Both Sides of the Schoolyard

If we suspend disbelief for a moment and travel back in time together to this day in June, 1978, we will come across a cute little version of me who has just celebrated her 10th birthday. If you choose to remain in the past for a moment to observe this little girl in her primary school yard you will see a sweet child with a big smile and a loving nature. She will appear to be a child without a care in the world; you will see her playing tag, skipping rope and smiling broadly surrounded by friends, laughter and fun. What you will not see is the little girl who just wants to be liked by everyone. You will not see that she desperately wants to quietly blend into the background and let others take the lead. You won’t know the pains to which she goes to carefully follow the rules and be ‘a good girl’. You will not know that she has never been in the principal’s office other than to deliver attendance or run an errand for her teacher. Or that her heart breaks every time she thinks someone is talking behind her back and that it takes her days to recover from any kind of conflict. But mostly what you will not see is that she is terrified of any kind of trouble that will single her out or thrust her into the limelight.

To observe my past self in the schoolyard, I can easily tap into the angst of childhood that flourished so abundantly in that seemingly innocent arena. Venturing into the schoolyard as a child was a torturous mix of anxious vulnerability and apprehension day after day; where are my friends? What if they aren’t here and I have no one to play with? What if they are mad at me for something I don’t even know I did? What if no one wants to play with me and I am all alone? What if I have no friends left? The schoolyard is a place with minimal adult supervision, clearly defined hierarchies of popularity and sometimes abject cruelty. It is a scary place where complex dynamics dance painfully on that blacktop and can make or break you as a kid.

Flash forward 32 years and I am now the mother of three wildly extroverted alpha male boys. Through circumstances well beyond my control I have become the focus of a significant amount of unwanted attention, both inside the school and outside in the schoolyard. Having a child with ADHD has put me in the limelight and in the hot seat more times than I care to remember. For me, the ever present anxiety of the schoolyard hasn’t changed all that much in 32 years except that now I seem to be experiencing it from both sides; not only as the child but also the mother.

This is where dynamics start to get a little tricky.

As an adult I am supposed to be able to objectively listen to the end of day report from the teacher about Michael’s behaviour. I am supposed to be able to sit in the principal’s office with the door closed to discuss the latest batch of trouble. I am supposed to be able to be the centre of attention and stand by my child out in the schoolyard when yet another parent approaches with yet another conflict to report between their child and mine. I am supposed to be able to be the mother when I still feel so much like the child who doesn’t want this much attention. These reports about Michael leave me feeling crushed and broken as if I am the little girl who is in trouble. This uncomfortable admission leaves me with an exquisitely painful question; how can I possibly support Michael in his perilous journey through childhood when it seems I am still healing my own? I must be able to walk through the school gates at the end of the day inside my 42-year-old body even when the younger version is crying for me to turn tail and run.

If I am honest I still want to blend into the background and have everyone like me. I still don’t want to be in trouble or, God forbid, be called into the principal’s office. I still don’t want to be the centre of attention and I dread the thought of parents talking behind my back about my out-of-control child and my bad parenting. There are days when I truly wish the ground would open up and swallow me whole so I did not have to face yet another angry parent, teacher or principal.

I have often heard it said that our children are our teachers. It seems to me that Michael has come into my life to teach me many things. My experience with Michael is teaching me that I am an exquisite mix of both strength and vulnerability. I am not supposed to have all the answers and he did not choose me to walk his path for him, just be by his side to make the way a little smoother whenever I am able. He is showing me that my ten-year-old self had that same strength of character and that it is one of the things that made her so special. Michael is showing me that even though the child in me wants to run away from the heart breaking conflict, I resolutely choose to stand beside him every single time. He also reminds me daily that his struggles are not about me and that all those latent childhood vulnerabilities have no place in today’s schoolyard. He helps keep my delicate ego in check because there really is no room for ego in parenting this beloved and complicated child.

