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