Kimberly Coffman

from Lee's Summmit, MO

I have to preface this by saying my son is very bright, very fun, and very creative! My son was very different from day one. He couldn't self-soothe, he ate more, had to be rocked more vigorously to be soothed. I had a daughter who was born first, and had someone to compare him to in hindsight. In their baby and toddler videos my son is always crying, always having separation anxiety, whereas my daughter was content, playing with toys and laughing into the camera.

I was blamed for many years for my son's “fussiness.” As toddler-hood approached, it was apparent he was “different.” He really became symptomatic as he entered the world of preschool. He couldn't hold it together. He was suspended once for kicking a teacher, and two years later he was suspended again for calling a girl a bad name. His early days consisted of many sensory issues: “the toast is too burnt,” “the TV is too loud,” “clothes are too itchy,” “socks are too tight.” I tried to get him diagnosed as early as age four, but was thwarted by family members and pooh-poohed by psychiatrists. My son was irritable, threw huge tantrums, cried a lot, but mostly at home. Not at grandpa's, not at his dad's house. They save it for the people they trust the most. 

Looking back, what could have been done at the time to improve the situation? Treatment, medication, a different approach, or understanding from others around you?

When my son was seven, and my daughter was twelve, they lost their father in 2001 in an accident. Shortly after, I got a correct diagnosis for my son. Nobody had asked about family history. My family tree has many alcoholics, many anxiety issues and drug addictions - probably undiagnosed bipolar. It skipped a generation here, so the psychiatrist didn't really make the connection and started prescribing antidepressants. While most kids that are diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficient hyperactivity disorder) are put on stimulants that flip them out, it's the opposite here. Antidepressants made my son manic, homicidal and suicidal. He was always just diagnosed as depressed. Well, he had nothing to be depressed about: there was no abuse, nothing a six year old should be drawing gory pictures over. I lost a best friend over this; she refused to believe it wasn't my lack of discipline that made my son this way. 

After a few hospitalizations, and at least 15 medication trials, now at 11, my son is more stable than ever. He still has bad days, bad moments, but not all day, everyday anymore. Lithium and the Child and Adolescent Bipolar Foundation(CABF) have saved his life and kept him living at home. His sister and I always were the brunt of his rages and meltdowns. At one point, I took him to “talk therapy” with a local psychologist. It took about two visits for him to make his point clear that he thought childhood bipolar didn't exist, and this was just the way my son was. I got 90 percent of my information from the message boards at CABF; those parents on the front lines, and even the facilitators like Martha Hellander, were there for me night and day, 'til we got the right meds. The problem was that the wonderful psychiatrist we had for four years didn't have a magic cure. We had to go through horrific side effects. The doctor was just guessing what would work on this child. I had to finally ask for Lithium. I had to go to the message boards, so that I could glean suggestions from the parents, then the psychiatrist would hear me out and try another medication combination. 

The next battle was the school. I had to educate the principal as well as my family and many school personnel. My son had to miss part of third grade and forth grade and we had a teacher come to our house because of the side effects and school-phobia. The school accommodated us as much as possible with an IEP(individual education program), but this illness is very cyclical and we can't always plan for everything! 

We've been through hell. Just ask an unstable bipolar child to brush their teeth, and they might put a hole in the wall! I started a support group that lasted two years, because it's hard for these parents to get out of their own homes! I am lucky. I have a great support system. We had a wonderful doctor, 'til he left just recently. I've had the time, as a full-time social work student, to spend hours reading' The Bipolar Child', 'The Explosive Child', anything I could get my hands on, as well as hundreds of hours on the CABF website since 2002. I also keep a mood chart for medications and moods, and this helped greatly for the doctor to see how he was doing in between visits. We are also lucky enough to have a liaison that works in my son's school and in the same office as the psychiatrist. The new psychiatrist seems to be very helpful and knowledgeable also!

I wish that the public had more knowledge right now. I know it will come. Hopefully, by the time my children have kids of their own, the disease will be understood, as well as cancer and diabetes are, as far as diagnosis and treatment. My child has a very good chance, thanks to early intervention; most children are not correctly diagnosed until ten years have gone by. My son is quite a paradox; his IQ is 111, but his emotional intelligence is two years behind. However, school is a very hard place for him: hard to make friends, hard to stick to every micro-rule they have. Many bipolar kids are home-schooled. I am teaching him about his disorder, his medications, and the choices he has as he grows up. If he goes off his medication, he has around a 20 percent chance of another suicide attempt. I do worry that his carbohydrate extreme cravings are an indicator of an underlying alcoholism waiting in the wings, thanks to his genetics. Doctors need to get on the ball with early onset bipolar; my son had it from day one. I do believe that ADHD was the “catch-all” answer for too long, and that since genes connected with bipolar have finally been identified, things can only get better.

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