So at the end of the day I am beginning to understand that my job is not to walk Michael’s perilous path for him. Nor is it to scurry around behind him making excuses and cleaning up the ‘mess’. My job is to stand with him and support him even when it is really hard and all I want to do is to flee. Part of being a mother to Michael is to stand in the muck beside him and know that we can face whatever comes along because we are in it together. It also seems that Michael is teaching me that my ever-present ten-year-old self helps me to identify with the desperately vulnerable child that is inside Michael. And that perhaps between us we have the strength to get through the challenges that lay ahead.

As painful as it is at times, perhaps life on both sides of the schoolyard isn’t quite so bad after all.

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Light in the Tunnel

I have never been someone who is comfortable asking for help. I seem to have this irrational notion that to ask for help is to expose my fallibility and weakness. One short month ago I dropped all the heavy armour that I have been hauling around for so long and reluctantly surrendered to the enemy…or so I thought. It turns out that there is no battle, no enemy and there are no sides. There is simply a beautiful little boy with curly hair and a dazzling smile that needs me to finally admit that I am human, that I cannot do it on my own and that I need some help.  

Michael came to me in the kitchen an hour after I wrote ‘Scared and Confused’ with panic written all over his face. He knew that we were going to school that morning to ‘face the music’ and he was utterly terrified. I was feeling emotionally shaky myself having just admitted that I cannot live with my family or this child any longer. As Michael approached me in the kitchen all I could think was; ‘I am absolutely done, I have nothing left to give you.’ Michael is not a child who cries, he chokes up when he is moved but he does not cry. That morning he had big tears threatening to spill down his cheeks as he pulled on my arm so that we were face to face. He told me “I don’t want this life Mommy. I want to start my life over. I don’t want this life.” Michael’s words struck me like a devastatingly painful blow and my knees buckled from the force. As I crumpled I took Michael with me and we ended up crying together on the kitchen floor.

Weeping on the floor with my beloved child in my arms was the final breaking point. I had no defences left and felt completely shattered. I wept with grief, frustration, disappointment, empathy and a love so fierce I was choking on it. At seven years of age Michael is not supposed to have profound worries. His biggest concern should be who he is playing with in the park with after school or whether he gets new shoes on the weekend. No seven-year-old should have to suffer the way Michael is suffering. I just wanted it to stop. I needed to figure out a way to make it stop.

As I arrived in the schoolyard that morning a dear friend took one look at me and opened her arms. I quietly wept on her shoulder without a care for the curious onlookers; I simply didn’t have the energy to hide it any longer. After drying my tears Simon and I headed into a meeting with the principal. She told us that Michael would end up on medication regardless of what we tried and that his behaviour needed to be under control by September. I dragged myself home from that meeting feeling like a balloon with the air let out. I was exhausted and overwhelmed with hundreds of questions and no answers. I felt utterly alone in my suffering and had to resist the urge to either crawl into bed or run for my life.

Shortly after returning home I received a telephone call. I found myself on the other end of the phone with a mother whom I had met briefly the previous week. She had seen me crying in the schoolyard that morning and was calling to offer her help. She told me she did not want to invade my privacy but that she had a story I might want to hear. She proceeded to give me the account of her son who has Asperger’s Syndrome and ADHD. She told me that he is not on medication and that with a radical change in diet, naturopathy, osteopathy and supplements, her son is now attending our local school. She gave me all the names and numbers of the professionals with whom she has worked and titles of books to get me started. Suddenly, I not only had a place to begin my journey but also a new friend who was prepared to hold my hand as I took my first uncertain steps on this dauntingly treacherous path.

In one phone call, suddenly there was hope and a light in the dark tunnel. One woman had the courage and depth of compassion to reach out to a virtual stranger and offer empathy and love. She offered me a safe harbour in the storm and she changed the course of my journey with her willingness to be vulnerable. She shared her own open secret. It is this brave mother who is living her own enormous challenges who inspired me to share my journey and open my secret for all those others who feel hopeless, helpless and scared.   

Hopefully, someone will read my words and realize that there is light, hope and love ‘out there’ in community with one another. That opening our secrets to each other is the first step to healing our own wounds and then healing our beloved children.

