Ever since my husband and I made the toughest decision we’ve yet to face as parents—putting our daughter on medication for bipolar disorder when she was 7—I’ve fantasized about getting her off it one day. Last summer, a few months after she turned 11, I finally did.
I have too much to say about this for one post. So today I’ll just give you a little background on Sadie’s medication history and explain why I weaned her off meds. I’ll let you know what happened in a separate post next week.
Unlike many kids with bipolar disorder, Sadie’s never been on more than two drugs simultaneously. We’ve always been willing to sacrifice a bit of stability to avoid exposing her to an industrial-strength cocktail of drugs. For the past couple of years, she’s mainly been on a low dose of just one medication, Abilify, an antipsychotic approved by the FDA to treat young children with mania and mixed states (mania and depression occurring at the same time) caused by bipolar disorder.
Here are the main reasons I pulled the plug on her meds:
1. I didn’t know if medication was helping Sadie the way it once did. At first, there was no denying it changed her life. The self-hatred, nonsensical talk, phobias and threats to hurt herself or others all but disappeared. In school, she could focus and stay seated longer than she’d ever been able to. She made new friends and built the self-confidence to try things I used to think she’d never do, like taking dance lessons and performing in a talent show. It was easier, back then, to accept side effects like weight gain. And to feel less guilty for dragging her to a lab every few months for the blood work she hated.
But as she grew and matured, it got harder to distinguish between changes brought on by medication and changes related to natural development. Plus Sadie’s always been extra sensitive to medication. When we attempted to increase her Abilify to compensate for her growth and help her get through some rough patches of anxiety and mania, she became extremely irritable. So although her weight had almost doubled, and she was more than a foot taller, we stuck with the original dose we’d built up to when she was 7 (which was already lower than what most kids her age and size take). I couldn’t help wondering if the Abilify was really working anymore. If she wasn’t taking enough to make a difference, and increasing the dose did more harm than good, did it make sense for her to take it at all?
2. I worried about her physical health. It’s a rare day that passes when I don’t think about how the drugs Sadie’s taken for almost five years now—drugs that haven’t been tested long-term on children– may affect her down the road. At the very least, I wanted to give her body a break.
3. I had doubts about her diagnosis. I’ve been dealing with Sadie’s bipolar disorder for more than half her life now. She’s received the same diagnosis from several respected child psychiatrists. We’ve been through a barrage of neuro-psych tests that support a bipolar diagnosis. Members on both sides of our family have it or other forms of mental illness. So you would think that by now I’d have accepted it. Yet there are still times, especially when she’s more stable, that I slip into denial.
4. I felt judged. I know I shouldn’t let the subtle–sometimes blatant—criticism parents who medicate children with psychiatric disorders experience from the media, other parents, and society in general get to me. But sometimes I do. Just last week, two articles conveying this message popped up in my Facebook news feed. I get where the skeptics are coming from–I was one of them for a long time. Until I became desperate enough to try anything to stop my daughter’s suffering, I never imagined I’d be the kind of mom who would medicate her young child.
5. I wanted to see the real Sadie. This is related to the first item on my list. Sadie’s a tween now, going through puberty. Her body and brain continue to mature and change. Hormones are coming into play. I wanted to see how this Sadie, not the deeply troubled little girl she was back when we started this journey, would function without any drugs in her system.
Stay tuned for a follow-up post in which I’ll talk about what happened and what I learned from this experience.