I haven’t said anything about Coleman’s death, not because I don’t care, but because I didn’t know him as well as many of you, and it seemed somehow parasitical, like trying to reframe an acquaintance as a best friend.

But then my daughter showed up from school and said, “Hey, Mom, I ran into [teacher]’s wife in the bathroom, and you know what she said to me? She said she hoped she didn’t sound weird, but she thought I was beautiful, and she figured if you thought something nice about a person, you should tell them.”

So I hope I don’t sound weird, but here goes.

I can’t say what Coleman was like to those of you who knew him best, but to me, he was one of those people who makes your heart race a little, like when you know you’re about to get in trouble, or hear salacious news, or latch onto some new mischief. He’d study you with those dark eyes, a little hard, a little amused, but never, ever mean. And I know there were demons, but the stupid adjective that keeps coming to mind is “sweet”. Coleman was sweet, the troublemaker who’s still innocent, the pain-in-the-ass who stays charming, the neighborhood kid you want to throttle and hug at the same time. 

I hadn’t seen Coleman much of late, just on Facebook, but I always liked when he’d comment on my posts, because I could count on it being mildly scandalous, or out of left field, or just funny as hell, cutting through the bullshit. Once, I posted a picture of my barely teenage daughter, and of course you want to get compliments, but Coleman wrote, “Yeah, she’s a hottie.” And it was funny.

So he’d fly off with things like that, hilarious things, and once or twice he popped up in my inbox, saying he felt stupid, or he was just being funny, and I knew he was honestly worried about hurting my feelings. And there’s just nothing else to call that but sweet.

The Sunday we found out, my husband and I took the kids to the new El Myriachi, and it felt right, and they were playing the entirety of “Exile on Main St”, which felt right too. I looked up at Rick and saw he was teary, but all I felt was flat, everything expected and impossible to believe. I sipped my margarita, vacantly gazing over his shoulder, and slowly processed what I was staring at. There, on a perfectly-framed billboard outside the window, was a beaming man’s face, cheerfully hawking funeral services. I nearly laughed, because anyone who knows Coleman even a little would suspect it was on purpose. Rick ordered another drink and the album ended, and I watched with tired eyes as our waitress set down food no one wanted. I recognized the beginnings of a Joy Division song, and snorted into my burrito as Ian Curtis lost control again.

I keep imagining the whole thing as a cross-stitch grid. You get into a groove, threading in and out until you hardly remember there were holes to begin with. Then you lose track for a minute, a needle skipping a pinhole, and it’s only looking back that you notice an absence where you never really knew a presence. As you get older, there are more and more tiny holes, the stitched-past casualties of heroin and car wrecks, disease or old age, life and death. You find you can manage, but the missed stitches still nettle, the pattern never feels quite the same.

I know this pinhole is a chasm for many of you. I feel like the kid in line behind me at visitation tonight, who looked up at his mom and asked, “What should I do?” She put her arm around his shoulder and gave the perfect answer: “You just hug them, and tell them you’re sorry.”

So I thought something nice about Coleman today, and I figured you should know.

I could live a little better with the myths and the lies,
When the darkness broke in, I just broke down and cried.
I could live a little in a wider line,
When the change is gone, when the urge is gone,
To lose control. When here we come.

My true tale of the Easter Moth, now on Huff Post.

My essay on circus dandruff is up at Thought Catalog.

9 Things I Learned Growing Up in a Circus Family

Fine, sorry, I misled you with that title. Trust me, you would’ve been disappointed anyway — it’s the nature of clickbait. But you’re already here, killing time at work or counting down hours at home, so just hang on a second. See, I’m frustrated too, in my own, impotent way. What I need is for you to read my words, cut through the flesh and boil down the blubber, oil the lamps and illuminate these crevices inside my brain, inside all our brains.

No, I didn’t secretly work my way through college as a high-class call girl, nor am I here to bestow the 18 Rules to a Happy Marriage. What I want to tell you is that once, driving in the car with my daughter, she scratched her head, examined her fingernails, and said more to the air than me, “I like the smell of my own dandruff. I know it’s weird, but I do. It smells good to me.” I want to shake you and scream that this is the fascinating stuff — not the dandruff, precisely, but the weird little secrets we tote around inside to keep life manageable. Because I understand what she meant, even if my specifics are a little different, and yours too.