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Scared and Confused

As the idyll of April drew to a glorious close and I had narrowly escaped the clutches of ADHD, I felt euphoric and hopeful. The constant gnawing anxiety about Michael getting into trouble at school was fading and I was confident that we were heading into the best summer ever. My mom came out to visit for the day on May 4th to help me hang pictures and unpack boxes. Sitting in a beautiful tea room over lunch we celebrated the fact that our move had been a resounding success and we toasted a new chapter for Michael.

Shortly after returning from lunch a phone call came from our school principal gravely informing me that a child had been badly hurt on the playground at recess. Suddenly the tsunami that had been quietly gathering force struck land. It hit hard and it hit fast and even as I write those words I can feel the terrifying sensation of drowning throughout my entire body. April had been a short respite from the heartbreaking truth and it suddenly seemed that May was to be my Day of Reckoning. All the hiding, all the pretending, all the maybes and all the desperate hope was gone in one phone call.

I wrote ‘Scared and Confused’ at 4:00am the following morning after a long and sleepless night. Stripped bare of all my defences and utterly terrified I turned to the comfort of unchecked words flowing from my fingers…          

Scared and Confused

There are always two sides to every story and I am no exception. The outside story of my life is that I have three beautiful sons with gorgeous curly hair, blue eyes and infectious smiles. They are fun, active and bursting with a zest for life that dazzles me. There is never a dull moment in my house and every waking second is action-packed. They are the kind of kids I always dreamed of and I love them with every fibre of my being. They are funny and loving and anyone who knows them collectively will remark on the fact that they are ‘great kids’. When we leave the house they are a formidably united front and always have each other’s backs. To observe me you would think that I am a great mom who handles her wild brood of boys with exquisite dexterity. You would see me smiling broadly as I walk them to school in the morning, my heart bursting with pride as I get a glimpse of how they must appear to the outside observer. You would look at me and think that I am a woman who has it all together, that I am one of the lucky ones.

That is the outside story. The inside story is an entirely different read.    

My family is slowly sucking the life out of me and I don’t know where to turn. I am so utterly exhausted by the demands of my life I just feel like yelling; ‘stop the ride, I want to get off.’ I am not the kind of mother I always dreamed I would be; I am impatient, frustrated and angry. There is not one day that goes by that I don’t yell at my children to the point that my throat hurts afterwards and it is hard to talk. I resent my family for being so difficult and I would like to know how it feels to have a family I can live with. I would like to experience just one day without the relentless conflict and violence in my house. I would like to know what it feels like to drop my kids off at school in the morning without a huge knot of fear in my stomach. Or to know what it feels like to simply relax and enjoy time with my family because I cannot. I dread the things that most people long for; weekends, family holidays, parties and summertime because they are all just too fraught with conflict and stress. Sometimes I dream about my marriage breaking up because then I would only have to parent part-time. How’s that for a solution?

This is not the life I had hoped for and dreamed about; it is demanding and hard and I am tired of the whole thing. I want out!

My middle son, Michael, has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. He is so difficult to live with there are days when I feel as if I cannot continue to live with him under the same roof. Michael is an easy person to love and a difficult person to like. He is impulsive, unpredictable and demanding. His behaviour is a constant challenge and to be around him is like trying to live with a tsunami. I am in constant danger of being drowned by my seven-year-old son and I am scared. Michael is prone to violent outbursts that seem to come out of nowhere. He will openly admit when he has lost control of his body and will always insist that ‘it’s not my fault’. I used to think that was a poor excuse for bad behaviour and punish Michael severely with time outs and harsh consequences. It turns out that Michael is right, it is not his fault. His attention deficit makes it impossible for him to control his impulses.

The question is; how can I let him leave the house every day when I know that he is a ticking time bomb? What if he hurts someone? What if he really hurts someone? That is the possibility that keeps me awake in white fear night after night. That fear has its cold hand lodged around my heart 24 hours a day and makes it almost impossible for me to function. I cannot live this way anymore and I am at my breaking point.

