I am thrilled to announce that I have re-designed my blog and it has a new home! You will find me at katieg.ca/blog
Thanks for reading!
I am thrilled to announce that I have re-designed my blog and it has a new home! You will find me at katieg.ca/blog
Thanks for reading!
I am a sucker for a romantic movie and a deliciously soppy ending. My heart rejoices at the tender sentiment of romantic love as I watch the beautiful couple finally realize that they are meant to be together and kiss passionately while the credits are rolling.
Invariably I leave the movie theatre with a curious mixture of melancholy happiness and niggling regret. The regret always seems to assert itself when I emerge from the comforting and disorienting darkness of the theatre into the brightly lit foyer, the overflowing garbage cans and the throngs of fellow movie-goers. The reality is that I just don’t want the movie to end; I want to go on living in that bubble of simplicity, happiness and romance. As I am walking through the parking lot to find my car I always wonder why life can’t be that simple; live through some challenges, work hard at overcoming them and then walk off into the sunset with the man of your dreams to live a simple and happy life.
In the past few years as life has been particularly challenging, the parking lot is the place where the deep regret for the difficult life I am living seems to set in and I am hit with a staggering wave of despair. This parking lot feeling is so painful it’s almost not worth going to the movie. However, I can’t seem to resist the pull of Hollywood romance and get lured back time and again just for the fleeting feeling of relief from my life.
I have spent the past 42 years looking for the happily ever after ending. I have been reaching unsuccessfully for the kind of neat and tidy perfection only found in the Hollywood version of life. I feel as if I am just beginning to come to grips with a new version of the fairy tale but it is so easy to get seduced back into someone else’s version of ‘the perfect life’ and the happily ever after ending. As I have been writing this blog over the past seven months I have become aware that I am writing a book. Each chapter of the book has slowly unfolded right before my eyes and my job has been to document and preserve each nuance of this delicate unfolding. The tricky aspect of this book is that I have no idea how, where or when the story will end, so I just keep writing. I have the feeling I will know when I am done but until that time my fingers keep dancing over my keyboard each and every morning in the quiet darkness before my family awakens. I am, however, always on the lookout for the perfect ending to Michael’s and my story.
I got lulled into that make-believe happily ever after ending to the story just over a month ago.
Way back at the beginning of September, Simon and I met with Michael’s teacher to discuss Michael’s ADHD diagnosis and the various challenges he has had with school in the past. We shared the details and devastating impact of last February’s assault and we brainstormed ways of making grade three ‘a win’ (as Simon so eloquently stated it). As the meeting was winding down we also discussed our resistance to pharmaceutical medication. As September wore on and Michael was still struggling in school, Simon and I decided that we would begin a trial of meds in November. We decided we wanted Lynne to get a solid baseline on Michael in the classroom during September and October so she could really mark the difference that Ritalin would make to Michael’s ability to control his behaviour in class and get his work done. It had been a long and challenging journey but I had finally reached the point where I could consider meds without feeling a painful ache deep inside my body.
October found us in shocked and delighted awe as Michael made strides in the classroom that far surpassed any of our wildest imaginings. He was happy, he was calm and he was slowly learning how to get down to work. At the end of October Simon and Michael left for a ten day trip out west to visit Simon’s parents. They had a wonderful trip full of family, dogs, puppies, walks, swimming and fun. When Michael returned home, the miraculous transformation that had started occurring during October was even more pronounced. As I sat on the floor one evening with Michael and played Bey Blades, I felt a calm centre inside him that I had never felt before. He was sitting on the floor happily playing without fidgeting, jumping up or talking over me loudly and incessantly. I shared my feeling with him and he looked at me with that adorably endearing grin and casually said; “oh yeah, my ADHD is gone mommy.” I told him that I had to agree with him because I couldn’t feel a trace of hyperactivity in his body as we sat together.
My heart soared with a new-found hope; was it possible that Michael was right and he had somehow found his way out of the complex physical maze of ADHD symptoms?
A few days later I sat just behind Michael in a Monday morning school assembly. I watched in amazement as he sat through a 30 minute gathering with ease. He put up his hand when appropriate, he sang with the group and he kept his hands to himself even when one of his friends attempted to lure him into some monkey-business. I could not believe what I was seeing; Michael was as calm and focused as the other children and looked happy and carefree. I could feel tears burning my eyes as I continued to watch him. After the assembly I kissed the boys goodbye and started walking down the hall to go home. Just as I was reaching the end of the hallway Michael’s teacher called out to me and asked if we could have a quick word. I had a vague sense of the old feeling of; ‘oh no, what did he do?’ However, I was pleased and surprised at how quickly the sensation passed. Lynne took me into an empty cloak room so we could have some privacy (which did make me start to wonder if the news was bad).
Thankfully, Lynne came right to the point and asked me if we had started Michael on a trial of ADHD medication. She told me that Michael was so calm and centred in class she wondered if we had decided to move forward on the trial of medication without letting her know (perhaps so she could get an unbiased baseline). I was overjoyed as I informed her that Michael was not on meds and that we were experiencing the same feeling of calm at home. Suddenly, I was awash with a sense of relief and happiness that was so strong I had to fight back the tears as I stood there with Michael’s teacher. Lynne went on to let me know that she is working hard to shift the culture around Michael. Apparently, Michael is seen by the other boys in his class as the troublemaker and the class clown and that he is more than happy to acquiesce. On numerous occasions Lynne has reflected this phenomenon back to Michael to let him know that he has a choice as to how he responds to this old role. Lynne told me that Michael has responded well to choosing to show up in a new way and that the culture is slowly beginning to shift. I thanked Lynne profusely for all she is doing for Michael; for loving him, for raising the bar and for creating a safe space around him in which he can succeed. As is her way, Lynne humbly made it clear that she was simply doing her job (and what a job that is!!!)
Needless to say, I left the school that morning feeling as if I was walking on air. I was so happy I felt as if I was going to burst! All I could think was; Michael is healed, Michael is healed, Michael is healed! I could feel our story beginning to wind down and I felt unqualified delight with the neat and tidy happily ever after ending; child is diagnosed, mom tries everything to heal him, challenges are met, mom falls in love with child, all their problems are behind them and they walk hand-in-hand into the sunset. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? No looking back, the movie comes to a close and the credits roll while a lovely song is playing. And as the credits are rolling the director skilfully cuts to the best report card Michael has ever had and the wonderful parent-teacher conference full of optimism, praise and the promise of a bright future for the adorable magic child.
What more could any movie ask for? Hollywood eats that kind of ending with a spoon!
Imagine my surprise when, two weeks later, I was called into the library after school to have an impromptu parent-teacher conference about three difficult days in a row. Sitting across from Lynne and hearing her say; “the wheels really fell off the cart today” was like having a bucket of cold water splashed in my face. Okay, hang on. The wheels did what? I was so unprepared for any bad news I struggled to step back into my old role as I sat across from Lynne. I think I did okay as I questioned her and we worked on some new strategies for this latest setback. However, it was all I could do to sit and appear like this was the most normal conversation to be having when inside my body I could feel an agonizing cry building. The pain was so fresh and the grief so deep I had to force myself to sit when all I wanted to do was run. And all I could think a I sat there was; I don’t want to go back here, I can’t go back here, I don’t have the strength to go back here, please just make this go away.
It took me days to get my feet back under me and find a way to keep the story going. We had already walked off into the sunset and now I had to find the energy to start the cameras rolling again when that was the last thing I wanted to do.
Once I regained my shaky equilibrium I was able to reluctantly relinquish the Hollywood ending to our story. Over many early mornings of meditation I coached myself back into my well-worn role and started behaving like a mother again instead of a capricious Hollywood actress. I was able to look at the events surrounding Michael’s setback with objectivity and curiosity and what I saw was both interesting and revealing. What I realized is that Michael’s story is not going to come to an end and nor do I want it to. Regardless of ADHD symptoms or not, Michael is a delicious, adorable and complex human being with a compelling story to tell. I also came to grips with the fact that the Hollywood ending was not for Michael, it was for me.
It was time to let go of happily ever after once and for all.
I have always thought of happily ever after as a destination; go through some challenges in life, rise gracefully to meet them and then live happily ever after, the end. I always used to wonder; what’s next? What happens after the soaring music comes to an end, the beautiful couple end their kiss and the sun has set? Do they go out for a beer? Do they make a home together? Have kids? What happens when the next challenge comes along? Will there even be any challenges for this perfect Hollywood couple? The hopeless romantic in me would never allow for an ending to the ending; once happily ever after is safely in place that is the end of the story.
I think this is where I have been tripped up and held back over the past years since I met Simon. I have been clinging to happily ever after as the destination; I had the idea that at each milestone of our relationship we had reached the pinnacle of Hollywood perfection and it was smooth sailing from there. I have been inexorably shocked each and every time a seemingly insurmountable challenge has presented itself. It’s almost as if I have wanted to turn to the director of my movie and say; “excuse me, but aren’t we in the wrong movie? We already met all of our challenges, kissed passionately, walked off into the sunset and lived happily ever after. Be a darling and figure it out, would you?” But the director never does figure it out so I have been left to figure it out for myself and discover the next happily ever after that I am moving toward.
I have been reluctantly moving the destination out bit by bit for years; once I have met the man of my dreams, once we have a place of our own, once we are engaged, once we are married, once we have bought a house, once we have kids, once we are debt-free…it goes on and on. So what I was really saying was; ‘once everything is Hollywood perfect, then I will be happy’. The scary thing is that if I follow that particular recipe I will never be happy because that version of perfection does not exist. The irony in all of this is that every single one of my little girl dreams has come true; meet and marry a wonderful man who adores me and have a brood of beautiful kids who surround me with happy chaos and love. What I didn’t factor into the equation, and what romantic Hollywood wouldn’t dare to show, is that human relationship is stunningly complex and that life is rich with opportunities to grow and change and adapt to being in relationship together.
Looking at my life over the past 21 years through this new lens was painfully revealing to me. Is it any wonder I have been feeling despair, disappointment and depression? I was moving toward a destination that simply wasn’t there. I was building my life on a foundation of quick sand and the more I struggled the faster I was sinking.
In the days that followed these heart-rending realizations I sat in quiet morning meditation and attempted to force myself to reluctantly relinquish my penchant for my happily ever after ending. I realized that I had fallen for the Hollywood version of life and that to try and live that way was akin to a sort of madness, like a hamster on a wheel running his little heart out but never getting anywhere. So it was time to stop reaching for happy and come down to earth. It was time to come to grips with the stark reality of life. For days I mourned the loss of happily ever after until one morning I had a stunning epiphany; happy is who I am, happy is what I want and I cannot live without joy and passion and enthusiasm. So where do I find those resonant emotions while building a life on solid bedrock? Can I still reach for happiness and stop looking for happily ever after? The answer came so easily it was almost ridiculous; I can still have happily ever after but it doesn’t have to be the ending of the story, happily ever after can be the story.
I was ready to turn my back on happily ever after forever; to firmly reprimand the little dreamer inside of me to grow up and face reality. However, the past few weeks have shown me that happily ever after is not a destination, it is simply a choice I get to make on the journey. In every moment of every day I get to choose happily ever after and reach for whatever it is that makes me joyful. In every moment I get to choose and direct my journey toward the bliss that I have been hungering for all these years. But now there is no end in sight, no finish line, no sunset and no high fives because it all worked out so perfectly. It sounds ridiculously easy but it has completely changed the way I am living my life; I am choosing happiness, joy, love and fun because it feels good, not because that is going to get me where I need to be. This is not a secret recipe and it is not living with my head buried in the sand; it is quite simply being aware of how I am choosing to live my life. I get to live in, swim in, taste and touch happily ever after in every moment I reach for it.
I have been mindfully reaching for happiness over the past few weeks since this astonishing insight. As I have done so I have felt the darker emotions that have been claiming so much attention slowly falling away. It feels as if I have discovered a whole new path on which to walk and I am proudly claiming this path with a spring in my step that I have never had before. I am amazed at the impact it is having on my relationship with Simon and with my children. It is as if a light has been turned on and everything feels easier because I don’t have to grope around in the inky darkness anymore.
I will candidly admit that there are many moments (like Zachary lying on the floor in the chiropractor’s full waiting room yesterday and Michael pile-driving him from the other side of the room) that it is extremely challenging to choose to stay in the vibration of love and happiness when hollering and raging at my children through clenched teeth feels more appropriate. However, what I am slowly becoming aware of is that I have a split second to choose how to respond instead of my accustomed knee-jerk responses to my children; yell first, repair later. And sometimes I do choose a darker emotion but now I am finding a way back to where I want to be. I am not claiming it is easy and I can see that it will take a lifetime of practice but I will swim in happily ever after while I am doing it.
