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Little Girl on the Edge – Childhood Bipolar Disorder

Motherhood, for me, has been a journey with unexpected turns and frightening pitfalls. Little did I know when Cassidy first appeared on my doorstep the great challenges I would face being her stepmother. On that day, she looked up at me with a cherubic face, pink cheeks, and a welcoming smile. “Hello, my name is Cassidy,” she said brightly. “It’s very nice to meet you.” I didn’t know what childhood bipolar disorder looked like, but if I could have imagined it, this gorgeous little girl would not be its personification.

Cassidy moved into my home at the age of six, shortly after I married her father. Our marriage created a blended family of seven children, and Cassidy, fifth in line, had a powerful presence. She bounded through the house, full of untamed energy. She had incredible charm, but beneath her eyes I often sensed a caged hostility–like a wolf pacing behind bars. There was a restlessness there, along with an innocent yearning to see and experience everything life had to offer. Arguments in the family were almost always instigated by Cassidy, or at least she was an active participant in the chaos. Everything that happened in the house was “not fair” in her eyes and she appointed herself as the family policeman. Her restlessness drifted into her schooling, and it became obvious she needed help focusing in class. Her teacher complained that she pestered other students, talked excessively, had illegible handwriting, and had difficulty completing assignments.

She was diagnosed with ADHD (Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), which initially seemed spot-on. After all, she had trouble focusing, and her hyperactivity could rev out of control. Cassidy was the kind of child who didn’t walk down the stairs, she stormed down, slapping the walls and stomping her feet on every step. Her voice was five notches louder than everyone else’s, and her opinions were broadcasted to anyone within earshot. There was just no ignoring her, and if she felt ignored, she found ways to make herself the center of attention. One day I received a phone call informing me that she was “showing her panties” to the little boys in her church class. On another occasion, she pushed a classmate and grabbed his backpack. We started to receive regular notes home from the principal about her unruly behavior.

Cassidy was prescribed Adderall XR for her ADHD, which did seem to help quite a lot at first. She appeared to be more focused in school, and less impulsive. The notes from the principal faded and disappeared. On days when she missed her medication, there were angry blow-outs and temper tantrums that shook the whole family. I mistakenly saw this as evidence that she desperately needed the meds, because without them she was irritable, moody, and just plain mean. I didn’t realize that when a child has been on a stimulant such as Adderall for more than a year, sometimes going off for even one day can produce withdrawal symptoms similar to a meth addict, but on a smaller scale. A meth addict in withdrawal is irritable, mean, moody, and desperate. Rather than deal with potential rages I made sure that Cassidy got her meds every day, on time. I didn’t know better.

Eventually over the years, even on her medication, other behaviors began to surface. If the family was watching a movie together, Cassidy would suddenly turn to the group and explain in detail what we had all just seen, as if we hadn’t been there. She also claimed she’d seen a leprechaun in the back yard, and was huffing and puffing frantically as she described it. Cassidy lied incessantly, about things that mattered and things that didn’t. The most disturbing lies were when she accused her siblings falsely and even cried tears in dramatic pronouncements of her honesty. She once painted her little sister’s name in fingernail polish on her dresser, then came racing up the stairs to falsely accuse her.

Fast-forward six years, and Cassidy’s rages and strange behaviors increased. There were happy and peaceful days occasionally, but the rages always returned. Although I had great love for her, it was hard not to feel frustrated and overwhelmed. Her mother lived five hours away and made contact only infrequently during the school year. Summers were a welcome break because Cassidy and her sister would spend a few months with their mom, stepfather, and baby sister, and I could catch my breath. Cassidy loved her visits with her mother and enjoyed being a big sister. Yet just prior to leaving for the summer one year, she had a rage in our home which was so traumatic the entire family was in tears. Afterwards, I called a child psychiatrist and made an appointment. Cassidy’s mother was in agreement that she needed help, and was pleased to hear about that.

And then tragedy struck. Cassidy’s mother and baby sister were killed in head-on collision. They were struck with such force that their car was crushed. The driver of the other vehicle, for reasons that are still being investigated, crossed the center line and hit them head-on in their lane. Cassidy’s mother died instantly, but her two-year old sister survived for one hour. The child’s tiny heart was given to another small child who desperately needed it.

And so, faced with the reality that I am the only mother Cassidy has on this earth, I am more determined than ever to help her. Her grief is so real, her needs so intense. This is my journey with this special child; one that frightens and sometimes overwhelms me.

Stay tuned, and in the coming weeks I will tell you about her diagnosis, the disturbance she created at her school just days after her mother’s funeral. I’ll tell you about her psychiastrist’s advice, and the steps we are taking to help her.

Kristyn Crow is the author of this blog. Visit her website by clicking here. Some links on this blog may have been generated by outside sources are not necessarily endorsed by Kristyn Crow.