Sunday, September 16, 2012

Your Sunday Afternoon Read: A Father's Worst Nightmare

Posted By on Sun, Sep 16, 2012 at 4:00 PM

"Edge Of The Abyss," published in the Sydney Morning Herald's Saturday edition, is an illustration of the challenges involved in keeping a family together when one of its youngest members has an incurable, potentially life-threatening condition (though the life in danger is not necessarily her own).

An excerpt:

Before Janni was born, we were given baby toys by family and friends. Most of them are for six-, nine- or even 12-month-olds. I didn't expect to use them for months, but if I can get her focused on something, she stops screaming.

One toy has three shapes on it: a red square, a blue triangle and a yellow circle. When switched on, the toy asks, "Find the red square." I still remember sitting in our easy chair, half-asleep, holding my three-week-old daughter as she bats away at the toy. "Find the yellow circle ... Correct. Find the red square ... Correct." Through the fogginess of my exhaustion, I become aware that she's hitting the right shapes and colours. I look down, thinking it must just be coincidence.

"Janni, where's the yellow circle?" I ask, watching her arm stretch out, fist closed, as if struggling to make her body do what she wants it to do.

"Correct," the toy announces.

No. It can't be. She's not even a month old. "Janni, press the blue triangle."

"Correct," the toy announces.

Oh my God.

Read more after the jump.

"When Janni is two, I come home from work to find out that Susan has been teaching Janni subtraction and Janni asked, "Mummy, what's four minus seven?"

I'm stunned. Negative numbers are a totally abstract concept. They don't exist in the real world. You can't "see" negative three apples. At two years old, Janni's mind is making the leap from concrete reasoning to abstract thought.
Our daughter is a genius. I can see her going to Harvard or Yale before she's a teenager. I can see her winning a Nobel Prize.

. . .

Bodhi is born on December 17, 2007. Unlike Janni, he sleeps, which is good, because we are terrified to let him make a sound. When he cries, it's like somebody threw a switch in Janni: her normal personality is turned off and she becomes like a machine who will not stop trying to hurt him.

. . .

At first sight, she chalks Janni's behaviour up to normal jealousy of a new sibling - until Janni starts hitting Susan simply because she's bored and wants to go. Janni hits Susan hard enough that it sounds like a tennis ball bouncing off a wall, yet shows no emotion. The psychologist appears shocked. She immediately refers us to a child psychiatrist, telling us that even though it is almost New Year's, she will convey to the psychiatrist that "this is an emergency".

Emergency? Okay, yes, we have to take two cars everywhere we go - one for Janni and one for Bodhi because
otherwise, when he cries, Janni goes after him.

The first time schizophrenia comes up is when the psychiatrist, Dr. Howe, asks us about our family histories. Susan's great-uncle spent most of his life in a mental institution for schizophrenia. "Schizophrenia?" I think to myself. "That's what those people who rave to themselves on street corners have. Janni doesn't have schizophrenia."
I look to Dr. Howe to dismiss this, but all she says is, "Let's not go there."

The rest of the story can be found at the Sydney Morning Herald. Its writer, Michael Schofield, published a book about his experiences. January First: A Child's Descent into Madness and Her Father's Struggle to Save Her is available at and in bookstores now.

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