From this brand new vantage point it doesn’t matter if Michael is, by some linear textbook definition, ‘healed’. ADHD actually does not factor into the equation at all. All that truly matters is that he grows up on solid bedrock knowing how to reach for his bliss. It matters that he grows up with parents who love and embrace life to the fullest so that he has the opportunity to learn by example. It matters that he knows how to cope with adversity if it does come along and that reaching for happiness and joy in every moment is not pie-in-the-sky, it is the only way to truly live. And it matters that he learns that happily ever after is a gift to be developed and treasured every moment of every day.
So now as the house begins to stir around me I will walk off into the sunrise, the music will keep playing, the characters will keep acting and the credits will not roll. My movie feels as if it is actually just beginning and I have the rest of my life for my very own version of happily ever after. And now I get to step into, stand in and claim it for keeps.
Perhaps today I will even shout it from the rooftops.
I am someone who subscribes wholeheartedly to the concept that the human body has the innate and miraculous ability to heal itself. Accordingly, I tend to lean more toward naturopathy, homeopathy, chiropractic and energy medicine rather than the mainstream allopathic model. I do not deny that there are times when I am very grateful for the existence of allopathic medicine but the natural approach is certainly where my heart lies. It is this penchant for the alternative that has shaped and moulded my journey over these past months since Michael’s ADHD diagnosis and which continues to urge me forward into yet undiscovered realms of this bewildering disorder.
I have made considerable headway in my quest for information and answers over the past months. However, what I most want to understand is; how did we get here? For months I have had the niggling feeling that if I can discover the answer to that pressing question then I will be able to discover the path for healing. I have pored over books, websites, blogs, magazine articles and newspaper articles trying to find the answer to my question but it has been stubbornly elusive…until now.
During the past months I have looked ‘outside’ for my answers. I was so sure when we found our brilliant naturopath last May that we had found everything we needed. Massive food intolerances, a changed diet and a myriad of supplements; there was my answer. Then the removal of refined sugar, food colouring and chemical additives were going to be the ticket to success. A few months later the epiphany of daily exercise was going to be the last piece of the puzzle. All these changes have started the healing process but there has still been an elusive factor in this whole equation that has been hovering around my subconscious like a delicate butterfly not quite ready to land.
As I have been looking outside for my answers, not once did it occur to me that the most significant piece of the puzzle lay deep inside the profound and complex relationship between Michael and me.
Last May I heard of a doctor in Vancouver by the name of Gabor Maté. He has become renowned for his work with addicted adults in the city’s troubled east end and is an expert in ADD (Dr. Maté leaves out the ‘H’ for hyperactivity in the acronym ‘ADHD’ for simplicity’s sake). He has a very personal stake in understanding and treating ADD as he and his three children have all been diagnosed with the disorder. When I discovered Dr. Maté, I searched the list of his publications and came across a book entitled; Scattered Minds: A New Look at the Origins and Healing of Attention Deficit Disorder. The title of the book captured me because it sounded both informative and hopeful; there was action in that title. I searched for it at our local library only to find that I was in a rather long line of people waiting to read Dr. Maté’s work. I put in a reserve request and promptly forgot about it.
A few weeks ago I got a call that the book had come in and was ready for pick-up. We never know the moments of quantum significance at the time in which they are occurring, but picking up that book was the delicate and elusive butterfly about to come in for a landing.
I have been pulled into Dr. Maté’s brilliant narrative as if it is a page-turning suspense novel. His writing is so compelling I can’t put the book down at night and have been using my 4:30am wake ups to read this stunning book instead of my usual morning routine of meditating and writing. I feel as if Dr. Maté has been filling my soul with exactly what I have been hungering for so desperately; information, explanation and hope.
Dr. Maté asserts that ADD is a disorder of impaired brain development during the fetal, infant and toddler stages. He believes that ADD is the direct result of a sensitive infant being raised in a stressful environment by a tense, anxious and/or depressed primary caregiver (usually the mother). He believes it is the invisible stress around the baby which impairs the critical attachment relationship between mother and child and, consequently, normal brain development. He believes that if the brain does not develop normally, and the genetic predisposition is in place, then ADD is an outcome which is not only possible but probable. However, he also asserts that it is never too late for the brain to develop the necessary neural pathways for the healing of ADD.
I must insert a disclaimer here in defence of Dr. Maté; not once in his stunning body of work does he finger-point or blame. He asserts that the frenzied pace of life in our society and the complex relationships that form as a result are nobody’s fault. I am not reading Dr. Maté’s book thinking; ‘oh, so I am to blame for Michael’s ADHD diagnosis.’ Instead, I am reading it thinking; ‘I am beginning to understand how we got here, that we have the power to re-wire Michael’s brain and that there is hope!’
With hope in my heart and fire in my belly I began the somewhat painful process of looking at myself, my marriage, my parenting, my difficult relationship with Michael and our family. I felt that the safest place to start looking was within the genetic predisposition to ADHD that exists in Michael’s heredity. I knew once I visited the place in which I had no control ( the genetics) then I could more comfortably visit the place in which I played a direct role (the relationship between Michael and me).
After the intake appointment with our new naturopath last May, Sonya referred to Michael as ‘the perfect storm’. She explained to me that Michael had every textbook genetic predisposition toward ADHD; inflammation on both sides of the family (severe eczema, celiac disease, allergies and asthma), addictive predisposition on both sides of his lineage (alcoholism and drug addiction) and massive amounts of maternal stress from the day he was conceived. Sonya described to me how many of us have the genetic potential for ADHD, however, not everyone with the genetic predisposition develops this baffling disorder. She told me that “genetics loads the gun and environment pulls the trigger.” The trigger-pulling environment is where Dr. Maté has been pointing and I feel as if I am finally starting to understand exactly how we got here.
I am not nailing myself to the cross when I candidly admit that the healthy development of Michael’s brain has been profoundly affected by considerable and overwhelming maternal stress. My stress is why we are here and it is a long and complex story. But it is a story worth telling because I believe that there are many other mothers and fathers out there with a similar tale to tell and beautiful children they are desperate to heal.
Here is my story;
I grew up in a dreamy, safe and happy family. I had four grandparents who adored me, parents who loved me unconditionally, three siblings who grounded me and a community of friends and neighbours who made my life look like an episode from ‘Leave it to Beaver.’ I was loved and cherished and I had solid bedrock under me as I grew. Even as a young child I knew that what I had was extraordinarily special so, as a result, I took our life and romanticized it to the nth degree. In my mind we were the ‘perfect’ family with no darkness, sadness or skeletons. It was this illusion of ultimate safety and perfection that enabled me to convince myself that nothing bad could ever touch us. Looking back I can see that this is what I wanted and desperately needed to believe; that life was a happy fairy tale and I would grow up in the castle, marry a handsome prince who adored me absolutely, have beautiful children and live happily ever after. If anything ever came close to me that did not align with my version of my ‘perfect’ life I simply dismissed it and buried it deep in the back of my subconscious closet. Without going into chapters of detail I will say that I fought valiantly to preserve my fairy tale at every turn.
I expended great effort to sustain my fairy tale when I met my future husband at the age of 21. Simon was a sexy, dynamic and intelligent troublemaker when I met him in my final year of university. He was everything to which I was not typically attracted but I fell hard and I fell fast. Simon was not someone who would be painted as the namby-pamby prince in my little girl dreams so our relationship was not an easy one; it was very intense but it was never easy. Needless to say, when Max was born into our complex dynamic years later it made for a very difficult first 18 months. We came close to breaking up shortly after Max’s first birthday but managed to work through our most pressing problems. Part of the solution was moving our little family to Boston when Max was just shy of two years old. We had the opportunity to reinvent ourselves as a family unit and it was a simple and happy time just on the outskirts of Harvard Square; for me, the fairy tale life was back on track.
I was thrilled to discover that I was pregnant with our second child early in the summer of 2001. I was deliriously happy about a baby being born into our newfound version of perfection and on a sunny morning in late August, Simon, Max and I tripped happily off to our midwives clinic for a regular 14-week check-up. Our midwife asked me repeatedly to confirm my dates because she could not pick up the heartbeat. I was sent to the hospital for an ultrasound and there was no heartbeat; the baby had died. I was shocked and utterly devastated and early the following morning I underwent a ghastly procedure to remove the fetus. To this day, I am haunted by the loss of that child and the ensuing procedure during which, under considerable sedation, I felt as if the doctors were scraping out my soul and I was powerless to stop them. The aftershock of that experience was so devastating I felt as if the rug had been pulled out from under the very foundation upon which I was resting. The fairy tale was feeling a bit shaky.
Sixteen days later I watched in horror as the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre fell to the ground. Simon had been in New York the previous day and had caught the last flight out of JFK the night before. Those planes had come from Logan Airport in Boston less than 11 miles from my home. The shock of my miscarriage and the unimaginably tragic events of September 11th shattered my tenuous hold on reality. Suddenly the world was not safe and everywhere I looked there was danger and deep despair. The fairy tale had come to a screeching halt.
We moved back to Canada five months later and I discovered I was pregnant with Michael. My reaction upon discovering I was pregnant was not joy or wonder at our blessing. Instead it was one of dread and fear. All I could think as I lay in bed at night was; ‘oh my God, what if I miscarry?’ During the first trimester our midwives did everything they could to reassure me but I was stressed and terrified of another devastating loss and another frightening hospital procedure.
This is how Michael’s brain started to develop.
I made it through the first trimester and breathed a deep sigh of relief. With wonderful anticipation, Simon and I went off to the 20 week ultrasound only to discover that there was something horribly wrong; Michael had a choroid plexus cyst in his brain which is a marker for a devastating genetic disorder called Trisomy 18. We spent a despairing Canada Day weekend waiting for our appointment with a genetic specialist at our local hospital. We were somewhat reassured at the appointment as the doctor walked us through all 60 images taken during the ultrasound. However, the doctor told us that the only way we would know for sure that the baby was okay was to do an amniocentesis. We were warned of the significant chance of aborting a perfectly healthy baby so we opted to wait and see. Needless to say, I spent the second half of my pregnancy feeling helpless, scared and extraordinarily stressed.
It is under these conditions that the second half of Michael’s fetal brain development occurred.
My first labour with Max had been complicated and after 36 hours of labour and a ‘failure to progress’ (I loathe that term, as if I was the failure!) I had no choice but to undergo a caesarean section. I was determined that it would be different with Michael’s birth and I had a careful birth plan in place with our midwives. I was hopeful that a natural birth would be effortless and I felt optimistic that I would be successful. However, Michael was nine days overdue and it was determined that he was starting to become stressed, so labour was induced. After a night of hard labour and an epidural, Michael’s heart rate was starting to drop during contractions. Disappointed and scared, I was whisked into surgery.
Halfway through the surgery I grabbed Simon by the arm and told him that I was feeling pain, that I was not frozen. Simon told our midwife and suddenly the air in the operating room became permeated with fear. It was a dream-like experience in which I was talking but could not make myself heard; I knew something was wrong but no one would tell me. In the chaos that ensued, an anaesthesiologist was rushed down to administer a spinal block (I was still on an epidural for labour, not a surgical delivery). In the confusion, the surgeon nicked an artery and I started to bleed profusely. I became gravely ill and don’t remember anything much after that except that I was paralyzed with white fear. The stress in the operating room was so thick I felt as if I was choking on it. I was certain there was something dreadfully wrong and devastatingly sure that my baby had died.
This is the stress, fear and uncertainty with which Michael came into the world.
I was in no shape to hold Michael once he had been cleaned up and wrapped in his little blanket. I was assured that he did not have Trisomy 18 and wept with relief. Due to the complications of the delivery Michael needed to be taken to the neonatal nursery for observation. Simon was allowed to carry him to the nursery and never once lost contact with our new baby boy. To this day, Simon and Michael have a very deep bond and Michael will often report that the only time he ever feels safe is with his dad.
