Recognizing the Potential in Others

On Wednesday evening I was offered the opportunity to address the inductees of the National, Rhode Island, Spanish, and French Honor Societies and their families–a room of roughly 300 distinguished guests.  Tonight I share this with you because I truly believe that when people know they can make a difference, they do. 

It is indeed an honor to have the opportunity to address tonight those whom I have no doubt will be the future leaders in their chosen fields, in their communities, and beyond. Your work ethic, commitment to learning, and devotion to others at such a comparatively young age is an inspiration; and as much as it is an honor to address you tonight, it has also been a great privilege to be, for so many of you, your teacher.

At the risk of starting any remarks with “when I was your age,” when I was your age I would not have been sitting in this room. No accolades were heaped upon me in high school; and to be perfectly fair and frank, I didn’t deserve them. My GPA was nothing to brag about, I was not involved with a single sports team or extracurricular activity, some of my decision-making was questionable, and community service was something with which I was largely unfamiliar. I invested very little in my school and at that time even less in myself.

But you are different. You are here this evening because of who you are, how you perform in school and out, because of your steadfastness and your benevolence. I wish my 18-year-old self could have known you. You are worth knowing, worth emulating.

I thought for a very long time about what to say to you tonight, what the theme of my remarks would be, what you would remember. I started by interviewing my eight-year-old son, truly one of the most sensible people I know, and asked him to dispense his wisdom for this occasion. He had a lot to say—as he often does—and as I listened to his words I noticed a recurring theme—something I can only characterize as fluidity, as flexibility and space.

You see, what makes my son wise is that he does not see the world in black and white. He extends the boundaries, makes allowances for differences, and forgives readily. He has a grace that belies his years—much as you do—but he remembers and recognizes that not everyone is similarly privileged. He understands that we all bloom in our own time.

What I tell my own children and what I try to live is what I want to tell you tonight—that once we do bloom, it is imperative we share our knowledge with others, that we serve others and that we remember when we meet someone who hasn’t bloomed to give them space, give them the tools they need to be successful.

In fact, I would challenge you all—no matter where life takes you next—to reach out to someone else, someone who hasn’t arrived yet, and extend your hand—or your ear or your heart—and tell them they’re worth something, that they have potential, that you see it.

At the end of my senior year of high school one of my teachers asked me to come up to his desk. As I approached, I could see he had my exam paper in his hand, and I had no doubt he was about to term my responses utter drivel and give me the corresponding and unfortunate grade. But he didn’t. That’s not what he did at all. Instead, he looked up at me then looked at my paper, shook his head and said, “You know what? You really know how to write.”

And time for me stopped. This person took time for me—me, a then-mediocre student at best who had done very little in my four years of high school to earn the respect much less the praise of most of my hard-working instructors. He looked me in the eye. He spoke from his heart. And I realized he saw something in me.

And the rest is, as they say, history. I went to college, earned grades of which I could be more-than-incredibly proud, devoted myself to my community, to service, and readied myself to come here, to be here for you. It was a life-changing moment that was born in a mere nine words on a sweltering June afternoon in 1986.

As you travel on your journey, be on the lookout for potential in others as you realize and take care of your own. Invest the mere seconds it requires to tell someone what you see.

And then stand back and watch them bloom.

Passing the Baton

IMG_0371For the last 594 days, twice a day, every day, someone–often me, many times his father, occasionally his grandparents or other caretakers–has given my seven-year-old son Edgar his anti-seizure medicine.  In the beginning it was five separate medications twice a day, then four, then three, and now just two.  We have measured precisely, poured carefully, and administered like the pros we were all forced to become.  We have an inviolable routine, foolproof as the potential consequences of forgetting are too frightening to contemplate.

And tonight started off in just the same fashion it always has for the last 594 nights:  I went to the cupboard, retrieved my son’s medicine, and was grabbing the spoon when I heard, “Stop!”

I turned and looked at him, sitting in the chair, no longer merely waiting but with a fire in his eyes that bespoke a desire for something more.

“I’m going to do this tonight.”

I asked him what he meant . . . Did he merely want to crush the pill?  Stir the mixture?

“All of it.”

My expression must have been one of fear because he said, “Don’t worry.  I can do this.”

I paused and moved the supplies–his supplies–toward him and gave him step-by-step directions–and the steps-within-the-steps.  I also explained about milligrams and slow-release and how the medicine works.  I showed him the bottles, tried my best to pronounce the multi-syllabic names, the official names.  I reiterated the important work this medicine does for him, that this is serious business.

And with all that and a soundless, heartfelt sigh I passed the baton–a baton that was never mine but that I cared for just the same.

This is his epilepsy, his medication, and tonight he claimed responsibility.

He said he can do this, and I am going to have to believe him.

