Saturday evening, Thanksgiving Break, doing my damnedest to stay “grateful” while cleaning a newly-discovered mound of partially-dried, electric-yellow bile crusting over the back right corner of the non-removable wool seat cushion. I marvel, between reluctant dabs and cursed mutterings, at Annie’s stamina. Even at death’s door, barely able to lift her own head, she’d hauled herself onto a pricey armchair before voiding the contents of her stomach.
“At least she’s alive” I tell myself, ignoring my brain’s smartass rejoinder: “Too bad about sending the kids to college!” Indeed, the vet assured us Annie will recover, as the front desk receptionist swiped a four digit fee onto my Visa.
We’d spent all Thanksgiving morning cooking and cleaning, prepping for an evening feast at Rick’s mother’s. I won’t point fingers, but RICK accidentally left out an overflowing trash can when we left for the suburbs. If you made up a list of “Most Toxic Items For Dogs” it would look a whole lot like this trash bag — raw turkey skin, splintering bones, damp coffee grounds, razor-edged cans, powdery chocolate wrappers, and so on.
When we returned after dark, it was like turning on the lights in some grisly detective drama; there’d been a violent struggle throughout the downstairs, but the villain had prevailed, devouring nearly everything in the can, including packaging. Floyd and Bobo cowered in the corner like traumatized witnesses in the back of an ambulance. Annie, on the other hand, lay stretched and sated on her side, Jabba the Hutt in an opium den. We decided to wing it, cleaning the floors and bidding her goodnight.
Predictably, the next morning presented a fresh new crime scene, with strategically-spaced land mines of vomit on hardwoods, beneath tables, under chairs, over the sides of dog beds, and camouflaged in busy rug patterns. Outside, at least, was gorgeous, so we opened up the house and cleaned again, leaving the dogs to the front yard. Annie lounged all afternoon, sleeping it off we hoped. She’s never been one for exercise, but as day bled into night and her lethargy didn’t lift, a creeping worry set in. Then the unthinkable happened: she did not eat dinner.
I lay awake half the night, checking on her several times. By morning I admitted defeat, slamming a cup of coffee and driving her up the highway to the emergency clinic. It was really no surprise, as our kids and dogs years ago held a secret meeting where they swore to demand urgent medical attention exclusively on holidays and weekends.
I learned several interesting things during our visit. First, Annie’d put on 10 pounds since her last weigh-in, roughly the equivalent of a human gaining 70 pounds in five minutes. I knew she was rotund in her wormlike way, but I wasn’t prepared for the technician to shout, “SERIOUSLY? Is that even POSSIBLE?” when reading the scales. In our defense, Annie’s been on the same sensible diet since we got her, but it’s hard to control for variables like large pepperoni jalapeño pizzas stolen off kitchen counters or generous slices of chocolate layer cake snatched on self-initiated “walks”.
More fascinating still was when the vet, who looked all of 15, came in to discuss Annie’s x-rays. “Of course you’ll know about the air rifle, then?” he asked in a lilting Irish accent, nodding encouragingly. “Excuse me?” I said. “You REALLY don’t know? ” he said, suddenly animated. “Why, she’s been shot by an air rifle — TWICE — look here! They’re still inside her!” He tapped the film for emphasis, drawing finger circles around the pellets. “Nasty ones, too!” he added, folding arms across his scrubs and swaying foot to foot.
I felt it first in my eyes, then my cheeks, and before I knew it I was laughing, so hard it came out silent, so hard the vet crinkled his eyes and laughed too. I gave his back an awkward pat and wiped my eyes, apologizing, though in truth I wasn’t all that sorry. I just couldn’t stop imagining Annie, in a tight little Peter Rabbit coat, rooting around a garden, lifting a pie off a windowsill, sliding a steak off a grill, while some bearded, overalled crabapple of a man chased her with a hoe, or in this case an air rifle, zeroing in on her ample rear as it disappeared under chicken-wire.
For some crazy reason it made me proud — “I like your lapdog. My dog’s been shot.” I laughed for the old-fashioned dogness of her, unrepentant in her roaming and snuffling and gorging and scrounging ways. I laughed because Annie never has and never will give a shit, and she’ll outlive any old Mr. McGregor, maybe outlive us all. And I laughed because I got to bring her home, and just this once, put her to bed without any supper.