I was in excruciating pain when I ‘came around’ from the surgery. I was in no shape to care for my new baby so while Simon was at home caring for Max, my mom leaped into the breach and stayed with me in the hospital for the four days I was in residence. In the haze of large doses of morphine, I can recall that Michael made direct eye contact with anyone who held him. He was the talk of the ward because it is not the norm for a newborn to make eye contact. We thought Michael was clever and gifted with this unusual display but I have since learned that eye contact in a newborn generally indicates a very high level of stress. This is how Michael lived his first few days of life; with a mother who was in excruciating pain and could not hold him except for very painful breastfeeding sessions. I remember him crying nonstop for the four days that we were in the hospital. Now that I look back on it, is it any wonder? Michael was presumably experiencing significant stress overload begun during his fetal development, compounded during his traumatic delivery and worsened even further as a result of the separation from his mother.
Once I recovered from the physical and emotional trauma of Michael’s birth, life calmed down and I enjoyed the next few months of Michael’s life. Max adjusted to being a big brother easily and life felt good; Michael was a happy baby with an easy smile and an adorable nature. When he was nine months old we went out west for a family reunion with Simon’s family. It was a fun trip and the weather was beautiful. I wasn’t feeling very well on the trip and I was having trouble breastfeeding but thought nothing of it until Simon jokingly wondered if I was pregnant. I vehemently denied the possibility but took a pregnancy test the morning after we got home just to be sure. The pregnancy test turned positive within about 3 seconds and I was white with shock. I had just barely recovered from Michael’s birth and here I was facing another pregnancy and birth so hard on the heels of Michael’s. My emotional world turned upside down and so did Michael’s. Suddenly I was sick, tired and less available to my baby who had not even celebrated his first year of life. I was also absolutely terrified of another botched c-section and carried that stress and worry with me throughout my entire pregnancy. The stress, which had abated somewhat from Michael’s earlier development, was back with a vengeance.
Zachary was born by scheduled c-section less than 17 months after Michael’s birth. It was an uneventful birth and I was in hospital for three days. Max came to visit but it was decided that Michael should not. At home, Michael was moved out of his nursery into a beautifully decorated new room to make way for baby Zach. The night we brought Zachary home from the hospital Michael spent a restless and sleepless night. We assumed that it was due to the excitement of the new baby. Never in our wildest imaginings did we think that he would not sleep through the night again for three torturous years (and even to this day Michael has trouble sleeping through the night).
The demands of breastfeeding a newborn, running after an exhausted toddler and keeping up with a five-year-old was beyond exhausting. I was so sleep deprived I would fantasize about medical conditions (like appendicitis) that might land me in the hospital far away from my strenuous reality. This stress and sleep deprivation created a barely liveable day-to-day reality and I was cracking under the strain. Needless to say, I was not emotionally available for Michael and any time I spent with him was strained and stressful. And as his behaviour became increasingly more challenging, the gulf between us widened and his estrangement from me became even more deeply entrenched.
It is six and a half years later and the stress has not lifted. We have lived in a house with considerable financial strain, mild to moderate marital strife, punishing sleep deprivation and the natural stress that comes from living as the only introverted female in a house full of alpha male extroverts. Imagine the inexorable strain for an already stressed and sensitive child. Is it any wonder that Michael has been diagnosed with ADHD? Except for about six months of his infancy, he has been surrounded by and immersed in unrelenting stress. He has been parented by an exhausted and thoroughly overwhelmed mother who has struggled to put one foot in front of the other every moment of every day. He has lived with a mother who has been desperately wondering what happened to her carefully constructed fairy tale and feeling crushing guilt and disappointment in the overwhelming realities of her life. And, as a result, Michael’s brain has not had the opportunity to develop the way it needed to.
So the question that has been plaguing me has finally been answered; now I know how we got here. This could be the end of the story and, quite frankly, until a few weeks ago I assumed it was; due to circumstances beyond my control, Michael is broken and will continue to struggle and suffer through the rest of his life.
Dr. Maté, however, suggests an alternate ending to Michael’s story.
So how do I do it? How do I re-write the ending of the story? How do I heal the damage that has been done? How do I foster an environment in which Michal’s brain can develop the neural pathways required to permanently rouse his sleepy right frontal cortex? According to Dr Maté, the secret lies in a calm, loving and gentle household with strong and devoted relationships at its core. And the most critical relationship in the healing of his brain is the attachment relationship between Michael and me; Michael needs to feel that when he looks for me I will always be there unconditionally with my arms and my heart wide open. That unconditional love is the secret ingredient which will foster the miraculous healing of my beautiful boy.
I opened my narrative by praising the body’s extraordinary ability to heal itself. What I am just coming to understand is that the guiding force behind that ability is love. When I look back over the past months of this incredible journey and take into account the enormous strides Michael has made, I can see that the diet has helped, the supplements have helped and the exercise has helped. But the factor that has put Michael’s healing into high gear is the deep and loving bond of intimacy and shared experience that has developed between Michael and me. I have fallen head over heels in love with my magic child and he knows it. I am learning to look at him through the lens of miraculous possibility. I am learning to pull him into me and hold all that he is in each and every moment. Michael is gently teaching me to love without condition. He is showing me that those little girl dreams are one-dimensional and lacking the vibrancy of life truly lived. And he is teaching me that love is truly the only ingredient we will ever need.
As is my custom, I will close my lengthy narrative in a state of deep gratitude that this miraculous child has come into my life to guide me and shape me as both a person and a mother. My heart swells almost painfully as I go to post this latest stage of our astonishing journey.
I am a passionate baker who has been dabbling in the scrumptious art of combining flour, sugar, butter and a warm oven since the tender age of ten. When I started to experiment with baking, my speciality was chocolate chip cookies. However, my flair for baking eventually progressed to include home-baked bread, scones, shortbread, sugar cookies, banana bread, brownies, oatmeal chocolate chip cookie bars and muffins. I have always taken great delight in baking love into my goodies and I have a deliciously whimsical notion that to eat one of my home-baked treats is to get a big dose of love and a giant hug. And it doesn’t stop there; I believe that the love I have shared is like a giant glow around the person who has eaten my yummy treat. That glow of love then touches every person with whom they come in contact and the love is passed on and on. I might go so far as to say that I could heal the world with my baking. A fanciful notion, I know, but one I have held for the past 32 years!
Winter is the deliciously cozy season in which I hunker down and rarely let my oven cool between batches of freshly-baked goodies. There is nothing more satisfying to me than the house bathed in the aroma of sweet ingredients baking together in delicious harmony. There is a warm feeling of childhood nostalgia that I tap into as I catch that first whiff of the delicious contents of my oven and I love that cozy smell to greet my kids at the end of a wintry school day. The hopeful romantic in me believes that every time my boys smell something freshly-baked, they will unconsciously think of me and how deeply they are loved. And if I am feeling blue, there is no better therapy than to whip up a batch of cookies and allow the sweet aroma of love to bathe me in soulful comfort and simple joy.
I did an inordinate amount of baking last winter in a futile attempt to chase away the demons that seemed to be stocking me with relentless persistence. Michael had been assaulted by his teacher, our beautiful house was on the market, we were facing a distressing move at the end of March, our financial situation was dire and my marriage was on rockier ground than it ever had been. It felt like the pressures surrounding me were way too big and far too painful so I chose to simply shut my emotional doors for business and hang a ‘Closed’ sign on the door. Simon and I were barely talking except for the necessities of communication when you have three children, a mound of debt, a house on the market and a pending move. To add insult to injury, I was in full denial of Michael’s physical and emotional health and my life felt like it had a terrifying momentum in the wrong direction. It didn’t seem to matter how much baking I did last winter, my life and my relationship were well and truly on the rocks.
Shortly after beginning my journey into acceptance of Michael’s ADHD diagnosis last May, I was walking vaguely through the grocery store wondering what to feed my family for dinner that night. We had just changed Michael’s diet on the advice of our new naturopath and attempting to feed him without any gluten or dairy was feeling like an insurmountable challenge. As I stood in the produce section of the supermarket (knowing Michael could eat anything there) my cell phone rang; it was Simon calling from work to check in and see how I was doing. At that time it seemed that the only time we were able to talk without arguing was on the phone. Short and frequent calls from work ensured that we were not losing each other completely. When I told Simon that I was wandering around the store trying to shop for our dinner, he asked me how I was feeling about Michael’s ADHD diagnosis. I gulped and felt tears stinging my eyes. I told him that I didn’t want the diagnosis to be true but that it was a relief to finally be facing the painful truth which I had been holding at arm’s length for so long. When I reciprocated the question, Simon felt much the same.
As I continued to wander through the busy supermarket and pretend that having a civil conversation with my husband was the norm, Simon told me that he thought Michael’s diagnosis was a gift. He told me that he felt Michael was going to lead us all to health and wholeness. He went on to say that Michael is the trailblazer in our new life and our new beginning. As Simon spoke I felt my very first glimmer of hope and I clung to it as desperately as a drowning sailor to a life raft.
Flashing forward six months I can see that Simon’s prediction was startlingly and stunningly prophetic; thanks to Michael, our family is in better physical, mental, emotional, financial and spiritual health than ever before.
Many of these changes are due to a dramatically altered diet. At Michael’s lengthy intake appointment with our new naturopath last year, I was told that allergies and intolerances are often passed through the mother. Therefore, a full health history from me was an important piece of Michael’s physical puzzle. After listening to my health history (seasonal allergies, asthma, severe eczema, stomach cramps after meals and very sore knees) Sonya informed me that every one of my symptoms was pointing toward dairy and gluten intolerance. She then suggested that I might want to consider following the same gluten and dairy-free diet as Michael. After four astonishing weeks, every physical symptom literally disappeared; my eczema was gone, I no longer felt sick after every meal, I lost 12 pounds and I no longer had to cling to the railing to walk down the stairs in the morning because the pain in my knees was so acute. Physically, I felt like a teenager again.
Even with his mother following the same dietary regime, Michael was struggling emotionally with his new restricted diet. In a show of paternal solidarity, Simon promised Michael he would cut out gluten and only use dairy in his coffee. Simon has suffered from severe migraine headaches since the age of four and has often needed to retreat to a cool, dark room to recover from the agonizing attack. Due to the significant and unrelenting stress in our marriage and our lives last year, Simon was returning home with a pounding headache at the end of every work day. I got to the point that I couldn’t hear the word ‘headache’ come out of his mouth without wanting to scream. In addition to the headaches, Simon has been struggling with weight loss and has tried bouts of committed exercise to no avail. After four weeks gluten-free, Simon realized that he could not recall his last headache. And to his great delight, he also started to see the bathroom scale report the best news imaginable; six months later Simon has lost 40 pounds and is still dropping. He looks and feels better than he has in more than 20 years. Gluten consumption is now a thing of the past and, miraculously, so are the migraine headaches.
With the unqualified success of Michael, Simon and me, our attention turned to Max who has suffered from severe allergies for the past eight years. We decided that we would take Max to our brilliant naturopath and she predicted that his food intolerances would likely be in keeping with mine. Max’s allergy testing confirmed a severe allergy to eggs, citrus fruit, wheat and dairy. Even though the naturopath warned us that the effects of his new dietary regime would probably not be felt until next summer, this summer was the best one Max has had in years. He used to take an allergy pill every single day with little or no relief and this summer he didn’t even need one.
At 11 years of age, Max has had the most difficult time changing his diet and understandably so. He does not want to feel left out and dearly misses the things he used to enjoy, particularly dairy products; hot buttered popcorn and toast, ice cream from the local parlour, cream cheese with his bagels, cereal with milk and milkshakes. In early August, Max threw caution to the wind and indulged in an extra-large milkshake after a day at the beach with a friend and her family. I shuddered as I saw him walk into the house with the remains of the milkshake. He defensively told me that he doesn’t “buy in” to his dairy allergy. Unfortunately, Max suffered through 4 weeks of a severe episode of hives that kept him awake night after night in frustrated and excruciating itching. Needless to say, Max is now completely dairy-free and his allergies are slowly waning.
I am delighted to report that our youngest, Zachary, has a system that seems to defy the pattern of the rest of the family. He can eat anything in any amount and have no adverse effect at all. Go figure!
As I grew accustomed to our new dietary needs it started to feel easy. It meant that there always had to be a meal plan in place and coming home from work at the end of the day to no food in the fridge was not an option. I discovered all kinds of delicious and satisfying alternatives to our old favourites and we were eating in a way that resonated with my spirit; fresh, organic and healthy. I felt like a good mom again. Gone were the days of ordering a pizza or stopping at Tim Horton’s while on a road trip but things were starting to feel better than they had in years.
