Last week, Newsweek had a very interesting cover article on childhood bipolar disorder. A condition that evidently is discounted by many so-called medical experts.
I was most certainly a bipolar child. Perhaps not as severely bipolar as the young boy in the article, whose behavior is so out of control that he frightens his parents, his teacher, his schoolmates, everyone around him. A child who wishes to kill himself? Absolutely. I know. I was that child.
I was "trouble" from the moment I was born. In fact, before I was born, since my mother was in labor with me for almost three days. Once I popped out, I then made her life a living hell with colic, screaming, not sleeping, and generally driving her to a nervous breakdown. She and my father temporarily moved to her parents' house because she could not cope with me. They stayed for three months until I "settled down."
As Mom always says, I didn't learn to walk. I ran. Into walls. Literally. And at 18 months, I perpetrated the first of many "stunts" (quotes are all my mother's). While she was on the phone, I climbed up onto the stove, turned on all the burners and plopped myself in the middle. Stunt #1 was a doozy. Out of control already.
Then, at 3, I pushed an old lady in a wheelchair down a hill at the Forest Hills Tennis Club. My mother was sitting on a bench, talking to her friend Joyce, Joyce's daughter Vivian was not interested in playing with me because she was 5 and much too sophisticated. So I was bored. And saw the old lady, whose nurse was also talking to a friend, and decided she was bored too. So I hopped onto the back of the wheelchair, released the brake, and down the hill we went, with her screaming. Yes, I do remember doing this, very clearly.
Besides impulsive actions, which my mother dealt with by literally leashing me so that I wouldn't run away, I had terrible temper tantrums. Constantly. These seem to have started when I was around 3, or at least, that's as far back as I remember. I would be overtaken by uncontrollable rage, and would throw myself onto the ground screaming. I had to be physically restrained so that I wouldn't hurt myself.
So I was a "bad" little girl, at least to some of my family members. My maternal grandmother was the only one who gave me unconditional love, who saw that I wasn't bad at all. And I rarely had mood swings when I was with Grandma. She was a calming, loving influence. My paternal grandmother, a dour German woman who had her own mental health issues, would chase me around with a stick, yelling that she was a witch who would cook me and eat me. Crazy Hansel und Gretel time. I despised her.
Once in school, it became worse. I couldn't sit still, I fidgeted constantly. My handwriting was illegible because I simply had not advanced enough neurologically to be able to control a pencil. However, in 1958, in second grade, I was considered sloppy and lazy, with my teacher torturing me with handwriting exercises that I could not do.
Throughout the rest of my childhood, I was always being reined in. And I remember lying in my bed at night, depressed, wishing I could die, because I just wasn't good enough and I couldn't seem to make myself better. I had no self-esteem. To give my mother credit, she realized it. However, back in the '50s, a mentally ill child was simply trouble. End of story.
Recently, my friend Marcia, who I've known since elementary school, said to me, "I thought you got sick when your dad died." No, that's when the disorder finally blossomed to the point that I became seriously ill.
I was 17 when my father died of stomach cancer. He was probably bipolar too, a man of great generosity, joie de vivre, and one of the finest impulse spenders I've ever known. But I adored him and his death at 43 was devastating for me. I did not know how to grieve. A week before Daddy died, my brother Rich and I were summoned to his bedroom, where he told us that we should be like Spartans, keep a stiff upper lip, because he was going to die.
We had not been told his illness was fatal. In fact, although we realized Daddy wasn't getting better, it never occurred to us at 13 and 17, that he was dying. Until that day.
Thereafter, my descent into madness, as the novelists like to call it, was rapid. And for many more years, it became a nightmare from which I thought I would never awaken.
So yes. There is such a thing as childhood bipolar disorder. I know. I was one of many children whose mental illness was defined as being a bad kid. There are no bad kids. Just kids who need help. So let's not push them away. Let's take care of our bipolar children. Because it is a REAL disorder.