I spend every moment of every day with a knot of anxiety in my stomach. When Michael is away from me I worry about what kind of trouble he is getting himself into at school. By about 2:00 every afternoon I feel the anxiety turning into dread as I anticipate the report from Michael’s teacher about his behaviour that day. Underneath that constant anxiety is the fear of a phone call from the principal that there has been serious trouble. That phone call came yesterday afternoon to inform me that Michael had been involved in an incident on the playground that sent one of his adorable little friends to the hospital in an ambulance. The principal did not know whether it was an accident or a deliberate push but she made it clear that the time had come to get Michael some help. As I listened to her describe the incident I could feel my own defensiveness coming to the surface. I was furious with her for her unspoken accusations even as I knew in my heart that it was probably Michael’s lack of impulse control that had caused the accident. I was not only angry with the principal but also with Michael for being so difficult and making my life so hard. All I could think was; ‘why can’t he be more like his brothers? I never get phone calls about them.’

So here I am feeling more alone than I have ever felt. I am struggling to live this life and I am scared. I know it is time to get some help but I don’t know where to turn or how to start. Even though I am someone who does not generally believe in pharmaceutical medication, I am so desperate for some relief from the constant struggle that today I just want ‘the magic pill’ for Michael. I want it so much that I feel like a junkie looking for a fix. However, the question of medication opens up a whole other can of worms and once again I am overwhelmed by questions that seem to have no answers. I want someone to tell me what to do because I am too tired to figure it out. I am so exhausted I just want to run away or climb into bed and hide until this all blows over. However, it seems that this storm is here to stay and no amount of hiding or staying in bed will make it disappear.  

Now my dirty little secret is out and I feel exhausted with relief. Where do I go now? What do I do? I feel as if I am facing an epic journey with no map. I don’t even know where the journey begins and I am just so tired I don’t know if I can put one foot in front of the other to find out. I dread the sounds of my family slowly awakening this morning because it means I have to face another overwhelming and exhausting day. Despair tastes bitter in my mouth and my heart aches with the disappointment of my life. This was not my dream and I feel ashamed to admit that I want to walk out the front door and never come back. I have that choice in the back of my mind every single day and some days it is harder than others to make the right one.   

The only thing that keeps me going is the fact that I can ‘jump ship.’ I can leave at any time without a backward glance. Michael, however, does not have that same choice and must live in a torturous body that is relentlessly churning with unchecked energy. If I choose to turn my back on my child and abdicate responsibility then he has no hope of navigating these stormy waters alone. I am the mother, I am the adult and Michael chose me. I am the reluctant shipmate on this crazy voyage but I will not abandon Michael to the elements. I must trust that I will find what I need when I need it and that I have enough strength left to turn into the eye of this storm and fight for Michael’s life.

A terrified little voice inside me asks; what if this storm kills me? What if I don’t have what it takes to weather this direct hit? What if I go down and take the whole ship with me?

What if?

I suppose only time will tell.

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I have been hiding behind the skirts of my trusted friend, Maybe, for over seven years. I have taken full advantage of her generosity and have camped out, almost exclusively, in her company. Her patience for my continued presence has been unwavering and never have I been encouraged to seek companionship elsewhere. If ever I have found myself running short of new possibilities for Michael’s daily challenges, my trusted cohort has been able to swiftly supply me with a fresh batch of maybes that I could chase eagerly like an enthusiastic child with a butterfly net.

Maybe has allowed me to shield myself not only from the painful truth of an ADHD diagnosis but also the daily struggles of my beloved child. As Michael’s behaviour has become progressively more violent and impulsive and our home life almost unbearable, the maybes have been coming thick and fast. My list of accumulated maybes over the years would make for an impressive tome were they ever to be collected in one volume. I have included a short sampling to demonstrate the gist of my concerted and sometimes desperate efforts to keep my head firmly buried in the sand.

