The Challenge of Being Young, Creative, and Bipolar: Diagnosed with Manic Depression at Age 17, Lizzie Simon Found Little Written about and for Young People Suffering from the Devastating Disorder-So She Wrote Her Own Story

By Braun, Wendy | The Saturday Evening Post, January-February 2003 | Go to article overview

The Challenge of Being Young, Creative, and Bipolar: Diagnosed with Manic Depression at Age 17, Lizzie Simon Found Little Written about and for Young People Suffering from the Devastating Disorder-So She Wrote Her Own Story


Braun, Wendy, The Saturday Evening Post


"Everything was perfect," wrote Lizzie Simon in her recently published autobiography, Detour. "And then I went insane."

Simon, now 26, appeared to be on the fast track to success. Attending her senior year of high school abroad at an international school in Paris, the 17-year-old was enjoying new surroundings and freedom and had been accepted for early admission to Columbia College. Brought up in a warm and intellectually robust family with diverse creative interests, Lizzie remembers the atmosphere as always "exciting and upbeat." On the surface, her life appeared picture-perfect.

While in Paris, however, the teen began experiencing difficulty expressing herself to people. Thoughts began racing at a quicker and quicker pace, and she began to withdraw. When she returned home for the holidays to visit her family in Providence, Simon felt jittery, worried, and riddled with anxieties.

"After that point things start to fade because I slept very late the next day," Simon writes in Detour. "And I just don't remember much at all until memories of sobbing in bed and memories of leaving a Christmas party. And I was drifting and drowning, disappointed that I couldn't muster up the enthusiasm to call my friends from home. I was worried about being worried, about having no energy. The walls swooned, and my journals emitted passages about previous depressions until that was all I could remember: suicide attempts at prepubescent intervals, brokenhearted letters, other tears, other darkness. I had never been so tortured; I felt a mass of pain at every instant, and it was deepening, thickening. I could not speak of it because I had lost the consciousness needed to identify that something was wrong. Lizzie ended. I was something else."

The frightening episode prompted her parents to consult a psychiatrist, who diagnosed Lizzie as suffering from depression. He prescribed the antidepressant Paxil to ease the symptoms. Lizzie started the medication and returned to Paris to finish her schooling. But while the medication eased the depression, it also triggered a manic episode that eventually led to a psychotic breakdown, with hallucinations of CIA schemes and suicide attempts. Before others intervened, Lizzie hadn't slept in weeks, and her delusions were becoming dangerously grandiose and unremittingly paranoid. She was sent back to her parents in the United States. A thorough medical interview revealed a family history of bipolar disorder, and given the severe reaction to Paxil, she was taken off the drug, diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and a week later started on lithium therapy.

Thus begins Lizzie's struggle with bipolar disorder and her journey to discover and define an entire generation of young people struggling with her mental illness. Detour offers a candid glimpse of the day-to-day experience of living with a mood disorder.

Since 1996, the Post has been investigating the latest research and treatments for bipolar disorder, publishing a survey for researchers investigating the genetic roots of the disorder. While current news articles suggest an increasing incidence of the disease in American youth, experts on the disorder have suggested that for years the disorder has gone largely undiagnosed in our most vulnerable population.

"Typically the onset would be in the 20s, but increasingly we see evidence of onset of severe disorder in adolescence," Dr. John Nurnberger, director of the Institute of Psychiatric Research at Indiana University School of Medicine and lead investigator on an NIH study investigating the genetics of the disorder, told the Post in 1996. "I think we're becoming more aware that a lot of times these mood swings do start in adolescence, and they may be misdiagnosed at first because it may look like a behavioral problem or a parent-child problem. It may first manifest as drug or alcohol abuse, and only later does it become clear that it's really manic-depressive illness. …

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