Thriving with ADD

I developed “failure syndrome” at a fairly young age, only, I didn’t know what it was, nor did my teachers. According to an ERIC digest published in 1998, it is a clearly defined pattern of behavior based entirely on lack of confidence. At the time, they treated children like me as lazy, especially when evaluating the results of frequently applied intelligence tests. I was tested three times before I was twenty-four. Each test revealed that I was more than capable of learning. In fact, I had exceptional processing speed and problem-solving skills. So, why couldn’t I learn like the other children in my class? Why were my parents consistently frustrated with my performance in school and worse yet, why was I descending into profound depression as early as eight years old?

Fast forward forty-plus years and one day, the lightbulb, nay, the nuclear explosion glowed brightly above my head. I was sitting in my son’s teacher conference when it happened. I was so surprised by the revelation that I actually began to cry, not just because I was experiencing the cathartic understanding of my life as a student, but more because at the same time, listening to the teacher describe my child’s classroom behavior, I felt the gripping fear that he too would struggle the way that I had. It had already begun, his turn at “failure syndrome.” Everything the teacher told me was a replay of my own school experience. Why was I afraid – actually, terrified? Because my child had been happy, social and confident until his eighth year, just as I had. In third grade, a major developmental period for children, he began to say the exact same things I had. “Why am I so stupid? Why can’t I remember? Why do I make so many mistakes?” The big difference is that he has a mother and teachers who understand him and who will fight for his success.

remember feeling complete despair at fifteen. It wasn’t until I was twenty-four, and had failed at college, that I was diagnosed as depressed, even after having been in some kind of counseling on and off for six years. At one point, I’d sought counseling through the college. As a matter of course, they tested my intelligence and processing skills, as well. They reported back to me what I already knew, but still could not transcend. The more I tried to learn like everyone else, the more I despaired. It just didn’t make sense. No one had ever suggested that I had a learning “disability.” In fact, quite the opposite, they couldn’t understand it either. They marveled that I spoke about my brain as though it were a separate entity, with a great weight tied around it. They’d even say, “you are capable” repeatedly, as though those words were going to magically turn on the part of my brain that can sit in a classroom and follow the industrial revolution’s idea of standardized education.

As if the ADD component wasn’t enough, the depression that followed added a new wrinkle to the problem. While ADD is an inability to control certain brain waves (theta), depression adds a layer of seismic disturbance akin to snow in the television. With that much random brain activity, it is hard to focus on one single thing and as the anxiety increases, as it inevitably does, as students, my son and I stare at a page and watch as it actually begins to expand visually. Suddenly, twenty math problems is Kilimanjaro and we’re without cams.

After the meeting with the teachers, I began to read about how to help him and in the process, I learned how to help myself. I had always seen my mind as a handicap, a perception that really solidified when my son (and as a matter of understanding, I) was “diagnosed.” The more I read, the more I realized that ADD is not really a handicap as much as it is a type. We don’t learn poorly; we learn differently. The industrial revolution abandoned apprenticeships for classrooms, and in the process, immersive learning was abandoned for text books. For 150 years, we’ve been torturing highly-creative, kinesthetic learners, turning them into anxiety-ridden, insecure adults by forcing round pegs into a square holes.

The more I read, the more I realized that my brain is uniquely suited to the systems work into which I stumbled. My capacity to follow multiple threads means I can have several processes running on several computers in different rooms and not only remember each process, but switch between them quickly. My brain is not damaged; it is different, and that is a beautiful thing. I had, over much time and struggling, developed coping skills to get me successfully through my days. They were adequate, but often not perfect. I had already started applying those coping skills to managing my child’s learning, setting an example for him to someday manage it on his own. The more I read, the more I realized that my coping skills were among the items listed as best practices for brains like ours. It was hugely satisfying to learn that I developed coping skills that are documented as effective for my learning “type.” It was also an enormous relief to find confirmation that my understanding of how we package ideas is quite accurate, and the way in which I assimilate information is a teachable method.

So, if you have a child with ADD, consider yourself lucky. He or she is probably empathic. She has a mind that will spring into action to solve a problem before anyone else recognizes one exists. He will pinch a bleeding artery in an emergency situation. She will invent the lightbulb of the future or solve world hunger. Each is a free spirit and truly amazing.

