My sister recently tagged me in a link/post on Facebook. I highly recommend you read it before you read what I have to say. It’s long but worth it.
I haven’t spent time considering my boyhood years in a very long while. I read this post and it inspired me to write. If you are my friend and you like the image of me you have, you might want to stop reading now. However, if you are indeed my friend, you’ll read, understand, refuse to judge and just maybe come away with a better understanding of who I am or why I do certain things.
Fair warning, this post may be all over the place.
Some Back Story
If you know me, you probably know my father and his father, my grandfather, died within six days of each other over Thanksgiving (On Thanksgiving Day for my dad) in 1982 when I was 8 years old and my sister was 5. In the span of less than a week I’d lost any real chance at male role models in my life. I’d never crawl around my dad’s 1970’s Monte Carlo with him and understand why opening the butterfly valve on the carburetor changed the fuel/air mix. I’d never hear my grandfather’s stories of traveling the world with my grandmother.
My mother had lost her husband and with him some of the support that came from his side of the family. To be blunt, they mostly abandoned us after the funeral. My mother was left to her own devices. My home had been the traditional sort where dad worked and mom stayed home with the kids. My memories of life before my father died are mostly clouded so I don’t remember my mom being home all the time. My father got sick when I was five and so my early years are pretty much memories of my father wasting away and my mother being strong, taking care of him and managing life. Mom went to work, we went to daycare or babysitters.
My mother is still the strongest woman I know. She never re-married and only rarely dated. My sister and I were her life and she did everything she possibly could to make sure we turned out alright. By mine and my sister’s own words, she did an amazing job. My sister and I are both compassionate people, loyal to our friends and family nearly to a fault. My sister is also a single mother who is doing a fantastic job with my niece. I often look at my niece and think that perhaps her “wildness” might, by another person and in another time, be taken as something that “needed to be addressed”. I am eternally grateful that my sister lets her be who she is going to be because she is simply amazing.
I have no children and no desire for them. I attribute a lot of this to my childhood. I don’t “blame” my childhood, rather, I say it was a good teacher and I do not believe I would be strong enough to handle things as well as my mother did in the worst case scenario she had to endure.
After my father died, I understand from my mom and others that I did not handle it well. My own memories are pretty fleeting except for a few very vivid ones I cling to. I lashed out at my mother but I don’t know if it was any more than another boy would have at that age. My mother took me to a counselor shortly after my father died and perhaps a psychiatric doctor, I’m not certain. I do know that not long after, I was put on Ritalin. I was also put into “special education” classes for people with learning disabilities. I’ll address this first.
How do I explain “special education”? Unless you’ve been through the system, you probably have no idea what this entails. you might have seen these kids in school but you probably never really knew them. Maybe you even made jokes about them. These kids were those on the spectrum, or perhaps those who truly had learning disabilities like dyslexia (My best friend back then had a form of this in which he read books backwards). Some had very real anger and violence issues. One of my more vivid memories of these classes was around fifth grade where a kid was screaming and hitting the teacher. He ended up climbing up on top of a tall cabinet out of reach and the room was soon filled with staff trying to get him down.
The curriculum was not the same either. It was for lack of a better term, “dumbed down”. I became bored quickly and would often be reprimanded for “day dreaming”. I started reading books for enjoyment around this time and it was the only thing that took me out of my head.
For my own part, I was in these classes because I did indeed lash out, mostly at my mother and my sister. I was especially mean to my sister even into high school. I believe now that I was jealous of her. She never had to go into special classes, never got put on Ritalin and to my blind young eyes, didn’t have any “problems”. Later I would learn she had dealt with as much or more than I ever would. I cannot tell you if this anger I had was just “who I was” at the time or if it was due to my father’s death or the Ritalin or a mixture but I can say that I still struggle with anger issues sometimes. I’ll get into more of that later but thankfully, age and experience have taught me to temper anger with creativity and other outlets.