When I submit a personal essay, hoping for publication, I’m aware as often as not that I may as well be hollering down a well. Where’s the hook? It’s just my story. But I’m sick of the fantastical; sick of distance. I’m sick of oxfords and rolled-up jeans, of hands proffering field-fresh flowers; I’m sick of inspirational quotes and do-or-don’t lists; sick of dreamworld photo shoots and filtered Instagrams. I’m sick of you, and god knows, sick of me, too.

In our crush to share everything, we’ve moved awfully close to sharing nothing, or at least nothing real. A personal story is no longer enough; we now require outsized versions of ourselves to entice an oversaturated, unimpressed, easily distracted audience. The quest for relatability has become something to sneer at, a sign of weakness. But while a story about someone’s date with a porn star may titillate, will it resonate beyond an initial read? I doubt it.

I remember a Granta short story I read years ago, before children, before social media became standard fare. The author, the title, the details, all irretrievably submerged, but still I carry this scene in my mind: a father, an ill-fitting diaper, a miraculous, one-handed dive to catch baby poop as it spirals toward the ground. What strikes me now is what struck me then: the utter believability of the internal dialogue, how, even as the excrement steams in one open palm, the father begins reformulating the story for later, how he’ll tell it, how his friends will receive it, the teary-eyed laughter over beers as he reenacts the save.

For me, this is all there is. What interests me is the intensely personal, the things we don’t talk about, the strange sense of accomplishment I get cleaning my youngest son’s face in the morning. How do you say, why would you ever say you’ll miss picking dried boogers out of another person’s nose? But there it is: “Blow — that’s not a blow! GOOD, that’s it! Here, look up. Now go eat.” The squeeze of the bottom, the kiss on the nose, the claim to another, dis-missed! The remarkable in the mundane. The remarkable is the mundane.

Take a look at Roger Angell’s “This Old Man: Life in the Nineties” for a recent, stunning example of the power of the personal. You won’t find any shocking revelations, no grand plot twists, only a life, but you will see your own reflection in the remembrances of a 93-year-old man. And you will click on this link, literally or figuratively, for years to come.

I keep circling back to basics — the shedding, secreting, excreting of all that’s unnecessary — how necessary the unnecessary is to my life. The sweaty neck of an 8-year-old boy, on tiptoe at the kitchen faucet before dinner; the stench of a teenage fart, trapped amid hysterical laughter inside a closed car; the oily hair and morning breath, the musky pits and oozing zits of careless youth; the dog’s fish breath, the slightly sour smell clinging to my fingers as I wipe eye gunk from his open, whitening face. I know it’s weird, but it all smells good to me.

Yesterday, cleaning up the back yard, I found a piece of perfectly patterned dog poop. I imagined tiny, overalled workmen, shouting over one another, “‘Behind you! On your right!” in Floyd’s bowels, engineering my daughter’s missing sock into an impromptu sausage casing, an intestinal assembly line charged with keeping flower, stripes, and colors intact.

It made me chuckle, and for a second I thought about taking a picture. But who wants to hear about the poop in your own backyard? I guess not most of us. So I scooped it into a bag, scoured the lawn for landmines, and moved on to the next pile.

The Worrier

I am worried. Worried about the Olympics, the possibility of a terrorist attack. Worried about Philip Seymour Hoffman, already dead, I know. Worried about Dylan Farrow, and worried that it doesn’t undo Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine. Worried at my desk, pausing instinctively as I hear too many sirens, an animal frozen by scent, imagining my children hidden in a school broom closet just down the hill, just out of reach.

Yet I’m oddly unworried, floating backward on this conveyer belt into what I’m told will be a “very loud” machine, an MRI for these headaches that plague me each day. The sounds are loud, unbelievably so, but I feel good, safe in a moment where all I can do is surrender to stillness, close my eyes and breathe.

On the drive to this antiseptic office complex, miles up the highway, I peek at my phone and see that my daughter has left a trembly, breathy voicemail, then a panicky, all-caps text (the teenage equivalent of screaming “MOMMY!”), about a group video project she’s accidentally left at home, “in the computer, or somewhere around there.” It’s due next period.

