In 2011 my daughter Jessie was diagnosed with Severe Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder which is the precursor to Bipolar Disorder. She was 9. The effects of early onset bipolar seemed to hit quickly, impacting on daily life dramatically. The psychiatrist believed that being predisposed, it was triggered by a sexual assault the previous year.
During that previous year that same man had been making threats against both Jessie and me. One night he made a particular threat against Jessie, and I rang my parents to come and get her. It really unsettled me, so we decided it would be best for Jessie to stay at my parent’s for a little while. We enrolled her at the local primary school, but within a few weeks mum and dad started having problems her. She wouldn’t shower, she became volatile and so angry. She started having some social issues at school, and her behaviour at her grandparents became increasingly challenging. Each weekend she would come home and sending her back was upsetting for her. We stuck with the routine though, as my ex’s threats had continued, plus I wanted Jessie to finish the term where she was for stability.
It came to the point though that they couldn’t cope with her behaviour any longer. Jessie was dropped home one weekend with all of her belongings. My parents were at the stage of never wanting to see her again. They had required Police to attend home, and Jessie had been taken to hospital and been sectioned under the Mental Health Act. They had tried their best, but after raising 2 children themselves, one a very difficult teenager (me!), enough was enough.
None of us had any idea what was happening. Although on one hospital visit mum did talk to the doctor about some of Jessie’s concerning behaviours. The doctor said that it was classic behaviour of a child who had been sexually abused. The following year she did disclose to me, but not to the JIRT team (police who investigate child sexual abuse), which they said wasn’t uncommon with younger children. It’s the most sickening feeling, then came the anger. Oh my god, that was intense anger, with no resolution but acceptance, and that took a long time. Guilt then takes over. How could my judgement be so bad that I could allow a paedophile into our lives? I don’t let it rule me anymore, but the guilt will never go away.
Jessie came home and started back at her old school. She was so happy to be home, as I was. I’d missed her so much, saying goodbye on Sunday’s was hard. It wasn’t long though before I was faced with some testing times. Nowhere near to the extent as mum and dad at that stage. Needing police intervention at home was something for the future.
There are two incidents in particular I do remember from back then. Both because Jessie’s pain was flowing from every pore and it broke my heart. The first time, she had been having what I thought was a temper tantrum. As a result she slammed her wardrobe door shut, and the glass shattered everywhere. With her reaction to that I didn’t need to say anything. She was absolutely devastated, she shattered like the glass. The sound shocked her too I’d say, and all I could do was hug her tight while she cried and cried.
The second experience played out at school one morning. I’d walked her into school, said goodbye and went to leave. She started crying and wouldn’t let go of me, wanting to come back home. Being clingy was a new thing I’d noticed since she’d come home. This was a hard one because I knew I couldn’t take her back home with me or the next day would be harder. She needed to push through and stay at school. I finally got her ‘unclung’ and left her standing there in the playground screaming and crying, it was AWFUL. No teachers offered any assistance, and I spent the day worried about her. That last image of her as I left the school has stuck with me, she was broken and lost.
Even as a baby Jessie wasn’t one for tantrums or sulking. My girl had always been so happy, confident, self assured and outgoing. She was popular at school and was renowned for her contagious laugh, by kids and teachers alike. Neither aggression nor temper outbursts had ever been part of her make up. I knew something was wrong. She started having social problems and falling out with friends. Kids were quite cruel about her outbursts, and Jessie’s self esteem was quickly disintegrating.
We relocated, which meant another change of school for Jessie. She found it difficult to make and maintain friendships, and her schoolwork was suffering. One day out of the blue she told me that her uncle was safe because he didn’t know where he lived. The look on her face was pure relief. I asked her who ‘he’ was. Before answering she realised he no longer knew where we lived either. ‘He’ was my ex, and we were all safe now. She disclosed what he did and said. Threatening her, he had said if she ever told anyone he would kill her and her entire family. End of conversation, she was done.
I felt nauseous to hear it with my own ears. I really had to take a minute to process what I’d just heard and try and comprehend it. What a huge burden she had been carrying. She had been frightened all that time, and too scared to talk. Way too much for a child, my poor darlin’.
I took her to see our GP who gave us a referral to see a child psychiatrist. He was an old doctor who, after asking very few questions, diagnosed Jessie with ADHD and gave me a list of foods to avoid for her. Funnily enough, red foods were on the list, and a food colour Jessie had always refused to eat – apart from light red apples and red meat. I convinced her try a strawberry for the first time in her life at age 13! Everything was automatically smelt before it was eaten as well. Funny kid.
The more research I did into ADHD, I began to disagree with Jessie’s diagnosis. There were definitely similarities, but she wasn’t attention deficit and her outbursts weren’t just hyperactive. Jessie suffered extreme highs and extreme lows, it just didn’t fit.
Jessie’s behaviour started really escalating. She was flying into rages, throwing things, damaging things, smashing things. I couldn’t stop her or settle her. I’m not a big woman, and when she is in a rage she is much stronger than me! She was extremely abusive, swearing at me and constantly calling me names. She would follow me around the house, relentlessly pushing my buttons and bullying me. I have numerous stab marks in my bedroom door after being chased with a big kitchen knife. While she was refusing to go to school, I didn’t get a break from it.
It got to the point one day where all I could hear were the trains on the tracks behind us. I felt like a complete and utter failure as a mum, and her torment took me straight back to her father. She didn’t know him, but I couldn’t get over how alike him she was behaving, so one morning I made the hardest decision of my life. Not coping I rang the Police to come and take her, believing she would go into foster care as my parents had already tried.
Being in the suicidal state I was in, Police by law had to call an ambulance and I was required to go to hospital. Only to be given the details of a counsellor and sent home again. That was the point though that I sought help for myself and the learning process began, that would in time see us in a much better place.
Jessie spent another 4 months with my parents, with numerous police visits and trips to hospital. She was having social problems at school again, and her violence and aggression continued to escalate at their home. I had a call one morning to go over there. Police were on their way, and again Jessie was taken to hospital. I went with her in the ambulance, to Westmead Children’s Hospital this time, thankfully. My parents were at the end of their tether, and were worried about me if Jessie was to come back home again, so it was discussed with the mental health team that she would need to go into foster care. When it came to it though, I couldn’t give up on her. Those heartstrings are strong, and as worried as I was, I wanted her to come home.
Early Onset Bipolar changed both of our lives forever.
Dr Ken Nunn, Head of the Dept of Psychological Medicine at Westmead Children’s Hospital, took us on, which was such a blessing.
Jessie was properly diagnosed and medicated. Ken was great with her – Jessie doesn’t suffer fools or adults who she intimidates. She has told one of her counsellors to fuck off, but Ken knew exactly how to form a connection with her. And so began our little family’s long, challenging road we’re still on.
We have been lucky enough to have found some truly remarkable professionals who have been invaluable to us. Without their help, support and resources, I wonder where we’d be.