When I was going into my 8th grade year, my mother decided she had had enough of doing it alone and planned to move us from the outskirts of Chicago to Roswell, NM where her parents lived. It would be the beginning of me taking control of my life. I told my mother in no uncertain terms that I would refuse to go back into “special education” classes when we moved. I wanted a new start. Sometimes I laugh at that memory, a twelve going on thirteen year old “telling” his mother he would refuse to go into anything but “regular” classes. To my surprise, she agreed. I saw it as a new start where no-one knew me, where I wasn’t called a “retard” when I came out of the room everyone knew was for “the weird kids”. I was bullied non-stop by a kid in my 6th and 7th grade years. I even remember his name, Mike Zimmerman. I was glad to be leaving even if it was for an ex-military town in the middle of the desert.
By the first month of 8th grade, I knew I was behind. The “special education” classes had not prepared me for the true curriculum I should have known. I struggled hard. My struggles caused me anger and the kids around me could feel this. I got into fights, I spent time in In-School Suspension and I was even suspended out of school a few times. I continued to be bullied until around 10th grade when, after having my nose destroyed by a kid who jumped me for no other reason than I was a loner. I came back to school after a week long suspension (yes, I was suspended for getting hit in the face and running into the counselors office bleeding all over). The kid who hit me was a year younger and was not suspended because “I was older and should know better than to get into fights”. Yes. Really. Something changed after that. I became aware of myself in many ways. One of these ways was my size. I was not a small kid then, nor was I grossly overweight but I did have broad shoulders and natural muscle. The next time this same kid got me alone was in a locker-room in the gym a few weeks after my return. I saw him coming up behind me and without any words I spun on him and drove his head into a locker. I kept bashing his head into the locker until I saw him crying and then I just walked away. He never approached me again, he never looked at me again and he never squealed to the office that I had assaulted him. I had learned to stand up for myself but I had also learned that I had little to know control over my anger in that type of situation. This was something I would struggle with well into my 30’s. People picking on defenseless people became a trigger for me and I would unleash on them. Only in the last few years have I truly come to a place where I can control the black rage which assails me when I see a situation like this.
School never really worked for me and I dropped out in the 11th grade. I did not end up flipping burgers but I’ll get into that below.
I do not recall when I was put on Ritalin or when I was taken off of it but I do have memories of being influenced by it. The article, if you read it, touches on some of these and I will do the same with my own experiences here.
I have a memory of standing at my second story bedroom window and wondering what it would be like to jump. My mother corroborate this memory I believe though it’s been a long while since we spoke of it. I would have been around eight or nine. Suicidal thoughts at that age are not unheard of but rare I’d imagine. I believe highly that the Ritalin I was on altered how I perceived things around me.
I relate to some of the article’s other mentions of side effects and longer lasting permanent alterations. Insomnia is probably my earliest memory of any side effect. I remember being up until one or two a.m. when I was ten or eleven and then not being able to get up for school.
Anxiety and Agitation are things I deal with daily. Again, it is hard to tell whether this is just who I would have become anyway or if the years of Ritalin had a hand in shaping me along with a traumatic childhood loss of parents. There really is no way to know.
Suicidal thoughts and depression have also assaulted me from time to time. Since my late twenties the occurrences have been very few and far between and thankfully, never more than a few months of struggling. The most recent bout of these feelings was about a year ago. Each time however, I learn a little more and I’m able to move on.
But, are you ADD/ADHD?
No. At least, I don’t believe I am and I’ve had doctors tell me as an adult that I was most likely misdiagnosed. I believe much of this has to do with advances in the understanding of ADD/ADHD. I absolutely have some ADD moments but I think that is human nature. My career is full of multi-tasking and that could be taken as ADD.
The article I mention at the top touches on this quite a bit. I was a “wild” kid. I had and still have a ton of energy. My friends who are ten years younger than me often comment on it. I was also an adventurous kid. I wanted to and again, still want to explore everything. I consume tons of random information on things as wide and varied as how the Mayan language evolved to why my dog farts and then checks his own backside. I live in Wikipedia for hours at a time and I get sucked into clicking through related topics. Does this make me ADD? Maybe. Or maybe I just enjoy learning new things but never spending a ton of time on one topic. I credit this “dysfunction” for my success in my career so if I’m like this because my mom put me on Ritalin at the advice of a misinformed doctor then all I can say is “Thanks Mom!”
