Climbing Lessons

Editor’s Note: I published this nine years ago today on my first blog, Suburban Sirens. The boy in this essay is almost 18 now, and we talked yesterday about how he has changed from a 1st grader who was failing reading and struggling with low self-esteem into a high school junior who is an honors student running varsity track. The decision to medicate our son with ADHD is not one we took lightly, but it was the first step in changing Joe’s trajectory through life. It may not be the right choice for everyone and it isn’t without its risks, but he and I are certain it gave him the opportunity to rise to every occasion and find his best self. Could not be more proud of our climber.

Recently, my son delivered a 10-minute oral presentation about rock climbing to his 2nd grade class. As I watched from the back of the classroom in one of those kid-sized chairs, I was guardedly optimistic. We certainly had practiced enough. I was impressed with how well he knew the speech and how calm he seemed. Honestly, though, most of what I felt was clouded by the sheer shock of how well it was going. If my son had been reporting on Jesus and ended his speech with a walking-on-water demonstration in the classroom, it would not have made a greater impression on me than his climbing speech did. That may seem like a bold claim, but it’s true. A year ago, I could never have imagined what I was witnessing in that classroom. I sat there smiling at Joe as he looked up from his 4 x 6 index cards at me, thinking the entire time about the colossal difference time can make. Funny how 365 little days can add up to one huge year.

Last year at this time, Joe was struggling mightily in first grade. He was a bright kid who hated school. We battled every night over the homework that took most kids in his class just 15 minutes to complete but on good nights never took Joe less than an hour. He was getting failing marks in reading. Each night we worked on his studies and each night one (if not both) of us either cried or had a full-scale tantrum. Our home was a den of stress and friction. I could not comprehend how he could recall every character name and story line from six Star Wars movies but he could not remember our 10-digit phone number. He could not tie his shoes or complete one-step commands to put his dinner plate on the counter or put his shoes on the stairs. His handwriting was illegible. When Joe was nervous or excited, he would flap his hands as if he could simply take flight to avoid the situation. He would repeatedly do things I had asked him hundreds of times not to do and that he knew were wrong; when I would ask why he was doing them, he would frustratedly answer “I don’t know.” Yet through all this, I still spied a boy who was capable of drawing correlations between complex subjects and who spent time philosophically pondering evolution and God. Although he was just 7, he was my “deep thinker.”

Despite his intelligence, Joe just could not convert his knowledge into practice at school. And, because I had never struggled in school, I could not understand what that felt like. The situation was ruining our relationship, killing Joe’s self-confidence, and making me feel as if I was getting the worst employee review I’ve ever earned at a job. It was breaking my spirit, and my disappointment was readily registered by my sensitive son who wanted nothing more than to make me proud. We both wanted to make the other happy, but neither of us had a clue how to do it.

We had noticed early on that Joe wasn’t quite like other kids, but we kept thinking he would catch up. He was born prematurely, so in the beginning we used that as an excuse. Then, as he grew older, we explained that he was a late bloomer. In kindergarten, his teacher suggested that he might have sensory processing disorder, which means that he can’t filter out outside stimuli so everything in the world is overwhelming. We took him to a pediatric therapy service that specialized in helping kids learn to cope with sensory processing disorder. The owner of the service administered tests and noted he was years behind in simple things we all take for granted, like balance and motor planning (knowing how to make the body do things like climb up ladders or catch a ball). At last, we thought we had found a pathway to help him catch up and achieve the way we knew he could. And, he did make strides for a while. Then he hit a wall again, and we were stumped.

Along the way, a few people had suggested to us that perhaps Joe had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). We scoffed. We fought it. Maybe denial isn’t just a river in Egypt? But, we were running out of possible ways to help him. What if Joe had ADHD and we, in our intense aversion to the idea of medicating him, eliminated the one thing that would help him reach his full potential and remove his immense frustration? I talked to a few close friends about the situation. A couple of them reacted negatively to the idea that we would willingly medicate Joe. Their fears reminded me that a positive ADHD diagnosis would carry with it a stigma. Finally, after discussing my dilemma with another friend, I finally heard the encouragement I needed; “Take whatever help you can get and don’t look back.” It was good advice.