Thanksgiving morning, Fudge pads in, early. He plops down on my sleeping body, sniffling and situating until most of his weight rests on my bladder, coughing into my face and settling in. He guides my limp arm over his back and bottom, squeezing my hand to signal I should rub. Rick sighs and rolls out of bed as Sadie wanders in, rubbing her eyes and trailing a queen-size blanket, a mound of stuffed animals spilling over her arms.
She climbs up and stage whispers “HAPPY THANKSGIVING” in a way that’s louder than her normal voice, and Fudge rolls over to tell her he said it first. Sadie wants to know how I responded, insisting I committed at some point last night to saying “Same to you” but not “Happy Thanksgiving” to anyone who got to me before her.
I pretend to be sleeping, even though my pillow has vanished and the middle of the bed inexplicably no longer has covers. The first hint of coffee mingles with dust mites in the light sliver above me, and Sadie gasps and sits up, pounding the night light on the clock, worried we’ll miss the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade.
I give up, getting up to pee, and I can tell by the sound Rick’s feet make in the hallway he’s trying not to slop mugs of hot coffee. I brush my teeth and they all disappear downstairs, then Rick’s yelling back up, asking where I’ve put the bag of bandaids I bought the other day — a Saran wrap accident I can’t quite follow. I check in on Audrey, curled in headphones over her iPhone, already immersed in text chatter with friends. Brooks will sleep for hours. Fudge rushes in, wild-haired and chapped-lipped, to announce the parade’s start. The dogs lift hopeful heads as I enter the kitchen, but it’s not my job to feed them, and it’s too cold to walk just yet.
Rick will build a fire, and we’ll cook and putter and sip and lounge until Sadie gets bored and Fudge falls off the back of the couch, until Aud picks a fight and Brooks turns cynical, until Rick claims I’m not helping and I get mad over dirty dishes. Until we forget why we’re thankful, a luxury we can afford, because we’ve got it all.
It’s funny the things that now fill me w/murderous rage. Me: “Ugh. I have to go to the GROCERY.” Rick: “Well, that’s kinda fun. You just walk the aisles, pick out some foo—what?” Me: “I will fucking KILL you if you ever say that shit again.”
Things I no longer process as weird: 1) someone talking to me about homework and dinner as they methodically empty the laundry basket onto the bed, tuck hair under a tight knit cap, struggle to curl into a small enough ball to squeeze all the way underneath the basket, then pop just a head out to interrupt: “Look. I’m a turtle.” 2) someone pretending my butt is a guitar, strumming then thumping it while loudly singing as I stand on tiptoe trying to reach the only clean towel off the closet shelf; 3) someone wandering in and turning over the same laundry basket, yelling for me to “come here — QUICK!” so I can watch as they balance inside the end of the now precariously leaning basket, arms spread Kate Winslet-wide, humming Celine Dion.
Aud and I pull up at a red light next to a tastefully beribboned Rolls Royce, new bride and groom perched rather stiffly in the back. Because a)we’re classy and b)the timing was just too perfect, we roll down all the windows and crank up “Single Ladies” as loud as it will go.
We could debate the merits of “Silly Love Songs” (though we’re probably on the same side), but for anyone who’d argue the value of the arts, name one thing lovelier than the instant sound of a diving board’s bounce, the shouts and whistles and muffled pitches of summertime chatter; the smell of chlorine and suntans and vinyl-strapped poolside chairs; the sight of smooth, artificially-tinged water parting then folding back on itself to the rhythmic rise and fall of your dad’s submerged shoulders, as you cling to his neck, delighted, commanding him to ferry you faster, faster, into the deep end.
Night before Halloween. Fudge can not sleep. 442nd request from the top of the stairs: Fudge: “Mama? MAaaaaMaaaah. MAMA!” Me: “What IS IT NOW? If you don’t go to sleep, there will BE NO HALLOWEEN!!!” Fudge: “Okay, but Mama? What time is my alarm USUALLY set for?” Me: “What? I don’t know. What? …6:45, I think, why?” Fudge: “Can you wake me up early? I need to get up early. So, at, like, 6:43? Yeah. I need you to wake me up at 6:43. I’ve got things to do.”