From One ADHD Mom to Another

Someone once told me and a roomful of my colleagues, “Don’t ever write anything you wouldn’t want to land on the front page of the newspaper tomorrow morning.”  He was speaking about emails, text messages, and Facebook comments and posts; but the message extends far beyond social media and the like.

And, for me, I would take it one step farther: Don’t ever write anything to which you are not willing to sign your name.

As a writer of a blog, I have full control over all comments that appear here.  And while I can count on one hand the number of comments I have opted not to publish over the course of five years, should one appear that I feel either does a disservice to readers or is otherwise inflammatory, I can put it in the metaphorical and technological trash.

When I write for publications, however, everything is available for not only public consumption but commentary, too.  I accept that–and expect it, too.  The written word is nothing if it does not inspire one to think, to feel, to remark, to criticize.

But sometimes comments are blatantly inaccurate, do nothing to advance the conversation, or ultimately have the potential to do harm.

DSC_0070In the most recent edition of ADDitude magazine you will find an article about my seven-year-old son Edgar, who in October was diagnosed with ADHD.  And here you will find the online version.  In the article, I relate how tremendously his life has changed since beginning a regimen that includes stimulant medication.

This afternoon the following comment appeared from someone who calls herself (or himself) “ADHD Mom”:

Your piece is clearly written with a lot of love. I am saddened that you decided to dope your child instead of providing him the tools and patience he will need to succeed and that he deserves. Doping is a temporary solution and as documented will potentially lead to increases in doseage [sic], addition [sic] medications being pushed for anxiety and depression not to mention what it does to a growing child psychologically. While you enjoy your momentary relief, your child continues to suffer and will eventually believe that he is inadequate without the dope. This is not a long term [sic] solution.

With ADHD, indeed with pretty much everything, each family must formulate its own plan and come to its own decisions–decisions that are not made lightly, decisions that demand much thought and often inspire even more angst.  It is clear to me now that because my son does take medication, indeed because he has ADHD, he is going to encounter these sorts of misapprehensions and have to field these kinds of inflammatory comments–whether they come to him in person or anonymously from behind a keyboard.

My son is too young to hear ADHD Mom’s words.  They would do nothing but upset him, serve no purpose, and ultimately cause harm.  And though today I can control whether or not he sees these words, tomorrow I can’t.  But what I can do in the interim is to continue providing him with “the tools and patience” he will need to respond with dignity to the ADHD Moms of the world.

The Same but Different

167008_1680165118238_649770_n“Mom, tell me about your mother,” my seven-year-old son Edgar asked as he studiously manipulated the latest acquisition to his Beyblade collection.

We were in the car, my eyes on the road, his on his toy when he posed not for the first time questions about my mother.

I hesitate telling my children too much, but I certainly need to tell them enough—not only to honor their earnest inquiries but also to ensure that the woman who raised me does not take on mythic status due to my reticence.

“What would you like to know?” I asked him.

“Well, tell me what was wrong with her brain.”

He knows that my mother had significant mental health issues, which, for his seven-year-old benefit we have always described in terms of her brain not being healthy and not allowing her to make the best decisions.

I then thought about the verbiage we have been using, terms we came up with well before Edgar was diagnosed with epilepsy or ADHD—conditions he understands to be the result of his brain working in a different capacity compared to others’—and I could see the connections he was making and where this conversation was going.

And I was terrified.

He said, “Mom, you didn’t really love your mother, did you?”

I told him my feelings for her were and are very, very complicated.

He surmised that since she hurt me it would make sense if I didn’t love her. Then he added, “But you know, Mom, I think I understand her . . . why she made bad decisions. Her brain didn’t help her—just like mine sometimes doesn’t.”

I reflected on his magnanimity, the depth of his understanding and empathy; but at the root of it I also understood his fear—that my love for my beautiful son may be compromised if one day his brain causes him to make a decision that hurts me.

IMG_3694I explained about unconditional love, the love a parent has for a child, the love I have for him.

And that’s truly where I thought this chapter would end . . . a picture-perfect moment where I express and my son understands the depth of what I feel for him, a neat conclusion tied up with a bow.

But it didn’t end here–and there was most assuredly no bow.

He pursued and in rapid-fire succession asked if she had epilepsy. I told him she didn’t. He asked if she had ADHD. I said no. He then asked what she did have, and I told him. He asked me if she were born that way, how old she was when people realized her brain was not healthy.

He asked whether the same diagnosis was coming for him.

And before I could answer—as if I could answer—he mercifully asked, “Mom, what was her name again?”

I said, “Diane.”

He said, “That’s a pretty name. Maybe it’s not to you, but it is to me. I think it’s nice.”

I stared straight ahead at the road in front of me and realized that my past may be behind me—but it’s also on the side of me, above me, below me, and in front of me. And clearly it’s in my son’s heart and on his mind.

