THE BLOG

With a Little Help From Some Pills

11/17/2011 09:02 am ET

If Jennifer was born before Matthew, Jennifer would be an only child.

Jennifer (recently six) went to the same kindergarten as her older brother
Matthew (now eight) so they were fortunate to both have the same wonderful
teacher. This teacher disciplined through a system of green,
yellow, red and blue signals tracking their behavior for that day. Every
child started their day with their name on the green signal. If the teacher
had to tell a student to stop doing something wrong more than once, the
child would have to move their name to the yellow signal. If it happened
again, they would move their name to the red signal. If it happened again
after that, they would move to the blue signal and a note would be sent
home.

When Matthew came home every day, we'd ask him how his day
went. "Green!" he would usually say proudly. Occasionally, "yellow," he'd
say with a bit of disappointment in his voice. On an extremely rare
occasion, "red" he'd mumble almost tearfully. And on one late day
in April, a note came home that he had unbelievably gone beyond red into
blue. I explained to him that this was perfectly normal, and that everyone
has off days, and as long as it doesn't happen on any sort of regular basis,
it was just fine. Secretly, the wife and I were a little elated. "Our boy
is human!"

Cut to two years later. On her first day of kindergarten, Jennifer was on
red. On her second day, the blue note made it's first of many appearances
in our house. In April, Jennifer became the first kindergartener my wife
and I have ever known to actually be suspended from school.

Jennifer has had behavioral problems since the day she was born. By age two,
her inability to follow directions, sit still, keep herself out of dangerous
situations, and learn from her mistakes went way beyond the notoriously
terrible twos we'd been warned about time and time again.

While in preschool, Jennifer was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder
(A.D.D.). Shortly thereafter, she was diagnosed with Attention Deficit
Hyperactivity Disorder (A.D.H.D.).

What her diagnosis and countless therapy sessions ultimately yielded was
something that as parents was extremely hard to grasp. The reason she
couldn't follow simple instructions, such as putting the four piece puzzle
away, was because she physically couldn't put the four piece puzzle away.
The conditions of her disorders make it nearly impossible to focus long enough to finish the task. One of us would literally need to get down on the floor and walk her through
the process one piece at a time. Furthermore, her difficulty in going to didn't come from a mere curiosity to see what goes on around the house at all
hours of the night. She couldn't sleep because her mind doesn't shut down.

With further testing and much more therapy, at the age of five and a half,
Jennifer was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

While I had certainly heard of this disorder, I wasn't exactly sure what it
was. Even after it was explained to me by our very competent team of
psychotherapists, I still didn't really understand what it was - probably just my way of denying that my beautiful daughter could have
something such as this. The harsh reality was that bipolar disorder is
a life-long, incurable, mental illness. And believe me when I tell you,
uttering the words "mental illness" - moreover, accepting that those concepts apply
to your own flesh and blood is nothing short of painful. Fact #1: My
daughter is mentally ill. Thankfully, it sounds a hell of a lot more
dramatic than it actually is. At least I hope that's the case.

Bipolar Disorder is a disease that causes severe mood swings in its victims
affecting their ability to function. The highs and lows can be so severe and
dramatic that it can destroy relationships, academic performance and the
ability to hold a job. It carries an increased risk of alcohol and drug
abuse as well as hypersexuality. Lastly, and maybe most importantly, due
to the severe manic-depressive nature of the disease, bipolar disorder can
sometimes lead to suicide.

Did you get all that? Because I'm still not sure that I have.

The good news is that bipolar disorder is treatable and people that suffer
from it can lead normal and productive lives.

The concept of medicating Jennifer was presented to us sometime after the
ADD, but before the Bipolar, and we were strongly opposed to it from the
start. While it is becoming increasingly common to medicate children, I
couldn't help thinking that medicating a child is along the lines of
skirting the issue, a cop-out if you will. Still not fully understanding
the nature of the disorder, I still assumed that it was us that had the
problems in that we simply did not know how to properly parent what still
appeared to be a "highly spirited" child. Pills, I believed, were not the answer.

I still wanted to believe that there wasn't anything really wrong with her other than her being a
button-pushing, boundary testing, pain-in-the-ass. Furthermore, I had this
preconceived misconception that medicating my child would be tantamount to
numbing her; turning her into some kind of dumbed-down zombie who just
walked off the pages of One Flew over the Cucoos Nest.