Maybe all Michael needs is;

  • A more patient mother
  • More love
  • More effort
  • More creative thinking
  • More snuggling
  • Less yelling
  • Less chaos
  • A chiropractor
  • An osteopath
  • A healer
  • A new healer
  • A massage therapist
  • A naturopath
  • A movement kinesiology therapist
  • A child psychologist
  • More sleep
  • A run before school
  • Organic food
  • More sun
  • More water
  • Less TV
  • Less video games
  • Less candy
  • More vitamins
  • A calmer family environment
  • Time away from his brothers
  • Dancing lessons
  • Tae Kwon Do
  • A change of scene
  • A new school
  • A more patient teacher
  • A younger teacher
  • An older teacher
  • A less structured classroom
  • A more structured classroom
  • Calmer friends
  • Less boys around him
  • A vigorous walk to school every morning

I clung to each new maybe as if I was drowning and my life depended not only upon its existence but also its success. If the last maybe didn’t work it was time to dream up the next one and jump on the newest bandwagon. The biggest maybe came on the 27th of March when we moved from our beautiful house to be within walking distance of the alternative school to which we had relocated last year in a desperate attempt to improve Michael’s situation. I had resolutely decided that all Michael’s struggles were going to miraculously come to an end the day we moved and the last maybe on my long list was going to be our Holy Grail. All he needed was consistent and vigorous exercise every morning.

It seemed that my hunch with regards to moving was accurate and the month of April was idyllic. We had warm and sunny days, hours in the park and happy walks to and from school. Michael’s teacher reported a dramatic change in his behaviour and he was happier than I had ever seen him. I had decided that Michael’s psychologist was wrong and he did not have ADHD; he simply needed more exercise. As April drew to a close I felt more optimistic about our family than I ever had. The conflict and violence between the boys at home remained but I was so accustomed to that aspect of my life it didn’t matter as long as school was finally settled. Life was good.

What I didn’t know was that the tsunami was simply gathering force and was set to strike. I didn’t know that the time for maybe was about to come to a crashing standstill. I didn’t know that the bottom was about to drop out of life as I knew it. I was still happily clinging to the skirts of my trusted companion and dreaming up the next maybe…just in case.

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Four Letters

I have spent seven years and massive amounts of energy hiding from the probability that my son, Michael, has ADHD. I have chosen to investigate every other possible cause for his constant struggles and kept ADHD firmly at arm’s length. If anyone in my life ever hinted at an attention deficit issue they would also find themselves at the end of my outstretched arm. Michael was physically assaulted by his grade 2 teacher on the morning of Februry 10th. Once the chaotic fallout of the assault died down we were left with a sad and confused little boy. We sought out the help of a Child Psychologist who not only dared to breathe those dreaded letters but did so after a one hour intake meeting.

I wrote ‘Four Letters’ three months ago the morning following that first appointment:

It sounds strange to admit that I am afraid of four letters of the alphabet. I have been so terrified of these letters that I have spent an inordinate amount of time and energy keeping them out of my life. These dreaded letters are something no parent ever wants to hear about their beloved child; ADHD. Even as I write them I feel a bitter taste in my mouth and a pressure around my heart. I don’t want it to be true and yet deep in my heart I have known it for a long time.  I don’t want to be intimate with these letters and yet we have been in close relationship for years. There is something so distasteful and common about this particular combination of letters that I want to turn away and deny. However, I know that the implication of burying my head in the sand is to continue to bury my son in the enormous struggles he feels every single moment of his life, especially at school.     

With all the emotional fallout from the assault on Michael at school we have sought the support of a child psychologist named Pam. Simon and I met with Pam last night and she is warm, professional and empathetic. As I sat in Pam’s office and presented her with my profile of Michael, I felt as if I was unpacking and unburdening heavy baggage that I have carried with me for seven years. The relief of the unburdening felt so profound it left me feeling almost bereft without its constant presence inside my body. I have spent enormous amounts of emotional energy trying to convince myself and the rest of the world that there is nothing ‘wrong’ with Michael. I have fiercely denied any possibility that he is anything other than a highly energetic and unique child. Any suggestion of an attention deficit left me feeling violently defensive on Michael’s behalf; how dare they insinuate that his energy and character are anything other than a gift of high spirit?

