“The Circus Years”
“We cannot give empathy we do not have. We cannot teach skills we have not learned. We cannot offer calm if our bodies are anxious.” One ADHD mom’s reflections on conducting a 6-piece ADHD orchestra of which she is also a member.
I entered the grief cycle when my oldest son was diagnosed with ADHD, a pivotal family moment that I shared in the essay “To Capture a Tiger.”
In the weeks and months that followed, I harnessed my grief into a flurry of research. Since then, I have read countless books, subscribed to ADDitude magazine, and listened to hours of podcasts. I have become a student of attention deficit disorder.
And, as I began to acquire knowledge, I was struck repeatedly by these disconcerting “Aha” relevations:
- ADHD is highly genetic.
- ADHD presents differently within different individuals.
- ADHD has roots in genetic trauma.
- ADHD is often missed in females.
Many of the characteristics I saw in my son, were undeniably embodied by my husband and I as well. I am rotten at organization. I am a neat freak, but out of survival. Clutter makes me crazy. You can look in my pantry on any given day, and it is topsy-turvy. Granola bars stuffed behind chips while the cereal box has been knocked over, coating the shelf with Cheerio dust.
My husband is highly detail-oriented in his job and runs a successful business building custom homes. Yet it looks as if the tool genie vomited in his truck. It’s not that he doesn’t care; it is that he is overwhelmed by other priorities in his life.
I thought these things were personality quirks, weaknesses, or laziness. What I have found out is that we have ADHD, too.
BOTH OF US.
I present with high levels of anxiety… and I thought that was normal. I knew that some things were easier for other people than they were for me. Normal things. Organizing papers. Having someone over for dinner. Dealing with the chaos and mess of four children. For me, these things are possible, but they take an inordinate amount of energy. Anxiety, I learned, can be a symptom of ADHD or a comorbid mental health issue. And that explained so much.
What began as a journey about my son, has become a journey about myself as well. I am becoming empowered as an advocate. But it has been long in coming. It has required self-care, counseling, acceptance of my personal capacity, and lots of journaling. It has taken reading books and encouraging laughter.
In our family, we think ADHD is hilarious. Like when someone puts the car keys in the freezer. Or the milk in the pantry. Or the most recent: my daughter got in trouble because she forgot to repay a friend. An hour after this conversation, she came in laughing, and said, “This is a great ADHD moment. I actually forgot that I remembered to give her the money already.”
We burst out laughing.
As you might have guessed from that last comment, my daughter has ADHD, too. This is the same daughter who was more organized than her brother. Not so much anymore, now that hormones and middle school have kicked in.
As I have learned, children can successfully manage their ADHD symptoms under the radar for a long time. Then, there comes a time when the stressors outweigh the capacity to overcome. This happened for my daughter in middle school. Her issues weren’t grades, but emotions. And the anxious feeling of being perpetually overwhelmed, which will shut you down, rev you up, and all the in-between. That “stressors outweighing capacity” time varies with each person. Many adults are diagnosed late in life for that reason.
In truth, we are battling 6 for 6. Every single member of my family has ADHD.
Yes. This is my circus, and these are my monkeys.
Our youngest two boys were evaluated by a neuropsychologist this fall. Now, I am experiencing a second grief cycle. I knew intuitively that they had ADHD. But hearing it out of the mouth of a professional that every person in our family has this health challenge, including myself, felt overwhelming.
As I type this, I am sitting in the waiting room of the tutor’s office. My youngest son is struggling with reading. I drive him to tutoring 2 times a week, 30 miles away from where we live. ADHD management for 6 individuals is sometimes a full-time job.
I hate making appointments. I do not enjoy doctor’s appointments, or communicating with teachers. It all feels like detail work that I don’t naturally do successfully. Add paperwork for 504s, med management, meals, marriage, house-cleaning, a home-business… and I want to move to Mexico and live on the beach.
The self-care required to be this “advocate plus business manager” could also be a full-time job. Truthfully, writing this piece is self-care. When I take an experience and wrap it in words, I’ve learned I can manage my response to trauma. I’m inviting the broca center of my brain to be engaged. In doing so, I step out of “fight, flight, and freeze” and move closer to acceptance.
To give my children what they need, I must care for myself. We cannot give empathy we do not have. We cannot teach skills we have not learned. We cannot offer calm if our bodies are operating as if they are just getting off a roller coaster ride.
Each one of my children has different presentations of ADHD — and specific needs. One child has a body that acts like a motor stuck in overdrive. Another fights anxiety. One struggles with working memory. And yet another grapples with processing-speed issues.
I never knew I would be a circus ringmaster. Different acts happening all at the same time, managed by one woman. I don’t even own any sequins. It is more than I am capable of and yet, at the same time, it is vital and required of me. I am overwhelmed.
But I am getting better at this.
I have found some fabulous people who advocate for children and who understand ADHD. I cried when we left the neuropsychologist’s office. Not because of devastation, but because she offered concrete resources. Choose this tutor. Take this to this teacher. Try this medication. She was incredible.
My son’s high school teachers have made time for him, told him they know he can succeed, and understand his executive functioning weaknesses. There are some brilliant individuals out there who advocate for children.
It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes courage and self-care to find that village for your family.
It isn’t all rosy. But it isn’t all gray either. There is good and there is hard.
I am learning to be kind to myself. I have let go of anger and am moving to acceptance. I can still get sad or mad or irritated but, mostly, I like us. I like this circus. It exhausts me, but my kids are amazing people. Their ADHD can light a fire in our family and have my husband and I scrambling for the extinguisher. And conversely, our challenges can cause belly laughs and pure energy. I wouldn’t trade my kids.
It’s both/and. Incredible and exhausting.
Sometimes, it’s hard to live in the tension. But it’s my life. Our lives. I choose to enjoy and celebrate the ways we live under the big top.
On the rough days, I will let myself cry a while, love myself, and rise again. I will stand in the ring, knowing I have permission to thrive as a one-woman circus ringmaster. I might even buy a bad-ass outfit and sparkle a little under the lights.