There it is again, in my Facebook feed, another meme, the latest version of “In my day we didn’t have ADHD. We had parents who weren’t afraid to discipline, and kids who were sent outside to play until the lights came on.” Here I am again, trying to refrain from commenting, to keep from feeling insulted, to remember they haven’t seen what I see.
Generally, two lines of attack are reserved for us, the parents of children diagnosed with ADHD. Either we’re too lazy to discipline, to teach our children when to sit down, stay still, and listen up, or we’re unreasonably demanding, expecting miniature child-zombies who sit quietly and never exercise outdoors. I’m delighted to report my family life fits neither of these profiles.
My husband and I have always been pretty strict with our four kids in terms of public behavior — we’ve (hopefully) raised them to be polite and respectful in restaurants and stores. Fussy babies were soothed on sidewalks, tantrumy toddlers removed to outside benches, sullen tweens instructed to wait in the car. Outside such confines, we’ve advocated a kids-be-kids approach; plays, games, and lemonade stands; skateboarding, tree-climbing, and trampoline-jumping; we’d rather risk the occasional ER visit than protect our kids from the largely benign “dangers” of experimentation. And to be honest, I think we’re pretty good at our job. We know when to let our kids sing and shout and act silly; we know when it’s time to make them settle down. We aren’t the kind of parents who deal with the overblown drama of ADHD. Except, of course, we are.
I’d love to pretend I wasn’t judgmental about behavioral issues before our experience, but it’s not true. I’d more than once asserted that “some” kids just needed firmly delineated lines, and I’d smugly assumed I’d never resort to “drugging” my own children. But the remarkable, wonderful thing about parenting is how often it manages to flick you off your pedestal. As a friend recently mea culpaed: that pain-in-the-neck kindergartner in her daughter’s class last year? Happy as a clam, sharing lunch in the cafeteria with his father, who it turned out had been deployed the last 12 months. That stranger’s kid I dissed on Facebook for behaving poorly at the pool? Wound up being the child of acquaintances, warm and generous people who had their daughter send me an apology letter. But the shame was all mine. Because guess what? All kids act bratty sometimes, even yours and mine; it’s part of growing up, of learning to navigate society. Our job is to facilitate such growth through correction and encouragement, not to undermine it with condemnation and finger-pointing. Imagine someone isolating one of your frustrated explosions, say, when your kid’s asked the same question 90 times in the car before you’ve even set foot in the grocery. To a passerby in the cereal aisle, you sound like a real jerk: “All that poor child did was ask for a box of Cap’n Crunch, and his mom totally flew off the handle!” The point, of course, is that it’s impossible to know the breadth of a situation when we’re only glimpsing moments. Unless someone’s being beaten or seriously threatened, it’s probably prudent to withhold judgment, because it’s entirely possible you have no idea what you’re talking about. Sometimes, it’s bad parenting. Sometimes, it’s just a bad day. And sometimes, it’s beyond either. So here’s Aud’s story (told with her permission), our story, and my little plea for caution when playing the blame game.
Our daughter was diagnosed last year with ADHD, inattentive type. She has trouble staying focused and shifting between tasks, difficulty organizing and prioritizing, problems following multi-step instructions, and a tendency to skip over details or make careless mistakes in assignments. Taken individually, these hurdles might not sound terribly unusual to parents of middle-school-aged children; your son’s locker is a disaster, your daughter starts a project the night before it’s due. But grouped, these obstacles form a more serious barrier to learning. It reminds me of the time I attempted to learn to ski, in 12 inches of fresh powder, with a group of friends who already knew how; I would fall, dig around for my lost skis, pound off the snow and ice, struggle to get upright and back into them, then restart my slow descent. By the time I made it to the spot where my friends waited, rested and impatient, I was out of breath and exhausted. But the second they saw me approaching, they’d turn to continue their runs, effortlessly outpacing me. Then I’d fall again. And so it continued, until I began furiously waving them on, demoralized and ready to cry. I would never learn. Everyone but me could do it. I was an embarrassment. This is ADHD thinking.
