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?