Gabi Coatsworth thought she’d dodged the bipolar bullet when her second son was diagnosed as depressed.
We were delighted when Drew was offered a place at the prestigious New England prep school that my husband had attended. Drew was extremely bright, so no doubt could have qualified without what they call the ‘legacy’ effect, but in any case, he was ready to go.
All went well for the first 18 months. Drew shared a tiny dorm in a Victorian house with six other boys. There was the one with Chinese parents who was a champion diver, the short Korean guy who could play anything at all on the violin, the Jewish lad from Massachusetts who wrote poetry, the Puerto Rican who had already won a math prize, the one of Italian extraction who had built his own boat in the summer vacation, and the skinny young man who could speak five languages fluently.
“What am I doing here?” asked Drew. “They’re all brilliant—I’m just a regular guy.”
This wasn’t quite true. Drew was a guy who never forgot anything. He could read a book or see a movie and reproduce the information word-for-word—dialogue included. I’d always joked that as a little boy, if you asked him the time, he’d tell you how the watch worked. Only it wasn’t a joke. His photographic memory made him a very good student, and he was generous with other kids, helping them with their studies any time they asked. His teachers loved him, because he enjoyed learning and showed it.
His life wasn’t all roses, however. He’d hated the move to the US from England. His mother, my sister, had died when he was eight, and he’d come to live with us in the States. Sometimes Drew would break out in a sudden spurt of anger, and I’d put it down to the rage he must have felt at losing his mother so young. He wasn’t the kind of kid who was going to talk about it, either. When I found a grief counselor for him, he resisted. “They’re stupid, and they just want me to cry,” he said, “and I won’t.”
Some spurts of anger were more troubling than others. I had a call from the principal one day when he was in fifth grade.
“Drew’s in the school counselor’s office,” he said.
“Is there a problem?” I wasn’t unduly concerned. Drew was a good kid.
“Well,” The principal hesitated. “There’s been an incident. Drew started shouting in class, and said he wanted to kill himself and everyone else because they were so awful.”
By the time I reached the school, the school counselor had made Drew call the suicide hot line and speak to a suicide specialist. He was 11 years old, and they hadn’t asked my permission. I was furious and eventually got an apology. But it made me realize that some of Drew’s emotions were outside his control.
My husband and I kept an eye on him, but one day Drew refused to lend a hand with the chores and Jay took him by the shoulder and walked him over to the kitchen sink.
“You are going to help do the dishes,” he said, as Drew wriggled in his grip. The minute he let go, Drew was on the phone to the police, citing child abuse. Moments later, the local force turned up, blue lights flashing in our quiet street. We started to explain. “Sorry Ma’am,” said the officer, “but we’re obliged to investigate all charges of child abuse.” I understood perfectly, and wanted to strangle Drew on the spot.
The officer ended up explaining to Drew that he was lucky to have us as surrogate parents, and that he mustn’t ‘cry wolf” or he might be ignored if there was real trouble. Middle school came and went, and Drew grew taller and more intimidating when he lost his temper. I found that if I kept my cool and talked to him firmly, he would back down and go to his room. But I did feel something like a lion-tamer when this happened. It was something of as relief when we took him to his prep school, and we felt good that Drew would be in a school where the other students would be up to his intellectual level, and would also provide some of the diversity of students that was lacking in our local high school.
Things went well for the first year. Drew was popular and handed his assignments in on time and earned good grades. It was the second year that things began to unravel for him. I had a second sister who was sick in England, and was traveling there every few weeks to help her through her chemo treatments, as I had with his mother. I’m not sure if it was the replaying of the events of his mother’s death, or whether it was going to happen anyway, but we began to get reports that Drew wasn’t handing in his work, that he wasn’t participating in class. This was very unlike him. When he was sent to the school medical office, I was hopeful that they’d find some sort of physical problem that could be solved with the right treatment, but something told me that the family disease, depression, was the underlying cause. The school asked me if he could be evaluated by a psychiatrist, and I agreed, knowing that if it was depression, the sooner he was treated, the better.
“Your son is depressed,” said the psychiatrist, when he called back a couple of days later. “We’d like start him on an anti-depressant.”
“Good idea,” I said. “I take Wellbutrin. Maybe that would work for him too?” I knew that often people with the same genetic makeup do well on the same drug. “And can I come up and see him?”
“Of course,” said the shrink. I arrived a couple of days later, and was introduced to the doctor, who was looking grave.
“How’s it going?” I asked.
“Well,” said the doctor, “I’m afraid it may be a little more serious than we thought.”
He must have seen the expression on my face. “We started Drew on the Wellbutrin, and we’ve had to take him off it. It seems to have made him manic. He has pressured speech and can’t sleep.”
Manic? My heart sank. I already had one son with bipolar disorder, which I was sure he’d inherited from his father. Drew had a different father, who suffered from depression, but he wasn’t bipolar.
“But these are just temporary side effects, right? When the meds are out of his system, he’ll be OK?”
“Yes,” said the doctor slowly. “He’ll be OK for now. But what it means is that your son is bipolar.”
I couldn’t take this in at all. “You mean the Wellbutrin made him bipolar?”
“No. It’s just that if you are bipolar, certain anti-depressants can trigger it. He’s going to need different treatment.”
I tried to look on the bright side. At least Drew was only 15, so we’d caught it early. Over the coming months, though, the bright side was going to lose its luster.
—Photo Josh Pesavento/Flickr