Parenting ADD Kids: My Son the Artist

The heartbreak and triumph I experienced watching my ADD son spiral downward to drug abuse and then recover to become a happy, self-supporting tattoo artist.

The ADD Experience, Part 2

Staying connected

Of course, that was only the beginning. Soon Alex dropped out of high school and moved to the West Coast to live with friends, and then to Arizona, where he became addicted to heroin. This was a terrible time. My spirited son - the same boy who once explained to his kindergarten teacher he couldn't draw melted snowmen because they didn't leave a mark - was now lost on the streets of a city 3,000 miles away, sticking needles in his arm, probably sleeping in cardboard boxes. If I saw him on the street, would I even recognize him?

All along I'd been determined to stay connected to Alex by not issuing any threats or ultimatums. Despite my open-door approach, there were times when I didn't hear from him for weeks. But I had faith that he'd find his way out. He acknowledged that drugs were eating him alive and told me he was ready to enter an addiction treatment facility, where he went into recovery. He has remained clean for seven years.

Meanwhile, Alex's collection of tattoos spread from his upper arms to his neck, lower arms, and back. Given his love for them, I shouldn't have been surprised that he would want to become a tattoo artist.

Trying to convince me that his plan was legitimate, Alex pleaded with me via e-mail: "The best tattoo artist in Arizona has taken me on as an apprentice!" he wrote. "He says that I have the drawing talent to be great."

I wanted to ask him to face reality for once, to be able to tell him something, anything that might change his mind. But I kept that clenched inside and instead wrote, "Alex, please help me to understand what it is about tattoo art that you find so appealing."

"Oh, Mom," he replied, "your questions make me so happy! Tattoos are unique pieces of art. I love the imagery, the unique and personal way of identifying myself, my beliefs, and my values. I love the Native American spirit designs and the Japanese or Chinese characters, the roses and other flowers, swallows, daggers, flames, names, and memorials."

"Don't you worry about hepatitis?" I typed.

"I make sure my tattoo artist wears gloves and uses new needles and that the shop is always bleach-smelling clean."

"Are you sure you can earn enough as a tattoo artist to support yourself?"

"Mom, I think I can make it all work!"

Graduation day

I tried to imagine what it was like for the family of Arnold Schoenberg to appreciate his atonal music, which, to many at the time, sounded like air horns and geese honking and drove some listeners to riot. And who in Jackson Pollock's family could have foreseen that, when he dripped his paints across a canvas spread on the floor, he would become a famous abstract expressionist?

The families and guests of the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute graduates enter the air-conditioned auditorium and look for seats. Alex, with his dyed black hair, bright blue eyes, and Arizona-bronzed skin, sits with us, although he's up and down every few moments high-fiving fellow students.

I look at him. His laughter is easy. His arms and legs, covered with tattoos, move with abandon. He hugs his friends freely. My son - this young man I love so much but who has caused himself and his family such heartbreak over the past 21 years - is absolutely filled with joy.

And before long his graduation moment has arrived: Alex is called to the front to receive his certificate. His perfect attendance and outstanding grades are noted. As his fellow students whistle and whoop, Alex looks embarrassed - but only for a moment. Then he takes his diploma, holds it high over his head and shouts, "Yay, I made it!"

Of course, in the nearly two years since that occasion, Alex hasn't used his hard-won certification to work as a motorcycle mechanic for a single day. Not even once.

But he was right. He had made it. Not in the way I might have dreamed about. Not as the new Jackson Pollock. But at 29, he is happy and self-supporting, living the life of his dreams. And he sacrifices everything to pursue his art, which you can see on traveling exhibition throughout the Southwest on the backs, legs, arms, and chests of his many appreciative canvases.


This article comes from the June-July 2005 Issue of ADDitude.

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