It should be understood that even with this new understanding that my son and I learn differently, we still face the fear of sitting in a classroom all day. When I need to learn a new product for work, for example, I lock myself in a room with a computer and reverse engineer that product. In that way, I make it a reality by touching it, making mistakes, creating an end product. But on occasion, I HAVE to sit in a classroom, as I will in a few weeks, and despite my knowledge and new skills, I still fear that I will fail miserably. I understand what school looks like for my son. I hope that I can show him, as I venture back into a classroom, that with the right tools, we can adapt the classroom to our needs, instead of trying to adapt to the classroom. I send him to a Montessori school (see why here), which I highly recommend for children like him, but that will only carry him through elementary. He’ll soon have to move on to middle school, where everything changes.

Also of note is that a few weeks ago, I started drinking Bulletproof Coffee. Now, I am not recommending that this is a fix as I am not a health care professional nor a nutritionist. However, I personally have noticed a difference in my memory and most importantly, my motivation. It could certainly be psychosomatic, but I am rarely a victim of “suggestion,” so it’s unlikely.

I will recommend the op-eds Learn More in Less Time and Note Taking Study Skills, and a YouTube channel such as Mariana’s Study Corner. I had already started to develop some of these habits, and they are working for me. I will be incorporating more of them in my future learning. If you have a child that struggles to study, building a routine and materials that are unique to them will keep them interested in the process.

Space Crying?

Finally, after fifty years living in the state of Florida, I visited Kennedy Space Center. I had a very good reason. He’s eight, brilliant and amazing, mercurial and funny as hell. He also has the attention span of a fruit fly.

I wandered the halls, and slowly digested the glorious accomplishment that is space flight. He parkoured every surface possible, staying occasionally at one or another simulator long enough to get frustrated and move onto the next. Slowly, as my heart swelled in pride at what man can accomplish collaboratively, it broke simultaneously as I realized if I don’t intervene, my little man will grow up feeling as though he is capable of nothing.

Before we left for KSC, we had the teacher’s conference I dreaded, the one I hoped would never happen. As I listened to descriptions of his behavior in class, the pain in my chest grew as I relived all those moments I experienced as a child. So now, I look at him with entirely different eyes. Now, I see him as having the same debilitating symptoms that clotheslined me and I worry that I am not equipped to help him. I also see what his future will be like if I stand frozen and helpless, as I am at this moment.

You see, normal brain function allows one to get from point a to be point b with relatively little intervention. But in his case, as in mine, it’s constant, exhausting course correction. Eventually, the course corrections sound like nagging, and then “failure syndrome” develops. “Yes,” you think, “I see that mountain over there. Yes, intellectually, I know I COULD climb it. Yes, I KNOW I will fail.” Why? Simply, because it’s too big.

I will never be the kind of person who sits behind a desk all day, every day. Neither will my boy. Repetitive activities actually make us anxious. In fact, recently, while on a brief IT contract, I watched the workers on a production line for a few minutes as I waited for a computer to reboot. I felt myself becoming very depressed. I realize, though, that if I can’t figure out a way to effectively help my child, then he will be relegated to a job he hates because he won’t be able to get through the education he wants.

I remind him that some of the most amazing minds in history had ADD: Edison, Einstein, Tesla, Ford and many more. I remind myself. I get frustrated and I yell and then I hear him regurgitate to me the distilled version of whatever I found annoying. “Mommy, I can’t do it. It takes too long.” “Mommy, this is the way IIIIII write.” And to an extent, he’s right. I want him to be himself and at this point, his grades are stellar. But part of becoming a productive adult is finding a way to maneuver in a world that was designed for people who can get from point a to point b without constant course correction.

So, I watched the video depicting how an idea for a reusable spacecraft became the Space Shuttle and I began to cry. I watched how humans come together and creatively solve problems. I watched how great minds achieve great things, and I secretly mourned my failures and feared for his. As a parent, I have a choice to dig in my heels and fight for him or to let him sort it out the way I did. At this point, it is a simple choice for me. It was too hard to learn what few coping skills I have and I lost many, many years doing it. I don’t want that for him. I want all of the things that he’s interested in to remain the smorgasbord of possibilities that they are, today. I want him to believe that he can climb that terrifyingly large mountain in front of him and I want to watch him scamper off into the distance to try. Someday, maybe, he’ll cure cancer or he’ll figure out how to grow food safely in space, but I know that if I don’t help him now, in 40 years, he’ll be me, mourning all of the opportunities that were lost to fear. I don’t want that for him, so nose to the grind stone, I’m going to figure this out.

