Friday, March 7, 2014
Our Experience with Childhood Mental Illness
After a busy few weeks, I finally have a few quiet moments to write the post that has been running around in my head for a while now. It deals with something close to my heart: something that has occupied much of my thoughts and prayers for the last four years. When I began this blog, we were in the midst of a very difficult time, and I didn't know if I would ever be in a place where I could write about this publicly.
But we are! I want to share the journey we have been through with our little Garrett, and the solutions that have brought him and our family peace after years of turmoil. My purpose in doing this is to simply share what I've learned, and give hope to those struggling through similar circumstances. By no means do I believe that treating mental illness is a one-size-fits-all proposition, and I learned my lesson years ago about judging others' decisions when it comes to this issue.
About the time Garrett turned 3, I knew he was different than my other children. He was very sensitive, he cried a lot, and he was much quieter. Taking him out in public meant enduring a sobbing session that would last as long as we were out. I began shopping at night, and minimizing errands because he was SO miserable.
I just thought he was quiet and sensitive - I attributed it to his personality, and we loved him, and moved on. Looking back at our family pictures throughout the years, it is obvious to me now that we had a very unhappy little boy a lot of the time.
Garrett was also always drawn to the computer and television - he would spend all day in front of them if I had let him. Coming back to reality after watching tv or playing on the computer was painful for him, and he was frequently angry and tearful. I knew it wasn't healthy for him to spend a lot of time in front of a screen, but I also felt horrible for consistently taking him away from the only place he was ever happy.
When Garrett was 8, things escalated significantly. He was fighting with his siblings constantly. He would pick fights, and then fall apart if someone told him to leave them alone. He told me that his teachers were "yelling at him" everyday. As I conferenced with his teachers, I discovered that the "yelling" was them simply correcting him when he was doing his math incorrectly. He started talking about death - a lot. "Mom, what would you do if I jumped out of the car?" "I would stop and come get you and make sure you were safe." "What if you were too late? What if a car ran me over? Would you be sad?" This conversation, or a variation of it, took place every day, and they made me want to throw up. I hated thinking about it.
He had vivid, violent nightmares every night, and fought going to sleep. In the morning, he would tell me about which monster or animal had been tearing him apart the night before in his dreams. He was exhausted, but afraid to sleep.
Then he began talking about suicide. He would hold knives up to his chest, or talk about plans to lay down in front of the bus tires after school. One night, when Greg was out of the country on business, he tried to go out of the upstairs window with a loaded backpack on. I caught him and pulled him inside.
He was desperate for relief, and so were the rest of us. I was terrified he was going to hurt himself or someone else. His demands and angry outbursts were robbing our entire family of the peace we longed to have in our home.
By this time, we had begun seeing a counselor with Garrett. After hearing his history, she felt strongly that his depression was biologically based and suggested that we see a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist agreed and put Garrett on an antidepressant.
We began to see some improvement, and I felt like I had my son back. Finally, he would let me hug him, and he began to believe me when I told him I loved him. The suicidal talk stopped, and we all breathed a sigh of relief.
The relief was short-lived however. Although the crushing depression was alleviated, we began to see bizarre behavior. He would walk across my kitchen counters, laugh hysterically at inappropriate times, or be so hyperactive that there was no talking to him or reasoning with him. He had few inhibitions - our formerly shy and quiet boy was now quite outspoken in public, often to someone's embarrassment. We continued to work with his doctor and counselor. There was a suspicion that since he had missed a great deal of emotional development during the years he had battled depression, he was behind when it came to appropriately dealing with his feelings. We worked on that a lot. We identified emotions, and taught him ways to handle them.
From time to time, the depression would resurface, though not as severe as before. For 2 years, we continued teaching and trying to love him through this, but it was so difficult. He was either angry, sad, or in trouble. Managing his behavior took so much of my time and attention that I felt like I was not giving enough to my other children. They understood what he was going through and were supportive, but I knew they were hurting, too. Especially Joseph - Garrett took out most of his frustrations on his younger brother, and Joseph felt that rejection keenly. At the end of the school year, we opted to retain Garrett in the 4th grade, as we could not see him handling the added stresses of middle school while he was fighting for some degree of normalcy on a daily basis. He was devastated, but it ended up being a good year for him to relax and focus on healing.
