How to Float — and Other Impossibly Hard Lessons for Parents

My instincts told me to rescue my son when homework and bad grades threatened to sink him, but he was not afraid. He was not looking for my help. Here’s how he learned to keep his head above water, all on his own, and I learned to just float.
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Letting My Son with ADHD Thrive on His Own

Angela Doll Carlson is a poet, fiction writer, and essayist whose work has appeared in Apeiron Review, Burnside Writer's Collective, Elephant Journal, and Art House America, among other publications and her blogs at NearlyOrthodox.com and MrsMetaphor.com. Her memoir, Nearly Orthodox: On Being a Modern Woman in an Ancient Tradition from Ancient Faith Publishers is now available. Her next book, Garden in the East is expected in 2016. Angela currently lives in Chicago with her husband, David, and her 4 outrageously spirited yet remarkably likable children.

When I was very young I nearly drowned, or at least that is the story I tell myself. I was taking swim lessons at the high school down the road from our house. I was in kindergarten. I bounced into the deep end of the pool when the teacher wasn’t looking. From under the water I heard my mother yell, “Somebody GET her!” I was grabbed under the armpits, raced to the edge of the pool and handed up to another instructor. I was panicked, but unharmed.

Even so, I don’t care much for swimming. I know the basics. I can dog paddle fairly well. The strokes are familiar, backstroke, crawl, freestyle, arm over arm, legs pumping, belly lifted, breath held. Given the chance I’ll sit on the shore or the deck, in the house or the cabana. I’ll read, I’ll watch, I’ll put my feet in the shallow end when I am hot, sometimes I’ll wade in slowly, sometimes I’ll float. I like to float.

I am not afraid of the water.

The pool at our vacation house is of equal depth all around, maybe four feet, maybe a bit more. My children love to swim, to splash, to duck their heads under the water and come up laughing, sputtering, coughing, Marco Polo, Marco Polo. I am standing by the ladder with a foam noodle wrapped around my lower back, letting it support me, letting it do the work of the water. I am leaning in and floating here under the spray of water guns and children giggling. They ask me to canon ball, they ask me to fire back with water guns, but I prefer to float, to observe, to take it slow while the water rushes over my feet and legs.

In mid August, when we visit our vacation house in middle Tennessee, the water has been subjected to the southern heat already for at least two months. The pool is warm, like bathwater that does not cool. Some prefer a cold splash after the ninety-degree days but this water is perfect to me, like caramel, sweet and syrupy. I glide around the pool when it empties of children. I watch the mud wasps as they hover past me, dragging their long legs in the water and pulling up at the last minute to avoid the metal edge of the pool. It is here in the subtle mix of temperature and texture that I float; hot stagnant air, cool breeze, lukewarm water, wispy clouds hanging low, sun past its apex, on its way to setting. The balance is perfect and I am floating.

I knew that my oldest son probably had ADHD at a young age. My husband was diagnosed with the condition early in our marriage. We knew that at least one of our children would most likely have a brain wiring that matched my husband’s. We were fine with that. We always chose to see the diagnosis not as a disability but as a creative approach to understanding life. The trouble is that the rest of the world tends to operate with a certain set of rules while people with ADHD march to the beat of their own drums. It is hard to make it in a world that does not understand you.

My son showed signs early, but we were homeschooling so it didn’t present a problem...yet. When he started middle school we decided to enroll him in a Montessori magnet school in our area. We were offered a seat and he wanted a larger environment so we went for it. At first, he was able to navigate the system with some success. But he was surrounded by new sounds and voices, motion was constant and he soon found himself drowning in schoolwork, unfinished assignments, unrestrained apprehension, and worsening anxiety.

It’s possible that all parents believe their children are brilliant. I hope so. I think my children are brilliant, though I recognize that I am biased. “I don’t care if the world agrees,” I would think to myself, but when the rubber meets the road, when the grades came back, when the stomach aches started, when the anxiety rose in my sweet boy, I doubted my read, I doubted my son, I doubted the decision to send him into the wilds of public school. I saw him there, under the water.

“Somebody GET him!” I screamed in my head.

I wanted to pull him out, grab him by the hands and bring him out of the deep end of that pool of schoolwork and fear. I wanted to protect him from the water, from the danger, from the other people, the distractions and the distracted but he didn’t want to leave. The water was deep and at times overwhelming but he was a fish, he needed this, he loved the feel of his hands moving through the warm wet. He was not afraid of the water.

We took him to the psychiatrist referred to us by a friend. If we got a diagnosis then we’d be able to have accommodations made. Maybe it would help. It was more for my peace of mind than his, perhaps. The doctor did a full day of testing in addition to one-on-one sessions. When she had gathered her information she called us in, my son, my husband and myself. She looked to Chet and said, “Do you think that you are smart?” and he shrugged a little, embarrassed. She continued, “Do you ever think you might be a creative genius?” and he shrugged again and looked down. And I was afraid then, afraid that she was using words she would not be able to buoy, afraid that she was telling my son a tale that he would not able to sustain the moniker, that is was honorary rather than earned. I think he is brilliant but is he, really? And does it matter? He is not afraid of the water. I am drowning here in doubt and fear.

My son is what they call “twice exceptional” meaning that he is both ADHD and gifted. He tests off the charts in two areas of his IQ and he tests well below average in the other two. He can do the schoolwork with ease; he just cannot turn it in. His brain wiring prevents it. He once lost his report card between having it handed to him by the teacher and turning to place it in his backpack. Executive functioning, that ability that allows us to cope with the daily tasks of life, is nearly non-existent for Chet. His mind is a hive of ideas and notions and information that streams continually, teaming around him while the world moves forward. He is circling; pumping legs and arms with his aim missing and in the deep end, there, he is drowning. His doctor said, “You have a race car mind with bicycle breaks, pal,” and he nodded and smiled and maybe I cried a little.

He is not afraid of the water.

At 15, Chet is lean and lanky. He is good-natured and friendly, opinionated and gregarious. He finished his last year of middle school with good grades, using the accommodations available to us with his individualized education plan, or IEP. He still feels the overwhelm when the classroom is chaotic, he still feels himself bouncing into the deep end, he still has to work harder and longer to focus. His race car mind is always running, his bicycle brakes still insufficient in the grand scheme of the classroom but he knows how to swim, arm over arm, legs pumping and lungs working. He is not afraid of the water. He is swimming. And I am floating.

 
 
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