HomeParenting Dilemmas

Bipolar at 5?

When her daughter was diagnosed at age 5, she fought the label. Then she realized that her once happy, effervescent daughter was turning into a tormented stranger.

By Dorothy O'Donnell

I wasn’t at my 5-year-old’s school the day she started to rip off her clothes and twirl in the rain in front of the music room. But when her kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Stapp, called to tell me about Sadie’s latest episode of troubling behavior, I wasn’t surprised. I’d witnessed plenty of similar incidents.

I could picture Sadie’s apple-shaped face tilted up to the sky, her dark eyes glazed, oblivious to Mrs. Stapp’s instructions to get in line with her classmates. I could see her mane of honey-streaked hair fanning out behind her, scrawny arms stretched wide. I could almost hear her too-giddy laughter. And I imagined the other kids, scrunched together against the music room wall, gaping and snickering as they watched her.

That rain dance earned Sadie the dubious honor of being the first student in nine years of teaching that Mrs. Stapp — a kind and patient woman Sadie and I both adored — ever sent to the principal’s office. A few days later Mrs. Stapp pulled me aside at pick-up time. She said she wanted the school evaluation team to do a thorough assessment of Sadie (I've changed her name to protect her identity), including a battery of psychological tests. I almost hugged her. By then, I felt as out of control as my daughter spinning on the playground: A mother who doesn’t know what’s wrong with her only child. Or how to help her.

Parent-teacher PTSD

I hadn’t always been open to suggestions that my precocious little girl might not be normal. When the director of Sadie’s first preschool, Mrs. Acheson, called me in to discuss my daughter’s behavior, I was more irritated than concerned. Shy and reserved myself, I’d always been in awe of Sadie’s utter lack of inhibition. From the time she was a toddler, she never hesitated to approach children she didn’t know at the park and ask if they wanted to play. One afternoon, I watched with pride as she marched between the monkey bars and swing set in her red cowboy boots, her hands cupped to her mouth.

“Who wants to go to Africa with me?” she bellowed. Within minutes, a half-dozen eager kids and a couple of chuckling grown-ups fell in line behind her. Like a mini Pied Piper, Sadie led them across the sand, halting in front of a big yellow and blue play structure that looked like a truck.

“OK — everyone get on board,” she ordered. “And just so you know, we’re stopping in Egypt for gas.”

At preschool, her animated tales of flying to Princess Land via the tire swing were so convincing, there was always a line of girls begging to join her. And her spontaneous dance recitals in front of the fountain at our neighborhood mall stopped harried shoppers in their tracks and made them smile.

Mrs. Acheson, however, gave me an earful about my daughter’s less endearing traits: she struggled more than even the most fidgety boys to sit still at circle time. In the nap room, she kept the other kids from resting with her constant chatter. And though her lucid imagination and devilish sense of humor made her popular among her peers, she was also known to lash out at them when they didn’t play by her rules.

As our meeting ended, Mrs. Acheson advised me to get Sadie tested for ADHD. My cheeks burned. Seriously? A 3-year-old? You’ve got to be kidding.

I’d read and heard plenty of stories about parents who rushed into labeling their kids with ADHD or some other disorder just because they were a little hard to handle or different. I wasn’t one of them.

"What a control freak,” my husband, Jim, snorted when I told him about the meeting that night.

A few days later, I took Sadie to her pediatrician for a check-up. The doctor was equally dismissive when I told her what Mrs. Acheson had said.

“That’s absurd,” she laughed, shaking her head and tickling Sadie’s belly. “It’s totally normal for children this age to be impulsive. They all develop and mature at different rates.”

I left her office feeling vindicated.

Guerilla glue and grief

But by the time we moved from San Diego to the Bay Area when Sadie was 4, I’d come to dread the sound of my cell phone buzzing. More often than not, I’d answer it to hear an exasperated teacher or camp counselor complaining about Sadie’s antics. Or telling me I needed to come and pick her up. Now. She almost got kicked out of her first summer camp for locking herself and a fellow camper in a bathroom.

My hopes that Sadie would outgrow her problems — or that I’d discover the secret to getting her to behave in the stack of parenting books on my nightstand — was starting to fade. Although she’d have spells when she seemed fine, sooner or later I’d get another call.

Even more disturbing were symptoms she began to exhibit after our move. Several months after she’d been at her new preschool, my social butterfly suddenly balked at participating in the morning sing-along that started each day. Instead of racing to join her friends the way she used to, she’d cling to my legs or dart away like a feral cat to hide under a table.

Sometimes she talked so fast it reminded me of how my old vinyl records sounded when I played them at the wrong speed, her mouth frantically chasing words in her mind, but never quite catching them. And then there was her growing preoccupation with death. She’d work herself into a frenzy that a piece of candy she’d found on the ground and eaten years earlier was going to kill her.

“I don’t want to die!” she’d wail. Just driving by oleander bushes or firethorn shrubs with their toxic red berries could send her into a panic. After a boy at school told her Guerilla Glue was poisonous, she refused to set foot in any store where it might be sold.

Dorothy O’Donnell has written about travel, health and business for a variety of publications. Her essays on motherhood have been featured in the Marin Independent Journal, Mothering and on KQED radio. She is working on a memoir about raising her daughter.