Unfortunately, my defensiveness and fear have left Michael floundering like a fish out of water. Michael lives in a world of conformity and clearly defined edges. His spirit is so large and so full of energy he struggles constantly as he bumps up against the confines of the boundaries he encounters daily. If I allow myself to walk in his shoes I can feel that Michael’s life is a living hell every single day. Childhood is meant to be the time for abundant joy, ultimate freedom and boundless fun. Michael’s life is none of those things and my heart breaks for his loss. I have always dreamed of happy, healthy kids who navigate their way happily and effortlessly through a dreamy childhood. I grieve the loss of that dream so deeply I feel almost paralyzed. When the letters ADHD came out of Pam’s mouth last night I met them with a feeling surprisingly akin to relief- was it Michael’s relief or mine I was tapping into? I simply do not know. So the question now is; how do I live with this presence who has finally been reluctantly welcomed into my home? How do I be with someone with whom I do not choose to live? How do I recover my equilibrium enough to help steer Michael through these waters in which I do not want to swim?               

When I took my first special education course through the University of Toronto we were given a piece of paper upon arrival at the very first class. The title at the top was ‘Welcome to Holland’. It was a profoundly moving narrative written by the mother of a special needs child. She brilliantly compares the experience of having a special needs child to preparing for a trip to Italy and instead ending up in Holland. With all the planning, dreaming and preparing for Italy you are simply not prepared to be in Holland but in Holland you will stay. This woman’s narrative moved me so deeply that fifteen years later I can recall that evening as if it was only last night. However, now I am on the other side of the fence.  I am no longer the young and empathetic elementary school teacher but the mom who suddenly finds herself in unknown territory for the very first time.

Looking back over the past seven years of Michael’s life I can see that we have been in Italy under false pretences. Every time someone has approached me to suggest that perhaps we don’t belong here I have steadfastly turned away and busied myself elsewhere. I have so often felt that life was really not supposed to be quite so hard in Italy; wasn’t it supposed to be all sunshine, pasta, breathtaking views and stunning history? It certainly has not felt like the trip I had planned all those years ago and it seems to be getting harder by the day.   

So I am now faced with a choice; to stay in Italy even though I know we do not belong here or relocate to Holland where life will finally feel more settled and resonant. I am not quite ready, however, to call the moving trucks and relocate the whole family. I want to stay in Italy just a little bit longer even if life here is hard and heartbreaking. I need time to sort through my stuff, pack my bags and prepare for the journey. I need time.

It is with a heavy heart that I close out my narrative. However, I do look forward to all those beautiful tulips…they are my favourite flower after all.

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Fighting for Air

My son has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. As I write those words a painful weight settles itself upon my chest and it is hard to breathe. A month ago I would have vehemently denied such a truth but it seems the time for denial has come and gone. Hiding from this truth has felt like holding off a deadly tsunami that will inevitably strike without warning and leave utter destruction in its path.

That tsunami struck twenty six days ago and I have been fighting for air ever since.   

The past three weeks of my life has been a remarkable journey through bottomless despair and soaring hope. One moment I am sure that the water will pull me under and the next I find a small air pocket in which to take a few gasping breaths. As I begin my journey into the mysteries of ADHD I feel a need to connect with the community of parents ‘out there’ who might be feeling the same way. The intensity of experience compels me to document and share each step, however tentative, along this new path.

I do not know where my feet will fall on this daunting path but I do know that I cannot walk it alone. So  I find myself asking for help for the first time in my life and desperately hoping that my community will rally. In three short weeks I have come to understand that ADHD is not something I will fight but something which will require a profound depth of love and sheer force of will to alter. I intend to lovingly pry the strong fingers of this disorder from my beloved child one by one so that he can finally know how it feels to live in a body that fits.

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