What saved you?
Do you blame the doctors or your mom?
Who are you now?
My mother obviously “saved” me. I do not blame her for anything yet she often makes comments and blames herself for the special education, the Ritalin, even not getting re-married. I shush her of course. My mother was a suddenly widowed woman with two young children. To say “she did the best she could” would be an insult. The woman didn’t just “do the best she could”, instead she gave up every dream of how her life might go. My mother’s goal in life became making sure that my sister and I would have one. She more than succeeded. My mother “creatively financed” (her term), when she needed to make something happen. If we were broke and struggling, my sister and I didn’t really know. Only later would we come to understand how many times we were close to financial ruin. We had what we needed for school, we had food on the table and most important, we had my mother as a stalwart and fair defender of her children. She didn’t back down from those who would try to do us wrong nor would she stand for any bullshit we tried to lay on her. I could spend page upon page telling stories of what my mother taught me, how she taught me even when she wasn’t intending on teach me, etc.
I do not blame the doctors either. That is too easy. Research in this area and most psychiatric areas has come leaps and bounds since that time. I cannot blame a misinformed doctor for putting a kid who’d just lost all the men in his immediate and local family on a central nervous system drug in order to help a single mother control her all-over-the-place son.
I blame no one. The situation perhaps but no one. At the end of the day, I’m pretty happy with who I am.
So then what did “save” me or, at least, what helped me out?
Mom made a decision just after my dad died that would end up being the catalyst for change in my life. It would save me from flipping those burgers when I dropped out of high school and would steer my career. The decision, combined with my natural inclination toward tearing things apart to understand them and putting them back together would steer me toward the life and career I now know.
My mother bought a computer.
It was a Commodore 64. It had a modem. I was instantly addicted. Instead of tearing it apart like I had done with countless alarm clocks, toys, etc to see what made it work, I taught myself how it worked through it’s own language. My equally nerdy babysitter also like computers and showed me a magazine that had code in the back. I was hooked. Looking back, it also focused me. It continues to focus me to this day but not in that dead eyed stare at a gaming console way. It challenges me to focus in order to learn which has the side effect of centering me similar to how meditation works which I also spend quite a bit of time doing.
Today I am 43 years old. Only a year older than my father was when he died. I’ve been married an divorced. My ex-wife and I are still friends and she is still one of the few people I completely trust unequivocally. My lifestyle is not 2.5 kids and a white picket fence. My fence is red-brown and I have no kids. I tend to have more female friends than male, something I absolutely credit my upbringing for. I have an excellent “personal life”. My career is fun and fulfilling. Sometimes I struggle with depression. Sometimes I struggle with anger and maybe I am even a little ADD but all in all, I’m happy.
I’m not a parent. I’ve never raised a child nor do I have any interest in raising one and perhaps do not have the required patience to do so but I do agree with the article in saying that we need to stop medicating our boys and instead try to embrace who they might be. Certainly there are going to be cases where ADHD/ADD are absolutely something that needs to be treated. I know several mothers and fathers with boys who are truly suffering from these debilitating conditions but I also know and work with young adults who were mis-diagnosed, given Adderal and now have come to rely on it in adulthood as a crutch they probably never really needed. Some of my 20-somethings I work with have admitted suicidal thoughts to me when they try to get off Adderall and others abuse it for the wakefulness effects.
If you haven’t already, I encourage you to read the article mentioned at the top. My own story is not a fair telling of the more common outcomes of boys who are mis-diagnosed and then drugged. I count myself as one of the lucky ones. I am not an alcoholic, I’ve never dived into the drug scene even when I was constantly surrounded by it on a nightly basis. I don’t suffer from much PTSD regarding my childhood nor do I rely on any medication dave for an Advil or two here and there. I have been lucky. Many others have not.