My Son’s Beautiful Mind

My sweet, sweet kid pretending he's not sweet.

My sweet, sweet kid pretending he’s not sweet.

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. 

About stacy

I am a writer, author, mother, former magazine editor (last at Redbook), optimist, and, above all, a searcher. I'm still searching for whom I'm really meant to be, after a series of very jarring losses. Since then I've been trying to figure out what's next. Or, in other words, how to fill in the blanks.
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12 Responses to My Son’s Beautiful Mind

  1. Rita says:

    Oh, Stacy. Yay! As both an educator and the mom of a boy who’s struggled to fit into the round holes, just: Yay yay yay! So happy for both of you.

    • Stacy says:

      Thank you, Rita. It is so hard in some ways to take a moment and dare to celebrate — but today was so clearly a celebration day. On my knees with gratitude. Love you!!

      • Rita says:

        Oh, we have to celebrate on those days! We have to. I think you know my own son has had significant struggles in the past few years. We had a really nice stretch early this spring. I let myself fully enjoy it. I told myself it likely would not last. The challenges, I know, are still present and not magically gone. But the progress is real and the moments of ease were, too, and I wasn’t going to let fear of coming struggle rob me of that present joy–which was all the greater because of the struggle. I know you know all this. But me knowing this is why I felt so joyful for you reading this post. Love to you, too.

  2. HelenMarie Marshall says:

    Oh, I am so very happy for you and your son. Our grandson, Ben (Anne’s younger son) was diagnosed with ADHD after a terrible horrible frightening, demeaning kindergarten year. Same treatment…finally medication daily…then doing without during summer months…then realization that he knew when he needed to take it, and when not. Now an occasional caffeinated soda is his “medication”, school is great, his interests are varied (and sometimes frightening), he has groups of friends in choir and swim teams and water polo and at the pool where he sits up in the high chair wearing sunglasses, looking very cool and very tall to the small children at his neighborhood pool, where he is lifeguard this, his second summer. Zack will be great! Like Ben! I can’t say better cause Ben is my grandson!

    • stacy says:

      Thank you, Helen, for stopping by and reading. And definitely for sharing another good story of success. It’s crazy how the schools sometimes/often make it worse, even though you’d think that by now this would all be familiar territory.

  3. Ohjennymae says:

    I feel this so hard. My 10 year old son, Finney, also has ADHD and is gifted and we struggle with something or another on a daily basis. His 4th grade teacher gave him wings this last year and I hope he can take off in middle school next year, without her by his side. I’m so glad Zach has been doing well. It makes me happy to hear the good stuff.

    • stacy says:

      The teachers make SUCH a big difference in how this all plays out. Zack had an amazing fifth grade teacher for the year we moved up here, and she really took it upon herself to REACH HIM. When the teachers asked, before school started, “Anything we should know that helps him?” I said, Yeah. He is really attuned to whether you are attuned to him. It makes the biggest difference of anything. Middle school is a crazy transition. Definitely changing classrooms etc threw Zack backwards for a little while. But hopefully Finney will adjust in no time. Sending Mama Bear hugs and fist bumps. xo

  4. Oh Stacy – yay for Zach and yay for you!! It’s been so many years since you and I sat in your office at MB and chatted, and Zach hadn’t even arrived in this world at the time. I, too, had the challenges and victories that come with raising a son with ADD (added to my son is OCD, and I believe a missed diagnosis of Asperger’s when that was the name it was given). My son fought the whole medication issue so much all the way along – that was back when Ritalin was the only thing available, so I hope Focalin is a huge improvement. I can’t say we ever got to celebrate straight A’s so I am applauding Zach BIG TIME!! My son is approaching his 36th birthday now, and life still presents many challenges, but he is loving and sensitive and creative and we just try to be patient as he makes his way through life his way. Please know I completely get what you’re going through, and am so happy you had a day for celebration – here’s hoping you have many more!!!!

  5. LegosnEggos says:

    This post warmed my heart because my youngest and I have been on this same journey, the same struggles for some years now. He was an extreme preemie and I understand that’s one factor for ADHD. It took a good year after he was diagnosed, because if his tiny size, to agree to medication but I finally allowed it when I saw his self-esteem was taking a nosedive. Jysr like Zack, we finally settled on Focalin XR when a couple others made him too emotional with the wind-down and extreme loss of appetite. It’s been a great thing for him. But, if course, at almost 15 now, I have to bargain with him on days when he wants to forego his medication for the day for, say, an important soccer game or a half day at school. In our case, a great pediatrician who is also a great role model with fantastic rapport with my son, has been a godsend. We are facing summer reading now as he tries to stay off his med to grow over summer. Also, I tell him there are actually upsides to his ADHD brain such as energy other people his age won’t have when they’re older, staying lean and in shape because he’s always needing to move. I tell him it’s his built-in reminder to remember to get out in the sun and run and love your body and movement and the air around him, things many if us forget to do in all our drudgery, and that he is my reminder. He struggles still, even mostly on his medication, but he’s also finding his way and on his own terms. And his ADHD brain is a part of him that I wouldn’t trade or he wouldn’t be my Aidan anymore. Congrats, Zack! I know it’s been a hard-won victory!

  6. Pauline says:

    I want to thank you for writing this. I have severe ADHD and didn’t learn until I was n adult. This was beautifully written.

  7. Ted says:

    Just finishing your book now (really enjoying it and learning from it!), and came across this blog. Question for you: we’ve had a lot of issues with our son (now 12, various diagnoses, therapists, etc.), that cause me to look back at earlier years and challenges in a different light. When you look back, for example, to that ill-fated weekend at the Cape house with Tina, when there was the mis-match between your 2.5 year old and their one year old, do you re-evaluate why that weekend may have gone the way it did, in light of later things you learned about how your son processes things and approaches life? I know that for me some of the things that later revealed themselves about my son have caused me to replay the memory reels and re-evaluate why things played out the way they did.

    • stacy says:

      Edward! Thank you for your comment, which was hidden. Sometimes WordPress doesn’t send me notifications, and since I am an, at-best, occasional blogger, I sometimes miss them. But YES: definitely, looking back, I see a lot of moments in my son’s life through different eyes. I always knew he was INTENSE and very hard to distract from whatever he was focused on at the moment (the irony of AD/HD of course being that it also comes with hyperattention), and that always felt… worrisome to me. I mentioned it to the pediatrician and to other parents, and people always brushed it off. But as is often the case, parents just *know*. I knew his kind of focus and attention and impatience and somewhat uncontrollable nature was tied to something UNCOMFORTABLE in him (uncomfortable for him, not for me). And when we did dive headfirst into those issues when he was in second grade, suddenly everything kind of made sense. I first noticed it as a sensory expression — constant noises and always having to have something in his mouth — but it was tied to the same kind of anxiety I’d see in earlier years. But I appreciate your comment, thank you for writing. Even though it took me so long to respond! Very best, SLM

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