By Jill Dyer
I was rushing to make a noon appointment, my four children in tow.
Anxiety crawled up my neck as I realized we would be late.
My anxiety is time-worn and familiar. It’s 13-years-old, ever since my 24-hour labor with my son. He’s my oldest and the reason why we are shuttling into town.
As a baby, my son would arch his back and cry whenever we would go to the local farmer’s market or the bakery—like clockwork, in any new environment he would become anxious. It felt as though someone was rattling a tambourine in my head every time he would experience this kind of distress. And so I learned to talk to him about any transitions and outings before they would happen.
My son has always been shy, but also developmentally on track. He learned how to sit up, and how to walk and talk at the appropriate ages.
One of his best days was the day his sister was born. He was two. Her birth gave him a sense of purpose. He was now the big brother, the finder of pink blankets and pacifiers that slid under the couch. I have a picture of him holding her. He looks protective, but his brow has a slight wrinkle that says maybe this job is bigger than he is capable.
As the years went on, there were tremors along the way but no real earthquakes. He had good grades in elementary school, and he had friends. He was still shy, and afraid of new things; he grew taller and he was a voracious reader. His test scores showed intelligence and mastery. His teachers told me he was pleasant and kind, yet also horribly unorganized. I tried to help him, to improve his organization, but nothing seemed to work.
I felt as though I had failed him. If I was providing tools, and he still wasn’t organized, it must mean that I was not giving him the right tools. I kept wondering what I was doing wrong. I read parenting books. I blamed myself. I blamed him. I blamed my husband. I wrote it off to personality.
And I could tell, he was not happy. His wrinkled brow remained a constant. I could tell he did not feel good about himself.
I lived in a constant state of chaos, of following his every step to make sure he accomplished even the most obvious day-to-day tasks.
I have three other children. My second born daughter is of a different breed. She is capable, mature, organized, and a pleaser. I could chalk this up to gender. Some of my friends told me as much when I would talk about the differences between them. And so when my eight-year-old son showed signs of being more responsible, trustworthy, and capable of following through than my oldest, I finally realized something was off in the summer of 2014. It was like a pair of glasses were put on my face after years of blurry vision.
We scheduled a psych evaluation that fall. I am not a mother who has her head in the sand, or fearful of someone telling me something is wrong with my child. In most areas my son presented as normal, and his teachers never conclusively answered my questions regarding his lack of organization. I worked for an early childhood program before having my own children, and even with that experience I just couldn’t find anything conclusive that pointed to a specific disorder or diagnosis.
And so, when we received the results of the evaluation I was horrified.
I was not horrified because of his diagnosis.
I was horrified that my son had been living 13 years with such debilitating stress. The psychologist who explained the results told us our son had been living as if a tiger was chasing him. Daily. His fight or flight mechanism often shut out his ability to function. I was outraged that I had not been able to help. I was angry at myself and deeply disappointed that so much of our collective stress was misunderstood by all of us. My son and I talked through potential strategies to help with organizing his binders, for getting along with his siblings, and for positive self-talk. My husband and I tried a multitude of different tactics to try to encourage him. We were not without care or desire to help.
But you cannot heal a brain that has low levels of dopamine simply with better parenting.
I’m a granola mom. I love natural remedies, essential oils and organic foods. I am opposed to unnecessary pharmaceuticals.
But knowing my son had been suffering for so long pierced my heart. I was determined to do whatever was needed to help him. I believe in natural remedies but I do not believe you heal brain distress with farm fresh eggs.
And thus, was our mad rush to town to get the prescription to refill his medication. My son is on a form of Ritalin. And yes, I believe that doctors hand out these drugs to children too damn much. But it’s helping my son. He needs these drugs. We know it’s not a miracle. But Ritalin is affording my son the opportunity to improve his organizational skills, to have energy to relate to peers, and to moderate his stress. He still skitters the social anxiety line. Yet now he has a sense of hope which he did not have before.
We arrived at the doctor’s office minutes before the Friday 12:00pm closing time. Thoughts of my son and his “mental illness” were hop-scotching in my mind. I started with my apologies to Tom, our disheveled-looking doctor, for arriving two minutes before closing. He stopped me mid-sentence. “If you’re going to apologize, I am not going to listen,” he said.
I paused taking in his words. And I realized he was spot-on.
I was about to apologize. I had gotten so used to explaining our habitual tardiness because the disorder caused by just one child with ADHD affects the whole family.
Tom handed me the prescription and looked at me kindly.
“You know, I have ADHD too,” he said. “I love how my brain works. My medication helps. I need it. But I would not trade having ADHD for anything. I am not attention deficit. I have an attention overload. I see everything. It’s a gift. A gift that needs fine-tuning. But a gift nonetheless. I am not mentally ill. I have a unique brain.”
This slightly rumpled yet profoundly authentic man stunned me with his words.
He helped me to realize that my son is not mentally ill. Though his brain has its challenges, he also has a brilliance and creativity which are yet untapped.
And so do I cram my son into a box of my own making or do I free him to paint his own world?
I do not ask this question lightly.
It is hard to live with my son some days. That is my difficult truth.
But if I can appreciate his unique mind, maybe then he will believe in himself, that he has the ability and the intelligence to wake the world to something new.
Jill Dyer is a writer and explorer who lives in Central Oregon. She reigns as “Queen” of her family of six and learns daily from those she is meant to teach.