Heather Bishop’s now 19-year-old daughter, Erynn, was just a toddler when Heather first realized something serious was going on. “Erynn had tantrums that lasted for hours instead of the usual 15 to 20 minutes,” she says. “She was—and still is—very sensitive to loud noises and has difficulty with change. As she got older, it became clear it wasn’t just a phase, so we sought help.”
When Erynn was five, Heather and her husband, Sean, took her to a developmental paediatrician, who diagnosed Erynn with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and thought she likely had bipolar disorder, too. The doctor recommended that they wait to get an official diagnosis because Erynn was so young. “I was stunned,” says Heather. “I didn’t know anyone with bipolar disorder and it had never occurred to me that Erynn had it. Two years later, after a lot of struggle, we accepted the diagnosis from a psychiatrist.”
During those first two years following the diagnosis, it became increasingly difficult for Erynn to attend school and participate in regular activities without becoming overwhelmed and agitated. Making trips to the grocery store or playing with other kids would lead to intense outbursts. When Erynn started medication for ADHD, Heather explained that the medication would help her brain slow down. “Erynn looked at me and said, ‘Mommy, can I take that medicine for my whole life?’ It was in that moment that I realized how different she felt from other kids.”
Finding the right treatment for Erynn’s bipolar disorder proved more challenging than expected. “What got us through it was the idea that we would find the right medication and that she would get better,” recalls Heather. “We always had hope, and that’s a very powerful thing when dealing with any illness.” In addition to medication, the family found other strategies to help Erynn, including reiki (a Japanese healing technique for stress reduction and relaxation), vitamin supplements, an iPod with music to help her manage anxiety, frequent breaks during the day and a fan in her bedroom to assist with better quality of sleep. They also encouraged her to develop friendships with kids online who share her interests. Erynn has made three friends from New York, and the family is planning a visit from a Brazilian friend in the new year. “When I was younger, I had pen pals from other countries,” says Heather. “Now, kids meet and talk online and don’t have to wait weeks for letters to arrive.”
In 2007, Erynn was the first kid featured in the Faces of Mental Illness campaign from the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health. Currently, she is finishing high school with the hopes of attending university next year. She is also looking forward to saving enough money to move into her own place—something her parents weren’t sure would be possible when they first learned about Erynn’s diagnosis.
In addition to her full-time job, Heather coordinates a parent support group for families of kids with mental illness and does speaking engagements for educators, families and students who are studying to be youth workers. She also serves on the board of the Canadian Mental Health Association Middlesex. “I never judge a mother with a screaming child anymore,” she says. “I have a lot more empathy for parents going through a hard time with their kids. I just want people to know that it does get better and there are people out there to help you.”
Follow along as Anchel Krishna shares her experiences as mother to Syona, an extraordinary five-year-old with cerebral palsy. Read all of Anchel’s Special-needs parenting posts and follow her on Twitter @AnchelK.