Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Baby Bipolars

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.


Krista said...

My clearest memory of my depression is when I was about 6 years old and my brother and cousin were sitting on the sofa talking and I just couldn't walk over there and join in. I had the distinct feeling of not fitting, feeling dizzy with sadness, and being paranoid at the same time that their conversation was about me. And so began my lifetime journey of creating the person everyone wanted me to be, instead of growing into myself.

LizzieK8 said...

Did you feel good when your behavior finally had a name and it was genetic and not just "being bad."

I surely did when I found out I was autistic and not just "a bitch."

karen said...

Isn't horrible how children of the 50s and 60s weren't assumed to need to grieve? I remember so clearly my beloved paternal grandfather dying when I was 7. My mother's answer to the grief was a sleeping tablet (okay, I did get to talk about Grandad over the next few weeks, but not when my father was around). Parents can be very cruel despite the best of intentions.

andersox said...

Another difficult to treat group: introverted bipolars. My therapist told me that it can be hard for psychiatrists to distinguish between "isolating behavior" and "introverted behavior. I'm intrigued by this idea because I'm quite shy unless I'm hypomanic.

Matthew said...

I feel very lucky that bipolar 2 didn't hit me until I was in my early 20s. I haven't read the Newsweek article, but there was a great episode of Frontline on PBS about bipolar disorder called "The Medicated Child." The focus there was more on the medications that are given to bipolar children. Some of these kids are on 6 or 8 different meds at once, none of which have been proven to help treat children with bipolar disorder. And of course there haven't been studies showing what these drugs do to growing brains. It's great that childhood bipolar is finally being acknowledged, but it's definitely time to figure out how to treat kids. They just can't be treated as little adults, like they are now, by the medical establishment.

Anonymous said...

I have an overwhelming urge to hug you, Marilyn.

Sarah said...

I will have to check out that article. It is so important to get the appropriate treatment as early as possible. The sooner one can get those coginitive, behavioral, and disease management strategies underway, the better.

I have concerns about the use of the medications in children. I also am troubled by the idea of keeping what could be life-saving help from them. There is just so much that we do not know.

Anonymous said...

My daughter was misdiagnosed as hyperactive ADD. Try Ritalin with childhood bi-polar disorder. It was sad. She is better now at 24, but she must eat carefully and sleep at least 9 hours every night. No coffee, no pop tarts, no late nights.

mindy said...

So appreciative of all the information you pass on here. And of all that you share of yourself. It really does help.

Mary W said...

I need to check out the Newsweek article. I have a niece who tried to commit suicide at age 6. The sad thing is, kids at that age don't know to write a note, so we would have thought it was an accident if the neighbor hadn't seen her on the roof. Thanks for writing so frankly. said...

My therapist and I (and my parents) figure that I have been bipolar since I was about 4 (don't remember anything before then). I wasn't considered a bad kid, just a totally weird one. By the time I was 6 I could no longer get to sleep at night.

I am not sure how I made it through a 50's/60's childhood. My parents kept taking me to shrinks, but there was nothing they could do. I think my father has still not forgiven me for being so different.

My godson is a childhood bipolar and on drugs. They work for him, but I still worry about drugs for kids. I survived without them, but it was a very ugly picture.

kim said...

Thank you Marilyn. This is my son. I will never forget the day, at age 10, he told me, "Maybe life would be better if he wasn't in it." Of course it wouldn't, and I told him so in no uncertain terms. But that statement still cuts me to the quick; it was a glimpse of the pain he had felt for such a long time and he was only 10!

So, thank you for acknowledging what my son lives with everyday. Thankfully, with better meds, he is not experiencing that degree of pain these days and, while I worry about medication and the long term effects, I know he is happier today at 14 than he would be without them.