He doesn’t realize that her story will not be his story, and so he fears it—this sweet soul who carries burdens in body and mind disproportionate to his years.

I can’t change my past nor can I predict my son’s future. All I can do is negotiate the present and hope that there are enough hugs, enough declarations of love to make up for the rest.

Book Review: Too Hurt to Stay

too hurt to stayToo Hurt to Stay

By Casey Watson

294 pp. Harper Element. $14.99

Questions about why we read and why we write are at the forefront of this compelling tale of an eight-year-old child who enters foster care ostensibly of his own volition.  Watson, a pseudonym, in a clear, lilting British vernacular, tells the story of Spencer, who comes to live with the author and her husband armed with notoriety, a thick file, and a past that belies his young age.  He is angry; he is hurt–and he desperately needs love.

The memoir ebbs and flows, following the predictable patterns of a child in crisis: two steps forward and sometimes three back.  The structure builds suspense–so much so that it is important to remind yourself as you read that this is a true story–as are all of Watson’s books.  The names and identifying details have been altered sufficiently to guarantee the privacy of those involved; but at its core are the tragic trappings of the beleaguered foster care system–as strained in the United Kingdom as it is here at home.

As an adoptive parent and one-time foster care provider, I can attest to the pain, loss, and anguish that hovers around the young lives that come into care; and I tip my hat to those who can provide foster care for our world’s most vulnerable children.   Spencer’s story is not unique but is nonetheless heartrending, and it is in very good hands with Casey Watson.

The Trouble with Marilyn Wedge’s Analysis

I am not French, nor am I psychologist, but I am the American mother of three American children, one of whom has received an American diagnosis of ADHD and takes medication dispensed at an American pharmacy for this condition every day.

Marilyn Wedge, Ph. D., in her article in Psychology Today entitled “Why French Kids Don’t Have ADHD” has inspired over 240 comments at this writing; so I don’t imagine I will add anything new to the conversation.  But because her article has invaded the internet with a vengeance, I am compelled to comment—for the sake of my son, for his peers who battle this condition daily, and for the American parents who are being flogged as permissive poisoners of their children’s bodies and minds.

I’ll start with acceding the fact that there are probably some things the French do better than us—speaking French comes to mind and, well, let’s be honest, cooking.  But beyond that I don’t think there is much productive about pitting one culture against the other—unless, of course, you take the next leap and remember that French parents are raising their children to thrive in French culture while American parents have to prepare their children to be successful here.

Wedge describes what she sees as the American propensity “to ‘pathologize’ much of what is normal childhood behavior”; and while I agree that many of the markers of ADHD (inattention, impulsivity, and restlessness) parallel those attributes of early childhood, it is disingenuous of her as a scientist not to examine and explore the cultural reasons why American parents are more apt to acknowledge ADHD in their children than their French counterparts—if that is indeed the case.  These reasons may, in fact, explain her opening statistical salvo and conclusion that ADHD is some kind of curse that “has completely passed over children in France.”  Perhaps it’s not so much that ADHD has “passed over” France but rather is not something readily or comfortably admitted to there.

And perhaps therein lies the author’s agenda.  In her article, she refers to children who exhibit ADHD symptoms as “troubled”; in fact, the name of her book is Pills Are Not for Preschoolers: A Drug-Free Approach for Troubled Kids. Troubled—a word that is just a hop away from “disturbed,” “difficult,” and “unfortunate”—and not remotely the way I would choose to describe my son, the way he would describe himself, or the way society—least of all a children’s therapist—should be describing anyone.

And it doesn’t take a Ph. D. in psychology—French, American, or otherwise—to understand that.

The Fear of a Seven-Year-Old

He has been talking about being afraid to die.

And though most people–children included–from time to time internalize, reflect on, and occasionally articulate this all-too-real fear, Edgar is just seven. And when he couples the expression of this fear with a sense that his seizures will return, what is usually a fleeting fear for most people takes on an added dimension. In a seven-year-old.

In Edgar’s mind he has linked his epilepsy with dying. And though this connection has never been actively expressed in our house–since he is just seven–he is not incorrect. It’s a fear we live with every single day. And apparently, though we have tried to shield him, so does our son–who is just seven.

There are many things we can and do say in response, but the fear becomes all too palpable and marches right to the front of the line when he invokes his seizures. His seizures have stayed at bay IMG_0130for sixteen months; and Edgar has done a remarkable job at convincing himself he is in charge of them. He has utilized the martial imagery our society uses when we encounter conditions that compromise our health; he has fought and battled and is prepared to do so every day. At age seven.

But in truth, though Edgar’s attitude toward his condition plays a significant, even vital, role, it’s not the only factor.

It is very hard to reconcile, as a parent, that this beautiful smile masks fears that should be no part of a seven-year-old’s day. But it does, as do ours.

Every day.