, didn't like them. I knew that I wanted them to stop," Walton says.

Except he felt a loss of control in those moments. He describes the onset of these rages as a "blackout" of sorts.

"I would start getting angry," he says. "Then it's like being trapped inside a box inside your own head. It was like a television on the wall that shows you what you're seeing. You can feel everything, but you no longer have the video game controller to control your own body."

Walton's mom says when Eric would get into those states, "he would express a lot of suicidal thoughts, and hearing him just say, 'I want to die, I just want to end it.'"

Then, two days before the Newtown shooting, Eric Walton had another episode.

"It was a pretty eventful day, even for my rages," Walton recalls. "I'd woken up and I'd slipped on a pair of navy blue sweats. But my school has this policy that you have to be wearing black pants. So my mom and I got into an argument over whether navy blue was actually black."

The fight got bad and it escalated as it often did. Eric threatened to kill himself, and he threatened to kill his mom.

"At that point, we were almost to my school, but mom decided to take me to Intermountain [Hospital] instead," he says, referring to the mental health facility in Boise.

"It took I think three or four of the nurses to hold me down," he says. "They shoved a needle into my arm full of some kind of tranquilizer. And I woke up the next day in Intermountain."

That day left Liza Long feeling "completely hopeless."

"I really felt like a failure on that day," she says. "Here I had this child, he had seen multiple doctors, multiple specialists, numerous medications. Nothing had helped my child, he had been in juvenile detention four times at that point, every time for a behavioral symptom of a brain disease," she says.

Two days later, the news broke out of Newtown.

"I just put my head on my desk and started to cry," Long recalls. "I just had this overwhelming sense of empathy for Nancy Lanza. I know at that point people were already blaming her, but instead I could just see in my mind this little boy who probably had needed help."

She started writing about how tough it was to be the single mother of four kids, one of them a middle-schooler struggling with mental illness, a kid who could violently rage one hour, and turn back into a calm, sweet boy the next.

Days after she posted the essay on her anonymous blog and millions of shares later, the Huffington Post picked it up — and then it was everywhere.

Three days after she wrote the piece, she visited her son in the hospital and read it to him off her phone.

"It was very powerful piece," he says. "I had seen it as only from my point of view, but until that day, I hadn't considered what it was like for someone outside, looking in."

She got messages of support, but she also got criticism. People laid into her for comparing her son to a mass murderer, violating his privacy, and some suggested that she was somehow responsible for her son's condition. It stung, but for the most part she pushed it away.

"Mother-blaming is as old as Eve though, right, it's really easy for us to blame mothers, and that was exactly the point I was trying to make," Long says. "Families are suffering in shame and silence; I was suffering in shame and silence. So is my child. But when we don't share our stories, there's no chance that we're going to make change."

That could have been the end of the story, but that blog post ended up changing everything for Long and Walton.

Long was inundated with emails, as readers continued to reach out to her.

"One person was very persistent, and she kept saying 'I know someone who can help,' " Long says.

That person was a research assistant who worked for Dr. Demitri Papolos, director of research for the Juvenile Bipolar Research Foundation.

After meeting and talking with Walton and his mother, Dr. Papolos understood Walton's symptoms. It looked like a particular strain of bipolar disorder.

"The symptoms that occur within the manic domain are hyperactivity, agitation, racing thoughts, pressured speech," Dr. Papolos says. "In the bipolar form, you see psycho-motor retardation, lethargy, fatigue, oversleeping, depressed mood."

"Mania feels really, really good," says Eric Walton. "But it's also not that good because when you start moving at that speed, no one can keep up with you."

On the flip side of the disorder, "I go through 3-4 days of almost complete inactivity," he says. "I'm kind of depressed and lethargic, and I don't even want to get out of bed."

"They are overwhelmed with fear and they misperceive things as threatening when they're not," says Dr. Papolos.

Those symptoms check out with Walton. "Any time I felt attacked. It was like a defense mechanism type thing."

After Dr. Papolos diagnosed Walton with childhood bipolar disorder, everything got better.

"I got the correct diagnosis. I got put on the right medication. And I haven't had a rage, I think, since that day," Walton says. "It's funny, I don't even keep track anymore."

But the road to pinning down the diagnosis is often the hardest part, especially for parents, who often have to become psychiatric advocates for their children.

"The problem is that we are still relatively in infancy in terms of understanding the nature of psychiatric diagnosis, particularly in children," Dr. Papolos says. "I think [parents] have to do a lot of homework on their own. I wish I had another answer, but it's the way things are currently."

Today, Eric owns his diagnosis. "I choose to think of it as my superpower."

"I'm really, really creative. I'm very empathetic. I have a lot of skills that teenagers don't normally have: conflict resolution, mindfulness — just things I've had to pick up over the years because it kind of helped control myself before the right diagnosis."

His TED Talk in Boise early this month was the first time he outed himself publicly as the boy in that essay. And he used it to deliver a broader message:

"Mental illness should be treated with respect and kindness, not fear and stigma. People with mental illness are all human beings. And they deserve the same respect as anyone else."

And it was his mother's willingness to talk openly against mental stigma, a few years ago that helped him carry that message in the first place

"When I wrote that blog post, I was really concerned that my son's fate was prison or worse, and now we are talking every day about college, about what he'd like to major in," Liza Long says. "I don't think there are any right or wrong answers for Eric. There just a lot of great opportunities for Eric."

And her inbox is still overflowing.

"I have a tremendous sense of gratitude honestly mostly for all the — I still hear from families every day, some who just found that blog post for the first time. And to be able to connect people with resources, to be able to say 'look there is hope for you, don't give up on your kid,' that's been really powerful for me."

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