Before second grade started, I filled out myriad forms and mailed them off to the psychiatric section of Children’s Hospital in Denver. We set up several appointments with different psychologists and a psychiatrist. During those meetings, Joe’s behavior was downright painful for me to witness. He wouldn’t look at the therapists. He refused to answer questions. When he did talk, he was curt and borderline disrespectful. He wandered the room nervously, flapping his hands the entire time. He crawled under furniture. He was distracted by every possible sound and item in the room. I cringed. Three mental health professionals spent time with him and all three said they were certain that our sweet son was struggling with ADHD.

Dr. Lippolis, one of the incredible psychiatrists at the hospital, explained in the simplest terms to Joe what was happening in his brain. She told him that in the front of his brain there was a little man who was responsible for making choices and that right now the little man was asleep on the job. With the right medication, that little man would wake up and Joe would be able to do all the things he wanted to but couldn’t. Joe told the doctor he would like to try the medicine. And, for our part, we had exhausted every other way of helping him, and he’d gone through his entire first grade year miserable, frustrated, and hopeless. We couldn’t imagine an additional 11 years of having Joe return home at the end of the school day saying, “I’m the dumbest kid in my class.” If the notion of medicating him made us nervous, the mere thought of him going through his entire life with low self-esteem and no feeling of personal success was downright terrifying.

Joe started on Concerta, the long-lasting stimulant meant to wake up the little man in the front of his brain, during his first week of second grade. We saw a difference in him nearly immediately. Within two weeks, his handwriting was neater and he was writing stories on his own. Our child who had refused to draw or color was suddenly sitting and happily doing art projects. He was following multiple step directions. He was bringing home papers with A and B grades on them. He could carry on a prolonged conversation without distraction. His reading skills improved exponentially overnight. We heard a lot less “I can’t” and a lot more “Let me try.” His nervous hand flapping ceased. He was smiling again. In short, he was the Joe we knew he was meant to be. When I ponder how he must have felt as he tried valiantly to pass along what he knew but couldn’t, my heart hurts. I wish hindsight, with its flawless vision, sold tickets for time travel so I could go back 365 days and show more patience and compassion to my son as he struggled with that little man asleep at the wheel. All I can do now, however, is follow my friend’s advice, take the help I can get, and try not to look back and question the choices I’ve made.

Most parents hope to impart some wisdom to their children. I must admit, though, that I have probably learned far more from Joe in his time with us than he has learned from me. It’s appropriate that he chose climbing as his speech topic because climbing is what he has been doing since the day he showed up seven weeks early in June 2001. If the past year is any indication of where his climbing will take him, I’m fairly certain not even the sky will be his limit. As for me, I’m going to follow Joe’s example, look ahead, and start climbing too. I think he might be on to something.

Our Son, The Science Experiment…Part Deux

Joe and Me

Two months ago, hubby and I decided to take our son who has ADHD off his medication for the summer. We did this to see if he would eat more, sleep better, and perhaps experience a growth spurt and to see if he was, after three years on the medication, any more capable of working on his own to control some of his impulse and attention issues than he was when he was 8. In short, we turned our son into a science experiment. We were so concerned about our decision that I even blogged about it, which is how we arrive at Part Deux. Joe’s first week without his Concerta medication was rough for the entire family. We vowed that the second week we would try harder to remember Joe’s struggles, to cut him more slack, and to be more patient.

It hasn’t been easy, but over the course of the last eight weeks we’ve definitely seen some changes. Joe eats a lot more now than he does when he’s on his medication, and he sleeps later and more restfully too. Although we haven’t weighed him, he does seem to have filled out a bit, which is encouraging. We’ve found that he is now more capable of self-regulation. If something upsets him, rather than the time- and energy-intensive histrionics of the past, he is able to calm himself more quickly. The medication has given Joe a baseline understanding of how his brain is different, and the knowledge he’s not a bad kid but instead merely one whose brain just doesn’t give him enough help with attention and short-term memory. If he’d never been on the medication, he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to experience what is “normal” to other people. Without that crucial piece of information, he’d still feel lost about how to achieve what society expected of him. Now that he understands how it feels to be in control, he can work towards achieving those results both with and without the medication. This is huge for him.

