One of my kids was diagnosed with ADHD last week. This was not a surprise. In fact, I jokingly-not-really told the doctor to expect to see our last name on his roster again at least one more time. I, of course, very much have ADHD. It seems to run pretty strongly through at least one side of my family (the other side is a question mark, but it’s fair to assume the worst, as far as mental health history is concerned). Husbandman thinks it’s pretty likely that he has it, also. In any event, the odds were never in this child’s favor.
I hear it’s fairly common for a child to get diagnosed, and then the parent ends up getting a later-life diagnosis, because the behaviors look or sound so familiar. In our case, this was reversed. I’ve always noticed striking similarities (positive and negative) in the way this child and I process information. We both have incredible imaginations. We are both prone to elaborate daydreams, which means we are both natural born storytellers. We doodle. We read voraciously. We sometimes cry during math lessons.
As a homeschool parent, I am in the unique position of seeing my child thrive and struggle in their academic environment, as well as their home. I don’t get report cards and teacher conferences; I get a front-row seat to The Struggle. It’s 100% on me to decide when a problem goes beyond a child who’s having a bad day/week, or a subject that needs to be approached a different way, and crosses into “this needs outside evaluation” territory. No pressure, me!
Homeschool has been a blessing and a curse in this regard. Since I am able to accommodate everyone’s unique learning styles on the fly, I can create an environment in which they can (pretty much) succeed, (almost) no matter what is going on under the surface. Despite a significant neurological difference, this child has been able to do some profound learning and churn out some pretty remarkable work, so hooray for not getting behind. On the other hand, had they been in a traditional classroom, their challenges probably would have thrown up red flags a lot sooner. So maybe we have both been working a whole lot harder than we needed to be.
Sidebar: The “what if I’d tended this sooner” train of thought is not any more helpful here, though, than when I play that mental game with myself (a game which is, for the record, causing me significant emotional distress and is sending my happy butt back to therapy for a tune-up next week).
In any event, when I got my diagnosis back in September, and began to do more reading about how ADHD can be missed in certain populations, I heard a lot of old tapes playing back in my head.
“You’re so smart, but you don’t apply yourself.”
“You did this perfectly yesterday, how could you have forgotten already?”
“You can’t just do the things you like and ignore anything that’s hard.”
“Would you please pay attention?”
“You’re not working to your potential!”
Now, I heard these tapes mentally, for sure. But you know where else I heard them? Coming out of my mouth. Directed at my child. And I realized how often I had been saying them, for quite some time.
My blood ran cold.
As I watched myself, in miniature, blink back tears over a worksheet with simple math facts–facts that I know for a fact that they know!–because they simply could NOT force their brain to focus on it, I knew in my gut what was going on. This child is smart. This child loves to learn. They are a people pleaser, and a person who lives to overcome a challenge. They are not choosing to not focus, or choosing to be a difficult pupil. They can’t get their brain to do the thing.
THEY CAN’T GET THEIR BRAIN TO DO THE THING.
As someone who also often cannot get their brain to do the thing, I felt an instant shift inside myself. I was able to see beyond my own frustration and feelings of failure as a mother/teacher, and into move into a place of compassion and empathy. I closed the math lesson, told the kiddo to go recharge in their inner-world comfort zone (you may know this by its street name of “reading”), and I called the psychiatry office that diagnosed me.
I could have spent three weeks hyperfocusing, researching the best pediatric psychological and behavioral specialists, but I know myself a little better now, and I knew if I fell down that rabbit-hole, I’d end up using it as a way to procrastinate and start second-guessing myself. As clearly as I knew the child had ADHD, I also knew that my ADHD was the most likely thing to sandbag the whole process. So I forced myself to make the call quickly, while I had the full force of my gut behind it.
Sure enough, ADHD. And anxiety. This was no surprise, as I also have had anxiety. You know why? Have you ever seen an episode of Hoarders? You know that miserable, overwhelmed, skin-crawly feeling it gives you? Imagine that your brain is one of those houses. You know you probably have everything you need, but you can never find it because everywhere you turn, there is another pile of unrelated crap. Oh, you need to access your multiplication tables? Yeah sure, it’s somewhere under this pile of recipes you want to try and random trivia about the Wizard of Oz, watch out for the dead cat. Godspeed!
Untreated ADHD makes you feel perpetually behind. It makes you forget things and get into trouble. You are constantly on edge, afraid to mess up one more thing. You’re positive that everyone sees all your failures and quietly resents you. And, by the way, having 400 monkeys dancing in your head, each to a different song, is mentally exhausting. When it is so noisy inside, everything outside can become incredibly overwhelming. It feels an awful lot like anxiety.
Anyway, that’s my long-winded way of saying, I get it, kid. I get why you feel anxious, frustrated, overwhelmed, and even angry sometimes. Solidarity, baby.
Lucky for both of us, I am a habitual over-sharer. I’ve been explaining (in age-appropriate ways) that I have a “special brain,” and am taking a medication that is helping me to be the best version of myself that I can be. So kiddo wasn’t afraid to try a pill to see if it could help them concentrate and quiet some of the never-ending background noise in their brain. Yesterday was day one. And guess what:
IT WORKED! This child was able to work through some very complicated math–math that used to bring them to tears–without doodling, without ripping up their paper, without feeling like a failure when they missed something on the very first try. There was some residual anxiety at first. We talked about that, and kiddo related it a Cosmic Kids Zen Den they watched about the Owl and the Guard Dog, (which is sheer genius and a must-watch, if you have a reactive kid with anxiety).
We talked about how their guard dog is used to being on high alert during school, because their owl wasn’t able to think through things the way it needs to. Their owl needed a little help, just like mine, just like lots of people. The guard dog wants the best for us, but it needs to be retrained, because things are going to be different, now that the owl has what it needs. We won’t need to be so on-guard all the time.
This child feels so much better about themselves already. They are more confident, less overwhelmed, and feeling like they can handle anything. It has been ONE DAY. I am thrilled for them. I may have cried when they handled their math like a boss. My mother long-suspected that she had some type of ADHD, and with the perspective I have now, I suspect she was probably right. My entire adult life has been dedicated to breaking the cycles in my family tree, and this feels like an enormous piece of the puzzle for some of us.
I am so grateful.