Last year, my daughter, Jennifer, now six, had the same wonderful kindergarten teacher who’d taught her brother two years before. This teacher managed the class with a discipline system using green, yellow, red, and blue signals.
Each child began the day with his or her name on the green signal. If a child had to be told a second time to do something, he would have to move his name to the yellow signal. If he had to be asked a third time, he had to move his name to red. If it happened yet again, the child went to blue, and a note would be sent home.
When our son was in kindergarten, my wife and I used to ask how his day had gone. “Green!” he would usually say, proudly. Occasionally, he’d say, “Yellow,” with some chagrin; rarely, he’d mumble, “Red.”
One day he brought home a note saying he had crossed over to blue. I reassured him that everyone has off days. As long as it didn’t happen regularly, this was nothing to worry about. Secretly, my wife and I were pleased: “Our boy is human after all!”
Fast-forward two years. On her first day of kindergarten, Jennifer went to the red signal. On her second day, she came home with a “blue note” (the first of many). In April, Jennifer became the first kindergartener my wife and I have ever heard of to be suspended from school.
More than defiance
Jennifer has had behavioral problems almost all of her short life. By age two, her inability to follow directions, sit still, steer clear of dangerous situations, and learn from her mistakes had gone far beyond what we know as the “terrible twos.” In preschool, she could take the little plastic balls out of the ball pit — but wouldn’t put them back when asked. When her teachers sang, Clean up, clean up, everybody everywhere / Clean up, clean up, everybody do your share, she would not do her share. My wife and I simply assumed that she had a rebellious streak.
Then she was diagnosed with ADHD.
From this diagnosis (and countless therapy sessions), my wife and I learned that Jennifer wouldn’t do what she was told because ADHD made it impossible to do what she was told. She couldn’t focus enough to finish simple tasks, like putting away the pieces of a four-piece puzzle. One of us would have to get down on the floor with her and take her through the process, one step at a time. We also realized that the reason Jennifer could not go to sleep was that her mind couldn’t shut down.
A double diagnosis
A few months after her fifth birthday, Jennifer was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I certainly had heard of it. But even after speaking with therapists, I was unsure of what it was — and unconvinced that my daughter had it. I could not accept the fact that my beautiful daughter could have a mental illness that is lifelong and incurable. Using the words “mental illness” in referring to my own flesh and blood was too painful. Bipolar disorder causes severe mood swings, often to the point of rendering its victims unable to function. The highs and lows can destroy relationships, hinder academic performance, and make it nearly impossible to hold a job. People with the disorder face the risks of substance abuse, hypersexuality, and — most worrisome — suicide. Did you get all that? I’m still not sure that I have.
The good news is that bipolar disorder is treatable. With the right combination of medication and therapy, people who have it can lead productive lives.
At first, I was opposed to medicating Jennifer for either ADHD or bipolar disorder. She continued to fidget, lose her focus, and obsess about big things (like death) and little things (play dates). But I could not help feeling that the real problem was that my wife and I simply didn’t have the parenting skills to raise a highly spirited child. I believed (or wanted to believe) that the only thing wrong with Jennifer was that she was a boundary-testing pain-in-the-neck. And I thought that pills would turn her into a zombie, like those in Night of the Living Dead.
I also feared that medication might cause Jennifer to harm herself. Ten years ago, not long after his 30th birthday, a close friend — good job, great-looking, fun to be with — hanged himself after stopping his antidepressant. None of us knew he’d been depressed, much less that he’d been taking meds.
Next: The Turning Point