I’m not exactly sure how this experiment will end. If I could write my own ending, though, Joe will have grown a few inches and packed on a few pounds over the summer. He will realize that he’s not a bad kid but that he has some unique challenges. He will understand that the medication helps daily life run more smoothly for him, but that it doesn’t define him and that he’s still a wonderful person without it. As for the rest of us? We will have earned a much greater appreciation for how difficult things can be for Joe and have more patience to help him get to where he needs to be in his life. Two months ago, I was hoping this would be the right decision for our family. Today, I’d be willing to place bets that this experiment will be a great success.

Our Son, The Science Experiment

Me and my science experiment

Our son, Joe, was just 8 years old when we took him to Children’s Hospital in Denver where several psychological professionals interviewed and observed him and told us they were certain he had moderate ADHD. He wasn’t the worst case they’d seen, but they felt he would improve the most quickly with medication. We discussed the benefits and side effects associated with this type of treatment with the doctors and decided to go ahead and start him on a low dose of Concerta, an extended release form of the drug Ritalin. We had hoped never to have to put our child on medication and had investigated other possible explanations for our son’s poor grades, non-existent attention span, nervous gestures, and total lack of impulse control before finally being able to admit that perhaps he truly did have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

One of the side effects the doctors discussed with us at length was the possibility of slowed growth due to the medication. They assured us that children on the medication do continue to grow but at a much slower rate. Born prematurely, Joe was on the small side to begin with. One suggestion the doctors had was to take him off the medication during breaks from school, especially long ones like summer vacation, to allow his body a bit of unrestricted time for growth. Up until now, we had elected not to do that because we were focused on using the medication to get him caught up in school and with his self-esteem issues. But, after seeing him with his classmates at Field Day this year, we finally decided it might help to take him off the Concerta for the summer. You see, Joe is the oldest boy in his class by nearly a year and yet he’s still the shortest. There’s nothing wrong with being short, but if we can help him catch up it seems like we should.

So, a week ago we took away Joe’s medication and asked him to try going two days without it. He was adamantly against the idea, but we persisted. We managed to turn two days off into four and then eventually into an entire week. On the plus side, we’ve seen a definite improvement in his eating and sleeping habits, an indication that he might just grow if we keep this up. But, I’m not going to lie. These past seven days have been tough. Our boys, who get along 95% of the time when Joe is on his medication, fought quite a bit more this week. I spent far more time than usual trying to solve disputes and suppress whining. Joe’s been more argumentative, impulsive, and distracted. He’s been on the medication for nearly three years now, so I had almost forgotten this side of him. If there’s been a silver lining to this little experiment, it’s that if we’d harbored any concerns about whether he truly had ADHD or whether the medication was honestly working, those concerns are gone.

Today Joe announced that he was going to take his medication again starting tomorrow. He told us that he’s tired of feeling out of control. I understand that. I do. But, I feel that Steve, Luke, and I are partly responsible for his feeling that way because we’re not used to his behavior off the medication and we’re acting differently toward him, expecting things of him that we expect from medicated Joe. That is simply not fair. Before he went to bed, we had a little family discussion. We asked Joe to forgive us for our impatience because as much as this is a period of readjustment for him it is also one for us. We promised we’d lower our expectations of him a bit if he would be willing to work a little harder to focus and try to meet us midway. Luke, exhausted from fending off Joe’s poking and prodding and teasing and belittling, told us he simply wants the “old Joe” back. Luke definitely bears the brunt of Joe’s ADHD symptoms, so we’re definitely taking that into consideration.

After the boys went to sleep, hubby and I decided that we’re going to give Joe’s medication-free trial run one more week…one week when we resolutely try to understand where he’s at and not where we expect him to be. Our biggest fear right now is our not being able to control our expectations and then making Joe feel bad about his behavior when it’s really not his fault. So, we’re going to try to rein ourselves in and let him be. If at the end of the next week we feel this time off is going to do more harm to him emotionally than good to him physically we’ll put him back on daily doses. I hate feeling like he’s a science experiment, but right now he kind of is. I would love to see him experience a growth spurt, but not at the expense of his self-confidence and self-esteem. Some parents, I’m sure, put their child on medication to save their sanity. We put Joe on it to save his. If taking him off for a couple weeks causes him to feel bad about himself again, the experiment ends. I’d much rather have a shorter-than-average happy kid than miserable child of average height. Science experiment be damned.