MY 9-YEAR-OLD son has pediatric bipolar illness. Psychiatrists, psychologists, pediatricians, social workers, and teachers have all weighed in on his diagnoses. When he was 6 months old, even a baby sitter offered her opinion: "There's something not right about him," she muttered.
Since the age of 6, my son has been on three different atypical antipsychotics, along with other medications. He is in a substantially separate classroom at school, and not long ago was hospitalized in a pediatric psychiatric unit for three weeks. He had done fairly well for a time, and I convinced myself the problems were a phase, but it came crashing down. As one of his teachers says, "He gets this look in his eyes, and I know he can't cope." I know it, too.
My son is suffering, and I, as his mother, seem unable to make it better. He rages, and if you think this is a generic kid tantrum, you have another thought coming. At other times, he completely shuts down. Transitions are hell, and he is often glued to me. Trying to wake him in the morning is a Herculean task. Early mornings are so stressful that we are often both exhausted by 9 a.m.
Yet he can be the kindest child, with a smile that could light the planet. He is physically beautiful, so graceful, and lives in the world in a way that is deeply different than many humans. Some have called him gifted.
I am convinced that because he feels pain so deeply, he identifies deeply with the pain of others. At age 5, when we were reading a children's book about God, he said, "I don't think God is a man or a woman, because God is too big for that." His words took my breath away. That is a concept some adults never get to, never mind a 5-year-old.
Just as God is far too complex an idea to limit to one category, I ask that question about my son. His mood swings and behaviors seem to fit within the pediatric bipolar spectrum, but is it possible to assign these children a sole diagnosis of bipolar? Does such a condition even exist in children? I have no idea. His psychiatrist believes deeply that it does, but the current debate -- perhaps "war" is more accurate -- over pediatric bipolar and the use of psychiatric drugs in children fills me with uncertainty, guilt, and fear.