Thief of Life

It came upon her slowly, stealing away every bit of happiness. It didn’t steal her personality in one grand break-in, like a thief arriving while you’re away at work and emptying your house. Instead, it stole a chair one morning. Then next afternoon, a lamp went missing. A week later it was the rug.

And we tried to replace the items as we noticed them missing. Perhaps we tried to imagine that they were still there: squinting our eyes and pretending, humming softly to ourselves.

But then, over the course of three horrific days one week last year, we realized that the house was empty: the theft was complete, awful and horrific.

Last year, my youngest daughter faced a growing illness. A teenager now, she was born to drug addicted parents. Her biological mother had ingested crack cocaine, methamphetamines and marijuana while she was pregnant. She’d also smoked—and drank alcohol to excess. She was a prostitute and her father was the pimp. Before and ever after, they have regularly been in and out of prison.

We took our youngest daughter into our home as a foster child when she was only five days old. She was, at that time, still going through withdrawal symptoms. We adopted her by the time she was three.

Over the years, we were careful to get her the best treatment. She received physical and speech therapy. She went to Head Start. She enjoyed special kindergarten before beginning her normal schooling. By the age of five she had been diagnosed with severe Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD); our pediatrician told us it was the worst he had ever seen.

Our youngest daughter has received a variety of medications for the ADHD. They have helped her tremendously. She prospered through elementary school and through most of middle school. We also saw to it that she got therapy.

But last year, she started having ever more trouble managing her life. She suffered severe mood swings and uncontrollable rage. Her grades began dropping. Where before, she had been a mostly happy, carefree, and vivacious girl, she became dark, morose, and lonely. We put her back in therapy. We changed her ADHD medication once again. We found her a psychiatrist.

For awhile, the medication change seemed to make things better, but the darkness continued to grow. Her rage was sometimes uncontrollable: she punched holes in the walls; she broke windows. She began using foul language. She would scream that we were not her family and that she didn’t deserve us. She stopped getting along with her sisters. She became increasingly difficult to discipline. The least criticism or innocuous question could trigger explosive rage.

And then, one day, the rage stopped going away. It grew; she twice ran out of the house and down the street. One night I followed her in the car for a mile and a half, hazard lights blinking as she ran, before I could talk her into getting in the car and coming home. The next day, she spoke back to one of her teachers and received a detention. It was the first time in her life she’d ever gotten into trouble in school.

That afternoon, when I picked her and her older sister up after school, she was in full rage. She screamed at her sister and screamed at me without provocation. The rage was escalating beyond anything I had seen before. So I took her older sister to her boyfriend’s house, and then drove my youngest daughter to the emergency room at the hospital.

As we pulled into the parking lot, she began crying, begging me not to take her to the emergency room. She refused to get out of the car. Then she began screaming and yelling. Fear and crying traded places with cursing and yelling. She hit and kicked me multiple times. She began clawing the seat covers. She gnawed them with her teeth and chewed on the straps of the seatbelts. Periodically she lay curled in a fetal position for a few moments before launching into rage once again.

My wife arrived and went into the emergency room to let the doctors know the situation. A nurse came out and asked my daughter to come with her. She explained that if she didn’t, then she would have security and the Sheriff’s deputies take her in. My daughter finally calmed down. The storm passed; tears flowed.

It was a long evening.

We arrived at the hospital about 2:45 PM. We did not leave until after 7:30. Our daughter apologized to us in tears. The next day she had an appointment with her psychiatrist, who prescribed an anti-psychotic mood stabilizer for her—a drug normally prescribed to those suffering from schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

After the first day on this new medication, the thief returned all the furniture that had been stolen from her mental house.

The rage had disappeared. The mostly happy, carefree, and vivacious girl seemed to have come back. She no longer reacted with out of control rage. She joked, she hugged, she laughed. She acted once again like a normal teenager: listening to music, singing, and enjoying her life.

Her transformation was like a brilliant sunrise after a terrible dark night. But she was and is not entirely well. The thief was still skulking around. A month later she ran away from home, enticed by the father of a supposed friend of hers. She called to be picked up about 24 hours later. Her psychiatrist adjusted her medication.

My youngest daughter is now on independent study with her high school; she cannot be in a normal classroom, so the high school gives her classwork to do, which I help her with at home. Once a week she goes to a special classroom to take tests over that week’s lessons. Her grades have been good. Her medication was recently adjusted again within the past month as the thief started to become a more frequent visitor. She got better. Now, she mostly does okay, but she still has periodic episodes. Today was mostly a good day, except for once: I told her I’d forgotten about a followup appointment she had at the doctor. My phone’s alarm had just gone off and informed me we had but fifteen minutes til the appointment started. She raged at me, cussed me, and told me she couldn’t get ready in that time. I called the doctor and rescheduled the appointment and let her know she didn’t have to worry about it. Her rage grew; she threatened me with her curling iron, threw a pillow and then a metal lid at me and shattered a crystal candle holder. But within an hour she had returned to normal. She apologized. We talked; she cannot explain where the rage comes from or what triggers it. It worries her.

The thief is hard to live with. But most of the time it doesn’t trouble us anymore. Doubtless, over the coming years, there will be further work with psychiatrists and adjustments to her medications. Better medications may be developed. And perhaps some day the thief will finally be put away for good.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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