Let me say here that I understand people’s reservations. ADHD may well be overdiagnosed. I concede that it’s a bit of a catchall term, with a number of nonspecific, frankly somewhat subjective “symptoms”. This isn’t to say there are not standardized testing methods and strict guidelines, but still, the diagnosis is not as concise and therefore not always as reliable as, say, the detection of a cancer. Kids with a wide variety and intensity of issues fall within the ADHD spectrum, but there aren’t neatly laid-out “stages” of the disorder as you’d find with our cancer example. To complicate matters, ADHD is regularly accompanied by other conditions, such as anxiety or depression, OCD or sleep disorders, and, as in my daughter’s case, it can be extremely difficult to distinguish the horse from the cart (is the anxiety prompting the inattention, or is the attention fueling the anxiety?). There are arguments over whether some ADHD “symptoms” are not just maturation issues that will sort themselves out with time, or environmentally-based difficulties, the natural byproducts of dysfunctional parenting and/or non-supportive surroundings. There have been calls to throw out the term “ADHD” altogether as too broad and too vague to be useful without inviting abuse. If we can’t say precisely what makes a person ADHD, the logic goes, then anyone can be ADHD. These are all points worth discussing, points I’m neither qualified nor inclined to hash out here. Of course we should safeguard against unscrupulous doctors doling out unnecessary pharmaceuticals to overeager parents. It should be, and in our experience, is difficult to acquire and sustain a prescription. Fine by me if someone figures out how to break down this disorder into more refined, regimented subcategories. For now, though, my daughter falls under the umbrella of ADHD, and for that, I won’t apologize.
Personally, I don’t give a damn if we call her condition “Lunar Mood Ring Syndrome”. It doesn’t make her suffering a shred less real, a smidgen less legitimate. And it doesn’t change the fact that ADHD meds have helped her tremendously. I am deeply empathetic with societal reluctance to medicate children. In fact, the idea initially terrified me. For us, though, there simply came a point where it seemed selfish not to try the drugs.
As far back as 2nd grade, I remember instances of teachers remarking on something unusual about Aud’s learning style, the way she processed, or sometimes didn’t process material. Some things came easily - the lyrics to a song, a script in a play, the plot of a novel; whereas others - the locations of countries on a map, verb tenses in a foreign language, mathematical equations, seemed virtually impossible for her to retain. An early elementary Spanish teacher described it as a “window shade being drawn” whenever he spoke to her in class. The next year, a different teacher showed us her unusual results from a spatial location quiz, where students had been asked to position items on a piece of paper (ex. draw a rectangle in the upper left quadrant). The requests increased in complexity as the test wore on, but for Aud, it didn’t seem to matter. Nearly every task was wrong. Nothing made sense.
It wasn’t as if Aud was slow; she was bright as a button, which made the “holes” all the more maddening. She could hold her own in any debate, write short stories in her sleep, come up with witty retorts on the spot. Her intellect and her work product just didn’t match up. Nor was she lazy. She would (finally, painstakingly) memorize items for a test, then inexplicably, a mere 12 hours later, be wholly unable to access these answers. It pains me to think of the times I said “Just pay attention!” or “You’re not trying!” because she was desperately struggling to do both. As far as she was concerned, I was really saying, “Why are you too stupid to get this?” By fifth grade, we took her for extensive (and expensive) testing to try and figure out what was going on. The testing came back inconclusive, a generalized “math disorder” with results indicative, but not definitive, of attention issues. It was strongly recommended we retest in a year or two.
We finished elementary school without much incident, then junior high hit with the force of a nuclear bomb. Small daily failures mounted, as did my daughter’s dread surrounding the school day. Multitasking skills, such as listening to lectures while simultaneously taking notes, proved nearly insurmountable for Aud, so she’d simply shut down, accomplishing neither. Thus began a cycle of frustrated intentions, aborted attempts, reactionary checking out, and full-blown panic. The harder she tried to concentrate on one thing, the more her brain focused on what she was missing. Anxiety smothered curiosity.
For nearly a year, we did everything we could think of to shake off the weight. We hired math tutors and organizational tutors. Teachers worked one-on-one with Aud in after-school sessions. School counselors listened and offered encouragement. Friends soothed tears in the girl’s bathroom. Her piano instructor stopped mid-lesson to teach breathing and relaxation techniques. I took her to mother/daughter sessions with a yoga instructor. My husband took her running. We considered hiring a “Life Coach”, the sort of thing we would have snorted at in our old life. Nothing helped.
