The children sat quietly in their first grade classroom completing a Thanksgiving coloring project. Most of the students at age 6 needed to improve their fine motor coordination, so sometimes coloring within the lines represented a challenge. When the brown crayon Megan used to color her turkey rolled over the line, she believed that her turkey was ruined. A disaster ensued.
Megan uncontrollably leaped out of her seat and grabbed the box of crayons that lay on her desk. In anger, she screamed and threw the crayons one by one into the classroom wall with great force. Since incidents like this had previously occurred, the teacher, Mrs. Hill, was prepared. She used the school contact system and summoned the security guard.
Within minutes, Megan was removed from the classroom and made to sit outside the principal’s office, as she had done many times before. Here she remained for the next 90 minutes until the principal believed that she was calm enough to return to class.
As the months of the school year progressed, Megan became known as “the bad one” by both the teaching staff and the other first grade parents. With this reputation, she was excluded from birthday parties and play dates. When she became upset at a Brownie troop meeting and stomped on a cupcake that she had dropped, the troop leader contacted Megan’s parents and advised them that Megan was no longer welcome to be a member of the troop.
Megan’s parents, Sandra and Daniel, became deeply concerned about Megan’s behavior and outbursts both at school and at home. Hyperactive and distractible, her tantrums frequently dominated her days. She seemed unable to focus or complete tasks assigned to her. In addition, she had trouble sleeping and kept them awake night after night. It was time to seek help.
The evaluations seemed endless. They began with the psychologist and pediatrician. They continued with neurologists and specialists in the field of cognitive and executive functioning. Megan was questioned extensively to determine if she had been sexually abused, and given an MRI of the brain to detect abnormalities. She was also interviewed and tested by the special education team in her school.
Time passed. No diagnosis, only ideas. And Megan’s life deteriorated as she isolated herself more and more from the pressures of her stressful world. Fearful of people and life outside the home, sadness and depression now dominated her thoughts.
Sandra and Daniel had one more idea. Desperate, they made an appointment with a renowned child psychiatrist. Dr. Evelyn Smith led Megan to her private office and began with a series of questions.
“Megan, do you ever hear anyone talking to you even though you cannot see them?”
Megan was completely surprised but seemed relieved to hear this question. A smile appeared upon her face. “Yes, I do,” she replied. “How did you know?”
“Is it just one person that you hear, or more than one?”
“It’s always the same one.”
“Does this person have a name?”
“His name is Jason but I call him J.”
“Does J ever ask you to do anything that you do not want to do?”
Tears came into Megan’s eyes and began to stream down her cheeks. “Yes, sometimes he tells me to hurt my Mommy and once he told me to kill my cat. But I love Mommy and my pet cat and I didn’t want to do it.” She folded her arms and buried her head in her lap.
“When do you hear J speaking?”
“All different times. I hear him in school a lot when the teacher is talking. I hear him in bed at night and I get afraid and can’t sleep because he scares me. Mostly I hear just J but sometimes I hear loud noises in my ears and I can’t get them to stop.”
Dr. Smith completed her interview, and Sandra and Daniel had a diagnosis for their child at last: early onset schizoaffective disorder, most likely caused by an imbalance of chemicals in the brain. Megan had been experiencing a series of psychotic episodes. No one, including Megan, had understood what was happening to her. She did not know how to distinguish reality from the character that existed only in her mind.
Megan had been experiencing the symptoms of an illness, but society had blamed her for its ravaging effects. Now Megan’s family needed to seek answers and learn how to provide for her special needs. This would be the only path to Megan’s chance at a normal life. First, Megan needed to be stabilized on medication. The second step was to work with the special education team in Megan’s school district to provide a safe and successful school environment with small classes and an appropriate IEP.
The new medication successfully stabilized Megan’s moods, but it failed to address the issues of psychosis, and soon Megan began to have further experiences with imaginary beings. Her parents recall the day when they heard Megan’s screams coming from the bathroom.
“Mommy! Daddy! Help me! I see them now. Come and look! The vampires are in the toilet bowl!” Her parents followed her into the bathroom to investigate, but saw nothing. Sandra picked up her daughter and hugged her.
“It’s OK, Megan. There is really nothing there that will hurt you. The next time you need to use the restroom, come and get me, and I will be there with you always, to keep you safe from harm.”
Dr. Smith responded to the situation by prescribing an antipsychotic. It is sometimes a risk when prescribing such medications to young children, as each individual reacts differently. Megan was one of those rare cases that had a life-threatening reaction to the drug. Within a few days after the initial dose, the muscles in Megan’s body tightened, leaving her unable to move or breathe. After 12 hours of unconsciousness in the emergency room, she survived.
Megan’s journey through her illness did not end there. It was only the beginning. Trial and error of other medications ensued. When she was still not stabilized by the beginning of second grade, Dr. Smith recommended it would be best for Megan to be removed from the traditional school system, and home schooled during her second grade year. With tutoring and family support, Megan successfully completed the state mandated core curriculum of second grade, using her dining room as the learning center.
More challenges lay ahead. With Megan’s wavering moods still out of control, as a last resort her parents placed her into a residential hospital for children. A team of doctors and psychiatrists monitored her behaviors and reactions to various medications. Sandra and Daniel longed for their child, and silence reigned through every hour and day that passed without their precious daughter.
Six months later Megan returned home. When she did, a miracle happened. She had changed. Now she laughed and played and enjoyed the people around her. She was filled with love and hugs and the joys of living. She made friends and for the first time, had a chance to succeed. Megan was now ready to return to school.
Sandra and Daniel had one more challenge in Megan’s recovery. They wanted Megan’s new school experience to be a positive one, so they petitioned Megan’s school district to pay for placement in a private school to address her special needs. Worried about funding, the school district refused. A year long court battle followed, as Megan’s parents learned how to navigate the legal system and fight for their child’s rights to an appropriate education. Finally, Megan was placed in the school where she belongs.
Today Megan is 13 years old. This past June, she graduated from middle school and surprised her family when she was chosen to be the valedictorian of her seventh grade class. She proudly spoke from the stage, thanking her parents for their love, and her special teachers for their support and dedication. After her speech, the principal presented Megan with the President’s Education Award for her outstanding academic achievement.
Megan’s story has touched the lives of all who know her. Family and friends who shared her journey have become enlightened about the stigma of mental illness in our society. They have learned that those living with mental illness can thrive and prosper with appropriate interventions and the ongoing medical research that is available today.
There is hope.
I am Megan’s grandmother.