2e or Not 2e? Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnosis: An Insider’s Perspective

Gifted children with learning, emotional, and behavioural challenges face two risks. Firstly, the intensities and development trajectory of normal gifted development can be pathologized. Secondly, serious problems can remain undiagnosed because practitioners think gifted kids can’t have “those kinds of problems.” Both are bad, with long-term consequences.

There are resources looking at the problems of misdiagnosis and dual diagnosis from a professional, analytical perspective, but I haven’t seen many stories about what misdiagnosis does to the kids themselves.

To help fill in that gap, here is my story.

For most of my elementary school years, I was miserable. I knew I was different, that I didn’t see the world the same way the other kids did, and I knew I was the furthest ahead in all the language and math work at school. I had no idea that the academic smarts and the different view of the world were related. I just knew I was weird. I believed something was wrong with me.

Things turned around in middle school. It took me two years, but I found a small group of buddies through the drama club. In my 8th grade year, I made my first true friend since preschool – a girl whose family was in town for a single year. By the end of that year, I started to feel like maybe I was okay after all.

And then we moved again. I was in despair. I couldn’t face the possibility of another 8 years before I made another friend. I entered a very bizarre period of my life. At home, with my parents, I was generally happy, relatively enthusiastic about learning, and anxious to have intellectual conversations with them. At school, I was bored, teased, bullied, lonely, and fundamentally without hope.

One particularly bad afternoon, 7 months after moving, I made an almost successful suicide attempt. In the aftermath, I saw a psychiatrist. Based on the fact that I was consistently miserable during the day and happy in the early morning and evening, he diagnosed me with rapid-cycling bi-polar disorder and prescribed Lithium. Lithium made me violently angry, so I had to take additional drugs to control that.

For almost two years, drugs raged through my body not addressing what ailed me. There was constant tinkering with the drugs that the psychiatrist was sure should help, but never really did. My self-doubts got worse. My most vivid memories from those years are of standing in the kitchen crying when my drugs were being changed, shouting at my mother, “Who the hell am I? I’m just a bag of chemicals that are being changed at everybody’s whim.”

When my emotions would run strongly, especially when I got upset or angry, I could feel them fighting with the drugs and I would withdraw into a bubble of silence that I could not speak through. In some ways, I was more miserable than I had been before I tried to kill myself.

Two things got me through those years: I made friends both at theatre camp and in the gifted program at school; and I promised myself after my suicide attempt that I would never make my father cry again.

Eventually, I did a test. I took myself off the drugs without telling anyone and waited to see if anybody noticed a change in my moods or behaviour. Nobody did.

Nobody except me. I felt better. I was better.

By the time I took myself off the medication, my school and social environment were completely different. I had friends, many of whom are still my friends today and to whom I owe a never-ending supply of gratitude. And, there was some intellectual challenge in some of my classes. The primary causes of my depression had been situational not biochemical, and the primary solution was to fix the situation.

I was never bi-polar. That assessment was confirmed by a psychiatrist I saw later when I reacted strongly to a bad job situation and feared I was doomed to repeat my high school years. What she saw, and I have since confirmed through observation, is that when my emotional, intellectual, and sensory sensitivities are pushed to their limits, I retreat in a way that sometimes looks like depression, and that can turn into depression if I don’t use the retreat as a time to make changes to my situation.

Two of the most formative years of my life were ruined because of the misdiagnosis. My college studies were distracted by my need to take advantage of the university library to understand intellectually what had happened to me in high school. The lack of direction in my college years led to years of mis-focused professional strivings and I am now facing the prospect of beginning to make a life that uses my gifts to improve the world at a time when I should be in my career prime.

Misdiagnosing our children has a massive impact on their entire lives. It is not a small problem.

Additional Resources:

When Your Child’s Exceptionality is Emotional: Looking Beyond Psychiatric Diagnosis

Misdiagnosis of the Gifted

Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnosis of Gifted Children

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Kate can usually be found writing about writing at www.katearmsroberts.com.

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15 thoughts on “2e or Not 2e? Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnosis: An Insider’s Perspective

  1. There is a danger in blaming the misdiagnosis for subsequent problems. I could easily write this sentence: “The lack of direction in my college years led to years of mis-focused professional strivings and I am now facing the prospect of beginning to make a life that uses my gifts to improve the world at a time when I should be in my career prime.” But the source of my problem is somewhat different from yours. In my case, I believe it was partly due to never learning to work hard and partly due to multi-potentiality.

    This does not negate your point: your mis-diagnosis caused real suffering and real problems. I am just saying that some of the difficulties may have cropped up anyway.

