My Son the Artist: Accepting His ADHD
The heartbreak and triumph I experienced watching my ADHD son spiral downward to drug abuse and then recover to become a happy, self-supporting tattoo artist.
The parking lot at my son’s graduation is a sea of motorcycles: black, yellow, loud, smoke-belching, flame-adorned, sparkling with chrome so bright you have to look away.
Far from the dappled shade of any Ivy League campus, this blazing blacktop belongs to the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, a sprawling complex of freshly whitewashed, warehouse-size buildings with red and blue accent lines. Inside are classrooms, labs, and mock repair shops for the students who, like my son, Alex, study to become certified in the assembly and repair of motorcycles.
My husband carefully steers our rented Nissan through the parking lot, searching for an empty spot among all the motorcycles. Hiding behind my dark sunglasses, I look around at the other parents and friends in their halter tops and jeans, scarf shirts, sleeveless T-shirts, and turquoise bracelets. And tattoos, of course, lots and lots of them: roses, serpents, spiders, geometric patterns, and sunbursts, brightly colored explosions of red, blue, and green.
Feeling out of place
We, on the other hand, are just in from Maryland, and I’m wearing a linen pantsuit and white shirt, my husband sports his standard short-sleeve button-down with pressed khakis, and my daughter has on a J. Crew polo shirt and hip-hugger pants. With our sickly winter-white skin, we look as if we’ve just been released from an extended hospital stay. We have no tattoos, not even a cute little ankle flower.
Today is ostensibly a celebration, but I’ve been churning with that familiar stew of hope, love, embarrassment, and worry that has generally ruled my relationship with my son for most of his 29 years, since well before his attention deficit disorder (ADHD) diagnosis when he was eight. Just two months ago, when I thought that, with this impending graduation, he had finally outgrown his penchant for derailing my dreams for his life, it happened again. The news came in a phone call: “Mom, guess what? I’m going to become a tattoo artist.”
I sat down, stunned. “But what about all your motorcycle training?” I said. “The months of hard work, the classes, the chance for a well-paying job. You’re throwing all that away?”
“I’ve decided that tattooing will be my full-time job,” he said happily. “And my band, of course. Music and art, those are the things I love. Working on bikes, well, that’s what I’ll do when I need to make some extra money.”
Disappointment clogged my throat. How could he change his mind again? And then I turned the disappointment inward. Stupid me — I’d actually allowed myself to get excited about this, his motorcycle certification. Granted, a motorcycle mechanic son may not sound like nirvana to some parents. But in our case, I felt it was Alex’s best chance for a “career” and to become self-supporting.
Life on his terms
Alex has spent most of his life poking, pushing, and prying open commonly accepted norms of behavior in hopes of finding a place for himself. Ever since he was old enough to race his tricycle down the sidewalk, with such abandon that neighbors grabbed their children out of his way, Alex has been living life on his own terms. And I, as the single mother I was for much of his childhood, have often been pushed to my limit trying to raise him and, with what energy was left, his younger sister, while working full-time as a public relations executive to support us.
In middle school, Alex clashed with teachers about his black and red hair, flying shirttails, and intermittent attendance. He was bright and wild with energy for anything but the classroom. He taught himself to play guitar, bass, saxophone, and drums, created noisy basement bands, and wrote volumes of music and lyrics.
When he wasn’t making music he was drawing — birds, fish, flowers — with fine detail. I hung his drawings in my office, and dreamed of the day he would be able to channel his intellect and creativity positively, to become the kind of artist whose canvases would hang in real galleries.
Instead, he started making a canvas of himself. At 17, Alex had the word “unity” tattooed on his upper arm. He never asked my permission, and when I saw it, I told him it made him look like a punk. He said it reflected his stand on “race, equality, and acceptance” — a touching sentiment, perhaps, but despite his call for acceptance, it was a little hard for me to accept.
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!”
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.