Countless hours, sobs, words of support and frustration passed across our kitchen table, sprawled on our bed, parked in our driveway, the ignition long-since turned off. Desperation, self-loathing, and hopelessness for her; determination, aching worry, and helplessness for us. Our other children suffered, too. We had no time for pedestrian tales of their days, no time for basic homework help, no time for pre-bedtime stories. When one kid is drowning, you can’t worry about perfecting another kid’s strokes. The days fell into a pattern. She’d be tense, moody, silent on the way to school, fretting about the day before it began. I’d fight rising panic on the way to afternoon carpool, squinting to see her expression, searching for body language clues as she approached the car. The flood of tears, the gush of words, usually began before the door fully closed. She would never learn. Everyone but her could do it. She was an embarrassment.
I began to dread teachers, their purposeful strides toward the carpool lane, their hushed tones at the window, their concerned emails and well-meaning phone calls. I already knew what they wanted, found it nearly unbearable to rehash Aud’s day, to hear of the panicked breathing, the distressed expression, the inability to take in their words. Her homebase teacher’s eyes were soft, almost pleading, when she finally said, “She shouldn’t have to work this hard.”
Things had gotten out of hand, yet I’d steadfastly refused to even consider medication. Why? It’s true I worried about side effects on her growing, hormonally-charged body — I still do. But in retrospect, I have to acknowledge that the stigma of ADHD as some sort of con game, a “lazy” way out, played a huge part in the delay. I loathed the pop-a-pill ignominy of it, thought of it as giving up somehow, avoidance rather than confrontation. It’s horrifying to me that I let my pride prevent me from seeking out the help my child needed, help it was my sole job to demand. I’d let her sink down in Georgia red clay, caked and cracking, dabbing with a sponge when I needed a pressure washer.
We found a psychologist, conservative in her approach and indisputably ethical, with whom Audrey developed an immediate, easy rapport. We took her to be retested (again at great expense). Her anxiety levels were off the charts, so much so that they overshadowed clinically significant ADHD red flags. The results were murkier than we had hoped. Either it was an anxiety disorder at root, or the ADHD had elevated anxiety to the point that it now eclipsed the original affliction.
The dreaded subjectivity had come into play, a hallmark of ADHD criticism. In the end, it was indeed a bit of a judgment call. The clinical observations of her psychologist, the personal observations of her parents, the self-reflective observations of the patient, all pointed to attention as the primary culprit. By this point it was nearly summer, which gave us time to reflect on next steps while continuing intensive therapy. Aud’s anxiety subsided, not all at once, but progressively, and significantly we felt, with the retreat of the school year. A few weeks into summer, our old daughter reemerged, happy, funny, free. We agreed to try ADHD medication at the start of the new school year.
The turnaround has been monumental. This year, as an 8th grader, Audrey is making A’s — high A’s, for the most part, and more importantly, she seems to enjoy school (as much as an 8th grader can) again. The dread has vanished. While I don’t attribute this solely to pharmaceuticals, I’d be a fool to deny they’ve helped. They aren’t magic, but they’re another tool in her arsenal. I often think that for her, more than anything, the medication, the diagnosis, signified hope. Giving a name to her condition gave her a way out. She could learn. She could do it. She didn’t need to feel embarrassment.
So she’s seized this momentum, laboring impressively, and with ever-increasing confidence. The first few weeks she seemed tentative, “I got a 93 — but Mom, seriously, it was just an easy test,” as if acknowledging firm ground would cause it to sink beneath her. With every triumph, though, she’s learning to trust her weight. It’s true there are still fissures, but somehow they no longer threaten to crack open and swallow her whole. Regular therapy sessions, dedicated study habits, improved organizational routines, committed teachers, devoted parents, and yes, pills, keep the earth solid, at least for now.
I don’t care if I change your mind about ADHD, but I’d like to think you might pause in the future before openly calling blanket bullshit on any psychiatric disorder. And I’d ask that you check that flicker of an eye roll I sometimes detect when I tell people my daughter has ADHD. She’s “earned” this diagnosis, and she deserves your respect.