    • True. There are many paths to the same trouble. It is possible that without the mis-diagnosis, I could have walked a different path to the same difficulties. I will never know.
      I simplified the end of my story, perhaps more than was wise, in the hopes of keeping this post to a reasonable length. For 20 years, the diagnosis formed a deep part of my self-identity and provided a primary, and self-defeating lens through which I regarded my life challenges. My experience of living my life was deeply molded by the experience. It is only since getting out from under the cloud of the mis-diagnosis that I have been able to make progress in dealing with the original underlying issues.

      • I think about it like this. I knew about my intellect. I knew about my emotionality. I thought I would grow out of my emotionality, that I was immature, and later, when I didn’t, that there was something wrong with me. If I had known that the intellect and the emotionality were part of the same package, I would not have beat myself up about it so much. I would have known that “stay-at-home mom” and “inner-city school teacher” were perhaps inappropriate for my temperament. (one lacked intellectual stimulation and like-minded companions, at least where I lived, and the other was gut-wrenching beyond my capabilities as a 21 year old naive suburban kid). But as an INFJ, a “diagnosis” that did help me, I know I will always be searching for my true self and my true career. And I’m okay with that. Finally. At least most of the time. =)

      • Accurate self-knowledge is so important – especially, I think, for gifted introverts who tend toward self analysis anyway.

  2. Thank you for sharing your heartbreaking story, Kate. Not being understood (first by friends and family, then by the psychiatrist) is a very lonely road that far too many children must walk. I’m glad you finally found your tribe in HS and now. xoxo

    • Thank you, Mona.
      Finding my tribe has been amazing.
      I hope that by sharing my story I can be part of reducing the number of children who must walk that lonely road. It may be too much to ask.

      • A wonderful post, thanks so much for your raw honesty and candour. Just sharing your story will, I have no doubt, help others out there. I too have become disillusioned and frustrated at how easily and often giftedness is pathologised (even more so when unnecessary medications are prescribed when some of these children need guidance, support and understanding).

        As a gifted introvert myself, I have also realised the importance of discovering and connecting with ‘my tribe’ (mainly online). And I love that there are other gifted families homeschooling their gifted children who are generous enough to share their journeys online. I’m eternally grateful.

      • Finding our tribes makes such a difference. And for outliers, the internet has made it much easier for us to find each other, as long as some of us are sharing our stories. Without hearing each other’s stories, it is hard to realize that we are part of the same tribe.

        Here’s to the tribe.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing this. The part you told about bipolar similarities was really helpful. You explained it better than the book did.

  4. Thank you very much for sharing this. It hurts soo much to think that to this very day many gifted children are giving diagnosis instead of looking for the reel reason for their behavior. I am a mother of a gifted child in the 99’5 percientile. The school thinks he is suffering for ADHD, OCD and Aspergers, since they dont know how to stimulate and protect him at the same time and he is feeling different, lonely etc. The school have soo little knowledge of what giftedness can look like and seems unwilling to learn. At home he dosent have these symptoms. I cant think of any diagnosis that one only suffers from 5 hours per day..I am glad you found you way and can be a inspiration to others Thank you..

  5. First of all, thank you for writing this. The part that caught my eye and made me want to read further was: “There are resources looking at the problems of misdiagnosis and dual diagnosis from a professional, analytical perspective, but I haven’t seen many stories about what misdiagnosis does to the kids themselves.” Even more than in other disability communities, the discussion is dominated by external perspectives–parents, teachers, clinicians, and other experts. Thank you for sharing that missing internal perspective.

    Your story broke my heart. So glad to hear you found your tribe and started making sense of what’s happened to you. Hope that other kids won’t have to go through what you did.

    BTW, I also really liked the opening where you emphasized both problematic sides of the coin: pathologizing gifted kids who lack real disabilities and ignoring the disabilities of gifted kids who really have them. Your story is such a heartbreaking example of the former. Will any of you at this blog be talking about the latter?

    Cheers,
    mosaicofminds

    • Yes – a few of us regularly talk about gifted children and adults with disabilities!

    • I will try to make more of an emphasis on it when I blog again in a couple weeks. I’m pretty extremely 2E and although caught up with the hectic spring as many of us are, I’ll try to address some of the issues more. The “Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnosis of Gifted Children” article was really spot on though. It would be nice if we could tightly wrap up what “gifted” means, but I think it’s just as varied as Learning Disabled and far less studied. Even the synonyms of gifted get confusing. I read http://www.creativitypost.com/create/how_geniuses_think and felt they were really talking about giftedness.

      • I love that as a team we bring such varied experiences to the issues. It really gives us a chance to lay out some of the issues from personal perspectives.

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