Teenage Runaways and Bipolar Illness: Related?

By now most of you know that I split from home when I was sixteen.  I shall not go into the “why” of it here.  That is treated on my “secret blog.”   Anyone who wishes to have access to that blog is welcome to write to me at moxadox@gmail.com, and I will send you the link.

My question for today is: what proportion of teenagers who really run away from home, and by that I mean not just for a day or a few days, but more or less permanently, have Bipolar Illness that is undiagnosed or untreated?  And not only Bipolar, but PTSD from childhood abuse, especially sexual abuse, or schizophrenia, Borderline, Major Depression…mental illness in general.  

My own experience on the streets put me in contact with many fellow runaways.  Most of them had some kind of what I would now categorize as psychopathology that predated their running away.  Certainly running away and the sometimes horrific experiences and conditions that one encounters can do nothing but aggravate any underlying condition.

Runaways are often witnesses to violence, victims of violence and predation, subjected to homelessness and various forms of degradation.  All of these set them up for PTSD, whether this was a precondition of their running away or not.

I have seen kids bullied, either at home or at school, who found the predictable privation of life on the street preferable to life at home or in shelters, where the bullying continues.  Aspergerian kids fall into this category because of their odd appearance and often stereotyped behaviors.  So do overweight kids, or even dyslexic kids because of their difficulties with reading and writing.  Life on the streets does not depend on one’s aptitude for written language, but only on the ability to survive in an environment that uniquely combines routine with chaos.

I myself fell into a number of these categories.  I was terribly depressed, when I wasn’t having bouts of extreme clarity where I found myself deeply engaged in the study of physics; and sometimes, ever since childhood, I emerged from my depressive state into a wild grandiosity, which was sometimes satisfying but mostly disturbing and dysphoric.

I was thoroughly bullied at school for being “weird,” and avoided human contact, interacting with dogs, cats, horses, rodents, birds, reptiles, and amphibians, but not fish, because they always died on me.  I wore sandals and clothes from the Indian store in the nearby city, fragrant with incense.  They rooted for the football team;  I dug roots and made medicines from them.

To these high class bumpkins from rural coastal Massachusetts, who went with their mothers to Daughters of the American Revolution meetings and Order of the Eastern Star while their fathers and sons went to whatever meetings they went to, I was a witch and an outcast.  Their children were not permitted to play with me, and they teased me relentlessly about my differences.

Worse yet, the teachers considered me a distraction in their classes since I dressed differently and even wore my hair differently.  They lobbied to get me out, and finally figured out a way to do it.

Being different in a homogeneous society is considered unacceptable.  Anthropologists have written books about this.  We the bipolar, the borderline, the ADD, the PTSD, the schizophrenic:  where do we fit in?  We don’t.

Many good studies are now looking at the creative and innovative advantage of the “different” brain.  We who have them have always known that; yet we have historically been anathema to society.  I cringe every time there is some kind of random killing or other act of violence and the first thing the press asks is: does the person have a history of mental illness?  This, when there is solid research that shows that the mentally ill have no greater incidence of performing violent crimes than the general population; but we do have a greater tendency to be victims of violent crimes: no surprise there.

I hope the generation of children who are coming up now will find a more welcoming, better informed public in general, and a constructive school environment in particular, so that we don’t have to run away in order to not be abused, and to have to seek a kindred society of “misfits” on the streets.

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  1. I think there is a high chance of that being true, I don’t think teenagers run away from home without having a good reason for that, I understand running away because differences makes us good targets for abuse, I experienced that myself, I didn’t run away but felt like it.

    I’m afraid of the same thing when there are violent crimes, the groups being currently associated with random acts of violence are those with mental illness and autistic people, especially those with Asperger, I am in both groups, we are easily victims of violence but we rarely cause it.

    I hope things change but I don’t see it happening so soon.

    • Thanks for commenting! I think you’re right. Things are not going to change any time soon, because difference is always seen as a threat to those who value normalcy, whatever that is.

  2. D'Alta

     /  November 27, 2012

    For me the pressing question is what to do now for a grandchild who has “run away” because of learning differently, PTSD, anxiety, and most likely bipolar disorder for which she refuses treatment–her drug of choice is pot, and because most of her teachers preferred punishment over assessment and appropriate teaching methods and using technology that could have addressed the way her brain works. She has been taken in by her boyfriend’s mom but I pray each day for her physical safety and well-being…

    • I’m so sorry to hear. As we know, it’s critical to “catch” the teen before the age of majority if it is possible to remand them to long term residential treatment, as I did with my son. I am sure that if I had not been able to do that, he would not have survived. Sure, he was pissed off about it, but the life skills he learned at Swift River still stand him in good stead, and he refers to them daily as he navigates his life, more than ten years down the road. Mortgage your house if you need to. We did. It saved my son’s life. I will never regret it, even though we have now lost the house, essentially, because of it. What price can you put on a life?


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