I’m the Issue

Back in December, I found myself volunteering at Martin’s class Chanukah party. I read The Runaway Latkes to the class, served latkes—I’d brought Martin’s from home—, and helped Martin’s desk cluster play Chanukah bingo. I also facilitated a dreidl game. Martin played dreidl without incident, but another boy cried or complained every time he had to surrender chips, and finally refused to play any longer, instead yelling, “I’m a sore loser! I’m a sore loser!” I was reminded of when the behaviorist told me, “Martin is not the behavior problem in his classroom.” Overall, the morning went smoothly for Martin, and I felt optimistic.

While I and the other parent volunteers were packing to leave, the teacher called the kids to the rug for another story time. The kids were fussing and settling, and the teacher said above the murmur, “Children! This book is scary! You might want to snuggle up with a good friend!” Everyone squealed and began linking arms into groups of two or three. Tristan immediately grabbed Spencer. Those are two boys I know. Tristan’s mom was born in the same country as Adrian. We have done play dates with Spencer (on a parent-organized, not child-initiated, basis). Martin gravitated to them also, and sat himself very close to Tristan. A second later, Tristan pushed Martin away, and even from the classroom doorway, I heard Martin ask, “Why not? Why can’t I be?” I don’t know exactly what Tristan said to Martin, but given that it followed “. . . snuggle up with a good friend,” I can guess. When I left, Martin was sitting alone, two feet from Tristan and Spencer, listening as the teacher began the scary story.

I worry so much about Martin’s self-esteem. It’s probably what I worry about the most, even more than his attention deficit and immaturity. I wonder how many times per day his self-esteem endures hits like Tristan pushing him away and saying he’s not a friend. The ten or so kids other than Martin at his morning bus stop are all girls, except a boy named Nathan. One of the mothers is pregnant with twins and just found out she’s having a boy and a girl. When she told the bus-stop crowd, Nathan’s mom said, “Oh my gosh, Nathan, are you happy? Finally another boy around the street!” She said this while Martin was standing next to her. Perhaps she confused social challenges with hearing, understanding, inferring.

Seeing the way the world treats Martin has caused me to do some hard reflecting, again, on the way I treat Martin, and how I might also be injuring his self-esteem. Multiple times each day, I become frustrated with Martin for behaviors that are likely outside his control. On any given morning, I might say the following:

-“Martin, why did you spill all the juice? Weren’t you being careful? This is expensive juice.”

-“Martin, I told you to finish eating while I got dressed. You haven’t eaten even one single bite!”

-“Martin, why can’t you just put your shoes on? Feet. Shoes. It isn’t hard.”

-“Martin, we are going to miss the bus! Listen! Pay attention!”

-“Well, that’s it. We’re late. Again.”

Or take this very afternoon, a Monday. I’m going to be honest here, entirely honest, even if doing so brings me to tears while I’m writing: I have been frustrated with Martin since the minute he returned from school. Everything was wrong: Last night I slept only three hours, because I was working on a memo. This afternoon I ended up doing more office tasks than I planned, and my lunch date was more than half an hour late, so I still had to make dinner once Martin was at home. Let me add—Martin had a fantastic weekend. He chatted conversationally, he had no meltdowns, he focused at taekwondo class. So I expected a fantastic today. I knew today would rock. And then it didn’t. Martin cried and complained his way through 40 minutes of homework (worksheets that should have taken no more than 10 minutes), and he still wasn’t done, not even close, when I called him to get ready for taekwondo. I reserved 20 minutes to get us out the door. Twenty minutes to put on a taekwondo uniform and sneakers. And yet we were late. Like junk expands to fill a basement, Martin’s needs expand to overflow whatever time he’s allotted.

My role in all this? I’ve spent the entire afternoon being unreasonable. I’ve told Martin to stop complaining, I’ve grown frustrated, I’ve blamed him for our lateness. I’ve told him to act like an eight-year-old instead of a baby. Once or twice I’ve raised my voice. Constantly I’ve thought, “I would like a glass of wine,” and responded to myself, “A glass of wine will not solve anything,” and then argued with myself, “I think it would.”

My attitude, this afternoon and many mornings, is problematic for two reasons. First, it is unfair unfair to Martin. It’s not that Martin “isn’t being careful”—it’s that his ADHD and lingering coordination issues make him clumsy and distracted. It’s not that Martin “isn’t hurrying”—he lacks the ability to focus. It’s not that Martin is “ignoring me”—listening and paying attention go to the very heart of his disorder. To be sure, some of his conduct may be behavioral. But most of it is not, and it upsets him to be reminded of his shortcomings.

Second, my attitude pretends like I’m not the issue.

If Martin is spilling juice, I am the issue. The juice should be in a safer spot, and in a spill-proof cup.

If Martin isn’t finishing breakfast while I’m getting dressed, I am the issue. I need to get dressed before Martin eats so that I can supervise him.