Thanks to our dear friend (and raw food chef), Barb, Simon and I have been experimenting with raw (or live) food. The principal behind raw food is that it is not cooked in the traditional way of steaming, baking, broiling or frying. The food is never heated above 115 degrees Fahrenheit which preserves the naturally-occurring enzymes, nutrients, vitamins and the natural metabolic structure of the food. To make a very long story short, our bodies have to do less work with live food than with traditionally cooked food. We have followed one of Barb’s very first lifestyle suggestions religiously; to start the day with a ‘green’ smoothie. To this day we have not let a morning go by without indulging in our favourite breakfast; spinach, ground flax, spirulina, almond butter, banana, strawberry, raspberry and blueberry all whipped together in the blender. It probably sounds appalling to those who enjoy a more traditional fare, but our smoothies are truly addictive and we feel great after starting the day with our rather alien-looking concoction!
To date, we have not made the giant leap to a 100% raw diet; that challenge feels more than slightly daunting at this point in time. However, we are incorporating as much live food as we can and thoroughly enjoying a new and deeply resonant culinary experience. There are a few tools that are necessary for the raw lifestyle and one of them is a food dehydrator. A dehydrator slowly removes the water content from the food while delicately preserving its living quality. My mom is an ardent supporter of our new lifestyle and the changes she has seen in the health of our family (particularly Michael) has caused her to leap delightedly onto the bandwagon (even indulging in green smoothies each morning at the cottage this past summer!) When my birthday rolled around in early June my parents arrived looking as excited as kids on Christmas morning. My birthday gift was to be a brand new dehydrator ordered through Barb’s website. Needless to say, I was delighted and my parents both looked like the proverbial cats that had swallowed more than one canary!
It took me about a month to get around to ordering my new dehydrator. It arrived during a particularly hot day in July and I unpacked it with delicious anticipation and set it proudly on the counter. And there it sat for weeks on end looking a little ungainly and entirely daunting. A dehydrator is not like any other appliance I have ever known. It is not straightforward or intuitive and it does not do any kind of cooking to which I am accustomed. So there it sat like a white elephant week after week taking up valuable space on my countertop. The only purpose it served was as a mail collector and a great conversation piece to any visitors who happened through my kitchen over the summer. Unfortunately, it had become one of those ‘when I have some time’ kind of things. Summer went by, school started, the nights started to get cool and still the dehydrator sat on my counter as one of the least successful birthday gifts of all time. And every time I laid eyes upon it I felt guilty that my parents had wasted their money on such a large and rather unattractive counter ornament.
Cool September nights were not quite enough to get me motivated to dive into dehydrating our food. However, once the leaves started to turn, a hunger deep inside me was reawakened from summer hibernation.
Spring and summer are never big baking times for me so I did not really notice the absence of wheat, sugar and dairy-laden treats baking in my oven. This fall, as the leaves have been turning in stunning display, my mind has turned with regret to the winter ahead; no baking, no hot chocolate after tobogganing and none of the sweet aroma of love healing my blues and nurturing my rosy-cheeked sons. I knew that this winter just wouldn’t be the same and I silently mourned the loss of my passion for baking.
Just as the regret was sinking in, I got a phone call from the library. My name had finally come to the top of the list for the raw food book that I had ordered two months earlier. As I started to read ‘Raw Food Real World’ by Matthew Kenney and his partner Salma Melngailis, I could feel myself being lured into yet another new phase of my life. Their book is so well written and their shared passion for flavour, presentation, health and vitality is so strong that their message literally jumped off the pages and into my soul. I felt myself devouring their book and awakening a new passion for food that Barb had begun to kindle months previously. Who knew that a book about raw food would be so compelling? The authors explain in great detail the wonder of the right foods and the detrimental effect of the wrong foods in our bodies. Their recipes are beautiful and easy to follow. I found myself utterly inspired and suddenly I felt the white elephant on my countertop shaking off its summer malaise and standing at inspired attention.
By this time it was late October and I had a deep longing to make something sweet and warm. As I pored through my newest companion I came across a macaroon recipe, both chocolate and vanilla. I absolutely love Barb’s raw macaroons so I decided that I was going to be really brave and go for it. I carefully shopped for the ingredients I needed; shredded unsweetened coconut, maple syrup, coconut butter, vanilla, Celtic sea salt, cocoa for the chocolate recipe and almond flour for the vanilla recipe. As I prepared the batter for the chocolate macaroons I sang along to the music I had playing in the background. I silently marvelled how surprisingly soul-satisfying it felt to be preparing a new treat for my family that did not have any processed sugar, white flour, eggs or butter. Once I had finished the chocolate recipe and got them safely deposited onto the dehydrator trays, I dove into the vanilla recipe. I must admit that after placing all the macaroons on the dehydrator trays I almost gnawed off my own hand in an attempt to get every last drop of the most delicious batter I had ever tasted off my fingers. If the batter was this good I could only imagine how the finished product was going to taste!
One of the most significant differences between baking and dehydrating is time. My macaroons were going to take 24 hours; no instant gratification there, I was going to have to wait. I also counselled myself that there would be no sweet aroma of love drifting through the house to wrap us in healing and love. I reminded myself that we live a new life now and that those feelings are a thing of the past. I felt a little heaviness in my heart as I bid adieu to my old ways and set off to collect the kids from school.
As my alarm awakened me the following morning at 4:30 I slowly became aware of an aroma in the house that I could not identify. As I came to full consciousness I realized that I could smell the macaroons! And it was the most delicious smell I have ever had the pleasure to experience. I had been utterly mistaken that there would no longer be the sweet aroma of love in my house. The smell in the house was dancing and wafting in delicious waves and with a heart bursting with joy, I bounced from my bed. (And, as an added bonus, because dehydrating takes so long, the mouth-watering smell lasts for hours and hours!)
As I made my way downstairs (not clinging to the railing!) I marvelled at how, yet again, this new lifestyle has surprised me with its richness and resonance. I gently allowed my conscious mind to revisit Simon’s prophecy and offered thanks for the profound healing that has occurred in our family. We have been handed the opportunity to completely reinvent ourselves thanks to our beloved Michael. And as I sat in meditation with the sweet aroma of love wafting through my senses I gave thanks for the opportunity to discover the magical combination of physical, mental and spiritual health that comes with putting the right food into our body temples.
So now I am heading into winter with a pantry stocked with new ingredients and the deep knowing that I can nurture my family in a new way. I can celebrate the joy of a snowy day with delicious ingredients that are not a sinful indulgence but a stunningly healthy choice. I can soothe away any winter blues or blahs that may come my way with the yummiest therapy ever. I can watch my sons tumble through the front door covered in snow and know that I can love them and nurture them in my favourite way. And I can sit back in sweet maternal bliss as their bodies glow with health, vitality and love.
For the past six years I have been emotionally bombarded by voices. I have tried to shut them out and push them away but they have droned on in relentless detail about everything that Michael has done or not done.
I have picked Michael up from playgroups, swimming lessons, birthday parties, day camp, play dates and school with a heavy heart and dragging feet knowing that I will have to be the reluctant audience for another unwanted voice with yet another unpleasant message. I have had to stand and listen to exhaustive descriptions about how Michael was disruptive, physically violent, uncooperative or just generally unpleasant to be around. Every single one of these voices has left me feeling as if I am drowning in despair and, more often than not, I have ended up weeping with hopelessness, frustration, rage and utter bewilderment. I have spent unchecked energy listening to ‘their’ version of Michael and then trying to convince them of mine; a great kid with tons of energy and a golden heart.
The delicate irony that is so difficult to admit is that while I was railing against the world for its misconceptions of Michael, I have also been railing against myself and my own voices. Those voices that say things like; ‘why can’t he just behave? Why can’t he be more like his brothers? Why does it always have to be so hard? I can’t handle one more phone call about his latest antics! I simply cannot face picking him up from school today!’ I have struggled relentlessly to accept a child who is difficult and challenging. I have fought against the feelings of disappointment and regret as Michael did not meet my neat and tidy expectations of the perfect child. I have expended so much energy feeling guilty about my deepest, darkest feelings regarding Michael that I have not had any resources left to teach him to navigate the left-brained world as a right-brained child. I have tenaciously held off any diagnosis for fear of Michael being labelled, judged or, God-forbid, medicated into hazy obedience. My reluctance to face the difficult truths has left Michael to flounder and grope his way in the darkness as he was constantly bombarded by messages of ‘not good enough’.
The past six months have been an extraordinary voyage of discovery for me. As I have slowly come to grips with Michael’s ADHD diagnosis and have researched this complex disorder, I have been able to slowly separate Michael from his behaviour. I am learning to treat him with respect and love. I am learning that Michael is not broken and does not need to be fixed. And I am learning that I cannot approach him with my narrow and joyless definition of perfection. Michael is single-handedly breaking down the myth with which I have surrounded myself for as long as I can remember; that perfection is neat, tidy and predictable. Michael’s version of perfection is so much more rich, joyful and multi-layered than mine. I will admit that there are still many moments where I fall back onto my old myth but I am now catching myself when I land back there and try not to linger too long.
Over the summer I discovered a somewhat unorthodox strategy for helping me to stay inside Michael’s myth; I personified Michael’s ADHD as an adorable and energetic golden retriever puppy. He is all big paws and unconditional love given with the endearing enthusiasm of a young puppy. When I feel myself slipping back into tight corners and dark frustration, it is such a help to have a new lens through which to see Michael’s ADHD symptoms. It probably sounds odd to be seeing a part of my child as a dog but it has helped me enormously to be with Michael’s boundless and challenging energy field. To see his ADHD as an adorable puppy allows me to love Michael’s big and sometimes clumsily expressed energy. This handle was one of my tickets to success over the summer and I could feel Michael basking in my unconditionally given love. And as he did, I felt a deep and loving bond developing between us that allowed Michael to feel safe with me. And we both began to trust that I could ‘be with’ and hold his enormous energy.
On the third day of school in September, Simon and I sat down with Michael’s new teacher, Miss Lynne. It was the first September that I would ‘come clean’ about Michael’s ADHD diagnosis and his school challenges. I expected Lynne to tell us that after three days of having Michael in her class she was already at her wits’ end. I waited for her to tell us that she couldn’t see any chance of success without medication. I waited for her version of ‘not good enough’.
She started out the meeting by telling us that Michael is the most severe un-medicated case of ADHD she has ever seen. I felt myself cringe inwardly and all I could think as she started talking was; ‘okay, here we go’. I was utterly shocked when she went on to tell us that she has 30 years of front-line experience dealing with ADHD and that she has endless tricks up her sleeve. She told us of all the ways that she had already started adapting Michael’s program to accommodate his special learning needs. She told us that she can not only ‘be with’ but also accommodate Michael’s need for physical movement. She described a computer program which she had already started using to help Michael with his writing. She showed us a sample of work that Michael had done with which she was delighted. And she told us that she could see that Michael is a great kid!
It took every ounce of self-control I had not to break down and weep during that meeting. For the very first time in Michael’s school career there was a teacher who was willing to work with Michael and had the skills to do it. For the first time there was understanding, empathy and love instead of frustration and anger. I could feel the knots in my stomach beginning to relax. By the time we left the meeting I felt weak with relief and buoyed with a new sensation; hope. For the first time since Michael started school at the tender age of three, he was finally going to be with a teacher who could love him and respect him for exactly who he is. As we drove home from the meeting I was aware of a nagging little voice wondering when the other shoe was going to drop and Miss Lynne was going to realize that she actually couldn’t handle Michael. This little voice went on to wonder when the phone calls would start coming to inform me that Michael was in trouble, that he wasn’t doing his work and that he wasn’t controlling his body. This had been my experience for the past five years; why on earth would I expect it to be any different now?
A few weeks into school Michael had forgotten his new digital watch at home (an idea of Lynne’s; to buy Michael a digital watch with two alarms which go off 20 minutes before recess. When Michael hears the alarm he leaves the classroom and does 3 or 4 laps of the school so that when he goes out for recess he has already had some exercise and will have an easier time controlling his impulses out on the playground.) So I went into the school to give Michael his watch and had the opportunity to stand out in the hall and listen to one of Lynne’s lessons. As I stood in the hall and listened to the children being treated with kindness and respect, and Michael being consistently praised for how well he was sitting on the carpet, I could feel tears of the deepest gratitude welling up in my eyes. After what all those children had been through the previous year with an abusive and passive aggressive teacher, they now had an environment in which they could safely learn and thrive. And Michael had found a safe harbour for the first time since preschool, which meant that I was safe as well. From that moment on I knew I could trust Lynne to care for Michael and I knew deep in my heart that he was both physically and emotionally safe.