Even after the bipolar diagnosis, we continued to resist any medicines. Our
therapist agreed that since she was only five, we were right in wanting to
hold off as long as possible, which we did despite her continued inability to
sit still, focus, keep out of danger, not obsess over significant things
like death, as well insignificant things like when she could have a play date.

For my wife and me, the real turning point, that is, rock bottom, came the day my
daughter got suspended from kindergarten. For one reason or another,
Jennifer (who was in the school play) decided to leave play practice after
school, wander down the hall into her classroom, quite literally turn it upside down.

When my wife showed up to pick her up from
school, Jennifer immediately came clean about the whole thing. She felt
awful about what she had done and spoke of it as though it were some kind of
out of body experience that she had no control of. To her, it was as though
a monster had done this, and it pained her to realize, and to admit, that she was
this monster. My wife just about lost it when she saw the room. She rang me
at work and insisted I come right over to help them put the room back
together.

It was a turning point was because it forced us to understand that
Jennifer is not a bad person, a troublemaker or purposely looking to make
life difficult for other people. She takes no pleasure in being destructive. Jennifer
is an innocent victim with a very serious problem, and she is learning how to
deal with it as best as any five or six-year-old might be expected. It's hard enough for us, and we're supposedly grown-ups.

It was this incident that made us realize that Jennifer would need to go on some kind of medication. Her therapist helped us understand that
this medication would not dull her senses and turn her into something out of
Night of the Living Dead, and that when properly administered, it would give
balance and center to her brain, mood and mind.

Days after the suspension, she started taking the anti-psychotic drug,
Abilify. Last week, she went on Prozac.

For the record, I am a firm believer that people do suffer from actual
chemical imbalances, and that proper medication can give balance to their
topsy-turvy worlds. It should go without saying that this decision should
be made in tandem with the help and consultation of a trained professional.
I learned about this first-hand when, about ten years ago, soon after his thirtieth birthday a very good friend of mine hung himself after stopping his medication. None of us even
knew he was on any form of medication. Even crazier was that on the
surface he appeared to have everything: great job, great looking, great fun
to be with, the world by the balls.

As I write this, I am suddenly even more scared for my daughter's life,
which is why I think I resisted the idea that my daughter might
need drugs to get along in this world. What if my friend never started
taking them to begin with? Maybe he'd still be alive today. Then again,
maybe he would have killed himself many years before. I am petrified by the
notion that Jennifer (like my friend) is going to have to probably take some
from of medication for the rest of her life. But what is the alternative?
At what cost should she avoid them? Should we as her parents really be
willing to gamble with her life? Perhaps the gamble would be in her not
taking the drugs? These are all questions that constantly populate my mind,
and they are extremely difficult to understand or rationalize.

One thing is certain. It has been eight months since she started taking Abilify
and we have noticed a dramatic improvement in her abilities to focus,
listen, and do the right thing, as have her teachers. We're working on her strange
obsessions; they are one of the reasons she went on Prozac. She'll go to bed thinking about something, and it'll be the first thing that comes out of her mouth in the morning. When something doesn't go her way, she talks about how
stupid she is and will often times begin hitting herself in the head. It's
too soon to know if the Prozac is going to work for her. If it doesn't, we can try
something else. My wife and I are learning more about these drugs everyday
and from what we are learning, they are not meant to mute the person, or
change who they are. They are meant to give them balance and stability. So far, that seems to be what is happening. As for the
long-term affects, I am cautiously optimistic.

The more I learn of Bipolar Disorder, the more petrified I am for her. I am
especially worried about the day she inevitably decides (like my late
friend) to see what life will be like without any medications. Her
therapist tells me we're saving her life, and we sure as hell hope she knows
what she's talking about. I feel a strong sense of comfort knowing that
we're addressing her problems in a hopefully
pro-active way. The good and the bad of it is that Jennifer is six. We tell
her what to do. If she was an adult and we were just starting to deal with
this, I don't believe she or we would stand a chance.

We will never stop trying to do the right thing for Jennifer. Right or
wrong, we will stop at nothing to give her the life she so deserves. The
fact that there are no guarantees scares the shit out of us. Fear in and of
itself is a terrific motivator, so believe me when I tell you, we are doing
our very best - which of course is all any of us can ever do.

Anything less would be a crime.

I have taken the liberty of changing the names of my children and writing
this anonymously for what are hopefully obvious reasons.