If we are not getting out of the house on time, I am the issue. If 20 minutes is insufficient time to prepare, then somehow I need (1) to find more time and (2) to organize so that I have nothing to do except shepherd Martin’s preparation. One might argue that Martin needs to be developing more independence; clearly, however, the “independent Martin” strategy is failing at this time. Maybe I can leave one, and only one, task for solo performance: teeth brushing, or bag packing, or sneaker tying. For now, I need to “scaffold” massively (think “build extrastructure”) and withdraw support as Martin’s attending improves.

The truth is—and I think most biomed parents will agree with this—it is very frustrating to spend almost every waking moment working toward recovery and still get hit with waves of perseveration. Still never get out of the house on time. Still wonder why the child never listens. Still endure moments of hopelessness.

But that truth doesn’t excuse me from acting like the grown-up in this relationship.

Epilogue

I wrote this post yesterday, Monday. When Adrian arrived home, I said, “It’s been an afternoon. Will you pour me a glass of white wine?” He noted that the only white wine in the house was a bottle of questionable quality that the pool company had dropped off before Christmas. I told him to proceed. I drank two glasses. I woke at 3:30 am with a headache. I took ibuprofen and went back to sleep, propped on pillows, then managed to oversleep until 6:00 am.

Despite being rushed, I worked swiftly and organized the morning well. Martin cooperated more than yesterday. I was so proud of us when we were ready for the school bus three minutes early.

After Martin departed, I realized I’d forgotten his after-breakfast supplements.

He arrived home with a report saying he’d needed an unusual amount of prompting during the school day, and had refused to participate in Valentine’s activities. Now he’s in taekwondo again, and instead of participating, he’s jumping.

Still, the grown-up in the relationship feels okay. Must be a sleep thing.

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Martin, at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium. He’s not the issue.

Frustration Posting

Months ago, when Martin was having more trouble sleeping—if you’ve been reading for a while, you may remember this—I would sometimes draft posts during those long midnight hours, sitting in his room with an iPad. To myself, I called it “exhaustion posting,” and I knew it wasn’t a good idea. When it’s 3:00 a.m. and I’ve slept eight hours during the past 72, it doesn’t matter how much progress we’ve made overall or how bright the future looks. I will have nothing nice to say.

I’m about to do something else that the reasonable part of my brain (the part that gets overshadowed, often) knows is not a good idea. Let’s call it “frustration posting.”

Why am I frustration posting when I know I shouldn’t?

Because I’m frustrated.

We’re in the dumps again. Crapsville. The Land of No Focus. The State of Bad Digestion. Obsession City.

Autism territory.

When Adrian and I returned from vacation last week, Martin’s symptoms were, I thought, more pronounced than when we’d left. I concocted several explanations—change in routine without school, anguish at wondering if his parents would return, a stale supplementation routine—that allowed for easy solutions.

We’ve been home now six days. So far, the easy solutions have failed. (I’ll admit that I have not yet updated the supplementation. I have a call scheduled for Thursday to discuss that with Martin’s excellent Track Two doctor.) Martin’s belly is distended. He has diarrhea. He’s scratching. And the behavioral symptoms have become yet more pronounced.

Getting Martin fed and ready for school this morning was like weaving a basket from cooked spaghetti. Nothing worked. He lacked the attention to put food in his mouth, absent constant nagging. He had no language to express what he sought and reverted instead to “You wan’ you wan’ you wan, I wan’ I wan’,” without object or variation. He refused to stand long enough to get his pants down for the toilet, or to don a jacket for the New York winter; when I tried to accomplish those tasks, he threw himself against me or fell to the floor. Adrian, who takes Martin down to meet the school bus, later reported that Martin had been unable to engage in even simple conversation like providing his teacher’s name.

This evening was worse. Evenings used to be the most difficult part of my day, because as Martin grew tired, he grew unmanageable, even less able to read my signals or control himself. I thought those days were over. Today he arrived at 5:30 p.m. with a babysitter, utterly hyperactive, laughing without obvious reason, jumping on the sofa, darting from chair to stair to table. At 6:15, when the babysitter prepared to leave, Martin began screaming because she zipped her vest. That’s a special new highlight, this fixation on zippers. Once the poor sitter managed to escape, from 6:15 until bedtime was a near-unmitigated scream-and-cry fest, punctuated only by bites of dinner and senseless verbal demands. “You wan’ bath. You wan’ not bath. No. No. No. You wan’ counter. Mommy is coming back. She’s coming back. You wan’ go outside. Outside.” Every chance he got, he grabbed my cardigan and yanked the zipper down or pushed it up until it caught my hair or the skin of my neck. He left his plate and ran around. He slunk from chair to floor and refused to rise.

When I finally got him into bed he tried to insist on wearing the tight winter vest over his pajamas.

I probably should have indulged him. Instead I refused. Scream-and-cry fests diminish my empathy. Insofar as scream-and-cry fests are symptoms of something amiss within Martin, they should cause the opposite, i.e., a flood of empathy. In the world of reason, that would happen. In the world of frustration, it does not.

So there you have it. The bad with the good.

Right now I’m telling myself that we turned the tide in late November and early December, and that we can do so again now.

Right now I’m hoping for a better day tomorrow.

Right now I’m trying to breathe.