We went six weeks without a phone call. After six weeks of no call, my body felt more relaxed than it had since September of 2006 when Michael started Junior Kindergarten. Six weeks of success! And each time I spoke with Lynne it was good news. Each small victory of Michael’s has been glowingly reported. When Michael’s classmates began to notice preferential treatment Lynne sat them all down on the carpet and taught them about ADHD by asking them if they had ever had hiccups. After each child confirmed that they had indeed had hiccups, Miss Lynne went on to ask them whether they can control their hiccups. It was widely agreed that there is no way to control a hiccup. Miss Lynne then told the children that Michael has ADHD which is like hiccups in his brain that he can control with about as much success as controlling a regular hiccup. The children asked questions and Lynne told them that Michael would be doing some things differently to help him with his hiccups and that was the way it would be for the year.
And so, day after day I would arrive in the schoolyard to no reports from any parents, no reports from any teachers, no notes home and no phone calls. We were six weeks into school and life was feeling more relaxed and calm than it had for six years.
The call came Friday afternoon of the Thanksgiving weekend.
I was at work that day and Max called to tell me that Miss Lynne had just called our house. My blood turned to ice, my stomach clenched and I felt a powerful wave of nausea wash over me. To get a call on the Friday afternoon of a long weekend I knew it had to be something really bad. “Oh God, What did she say?” was all I could squeak out of my tight chest and crestfallen body. As I waited for Max to deliver Lynne’s message, that little voice came back with a vengeance; ‘I told you it was too good to be true! You knew this was coming Katie. Why are you even surprised? You should never have let down your guard. It must be really bad. Did he hurt someone? Is he suspended next week? What did he do? Oh my God. What did he do?’
I felt sick with relief when Max happily told me that Miss Lynne had called to tell me that Michael had had a great week. What? A good news call? You have got to be kidding me! I asked Max to repeat the message three times before I could actually trust that it had indeed been a happy call with nothing but good news to report. I thanked Max for the message, put the phone down and wept. I wept with relief, joy and surprise. After the initial shock wore off I wept in deep gratitude for the incredibly gifted teacher with whom we have been blessed this year; a woman who could finally see past the symptoms, the diagnosis and the behaviours to both cherish and nourish the golden child beneath. As I drove home I could feel hope blossoming in my heart. Until that time I could not really trust that things were going to be different this year; I was waiting for that other shoe to drop. I was waiting for Lynne to approach me in the yard after school with that look on her face which would speak a thousand words before even opening her mouth. I was waiting for the phone to ring with dark foreboding. I was waiting and was emotionally braced for the very worst news at all times. And, like a well-trained soldier, I was prepared to do battle at a moment’s notice.
I was on an Art Gallery field trip with Michael’s class the Tuesday after the Thanksgiving weekend. As the children were happily painting their works of art I got a chance to thank Lynne for her phone call. I choked up as I tried to convey what her thoughtful gesture had done both for Michael and for me. I was delighted to hear about exactly what had precipitated the call. Lynne has noticed that Friday afternoons tend to be difficult for Michael because he has worked hard all week holding it all together and by Friday afternoon he is tired. This particular Friday afternoon Lynne was going to give her students the chance to catch up on unfinished work. Michael had already finished all his work so she anticipated that he could get himself into trouble with nothing to do. Lynne recognized the fact that asking him to do a ‘Joe job’ or letting him quietly play on the computer would probably also be a recipe for disaster so she canvassed the staff room at lunch to find out if there was a teacher who could use an enthusiastic and able-bodied volunteer that afternoon. The kindergarten teacher allowed as how she would love an extra set of hands so Michael was put to work with the little guys that afternoon. The teacher reported that Michael looked as proud as a peacock working with and showing leadership to the little ones. So, thanks to Lynne, not only did Michael stay out of trouble that afternoon, he was also provided with an opportunity to feel successful and important.
Lynne is the teacher I have been dreaming about and wishing for ever since Michael’s first day of school five years ago. A teacher who would work with Michael and play on his strengths has been my greatest hope. Now that there is someone so solidly in Michael’s corner he can get on with the task of growing, learning and starting to flex his muscles in an environment of safety and love. He can finally feel what it’s like to be just a regular kid who sometimes gets spoken to by the teacher for talking too loud or being a bit disruptive during a lesson. He can feel what it’s like to be proud of his work and his daily accomplishments. He can stand on his own and I can let him do it without a deep and painful ache in my heart.
And, as it turns out, Lynne is not just Michael’s teacher this year; she is also mine. Lynne is showing me a whole new way of being with Michael. I am starting to follow her example of anticipating and looking for ways of providing Michael with opportunities for success at home. And I am finding that as Michael feels more successful, I feel more hopeful and provide him with more opportunities for success. And the feelings are building like a great big snowball which is gaining delicious momentum. And suddenly I can feel hope, success, fun, laughter, love and infinite possibility starting to blossom in my heart, my life and my family. This miraculous shift is what Lynne has had a big part in creating for our family these past weeks since the beginning of the school year.
And what does this mean for me? It means I can stand down my vigilant guard. I can take a desperately needed break. I can channel all the energy that has been going into defending, explaining, feeling guilty and desperately worrying, into what’s next for me in my own life and that of my family. I can let go and know that Michael can and will make his own way. I can slowly create a new myth that bids farewell to my old ideas of perfection. And those harsh voices that have been echoing in my head for so many years can finally be laid to rest. I can now choose to listen to voices that speak words of love, kindness, peace and respect. And I can nurture the blossoming hope in my heart until it becomes a verdant garden of possibilities.
And once again I will close out my narrative with the deepest gratitude for the miraculous journey in which I find myself. I will thank the astonishing synchronicity which has placed Miss Lynne in Michael’s life this year and the profound healing that she is fostering. And I will stand in awe of the delicate unfolding of my life as Michael’s mother and know deep in my heart that I am truly blessed.
And, finally, I will bask in the revelation that the phone can ring with good news!
I am somewhat loath to admit that unlike thousands upon thousands of children’s literature devotees, I am not a big fan of the Winnie-the-Pooh stories. Rabbit drives me crazy with his bossy and anal personality, Piglet is a flibbertigibbet and Eeyore is too melancholy and pessimistic for my liking. Even Winnie-the-Pooh is just a little bit bland for my tastes. The coach in me wonders what it is about my own personality that these innocent characters activate, but that is an inquiry for another time! In the entire cast of characters there is one that I love so much that I keep coming back to these classic stories time and again. That dearly loved favourite is Tigger. I absolutely adore that bouncy, crazy and wildly exuberant tiger. Even his infuriating capriciousness is endearing to my ‘hospital corners’ personality.
I think that somewhere in each of our lives there lives a Tigger. I am fortunate enough to have two of these delightful and lively creatures in my life. One of them is my adored older brother, Jim, and the other is my beloved Michael. I believe that the Tiggers in our lives are there to remind us to live in the moment, celebrate and dance with delight. For the average person, living with a Tigger is a bemusing combination of complete frustration and utter delight. And sometimes these emotions are experienced simultaneously. In retrospect, I can see now that growing up with a Tigger in my life certainly helped to pave the way for parenting one.
Growing up with my brother Jim was such a gift for me because he was (and still is) my absolute foil. Where I am anal, organized and crave predictability, Jim lives in the deliciousness of the moment. He is funny, loving and bouncy. Living with Jim was like living with an intriguing combination of a hilarious stand-up comedian, a gutsy politician and a wild tornado. And you never knew from one minute to the next what you would get.
I always used to wonder how Jim could get by without any plans or organization but he always seemed to land on his feet in just the right spot for the next miracle to come along. It was as if magic just trailed along behind him waiting for his next whim to make itself known. As an introverted adolescent I used to watch Jim in utter fascination as he would talk to anybody and be friends in moments. He could put anyone at ease with his endearing and completely unaffected demeanour and leave people with a smile on their faces and in their hearts. Jim is now 44-years-old and the father of two and he hasn’t changed a bit. He still dances bigger and with more unbridled joy than anyone I have ever met.
All through my adolescence and young adult life I would watch Jim and adoringly admire him. However, my personality remained one of structure and constancy. As I matured into a woman and looked ahead at my life I was always so thankful that Jim was my brother and neither my future partner nor my future child as I knew both possibilities would drive me crazy. I got to enjoy Jim’s ‘Tigger-ness’ with complete awe and bewilderment from the comfortable sidelines. I was convinced that Jim was one-of-a-kind and never once did it occur to me that there would ever be another Tigger in my life.
When my eldest son, Max, came into my life almost 12 years ago he was the ideal first child for me. He was the poster child for ‘perfection’; he was adorable, well-behaved, slept through the night at 2 months of age and ate anything I gave him. There was absolutely nothing challenging about Max and he convinced me that I was the perfect mother; the epitome of June Cleaver, if you will. My ‘hospital corners’ personality was delighted with this turn-of-events and my mothering life was easy, neat and predictable. I figured I was so good at this mothering thing that I could easily add another Beaver Cleaver to the mix.
Someone out there had a very puckish sense of humour as it was determined that Michael would be child number two.
It was apparent from day one that Michael was a whole different breed of child. On his very first day of life he had me utterly transfixed because as I looked into his eyes he was looking right back into mine. My previous experience with, and understanding of, newborn babies was that they do not make eye contact for months. Not so with Michael. I can recall those first few days in the hospital as my mom and I were absolutely mesmerized by Michael’s eyes; they seemed to be looking deep into our souls. Even our midwife was shocked as she held Michael; “this baby is looking at me!” she exclaimed in utter delight. I look back on those first days and think that the extraordinary eye contact was Michael’s way of saying; “fasten your seat belts guys, it’s going to be a wild ride!”
Michael came into my well-ordered life and pulled the pin on the bomb. Even as a baby, Michael was way outside the realm of any parenting I had previously done. Michael was an adorable entertainer who learned to say “cheese” for the camera at less than 4 months of age. He was always on the go and could crawl faster than any baby I had ever encountered (I had never before experienced having to run to keep up with a crawling baby!) Michael also loved to dance and it was evident from infancy that he felt music way down deep in his soul. As I got to know Michael I realized that he was almost a carbon copy of my brother Jim; he was joyful, exuberant and utterly delightful. Even as a toddler, Michael lived life large and fast. At 2 years of age his family nickname became ‘Dash’ after the Incredibles character whose superpower is the ability to run faster than the eye can see.
Michael’s ‘Tigger-ness’ has made for a very difficult toddler-hood and early childhood. Michael’s exuberance and enormous energy are extremely tricky for the average person to navigate, particularly me. I am someone who subscribes to the idea that everything happens for a reason. It is in this vein that I truly believe that Michael was sent to me as a teacher. Michael’s lessons are difficult, sometimes painful and utterly delightful. He is teaching me that there is tremendous joy in the unexpected and that order and structure are not all they’re cracked up to be. I have struggled tirelessly against Michael’s nature because I wanted him to fit into my world, not be dragged kicking and screaming into his. I am just starting to learn to let go but it has been (and still is) a painful process.
I am beginning to truly appreciate Michael for all that he is; joyful, bouncy, big, extroverted, Alpha, strong, loving, funny, intuitive, magical, musical, fast and utterly delightful. I have spent so much time and energy on all that he isn’t that my heart breaks with the admission. Shouldn’t a mother love her child unconditionally? I openly admit that I did not. I kept wondering when Michael would calm down and learn to live in my world. I wondered every moment of every day when it would start to get easier. Little did I know that the answer to that desperate question has been right in front of me all along; life will get easier when you learn to accept Michael for exactly who he is, celebrate his unique gifts and learn to let go of the need for control.
Since coming to grips with Michael’s ADHD diagnosis, the past few months with him have been like having a new baby; a slow and miraculous process of learning the subtle nuances of a brand new person and developing a deep and strong relationship. In essence, I have fallen in love with my baby. This unconditional love for Michael has enabled me to parent from a place of mutual respect, intimacy and empathy. I am starting to see glimpses of the world through Michael’s eyes and these glimpses are both revealing and excruciatingly painful. I can feel the utter bewilderment with which Michael lives his life; being a Tigger in a room full of Rabbits is extraordinarily complex.
