When Kami Meyer was an infant, her parents thought she was a colicky baby.
“She cried a lot, but we didn't think it was anything unusual,” said Kami's father, Dr. Michael Meyer, a professor in the Department of Health Science at California University of Pennsylvania and a volunteer firefighter.
But when Kami got older, her sharp mood swings and meltdowns were frequent and frightening. She threw toys against the wall or ripped them apart. She tore the banister out of the wall. She pulled drawers from the dresser and hurled the contents across the room. She smashed her hand through a garage door window.
“It was very exhausting. It would be 2 1/2 hours of rage, physical aggressiveness, and then aggression toward her sister and the dog, and her brother,” Michael said.
Kami's mother, Kris Meyer, who operates a preschool, said her daughter's unpredictable moods and tirades had the family “walking on eggshells.”
“We thought we were bad parents,” Michael said.
It was Kris' mother, visiting from Saskachewan, who witnessed a violent episode and suggested Kami's behavior was not normal.
Kami, who was 4 at the time, became angry – Kris can't remember what set the little girl off – and began picking up deck chairs and throwing them at windows.
In another incident, Michael had to forcibly restrain Kami to prevent her from jumping from a moving vehicle because she didn't want to go to school.
“It got to the point where she had no regard for her safety or anyone else's safety,” he said.
A visit to the family's pediatrician started a two-year journey that ended at the Child and Adolescent Bipolar Spectrum Services at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic at UPMC with a clinical diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
The diagnosis left the couple with mixed emotions: relief at finding some answers, confirmation that her behavior wasn't Kami's fault and affirmation that they weren't awful parents. It also created feelings of fear and guilt about what it means for Kami to live with bipolar disorder.
“It's frightening. We think she's probably going to deal with this the rest of her life,” said Kris. “There are a lot of things she's going to face that a lot of other kids won't, and it is scary. But there's also some relief in saying it's not Kami's fault, and there's something we can work with.”
It is fair to say that Kami's disorder dominates many areas of the Meyer family's life.
They canceled family vacations and quit visiting Michael's parents at their Johnstown home because the 1 1/2-hour car ride was unbearable. Kris, embarrassed by tantrums Kami threw at the store, stopped going out.
“It became very difficult to leave the house, really. It got to the point where school and soccer were the only things we would do because going anywhere was difficult,” said Kris.
At times, Kami's siblings, Brennan, 11, and Ashlyn, 4, have felt ignored and confused. The Meyers focused most of their attention on Kami for two years while they sought help for her, and sometimes Brennan and Ashlyn put pressure on themselves to behave perfectly so that they don't add to their parents' stress.
The stress became so great for Brennan that he ended up on anxiety medication for a short time.
For her part, Kami is not yet cognitively able to recognize that she has bipolar disorder.
She told her father it feels like there's a “bouncy ball going around in my head.”
“That's how she described it, like having one of those Super Balls that bounce 20 feet in the air, or a ping-pong ball going around in her head and she couldn't get herself to have any cognitive thought, like, 'Wait, I shouldn't do this,'” said Michael.
Kami doesn't like to talk about bipolar disorder, saying only, “I get mad sometimes, and I don't know why.”
Over the years, Kami's physician, Dr. Boris Birmaher, has prescribed more than half a dozen psychiatric drugs, including Seroquel, Zoloft, lithium and Latuda, to stabilize her moods.
However, the Meyers worry about short-term and long-term effects of many of the drugs because they have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for adults, not children, but doctors can prescribe them as “off-label” medications.
They also are concerned about issues children with bipolar disorder face when they reach adolescence; among them are increased rates of suicide, drug and alcohol addiction and early onset of sexual activity.
The couple said Kami, pink-cheeked with long brown hair, has been more stable since she began getting the right treatment at the CABS Clinic, and they are getting better at identifying her mood cycles. Last year, the family went on a family vacation, and “it went great.”
Kami is a stellar student at Bentworth Elementary School, and she enjoys drawing, crafts, soccer, math and playing with friends.
She thinks she might be a veterinarian when she grows up, and she loves taking care of the family dog and three guinea pigs.
For stretches throughout the day, Kami is happy and engaged: drawing in an art book, riding an all-terrain vehicle, playing cards with Brennan and Ashlyn.
And then she withdraws, sitting blankly on a couch, holding a blanket and sucking on a finger.
“We love her. There are a lot of people who love her. Kami is a great kid. She's a funny kid, she makes us laugh. She's the most compassionate of our three kids, and she loves animals. She stands up for people with physical or mental disorders, and I think somewhere she understands and connects with that,” Michael said.
The Meyers decided to share their story in the hope that it would help other families who live with loved ones with mental illness. They also want to face head-on the misperceptions and stigma that still exist regarding mental illness.
The family has gotten support from soccer parents, the fire department, their church community and the CABS Clinic.
“There is help. You don't have to do it alone. The big thing for me was accepting that help,” said Kris. “Lean on other people. Without them, I'm not sure we could have made it through this stuff.”
Still, said Kris, “you never know day-to-day, or minute-to-minute, really, what you're going to wake up to, whether it's going to be a good day or a bad day, or a good morning and a bad night,” she said.
Michael said the family takes one day at a time.
“We're not looking a year ahead of now. We're looking at what this summer is going to bring,” he said.
He hopes the mental health care system starts to identify mental illness at a much younger age so that children can receive adequate treatment.
“For us, we are still not where we want to be or need to be, but knowing that this is a real thing and that there are people, clinics and professionals out there who specialize in children with bipolar disorder is comforting,” Michael said. “Kami is bright; she's a smart kid. She's going to excel at whatever she wants to do. Seeing Kami progress through this, she doesn't realize at 8 years old how strong she is.”