I realize I’ve taken the wrong exit, distracted, in rush hour traffic, and my underarms begin to sweat. I worry that my daughter’s grade will be docked, worry more that her partner’s grade will be docked. I worry that I can’t bail her out this time, worry that saving her so many times before is the reason for this latest irresponsibility. I worry that I’m beginning to stink, that I forgot to bring cash for the pay lot, that I’ll be late for my appointment window. And then it hits me: I am actually looking forward to this MRI.

I’m not being flippant. I don’t want anything to be wrong with me, I don’t think MRIs are funny, and I would never discount the experiences of those who’ve undergone diagnostic procedures with devastating results. But right now, I relish the idea of relinquishing control, abdicating responsibility, being temporarily out of commission.

When the kids were little (the oldest was six when our fourth was born), I used to fantasize about being hospitalized. Not for anything serious, just a minor accident, maybe the painless removal of some obscure, unnecessary organ — anything to get away, somewhere I couldn’t conceivably be expected to look after anyone else — vacation, minus the guilt.

Things have changed a lot since those days. For new stay-at-home moms, there’s still the Sisyphean monotony of feeding, dressing, changing, bathing, soothing, and bedding an infant, but for all of us, it’s not so isolating now, with smartphones and Facebook, Twitter and mom blogs connecting frustrated, flabbergasted, fawning mothers the world over. It’s never been the sort of job you would telephone about anyway: “Hey! What’s up? I’m goo— look, here’s the thing: I’d rather chop off my own head than spoon one more bite of clumpy rice cereal into a slobbering maw.” But you can say exactly that on the internet, as its sole basis for existence is connection, assuring us with the tap of a screen and the prayer of anonymity that we are not alone.

This has opened up the world in ways that are sometimes wonderful — I helped fund surgery for a child I previously would never have known existed — but often not so great — I learned about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, the bathroom floor and the needle in his arm, before half his relatives had been notified.

It’s tough to know what’s worth passing on, things that would normally exist in the realm of personal triumphs or tragedies. I was moved yesterday, clicking on an image from Anne Frank’s rediscovered toys, a simple tin of colorful marbles. It felt significant, a poignant stand-in for innocence lost then regained through the power of prose. But do I feel a similar need to leaf through the details of Paul Walker’s will, discover what Hoffman ate for lunch the day he died, or watch a viral clip of a hotel maid, surprised by a generous tip, bills splayed beneath a lifted top sheet for maximum titillation? Sometimes even the good things I don’t want to know.

I try to breathe evenly through my nose, and I think of my husband, how the atonal droning of the MRI sounds like the avant garde music he loves and I loathe, how I could make him a mixed tape of my brain scan for Valentine’s, how years of heated art-or-noise arguments resurface here, in a tube, where I’m fighting only the urge to laugh. Would it show up on a technician’s screen, my amusement, this history inside my head? So many things that can never be known, about Philip Seymour Hoffman or Paul Walker, about Anne Frank and me, no matter how much we choose to share or who pores over images of our brains.

My right ear mimics the machine’s bleeps and grinds, echoing in staticky feedback; my hearing on this side is distorted, like a dial stuck between radio stations, but this doesn’t concern me. Instead, I remember the ugly yellow polka-dot glider stationed in the upstairs hall, the hardened, curdy spitup I cleaned from its blond wood slats the day before we set it on the curb, relieved and ready to move on to the next phase. How an inconsolable baby, in the endless black of a newborn night, squawked with such force and determination that my right ear turned to fuzz and I cried, exhausted, convinced of a brain tumor that would leave my children motherless.

I worried then, shushing and rubbing this tiny infant’s back, how I’d ever pump enough milk to sustain her after I’d gone. I worried she’d go hungry even as she spewed chalky milk over my shoulder, down the unseen back of the glider. I worried, sniffing her skull, aching for the things I’d miss, until we both fell asleep, upright. And I dreamed of a nurse pull cord, just down the bed, just out of reach.

The Evangelist

Creepiest middle-of-the-night experience ever. Wake up a little before 4:00 a.m. and head to the bathroom, where gradually it dawns on me I’m hearing a man’s deep, droning voice somewhere inside my house. It’s deathly still otherwise, pitch black, everyone asleep but me.