So that brings us to a complex climax in our journey with Michael. How does Tigger survive and thrive day after day when the world keeps telling him to stop bouncing?! How do we help him live in a world that does not make room for his unique brand of exuberance? Michael continues to live life large and fast. The problem is that the world wants conformity. The world wants Michael to slow down and live within the confines of the carefully constructed box. Asking Michael to live within the tight confines of the box would be like asking Tigger to stop bouncing. And as Tigger so aptly puts it; “bouncing is what Tiggers do best!”
The years of Michael hearing and feeling that he is a ‘bad kid’ have taken their toll. I am devastated to report that some of the bounce has been beaten out of our Tigger. Michael’s bullish toddler personality has been altered somewhat and we see signs now of a deeply sensitive and bewildered little guy. Simon and I agonize over Michael’s delicate self-esteem which continues to slowly decline. I am learning from Michael that Tigger is not just about high-spirited bouncing; he also has a delicate heart that can break just like anyone else’s, perhaps even more so. Watching Michael when he is down is like a glowing candle being extinguished in a dark room, leaving the occupants in complete and utter darkness. There aren’t enough Tiggers in this world and I have just come to realize that we cannot afford to convert even one of these delightful creatures.
The idea of converting our Tigger puts us at a difficult crossroads; we are grappling with the agonizing decision of whether or not to put Michael on stimulant medication to help him cope with the difficult symptoms of ADHD. My bias toward pharmaceutical medications of any kind is extremely strong. I don’t trust them, I don’t believe they are a solution and I feel like they are a slippery slope.
When I was a young and naive special education teacher back in the mid-nineties I saw many young boys with ADHD on Ritalin. Both ADHD and Ritalin were getting a bad rap at that time. Many people were feeling that ADHD was an over-diagnosed disorder and an excuse by teachers to keep energetic young boys under control (I know better now!). Ritalin’s reputation was as a soul-sucking, life-killing stimulant. If I had a dollar for every time I said; “I will never, ever put a child of mine on Ritalin” I would be a very wealthy woman indeed! Here I am seventeen years later with a child who is suffering deeply and all I can think is; “I will never, ever put a child of mine on Ritalin.” I keep being told that now there are new drugs and better drugs…but they are still drugs, they are still stimulants! So here I am like a yo-yo going up and down, up and down with the question; is Ritalin what Michael truly needs?
My agonizing fear is that Ritalin will take the bounce out of my Tigger. That Ritalin will rob him of the essence of his personality that makes him so special and so magical. The thought of a Tigger with no bounce is unthinkable…what about a Michael with no spark? Tragic!
I agonize every minute of every day about changing this wildly enthusiastic and adorable boy’s personality to suit the confines of our tight society. Should Michael have to change to suit us or should it be the other way around? If ADHD is so prevalent in our society maybe it is becoming the norm as opposed to the ‘ab-norm’. What if Ritalin damages Michael and he never goes back to who he truly is? What if we lose him? What if putting him on Ritalin damages the delicate workings of his complex system? Can anyone really guarantee that it won’t?
I look at the flip side and I know that if Michael is to stay in the regular public school system he needs help. He has come a long way with all the changes we have made since May but it is not enough. Michael and I were snuggling in bed last Saturday morning when he quietly asked; “why am I different from everybody else? I want to be the same Mommy. I don’t want to be different anymore.” My heart contracted painfully in my chest as I explained to him that he is an extraordinarily unique and gifted little boy. I extolled his many virtues but I knew he was not buying into my version of himself. It is as if Michael has had enough and needs us to radically change something. In my heart of hearts I think the solution would be homeschooling but we are not in a financial situation to allow either Simon or myself to be a full-time educator.
We have explored every viable alternative I can think of and the only one remaining is meds. As I try to back off my bias against pharmaceuticals I objectively wonder what meds could do for Michael. Perhaps they will allow him to concentrate and focus at school. Perhaps they will bolster his self-esteem because he will start feeling successful. Perhaps they will be the best thing we could do for him now.
At our first meeting with the family therapist, Paul, we were informed that the only way Michael would ever know success would be through stimulant medication. Paul handed us a large, glossy colour poster warning of all the things that were likely to happen in the teen years were we to choose not to medicate Michael; drug and alcohol addiction, teen pregnancy involvement, car accidents, dropping out of high school and suicide. Paul firmly informed us that to choose not to medicate Michael with a stimulant drug would be verging on neglect. He did warn us of possible side effects such as loss of appetite, restlessness, sleeplessness, anxiety and the remote possibility of irreversible Tourettes Syndrome. I listened to the list of side effects with a sinking heart and the cold grip of fear in my heart. What if we are making the wrong decision not to medicate Michael? What if not medicating him is choosing to doom his life forever? What if meds turn out to be the best decision we ever made? But what if they turn out to be the worst?
I have often wished for an angel to fall from the heavens with the express purpose of telling me what to do. She would lovingly guide me toward the right decision and show me a bright and rosy future for Michael. She would take away any uncertainty and the agony of indecision would be a distant memory.
I know that there is no angel assigned to difficult parental decisions. This is, quite simply, part of the perilous parenting journey; to be forced to make decisions with uncertain outcomes. I know that the decision rests with Simon and with me. Together we need to weigh every possibility before we come to this significant decision. I know that all we can do is trust that we have done everything we could think of and carefully weighed every option. And I need to come to grips with the fact that Ritalin is not the devil incarnate; it is simply just another option in the complex mix of treatment for the symptoms of ADHD.
It just occurred to me as I write that there is one possibility I have not even considered to date; perhaps stimulant meds will enhance Tigger’s bounce. Maybe there are great gifts waiting in the frontal lobe of Michael’s brain which will only be awakened at this point in his life with stimulants. Perhaps this is the greatest gift we could ever give to Michael. I have been convinced for so long that we have been doing the best for him by denying this treatment as a viable option. Maybe Tigger’s bouncing will be more resonant and even more exuberant without the limitations of the constant white noise of ADHD in his brain. Is it possible that sometimes Tiggers need a little help with their bouncing?
Only a leap of faith, love and time will tell.
I find myself at the end of my rambling narrative feeling a deep desire to thank the two Tiggers in my life for their boundless joy and sometimes exasperating bouncing. I am so grateful to these two ‘boys’ who have come into my life and delighted me, bewildered me and utterly bewitched me. I love you both with a depth of emotion that staggers me and renders me unable to express with words.
And to you, dear reader, I ask you to look for the delightful Tigger in your life. And when you find this enchanting spirit I ask that you let them know in some small way how much you love and value them for the extraordinary gift they bring to your life. After all, couldn’t each of us use a little more joyfully and wildly exuberant bouncing every now and again?
Seven months ago I pushed a painful truth down as far as it would go. I got busy and ignored its quiet but persistent knocking at my subconscious. I believed that I could go about my business and let it lie in the murky depths indefinitely. The events of the past week have shown me otherwise.
My agonizing truth is this; Michael was physically assaulted by his teacher on the 10th of February last year and I was not there to protect him.
I had a feeling that the situation in Michael’s classroom was building to a dangerous pitch and yet, day after day, I sent him off to school, heels dragging. I allowed him to inhabit a toxic classroom environment in which he was verbally and emotionally abused day after day. I listened to Max tell me that he was tired of hearing Michael’s teacher yell his name as he sat in his own classroom across the hall. I listened, every time I walked by Michael’s classroom, to his teacher singling Michael out for something he had done (or not done). And I observed sadly from the hall as Michael was cruelly berated during a music activity even though he was doing exactly what he had been asked to do. I watched as confusion and pain flickered across Michael’s face and my heart shattered like glass.
I wanted to go into that classroom, bundle Michael up and tell him that he would never, ever have to face that kind of abuse again. I wanted to walk right up to Michael’s teacher and tell her that she was hurting my child with her constant cruelty. Instead, I turned away and cried in the bathroom. Then I went to the principal to launch yet another complaint to add to the large file.
I felt powerless. I felt like I had no choices. I felt like my voice would not be heard. I felt like I was stuck in a system that made no sense to me. I was afraid of rocking the boat. I was afraid that people would think I was a pest. I didn’t do my job. No matter which way I slice it, I did not do my job and I am suffering the painful truth of that reality. When he needed me the most, I did not protect my child.
Those of you reading this might quickly jump to my defence and say; “don’t be so hard on yourself Katie, you did your best, you had no control over that teacher’s actions and you had no idea that she would snap like that.” I agree with all of you and thank you for jumping in to protect me. However, it doesn’t change the fact that my child suffered at the hands of someone else and I knew about it. There is a loud voice that, today, is drowning out your loving and empathetic voices. Even though it is exquisitely painful I must give it audience or its yelling will just keep getting louder; “Bad, bad mother! How could you send Michael to school to a teacher that was damaging his already delicate self-esteem? Even if she had not pulled him down the stairs you knew she was emotionally abusing Michael. Why didn’t you stop it sooner? Why didn’t you do something? Anything? How could you have let this happen?”
I have been able to successfully push this painful voice down until last week when school started again. We had the summer to recover and heal from the trauma of last year. We had a chance to have fun and be off the treadmill of school and have-to(s). Michael had the chance to build some tenuous self-esteem and I had the chance to feel like a good mom again. As August was winding down I could feel panic start to set in. In my naïveté, I assumed it was just concern for Michael and the school year ahead. Never did it occur to me that it was paralyzing fear for his safety.
The tight seal on my painful truth was ruptured innocently last Wednesday morning as I approached Michael’s new teacher in the schoolyard. As the mother of three boys I am well aware that the first day of school means filling out reams of paperwork after they have all been tucked safely into their beds. Max and Zachary both brought home their packages to be completed for the following day but Michael did not. I asked him about it when he awakened Wednesday morning and saw panic flit across his face. He assured me it was there, went to his backpack and vainly searched through every pocket. He was sure he had brought the forms home and became quite agitated that they were not there. I was able to calm him down by assuring him that I would talk to his teacher before school and we would get the forms together.
As we walked to school Michael worried the whole way. I kept reassuring him that we would work it out together and I would help him find the forms. I approached Michael’s teacher to let her know that the package had not come home the night before and asked if I could come into the school to get it. She was quite firm in her response that Michael was told clearly to take the forms home the night before. She told me I did not need to come into the school and that it was Michael’s responsibility to track them down and get them into his bag. The bell rang and his class was whisked into the school. I didn’t even get a chance to kiss him goodbye. I had assured him that I would help him and yet there I stood in the schoolyard as he went into school feeling like I had let him down and abandoned him. I suddenly felt as if I were sending him into the lion’s den yet again and as the schoolyard emptied I felt blind panic wash over me.
Here we go again was all I could think and my body felt like it had been filled with lead. I dragged myself home and spent the entire day crying on and off.
I couldn’t figure out why a harmless interaction with Michael’s new teacher would have such a disastrous impact. Of course the teacher wants to teach her students responsibility. Of course I didn’t need to go into the school to find the forms. I knew Michael was perfectly capable of getting a stapled package of forms into his bag. So why was I feeling like I was falling into a bottomless abyss? It came to me as I told Simon about the brief schoolyard interaction; I was afraid for Michael. I was afraid for his delicate self-esteem and, more shockingly, I was terrified for his safety. Once that epiphany struck I realized I needed help. And I realized that if I was struggling with feelings of vulnerability and fear, then Michael probably was too.
Almost without thinking I picked up the phone and reached out for Paul, the child and family therapist we had done some work with three summers ago. I cried on the phone as I was making the appointments; one for us and one for Michael. Paul gently reassured me that I was doing the right thing and that he could help. The following day at 2:00pm Simon and I were sitting in his office spinning the tale of last year. As we talked I could feel my heart getting heavier and my body getting squeamish. As Simon described the assault I started to cry. Paul gave voice to my shame as if it was no big deal; “so you feel like you weren’t there to protect him, eh?” I felt completely naked and exposed as he named my pain and my disgrace. I realized then that I needed some help to sort through the agonizing contents of my Pandora’s Box so I booked my own appointment.
The following morning I sat in Paul’s office listening to Michael’s version of last year’s assault; “my friend and I were playing Leap Frog going up the stairs and my teacher got really mad at me. She grabbed me really hard and hurt my arm; she screamed right in my face and yanked me down. I fell down the stairs and I hurt my butt and my head.” As I sat listening to Michael’s account I cried silently with a heart that felt utterly broken. Paul asked Michael if he thinks about that morning and Michael casually responded that it pops into his head all the time. He told Paul he thinks about it and feels; “like I am falling and falling into a dark hole.” He told Paul he is angry with himself for not doing anything to defend himself and that he feels sad and worthless; “I feel like a piece of crud all the time, just a piece of crud walking around.”
