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!