The Bipolar Child, Part I: Reactions

Newsweek If you haven’t been reading the news recently, Newsweek magazine published a feature article on Max, a 10-year-old who struggles mainly with bipolar and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorders among other mental illnesses. I read the article and was astounded at what Amy and Richie Blake, Max’s parents, have to contend with. I’m astounded at what Max suffers with.

The article was educational but for all the 8 computer pages that I printed, I didn’t read about Max; I read about his diagnoses:

Max Blake was 7 the first time he tried to kill himself. He wrote a four-page will bequeathing his toys to his friends and jumped out his ground-floor bedroom window, falling six feet into his backyard, bruised but in one piece.

He cried for hours at a time. He banged his head against his crib and screamed until his face burned red. Nursing, cuddling, pacifiers—none of them helped.

Richie carried his son to the backyard and tried to put him down, but Max shrank back in his father’s arms; he hated the feel of the grass beneath his small bare feet. Amy gave Max a bath and turned on the exhaust fan; he put his hands over his ears and screamed. At 13 months, he lined up dozens of Hot Wheels in the same direction, and when Amy nudged one out of order, he shrieked “like you’d just cut his arm off.” At day care, he terrorized his teachers and playmates. He wasn’t the biggest kid in the class, but he attacked without provocation or warning, biting hard enough to leave teeth marks. Every day, he hit and kicked and spat.

By 7½, Max was on so many different drugs that Frazier and his parents could no longer tell if they were helping or hurting him. He was suffering from tics, blinking his eyes, clearing his throat and “pulling his clothes like he wanted to get out of his skin,” says Richie. In February 2005, under Frazier’s supervision, the Blakes took Max off all his meds. With the chemicals out of his system, Max was not the same child he had been at 2. He was worse. … Off his meds, Max became delusional and paranoid. He imagined Amy was poisoning him and refused to eat anything she cooked. He talked about death constantly and slept little more than two hours a night.

During a recent appointment at Frazier’s office, he went into full-fledged mania. Laughing wildly, he rolled on the floor, then crawled over to his parents and grabbed an empty medication bottle, yelling, “Drugs! I’ve got drugs! It’s child safety!” Richie grabbed it back, Max screamed, Richie threw the bottle across the room, as if playing fetch. Max squealed and dove for it, then began to sing into the neck of the bottle: “Booorn to be wiiiiild …” Amy rolled her eyes: “Two kids.” And then: “It’s hard not to laugh.” (I’m not the only one who doesn’t think this is mania.)

All throughout the article, I couldn’t help but think to myself: Who is Max? Max without meds — does he have a personality? What does like to do for fun, even for short periods of time? Karate is mentioned — does he read? He has trouble writing for long stretches. He’s got a friend. What makes Max so charming other than the fact that he’s 10 years old?

(Image from Newsweek)

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Breggin takes on Newsweek's "Growing Up Bipolar" article

Breggin’s post on Newsweek‘s "Growing Up Bipolar" article makes good points but steers clear into wackiness throughout. My only wish is that instead of pointing out the problems of the psychiatric industry, he would have offered some suggested solutions.

Oh, and he flat-out gets some things wrong:

Newsweek makes clear that Max’s parents have serious conflicts over how to raise their son, but they have not pursued therapy, marriage counseling or, apparently, not even parenting classes.

The article DID mention that they tried to pursue marriage counseling but dropped out.

He says he has never been to therapy. But late last year, Amy demanded that the two of them see a marriage counselor. Richie agreed. They went a few times, but there were "scheduling issues," says Richie, and they haven’t gone back. For the moment, they are getting help from the same people who help Max. Anything that makes his life easier makes theirs easier, too.

Then he applies a broad brush from the cases of "out-of-control" children that he’s seen:

In every case of an out-of-control child I have seen in my psychiatric practice, either the parents were unable to reach agreement on a consistent approach to disciplining their child, or a single working mom was trying to raise a young boy without the aid of a male adult in the child’s life.

I like Peter Breggin’s approach to psychotropic drugs for the most part, but sometimes he just gets a little off-base for me.

Parents dealing with a bipolar child

“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.” – Anonymous, The Huffington Post

Dawdy on Furious Seasons has linked to a post about a father grappling with his young daughter’s diagnosis of bipolar disorder. The story has made me come to terms with the fact that bipolar disorder is not something that suddenly “develops” out of nowhere, but is truly a lifelong condition. I see instances of myself in “Jennifer,” not as a child but in certain pieces of my life as a teenager and an adult. This piece is quite important, not just in terms of people dealing with bipolar disorder, but for parents who may have children struggling with such a condition. And as a parent, it’s good to know that you’re not alone.