So now the lid has been completely removed and the truth is out. The pain is so acute I have been struggling to catch my breath. I have always thought of myself as a strong mother who would protect her children no matter what. I was absolutely certain that I would brandish my sword and chase away any demons that would dare set foot anywhere near my babies. I would confront darkness and horror with ease and my children would sleep snug and safe in their beds. I look back on the version of myself one year ago and I am ashamed. There was ugly darkness all around us and not once did I remove my sword from its scabbard. Instead, I trusted the system to do my job for me and it failed utterly.
I’d like to think that I have learned valuable lessons from last year. I’d like to think that I will never stand for one of my children being mistreated again. I’d like to think that my sword is now razor-sharp and ready to do battle at the least provocation. I’d like to think that I did not fail Michael. I’d like the images of what happened last year to finally start to recede.
I went to the gym this morning with the intention of sweating all this out. I grabbed Simon’s iPod as I rushed out the door just before 6:00am. As I arrived at the gym I decided to just play through all the music on his Shuffle and skip the songs I didn’t like. For those of you who have read my posting called ‘The Light of Connemara’, you will understand the impact when that beautiful song was suddenly playing in my ears. There I was, sweating my worries away and my dear friend Dan reached into my heart to sing Michael’s lullaby just for me. I almost fell off the treadmill as I tried not to break down and weep desperately. When I was feeling as hopeless and lost as I ever have, there was Dan to hold me, soothe me and make me feel less alone.
I managed to get through Dan’s song and continue my workout. I had barely recovered my equilibrium when Paul McCartney started to sing ‘Let it Be’. Needless to say, I cracked. I let the tears come. I let his words reach me way, down deep inside my tender soul. I allowed myself to cry and I allowed the pain to finally be expressed. It felt like my chest was splitting apart but I somehow managed to stay brave and allow the onslaught of physical and emotional pain. As he sang to me I felt in tender community with all those souls who have had times of trouble and yet still managed to hear the loving voice of Mother Mary. I let myself feel utterly grateful for the gift of music speaking to me when words would have been too painful. I let him guide me to a place where I could live with my fallible humanity.
I let it be.
So here is the message I got early this morning just as the sun was making its dazzling appearance; ‘let it be’ is what I need to do. I am the only one who can forgive myself for what happened to Michael. I am the only one who can let me off the hook. I need to forgive; myself, the teacher and the broken system. I know that I need to forgive if we are to heal. Those images will always be with me but they do not have to haunt my dreams anymore. I can appreciate that with the passing of so much darkness there can be light again. Maybe I can heal right along with Michael. And maybe I can even give myself permission to be less than perfect, to be human. Perhaps I can travel back a year and stand with that overwhelmed, scared and confused mother who truly did not know what to do. As I imagine standing with her I can forgive her and I can love her. And that is truly all she ever needed.
As I stepped outside the gym into the beautiful September morning, I could feel the quantum shift that had just occurred. It felt as if the burden of carrying my painful truth was feeling a little easier. I felt the deepest gratitude to whoever it was looking over me this morning as the perfect music was sent to me to encourage me to let go and start healing. As I walked home to my family I felt in miraculous community with forces that I cannot see or touch. I marvelled yet again at the miraculous unfolding of this epic journey and the power of the open secret.
As I sit down to write, I am acutely aware of a rather large elephant sitting on my chest. I think that he has probably been with me all through the summer but seems to have gained considerable weight with the advent of this momentous day. I think that perhaps the only thing that will thoroughly dislodge him from my chest is a really good cry. However, I am sitting in my neighbourhood coffee shop so the purging will have to wait until later. In the meantime, I will soothe my sore chest and my aching heart by reaching out to the world through my fingers. I know for certain as I write that I am not the only parent feeling such a complex play of emotions on this significant day. I can feel myself reaching out to my virtual community and feeling comfort in the presence of all the parents who have awakened on this day with their own elephant having taken up residence.
It is the first day of school and I am not one of the parents doing a jig to celebrate the end of summer holidays and the beginning of the school year. As I stood in the schoolyard just before 9:00 this morning I felt the bittersweet mixture of excitement and anxiety as I watched the children happily greeting each other after a prolonged separation. I watched the teachers looking a little tense and anxious and I watched the parents looking mostly relieved to be sending their offspring back to the structure and routine of school. I watched Michael tear around the schoolyard with his buddies without a care in the world and with that adorable grin splitting his face in ecstatic happiness. I watched Zachary standing in his grade one line like a big guy in the schoolyard looking quiet but contained. I thought about Simon standing in a brand new schoolyard at a brand new school sending Max off to his first day of Middle School. It’s no wonder the elephant is perched so heavily on my chest today; these are some very significant milestones for our family.
The elephant, however, is there for Michael and Michael only.
Michael was so delighted to be reunited with his friends that he was utterly consumed by happiness as he stood in line waiting to go into school. He didn’t see me standing beside Zachary’s line fighting back the tears. Any parent would have looked at me and thought the significance of the first day of grade one was the reason for my distress. What they would not know is that the elephant on my chest was almost suffocating me under its great weight and that my concern for Michael was staggering. It felt as if time slowed down and I had long moments to watch Michael unobserved. He had no idea that all I wanted to do was break down in anguish and uncertainty. He didn’t know I was desperately questioning whether we had done enough over the summer to prepare him for yet another year of school. He had no idea that I was second guessing myself and wondering whether our choice to opt for biomedical treatment of his ADHD rather than pharmaceutical medication was the right one. He didn’t have a clue that all I wanted to do was whisk him away from the schoolyard and keep him protected from the big, bad world.
I am so relieved that Michael had no idea of my angst. This morning he got to be just a regular kid happily starting grade three with a clean slate. The question is; how long will that slate stay clean? How long will it be before the phone starts to ring and Michael is in trouble? Or have we turned a corner and this year is going to be the best ever? Will this be the year of no phone calls? I am ashamed to admit that I felt jealous of all those parents in our schoolyard with kids who are not going to have trouble at school. I was so envious of the feeling of dropping off their child and not looking back with sick apprehension. I cried softly as I walked home. I talked to the Universe and asked for all the available angels to sit with Michael as he continues to find his way inside his complex little body. I asked for his teacher to fall in love with the true essence of Michael and not the outward difficult kid. I asked for Michael’s delicate self-esteem to continue to heal after the fabulous summer we all had together. I asked for this year to be a whole new era for Michael and our family. I asked for miracles.
I close out my heavy narrative with a wish and a prayer; that Michael will have enough magic within and without to find his way this year. That he will finally have the chance to experience what it feels like to be just a regular kid and be successful at school. That he will have the chance to be happy and want to go to school when he gets up in the morning. That his body has healed enough that he will be able to control the impulses that come so thick and fast. And finally, that I have the strength to hold and be with whatever this year brings and to know that there is perfection in the imperfect and order in the chaos.
I ask that every person who reads this narrative to please hold all the Michaels out there close to your heart today and send them all the love you can muster. These magic kids we love so fiercely are going to change the world someday and it is our love, patience and understanding that is going to make the way just a little bit easier and a little bit happier as they grow.
And to all the parents attempting to breathe with these large creatures perched so heavily on your chests…please know that you are held tenderly and you are not alone.
In the days following my surrender to depression and grief I have been feeling as if a great weight is slowly being lifted from my chest. Finally ‘coming clean’ about just how much I am struggling is releasing me from a self-imposed and frightening prison. It seems as if allowing Depression to come into my life as a passing guest has made her seem less menacing and even somewhat affable. I have personified her as an eccentric old aunt who is quirky and no-nonsense with a somewhat forbidding dark side. In her lighter moments she has a brand of wacky wisdom that tickles my sense of humour and although she is somewhat abrasive I find I can be with her for short visits. She drops in unannounced every now and again for tea and might not take the hint about when it is time to leave but eventually she always does.
Her darker visits are much harder to tolerate. Sometimes Depression arrives with a heavy handmade quilt that she resolutely drapes over my unwilling form. Although she means me no harm, I find it hard to breathe under the weight of her shroud and have to fight the urge to panic. I am learning that to run from her only prolongs her visit and makes it impossibly hard to breathe. At these times she forces me to be quiet and still so that I can catch shallow and gasping breaths. She does not wish to hurt me but she does want me to be still. At these times, once I get over the anxiety of stillness, I am finding that she has information for me that is proving to be very useful. She has insights on my life that I might not have because, as the old adage so clearly states; you can’t see the forest for the trees.
The most important pearl of wisdom that this crazy old aunt has imparted is to remind me of the importance of stillness and deep listening. She has also shown me that the energy I am spending keeping her away is taking its toll not only on me but also on those I love most dearly. Ironically, life has improved since willingly allowing this nutty old woman to visit, even when she is at her darkest. Allowing her into my life has allowed me to loosen my grip and relax slightly and I am even sleeping better than I have in almost a year. Go figure!
One of the perks of Depression’s visit is that I have started meditating again. I used to meditate every morning and stopped abruptly when all I was hearing day after day was a scary and unwelcome knock on the door of my subconscious mind. The voice that was the loudest was the only one I didn’t want to hear and her messages were relentlessly insistent that I allow her access. In absolute and paralyzing fear I simply slammed the door shut and stopped venturing into my quiet mind. Instead, I surrounded myself with as much noisy chaos as I could muster (and I have no shortage of that in my house!!!) For an introvert, this kind of relentless chaotic white noise is akin to torture and I feel as if I have been slowly going insane.
It feels so wonderful to once again let myself venture tentatively into my deep and quiet inner realms. I have a very rich subconscious mind that I love to explore and it feels like coming home to be there once again. When I am meditating regularly I also find that I have access to ‘messages’ from the Universe. It’s kind of like tuning into a cosmic talk radio station that I can only hear when I am deeply still and quiet. The messages that I receive from this station are vivid and remarkable and come in the form of voices, thoughts, vivid dreams and very strong intuitive feelings.
Although allowing Depression into my life has made the weight feel less oppressive, it hasn’t changed the daily struggles and challenges with my children, particularly Michael. The constant fighting and violent conflict between the three boys is overwhelmingly stressful and oppressively defeating. I am so tired of conflict I feel as if my head will blow off when the boys start fighting shortly after awakening every single morning of every single day. Michael is always at the centre of the conflict and it makes me feel angry at him day after day as my overload becomes more deeply entrenched. I am so tired of conflict I don’t know what to do anymore and it seems that each day feels harder and less bearable.
Two weeks ago, after putting the little guys to bed, I drove through the dark night and extremely heavy rain to pick up Max from a play date. I could feel the welcome and blessed relief from the oppressive August heat in each drop of rain and as I made my way through the driving downpour I could feel the relief and cleansing of a good cry outside my window. As I drove quietly by myself through the heavy downpour I could feel the insistent urge to do the same, so I gripped the wheel tightly and gave myself permission to give in to the crushing grief of my current situation. As I let the tears come I could feel the glorious and welcome release of my pent up emotion and I felt healed.
After I finished my solitary weep I found I had the capacity to think clearly without the weight of despair on my chest. I thought about my three sons and the challenges of living with so much testosterone while residing inside a body whose dominant hormone is so much softer than its fierce and relentless antithesis. As I tapped into my testosterone-heavy house all I could see was conflict; the fights, the yelling and the physical aggression that is so much a part of our daily existence. All I could think was that the house in which I live is not the one of my dreams; I always wanted a peaceful, happy family with soft and gentle love as its driving force. Never did I imagine living in the midst of a violent storm and fighting for my survival day after exhausting day. Never did I picture I would just be surviving my children rather than happily raising them from a place of peace and love. As I made my way through the rain I silently wondered how we could free ourselves from the destructive pattern of conflict into which we had fallen, but I was coming up empty.
As I drove, I allowed myself to go into that quiet and still place deep inside my body; the place where my life makes sense and there is unlimited peace and tranquility. As I settled into that place I asked a question out loud to no one in particular; “what am I going to do?” It never occurred to me that I would get an answer. “Go the distance” was the very clear response I got to my desperate enquiry. The voice was not one with which I am familiar and I felt a shiver go up my spine as I drove through the dark, rainy night. Go the distance? What was that supposed to mean? I laughed out loud as I realized where I had heard that direction before; ‘go the distance’ is a line from one of my favourite movies in which the main character is being asked to take a giant leap of faith. Clearly, this voice had a sense of humour and playfulness and I laughed out loud at the delicious wit.
“Go the distance.”