I feel my way down the hall, then down the stairs, cold with fear but unable to resist moving toward the sound. I lean around the kitchen doorway, and there, across the open floor plan, above the living room fireplace, on a TV that was decidedly turned off before bed, is a silver-combed man, Southern and insistent, in an outdated blue suit, a deeper blue curtain drawn behind him, sitting at a desk cleared of all but a single, old-fashioned table microphone.

He’s pointing one thick, bullying finger at what seems to be me, quoting fiery scripture on accountability and thundering on about condemnation. I stare up at him, powerless and terrified, the accused before the judge, when the screen goes suddenly black, then just as suddenly back to the man, black and to the man again, as if he’s willing himself there, conjuring this court and conviction into my living room.

My eye catches movement over the sofa back — is that a head? — a child? But no, no child would dare lie in the dark here like this, alone with this harbinger of doom. Unless they were possessed…a possessed child, maybe?

Oh — no, it’s only Floyd. Thank God for Floyd, though I notice with alarm he seems just as scared as me. My brain kicks in and I begin searching for the remote, the man shouting above us then silenced, shouting then silenced. And at last, I understand.

"MOVE, Floyd!!!" I yell, shoving at him, digging through fat and fur until finally I locate the remote underneath his rear. Once the house is quiet, I start to feel sorry for him, so I go back and give him a reassuring hug, whispering that the mean man’s all gone now. He settles in, and I head back up the silent staircase, accountable to no one. 

The Worst Best Thanksgiving Feast Ever


[If you’re unfamiliar with Annie, start here:]

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.

Just read an article about why some women love big dogs - is it a dominance stance, a security thing, etc.? But for me, it’s simpler (and probably a whole lot weirder). It boils down to knowing I’ll never get to befriend a bear or ride a whale or be lovingly scooped up onto a long-lashed elephant’s back. Sea lions would not like to be hugged, and hippos aren’t actually open-mouthed smiling. I will never walk around town holding my live-in chimpanzee like an oversized toddler, or sleep surrounded by puffy-coated wolves. Stomachs and snouts, fur and folds; warm breath and padded paws and those big stumpy hoof-toes; fake-eyelinered eyes, whiskers, and what in the world ARE those rubbery black tire-tread gum-jowl thingies, anyway? 
So every day, I pull into our driveway, and every day, Floyd centers all 100 lbs in front of the car, smiling and wagging around himself with joy. I hang sideways out the window, yelling for him to move, inching forward, maybe tapping the horn, until eventually he wanders around the driver’s side to see what all the fuss is about. Then he scoops whatever’s closest into his mouth — a discarded hockey stick, a deflated soccer ball, a cluster of dry leaves — to present to me, a welcoming lei at a luau, hefting one, then two giant paws up onto my lap for good measure. I shake my head and call him a dope, style the fly-aways on his giant dome into a faux-hawk, and accept his love offering. And every day, I could sooner run over this massive, magical creature than convince him anything I’m a part of could possibly ever hurt him. 

Just read an article about why some women love big dogs - is it a dominance stance, a security thing, etc.? But for me, it’s simpler (and probably a whole lot weirder). It boils down to knowing I’ll never get to befriend a bear or ride a whale or be lovingly scooped up onto a long-lashed elephant’s back. Sea lions would not like to be hugged, and hippos aren’t actually open-mouthed smiling. I will never walk around town holding my live-in chimpanzee like an oversized toddler, or sleep surrounded by puffy-coated wolves. Stomachs and snouts, fur and folds; warm breath and padded paws and those big stumpy hoof-toes; fake-eyelinered eyes, whiskers, and what in the world ARE those rubbery black tire-tread gum-jowl thingies, anyway? 

So every day, I pull into our driveway, and every day, Floyd centers all 100 lbs in front of the car, smiling and wagging around himself with joy. I hang sideways out the window, yelling for him to move, inching forward, maybe tapping the horn, until eventually he wanders around the driver’s side to see what all the fuss is about. Then he scoops whatever’s closest into his mouth — a discarded hockey stick, a deflated soccer ball, a cluster of dry leaves — to present to me, a welcoming lei at a luau, hefting one, then two giant paws up onto my lap for good measure. I shake my head and call him a dope, style the fly-aways on his giant dome into a faux-hawk, and accept his love offering. And every day, I could sooner run over this massive, magical creature than convince him anything I’m a part of could possibly ever hurt him. 

Paying Attention: Morality and ADHD

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,

But you don’t know, what you don’t know.”