Finally, in exhaustion and desperation, we returned to Garrett's doctor, who then said something that I had been suspecting for some time. Garrett did not simply have depression, but bipolar disorder. Although his words were not a surprise, it was devastating to hear. I guess depression had felt like entry-level mental illness to me, while bipolar disorder felt like the real deal. I wondered what impact this would have on his future and our family.
The doctor added a mood stabilizer to his medication. For a few days, it worked incredibly well. Then Garrett suffered a serious allergic reaction to the medication and had to be taken off. He spent a week in bed with a rash, a debilitating headache, nausea, and joint pain. For the next year, we would try different stabilizing medications at different doses. Most of the time, we would see amazing results for about 2 weeks and then be back where we started. I began to wonder if there would ever be a lasting solution.
The medications were not without side-effects, either. He developed uncontrollable facial tics and had to be put on another medication to control them. That medication blurred his vision and he was unable to read at school.
I began to feel like we had our ladder against the wrong wall when it came to his treatment, but I didn't know where the right wall was! We fasted and prayed as a family frequently, both for Garrett and for the rest of us. We prayed that we would be guided toward solutions that would give him peace and happiness and the best shot at a normal life.
Not everything was bad, however. Through his struggles, Garrett developed a very compassionate heart, particularly toward others who struggle. I began to get calls and emails from teachers and other parents telling me about something he had done for their child. He befriended the special needs children at school, and would carry their books and play with them. It was a beatiful bright spot in the midst of our struggle. We saw the magnificence of this precious boy's character and longed to give him relief. In addition, when Kate was born, she and Garrett had a very special bond early on. He loved his little sister with his whole heart, and she could make him smile and laugh. He was so sweet and tender with her.
After our family vacation last summer, we were driving home across the country. 24 hours of driving. I decided to download an audiobook to keep me awake so I could take care of the kids' needs while Greg drove. I looked for something on bipolar disorder, as I was always looking for things that would help Garrett and our family. I ended up listening to "A Promise of Hope" by Autumn Stringham. In the book, the author details her struggle with bipolar disorder and the discovery of a nutrition supplement that ultimately gave her relief and stability. It sounded too good to be true, but the theory had some merit. Perhaps his body was lacking certain nutrients, and therefore was incapable of producing correct brain chemistry. I was further intrigued because Garrett frequently had insatiable food cravings - could it be that his body was asking for something it was missing?
It took several months of further study and fasting and prayer before we became comfortable with the idea of trying the supplement on Garrett. I called the counselors at TrueHope.com many times, asking questions, and then thinking on the answers. Ultimately, we decided to give it a try. He would remain on his psychiatric medications while we began the supplement. When we began to see that his behavior got worse, rather than better, after taking his meds, we were to gradually begin reducing, as this was a sign that his body was producing the chemicals on its own, causing him to be overmedicated. We took it slow. Sometimes it took weeks between reductions, but we saw continual improvement.
After 3 months, Garrett was off all psychiatric drugs and feeling better than ever before. He has continued to improve. A few months ago, he talked to me about a situation and used the phrase, "when I used to have depression." I can't tell you how elated I was! To know that he no longer saw himself as "broken", as he had before, brought me such joy.
The episodes of depression and mania are gone. He is in every sense a very typical, healthy little boy. He now loves to ride his bike, play basketball, is serving on the student council at school, is on the honor roll, and participates in the orchestra and choir. I honestly never would have thought that possible a year ago. He is at peace. Best of all, he has kept the compassion he gained through the process.
There are so many other examples of improvements we've seen, but this post is already long enough. Suffice it to say, we are so grateful for the answers we have found and that our son now has a future as bright and promising as his siblings'. The only lasting effect we are seeing right now is a bit of emotional immaturity, but even that is improving consistently. The more time he is healthy, the more he is catching up to his peers. He has good friends at school, and better still, good friends at home in his brothers and sisters.
Of course we still deal with the normal ins and outs of sibling rivalry and mischief that come with having an 11-year-old boy, but it is nothing we can't handle. Those situations are now no different for us than they are with the other kids. We feel like we have experienced a miracle. He continues to take the supplement daily, and grouches at me about having to swallow the capsules, but he understands why it is necessary and goes along with it.
And as crazy as it may sound, I'm grateful that we have gone through this experience. I am stronger, more patient, and more compassionate than I used to be. My daughter has recognized symptoms of depression in her friends and led them to seek help. There have been countless ways we have benefited, and I will forever be grateful for the journey. Most of all, I am grateful to have witnessed a burden completely lifted, and am grateful to my Heavenly Father for leading us to the solution to our struggle.