As I allowed the message to reach me I could see a whole set of instructions playing out like a movie right before my eyes. As I watched the ‘movie,’ I could see Michael waking up in the morning with frenetic energy stored in his body, deep in his cells. I could see how desperately he needs to exercise as soon as he wakes up to work this energy through his system. I saw how toxic the build-up is if the energy is not released each and every morning. I could clearly see how this backup of energy gets Michael in trouble both at school and at home when he is not provided the opportunity for release. I was informed that Michael is like an adorable and energetic puppy that requires exercise first thing in the morning. People drag themselves from delicious slumber at the crack of dawn to walk their energetic canines; why not their energetic sons?
As I continued to watch, I was transfixed as I saw the solution unfolding right in front of me; I could see Michael and me out running together early in the morning. I could see us strapping on our runners together and working off the build-up of energy first thing each and every morning. Regardless of the season and regardless of whether either of us really felt like doing it, we were out there running. I could see the importance of running not only for Michael’s body but also for his delicate self-esteem. I could see that Michael would bask in the praise of his athletic prowess because he is a gifted runner and can run farther and faster than anyone I have ever known. The ‘movie’ even showed me a marked improvement in Michael’s scholastic achievement and the ability to sit through a day of school without it being painfully torturous. I went on to watch Michael’s daily running becoming a lifelong habit and fostering a healthy and fit lifestyle as he ventures into his tricky teen and young adult years.
As I watched the ‘movie’ I was aware that if I was truly willing to ‘go the distance’ it was going to take a significant promise from me. Committing to running every single day was going to be something that was going to take considerable discipline and unwavering devotion to Michael’s health. It was going to mean very early school mornings and the effort of working it into our already daunting morning routine. It was going to mean I would have to forgo my quiet pyjama-clad mornings for a pair of runners and a possibly reluctant running companion. I wondered about rainy mornings and snowy mornings but was told to just get started and allow those mornings to be taken care of later. I also tapped into the fact that this is the piece that we have been missing; we have radically changed Michael’s diet, we have put him on a myriad of supplements to support his recovery and we have limited his exposure to as many harmful chemicals as possible. What we have not done is taken into account the need for the physical release of frenetic energy through rigorous cardio exercise and the importance of daily detoxification through sweating.
‘Go the distance’.
I quietly wondered if I had it in me to ‘go the distance’ for Michael. My invisible companion lovingly assured me that I could do it and that I was going to see such fantastic results it would become easier to kick off my slippers and jump into my running gear as the days and weeks passed. I went home and immediately told Simon about the voice I had heard and the direction I had been given. We both had a chuckle at the choice of words and, without hesitation, Simon committed to sharing the responsibility of getting Michael out and running every morning. Simon was so enthusiastic he told me he would take Michael out running the very next morning (and he did!).
It is exactly two weeks since I heard that voice and we have not missed a day. Trying to motivate Michael to run can be a bit tricky but he is starting to see how good he feels when he is finished. We have been running at the school track just around the corner and Michael loves to wear the digital watch on his wrist and count the laps. We have had the most incredible conversations while running about endorphins, lactic acid, oxygen, lungs, cells and his heart muscle. We have talked about how much the morning runs are going to help him at school and Michael has determined that he will not go to the principal’s office once in September. Michael is so sure of his success he has asked if we will buy him a fish at the end of the month to celebrate. Simon and I felt reluctant to set up this kind of expectation and carrot-type reward but Michael was so excited about his plan that we couldn’t refuse. We bought him a pair of ‘real’ running shoes and some running pants to make him feel like an athlete and he looks absolutely adorable with his sleepy eyes and messy curly hair as we head out early each morning.
If you had asked me a month ago if there were any gifts in a visit from Depression I would have responded unequivocally in the negative. However, this crazy old aunt is quietly leading me back to a place where I can heal myself. She has reintroduced me to a deep and quiet haven from the madness of my life. It is a place I can retreat to anytime and I wonder how I ever let myself get so far away. It is this place that allowed me to be listening to a simple message two weeks ago as I drove through the summer rain. And who knows, maybe something as simple as ‘go the distance’ is the final piece of the puzzle toward healing my beloved curly-haired cherub.
And so I’ll willingly keep the kettle on the boil for when Depression decides to swoop in for yet another cup of tea.
I wrote this blog posting a week ago and have been ‘sitting’ on it ever since. I have wrestled with myself every day since writing it over whether I have the courage to post this particular piece of my journey. I have made all kinds of excuses like; ‘it’s too private, people don’t want to read something this gloomy or what if people think I’m depressed?’ I have determined to be brave and allow the darkness that I am wrestling with right now to be exposed. I have decided that if there is one mom or one dad who reads this and feels less alone or less scared, then I have achieved my only goal with Open Secret ADHD. So, gentle reader, I ask you to read with love and compassion in your heart. And not just for me, but for every parent or caregiver who has reached a dark and scary depth and is not sure if they will be able to find the light again.
With so much love,
I had a friend in high school named Rob. I haven’t seen him or even spoken to him in over a decade but there is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about him and miss him. Rob was one of those truly remarkable friends who, if you are really lucky, comes along in adolescence and gently shapes who you are becoming. In all the drama, confusion and angst of high school, Rob was my anchor. He was the one who always had a level head and an extraordinarily deep wisdom so rare in a teenage man-child. Rob and I used to spend hours sitting and talking on his front porch; about life, the Universe and everything. When I was getting bogged down with pretence, ego and boy troubles, Rob was the one to whom I turned. Life was uncomplicated for Rob and he didn’t waste time or energy on things that were trivial. It always seemed to boil down to simplicity. The wonderful thing about Rob’s friendship was that he never, ever judged me for getting weighed down. He just quietly held space for me to work through my latest teenage drama and then we’d go play basketball in his driveway to sweat it all out.
It is crack of dawn on Monday morning after a hellish weekend with Michael and I am at a scary breaking point. I am feeling exhausted, defeated, overwhelmed and thoroughly discouraged.
This past Friday was the pot luck lunch celebration at camp at which every camper in the group contributes something for lunch. Unfortunately, the food most campers choose to bring falls into the junk food category. Consequently, over the course of an hour Michael consumed more junk food than he has had since May; chips, gummy bears, wine gums and at least two Gatorades. We all went out Friday night after dinner to the local Art Crawl and as we were admiring an intriguing skateboard exhibit I turned around just in time to see Michael downing a can of Coke- oh dear! Fortunately, I was able to wrestle the Coke away from him after only half the can but between the junk food earlier in the day and the pop at the end, he was well and truly drowning in caffeine, food colouring, sugar and chemicals. I could almost feel his body in full alarm as we were driving home and I felt scared for his delicate system and his tenuous physical health.
I awoke early Saturday morning to a little boy already climbing out of his skin. It felt as if his body was under attack by some invisible and menacing force and I was powerless to defend him against it. Saturday went from bad to worse and, unfortunately, even between the two of us, Simon and I were barely able to manage Michael. As Michael sat at the computer after dinner on Saturday evening I approached him, began to rub his back and asked him how he was feeling. He looked me square in the eye and said; “I am in hell mommy. I feel like pieces of my body are being ripped away and I can’t do anything to stop it.” Michael dropped into bed that night as if he had a brutal hangover and fell asleep almost immediately. As we sat quietly on the porch together Saturday evening feeling completely shattered, Simon’s comment summed up our day brilliantly; “well, that day was nothing short of a train wreck!”
Sunday we were due to go to the first birthday party of our adorable twin God-children. We arrived at the party and all Michael wanted was chips that he couldn’t have (wheat flour and dairy as main ingredients) and pop that he absolutely couldn’t have. Michael was like a junkie wildly begging me for pop and trying to convince me that he was okay and that his body could handle the sugar. As he eyed the beautiful cake on the table he got angrier and more out of control and we bid an early and hasty retreat from the party.
The rest of Sunday was yet another torturous marathon and by the time I went to bed last night I felt completely and utterly exhausted. I also felt scared. What if all the healing that Michael’s body has done is reversed and he ends up right back where he started? What if he simply cannot recover from the onslaught of toxins he consumed on Friday? And why the hell are children eating this kind of food anyway? As I lay there worrying about Michael I got angry. Why are all these shitty foods being produced and marketed to children? Why is it okay that the stores are full of sugar, food colouring, chemical additives and caffeine for our children to consume? How have we come to a place where these foods are the norm? How is this kind of consumption okay? Watching Michael’s body suffer from the onslaught of toxins made me wonder about all the other vulnerable little bodies that don’t show the same outward signs but that are suffering nonetheless.
What the hell are we doing to our children?
Between bitter anger and grave concern I did not sleep at all last night. I finally gave into the insomnia at 3:30am and here I sit alone in my quiet house feeling the sharp talons of panic clawing at me and pulling me down. I feel too exhausted and defeated to resist the pull. I am going down and I am scared. I need comfort. I need a friend. I need to pour out my heart. I need Rob. I need his simple, loving and undemanding companionship so desperately I feel as if I have a gaping hole in my chest with its absence.
I need to know that I can spill my deepest, darkest secrets and I won’t be judged. I need to sit on Rob’s porch and just be still. I need to reach into the vulnerability and pain that is lurking deep in the shadows and give it some air before it suffocates me. I need to admit that I feel way in over my head and I’m scared. I need to say that I still feel so much like the terrified kid even though I am supposed to be the mother. I need to tell him that I feel fatigue so deep it threatens to engulf me. I need to tell him that I don’t know if I have what it takes to help Michael. I want to tell him that I feel guilty for wanting to turn my back on the whole thing and walk away because the work is too hard, the stakes are too high and the consequences of failure are way too forbidding. I want to tell him that I have forgotten what it’s like to feel joy. That I have forgotten what it feels like to have fun and laugh until my stomach hurts. I want to admit that parenting has become a joyless, thankless and completely overwhelming job.
I know that I could say all these things and that Rob would be the one person who could hold it. I would go on to tell him that I spend hours wishing my life away. I would admit that I fantasize constantly about a time when the boys are grown up and Simon and I have peace and quiet to do what we want when we want to do it. I would tell him that I can’t wait for a time in my life when there is no laundry, shopping, cooking, constant money worries, doctor’s appointments, conflict and cloying fear. I would tell him that I just need some quiet and some rest. I would tell him that I am pulling myself through my days as if I am running a marathon; always pushing myself a little bit harder and a little bit further but getting nowhere. I want to tell him that I can’t do it anymore. I am exhausted and I am done.
I want to ask Rob what will happen when I reach a breaking point. Will he be able to tell me if there is one? Will he know if I have actually reached it this morning? Will he stand by me if I get pulled down into the murky depths and can’t get back up? Will he still love me if I can’t fake a smile anymore and just want to cry? Will he mind if maybe I don’t talk at all and simply let the tears just fall unchecked? Will he still respect me if I admit that I am feeling deeply depressed? Will I still respect myself?
I can still remember the feel of my small hand in Rob’s big one. There was always such strength and comfort in Rob’s hand. I need that hand now. I also need the shoulder and the uncomplicated wisdom that was Rob’s trademark. I need his particular brand of magic and his stillness. I need him to tell me that I am not the first, nor will I be the last, parent to feel overwhelmed by the demands of a child with special needs. I need him to tell me that I am not a bad mother for wishing that I could walk away. I need him to tell me that I am not alone, that I am never alone. I need him to remind me that there are thousands upon thousands of parents out there feeling the same excruciating fear, uncertainty and, perhaps, even shame, that I feel today. I need him to give me permission to feel the way I do even though I am not living with an extreme situation; a life threatening illness, poverty, war or the death of a loved one. I need him to remind me that to pretend my dark feelings don’t exist is dangerous. I need Rob to tell me that there is healing in the darkness and that I am courageous and strong to be venturing into the shadowy corners of my psyche.
It is now 5:30am and I have to, as my dad would say, ‘blow my nose and get going’. I have to shower, dress and somehow dig deep enough to get on the Go Train this morning and go to work. I need to sit on a commuter train for over an hour surrounded by hundreds of people and pretend that I am not falling apart. I need to pretend that today is just like any other. What if I break down on the train? What if I cannot teach today? What if I can’t run today’s marathon?
I think the only answer is to keep my beloved old friend close by me today. I know for certain that he will allow me to sit on his porch for as long as I need to and that he will keep reminding me to breathe. Maybe there will be some simple and quiet answers on Rob’s porch. And even if there are no answers there is surely comfort and familiarity.
And right now, maybe that is enough.