So my son is dancing and singing around the house because he just got home from his last day of school, bringing home straight As for the second marking period in a row.
What an incredible road it has been with him, learning how his AD/HD (ummm, he is definitely *Hyperactive*D) would impact his life and his learning. After a very, very bad year in 2nd grade in Park Slope’s supposedly vaunted P.S. 321 (don’t even ask; just know I was thisclose to suing the school and definitely would have won), he and I have been on a long journey together toward figuring out what would work for him. When we first found out his issues—shortly after both my parents had died, he went into a huge crisis at school that eventually led to a diagnosis—I was crushed. Not crushed because he wasn’t “perfect,” but because I had to come to terms with the fact that I would not and could not control my son’s future years before most parents have to. I would have liked to have grown into that idea, but instead it was foisted in me at a particularly heartbreaking time in my life.
But we have been helped and supported by so many fantastic, patient, kind teachers, who did the time-consuming work of really getting to know my son’s outgoing, loving personality, so that they could best draw him into good behavior habits and attention skills. We have been helped by patient and attentive doctors, who never made me feel like they saw Zack as Just Another Kid With ADHD. They were always focused on his special gifts that they believed would pull him through (his unusual empathy, his sometimes shocking ability to articulate what he was feeling: “Mom, it’s like there are fishes swimming around in my brain.” “Sometimes it feels like if I don’t move, I will die.” And the hardest one: “Mom, why is life so hard? And I don’t mean hard like I need a Band-Aid, but the kind of hurt where I want to cry and cry.” He was all of SIX years old when he said that.) We have been helped and supported by a string of absolutely fantastic too-good-to-be-true babysitters (Jami Z. the star among them) who withstood agonizing hours of pulling Zack through extremely basic homework exercises he should have been crushing.
ADHD is something you truly can’t understand until you are living with it. I thought — even as a journalist who had overseen and published stories on ADHD frequently — it meant a “jumpy” attention span, a distractable child. What it actually was in my son’s case is that his mind would Totally. Shut. Down. when he was overwhelmed, anxious, overstimulated, adrenalized, tired, hungry. In other words, almost all the time.
I asked him during one night of homework as he struggled: Zack! You know this!!! What is 7+3? Nothing. C’mon, Zack, 1+1! Nothing. Honey? C’mon Zack. Okay, what is 1+0? “I don’t know Mommy.” And I looked into his eyes and see that the gates are closed. Nothing is going in or out. Was terrifying.
And now: Straight As. “A pleasure to have in class.” “A great example for other students.” “Impressive work.” “Exhibits creativity.” He earned this. He worked so hard for it. We had years of painful trial and error, with behavior modification and physical manipulations and constant reminders to not do that, don’t do that, please stop that. Stop. Touching. People. Stop. Talking. Stop. Putting. Everything. In. Your. Mouth. Stop. Walking. Around. STOP STOP STOP.
At the same time, I allowed myself to be in an open and honest conversation with Zack about what all the testing was about. “We’re trying to learn how your brain learns best, honey. You just learn differently than most kids.” Things actually go so bad in second grade, I told him to give up on being good or his schoolwork or anything other than survival. “Just get through this year, honey. I promise I’ll find somewhere they understand you better.” And I did. And we got a lawyer and got an excellent IEP (Independent Education Plan). And he got better teachers. And his father and I changed some things about our co-parenting schedule that suited him more. And we went on medicine (I say “we” because I was more traumatized by this than he was).And he grew up a little. And then we moved to a smaller town, and a smaller school, and a quieter pace, where he could more naturally be the attention-seeking, social kid he is, without being overwhelmed all the time. And then more study habits and more organizational habits and still more study and organizational habits.
But you know what got us across the finish line this year? Focalin. Yep, medicine. We were on it for the first two years of his diagnosis when he was in utter crisis (that was when my family was losing everything; it was impossible to untangle what events were causing which outcomes). And then we went off it to see how far he could grow without it, once he was settled into our new, calmer, happier, quieter, smaller, so much better for him and for me life in Garrison.
And grow he did. Until he’d grown as far as he could. And was still “distracted in class,” “needs to pay attention in class,” “easily distracted.” Notes from not just one of his teachers. But Every. Single. One. Even the gym teacher. And the art teacher. And the lunchroom monitor.
And so Zack’s pediatrician said: “You’re playing ice hockey in sneakers and all your friends have ice skates. Don’t you want a pair of ice skates?”
So he thought about it, and I let him think about it. One week later, meds. Two weeks later, straight As on his midterms. Just like that. An overnight miracle—that took six years to create.
I’m so proud of you, Zack. You are an amazing kid with a big heart and a big mind. I’m so happy it’s all coming together for you. Because in the end, all that has ever mattered is you having—and loving—your own idea of who you are. You chose the ice skates, after you and I (and the teachers and the babysitters and the doctors) had done all for you that we could.
And now you know mastery. Now you understand the satisfaction of a job well done. And now you can connect effort to results, such a simple, simple thing that has evaded you for years. I can only imagine how frustrating that must be.
And know you how great your mind really is. May you use it for brave and wonderful things for this world.
Even though I know this summer you’re only going to use it for video games. Just like most other kids.
How fucking good it feels to be able to say that: Just like most other kids. And completely who he is for himself.
I love you, Z.