If you are a parent that doesn’t have to guide your child through every activity, thank your stars. Yes, he is healthy, and happy most of the time, but I see the shine wearing off as he begins to struggle more and more with focus. I’ll find my answers, which are going to be different from the next person’s. In the meantime, my new eyes will just have to adjust.

Thank you, JK Rowling

“Watch,” she said, smiling. “He has to touch everything along the way.” And so he did. I could see how, in his mind, a straight walk from one point to another was the most horrifying option available. He HAD to make it more interesting. So, he cartwheeled over the frame of the climbing net, and stopped for water at the fountain, and spun along the wall of the utility shed and then finally, skipped to the monkey bars, turning a 40 foot walk into an all-terrain adventure. He was poetry in motion and as I watched, I finally got the message. My kid needs bigger worlds and wilder adventures and I have been missing it the whole time.

Coincidentally, about two months ago, we changed the bedtime routine to include reading Harry Potter, which I love. At first, Little Dude couldn’t sit still for it. We expected that. He’s capable of reading the books on his own, but he can’t sit five minutes without fidgeting. So, when after the first chapter, he began to ask questions we knew he was paying attention and enjoying it. Every night, he remembered where we’d left off the previous night.

Finally, after a few weeks of chipping away at it, we finished reading the book and he was allowed to watch the movie. He covered his eyes with his blanket at the parts he thought might be scary. He’s certainly old enough to discern the fantasy of it, but was still engrossed in cinema’s remarkable capacity to scare the bejeezus out of us. When it was over, he had fifty questions, and I was delighted.

The next morning, he was walking around the house quoting in his best English accent, “Gryffindor!” and “Harry Potter!” My husband and I chuckled every time we’d hear it echo through the halls. Sometime in the late afternoon, he walked into the family room and said enthusiastically, “Mom, I want to watch it again!”

He was gravely disappointed when I told him that the rental period had expired.

“Okay,” he said, lowering his head, “then can we watch the second movie?”

Again, I had to disappoint him. “Not until you read the book. You know the rule.” He knew that this rule was hard and fast.

“Okay, then, can we start it tonight?”

“Absolutely!” I almost squealed with delight. I couldn’t download it fast enough. Within ten minutes, we were into Chapter 2 and I was having a blast hacking up the accents.

“Mom, what are you doing?”

“I’m acting out the dialogue,” I said, proudly.

“Can you please not do that?”

“What? You’re not enjoying it? It’s not making it more fun?”

He considered it for a moment, and perhaps perceiving my excitement, he resigned to letting me entertain him with it. We got through another six pages before it was time for him to go to bed.

The next morning, he asked again if he could watch the movie, and when I explained again that the rental had expired, he understood and was less disappointed. Secretly, I was plotting to buy it on the way home. Other than that, it was a relatively normal morning until we were nearly at school.

“Mom, I want to be a wizard.”

“You do? Well, then we’ll have to get you a wand!” (Also now secretly plotting to take him to Universal Studios as soon as possible.)

“A wand?”

“Yes, you need one to be a wizard.”

As I recounted this story to his teacher, while we watched his imaginary adventure, she said, “He can bring the book in for silent reading time if he wants.”

Yay! I thought. This could be the incentive he needs to get through his work.

I had come to bring him lunch, so I sat down with him while he ate. “Hey! Your teacher says you can bring Harry Potter for silent reading. Do you want to do that?”

His eyes widened and he grinned so wide, I could see all of his teeth. “Yes!” He squealed. I nearly cried.

See, Ms. Rowling, in creating Harry Potter and his magical world, you have given my child a place where there is no limit for his imagination. The wheels turning in his head now are absolutely fascinating to watch. He wants to know more about Harry and Hogwarts and he’s willing to sit still and read it. It is a magical transformation. Perhaps it’s just maturity and I happened to discern that it was the right time to bring Harry into my son’s life. But whatever the reason, my creative, imaginative little boy has a new excitement for reading more than a couple of pages at a time. I am trying everything I can to help learn to manage the free spirit that he is, so he can function in a world that sees ADD as a disability. I don’t want to change my child. I want to give my little round peg the tools to help him succeed in a world that is designed with straight edges and 90 degree angles.

So, thank you, Ms. Rowling, for creating a world for his imagination to flourish. I hope it is the first of many worlds that he’ll visit as a reader, but it is the best first I can imagine for him.