But for those who must, go ahead and tell her she’s a phony, tell me I’m a bad parent, tell us this isn’t real. I’ll only hear an 8th grade girl, dancing and singing along to a Taylor Swift song behind her closed bedroom door:
"Well you can take me down, with just one single blow,
For future reference, if a 7-yr-old ever says to you, “Mama, can you go down to the 4th step of the stairs, and stay there until I say you can move?” and you go and he adds, “You probably should put down that drink” and you do, it’s too late b/c he’s going to drop a sword from the upstairs landing onto you head.
My brain is moving out, and good riddance. It’s gathered up once-recited poetry, oft-practiced piano pieces, and rote-retained grammatical rules and discarded them onto the curb. Then it rolled up the rug, raised the blinds and pushed back the furniture to clear out a lifelong space for the lyrics to Foreigner’s “Feels Like the First Time”.
Sadie just “interviewed” me for school about her birth and the days surrounding, when she learned to sit/walk/talk, her favorite things to do, the funny habits and stories from her first 2 yrs. This process revealed that the mind of a mother w/3 children aged 3 and under is a lot like a gas station video camera on a 24-hr loop. I managed to watch over everyone in daily blocks; if nothing catastrophic happened, my tape erased and started over. Some things stuck: the crib in the hallway, a few impossibly sweet curls at the nape, quick eyes and elf ears and oversized front teeth, the sound of your head hitting the corner moulding that one time. My poor, sweet Sadie, I may not recall details, but I know you, an extension of my body, a contraction in my womb, a lactation from my breast, a protrusion on my hip, an expansion of my heart, an explosion of all things good and kind, light and new in my life. Ours is simply a survival story, and that’s worth remembering.
Fudge’s obsession w/Daft Punk continues. Woke up to what sounded like a rave downstairs this morning. When I told him it was too early and too loud, he pleaded for “just two songs” (which are, of course, like 9,000 min long each). Just a few things he screamed at me while leaping between the back of the couch and the coffee table, pretending to be Daft Punk:
"I’m moonRUNNING! That’s what we do, instead of moonwalking! Remember! We’re wearing masks."
"Can you imagine Yoda and Obi Wan watching this? Yoda would be singing it all backwards. ‘Rules the nation, tel-e-vi-sion!’ Obi Wan would be eating lots of popcorn and just shoving it in his face!"
"I imagine them shaking their butts during this part! I’m shaking my butt. WATCH!"
"Okay. You stand right there. No, turn around, with your back to me. You’re just in the audience and you think we’ve gone offstage — just walked off — but you don’t see me and then I jump on your back and you throw me onto that chair and that’s the crowd and I’m just lying like this [on back, fist in the air, Billy Idol sneer] on top of them!"
"Look, I’m wiping my sweat on you. SWEAT! I’m sweating, and I’m wiping it on you, and there’s nothing you can do about it!"
"Remember, Mommy, we’re just always being weirder than the audience!"
8:43, Sat. night, 1/2 the family gone camping, sitting on the couch eating leftover pesto w/Fudge (“I don’t really like this, but I kinda do”), watching “Hop” (the worst kids movie ever green-lighted), listening to Russell Brand voice a (poorly) animated rabbit singing “I Want Candy”, sipping a martini, waiting for Aud (“I take a shower, and you two have a bonding moment? That’s offensive!”) to get back from a party, feeling my heart like a tire on a pump as Fudge leans forward, slurping another bite, eyes locked on TV, and says, “Put your feet back on me, Mommy.”
I have never met anyone who enjoyed the comic strip “Garfield”, because, well, IT’S NOT FUNNY. Fudge checked out a compilation from the school library, and has taken to following me around the house, talking about “John” like we’re friends and relaying Garfield’s hijinks in unendurable panel-by-panel detail. He’s now requesting that I make pasta, “the long kind,” and tie all the ends together before serving him so he can do one long slurp: “That’s how Garfield does it.”
Walked downstairs to Rick cranking Daft Punk, Fudge furiously dancing. I start to join in w/my armful of clean towels, but Fudge stops dead in his tracks, his face a mixture of shock and rising terror. Fudge: “STOP DANCING! That’s NOT how YOU DANCE!” Me: “Wha—you don’t like my dancing?” Fudge [completely serious]: “Don’t dance anymore.”