Illustration by Chris Silas Neal for BuzzFeed
The transition from elementary school to the larger public middle school comes with a silver lining. The bigger population means more kids to get to know. There are a few boys my son can tolerate, boys quirky in their own rights. Boys he’s not intimidated by, and who don’t find him annoying. They discover each other, somehow, in the vast halls. They recognize each other, come together on invisible strings. They visit our house one Sunday afternoon and slump around the dining room table playing Dungeons & Dragons. I hand out glasses of lemonade and bowls of popcorn, and I immediately see it in each of them, the signs of slight difference. Intense little preteen boys plagued by irregular washes of brain chemicals they can’t control. These are my son’s people.
Later, I pluck kernels out of the carpet when the moms come to the door to pick up their boys. Each woman has that questioning look, the one that asks without words if her son was OK. Did he toss the dice in the air? Cause an argument? Was he calm enough? Did he engage? I want to hold their hands and invite them in. I want to tell them I know them, I know that wary look in their eyes. We are the same.
M doesn’t bother getting up from the piles of paper and dice in front of him when the other kids grunt goodbye and leave. I’m a barbarian, he says, indicating his character sheet. He’s smiling. It’s a good thing. And I think, yes, because in ancient times that word only meant someone who didn’t belong to one of the great civilizations; an outsider to the norm.
I remember the day M and I were born — he to me and I to him. Everything was new. He was a brand-new human, and I was raw and reborn into a whole new life. They laid him on my chest and he was red as meat and smelled deep and primal; like the inside of me. And that is what it is, I think, that first binds mothers to their children. The animal heart of it all — the earthy smell we respond to like dark, lurking things. He was mine and I was his; linked together by devotion and blood.
What they don’t tell you when you become a parent is how confusing it is. Not the infancy part. That’s easy. It’s black and white. They cry, you feed them or cuddle them. You change their diapers and carry them around, and it’s simple. But when your babies are sent into the bigger world, expected to interact and go to school and learn the rules, and your kid is the one sent home from preschool with sad-face stickers nearly every day, it’s not simple.
When M was a baby, and I was sleep-deprived and spit-up-covered, a friend said, “Small children; small problems. Big children; big problems.” I’m sure I rolled my eyes and muttered something dismissive under my breath. Over the years, as the preschool sad-face stickers morphed into scolding teachers, perplexed school counselors, disappointed tutors, and endless testing, the phrase began to haunt me.
In the beginning, everyone had ideas for how to manage M’s distractibility and moodiness. “Cut out his gluten, it’s a killer,” one friend suggested. Another swore that her son “became a whole new person” when he stopped eating food with additives. A gym teacher, frustrated by M’s inability to wait his turn in T-ball, said, “Kid needs to run around more.”
When the psychologist we met with called with the diagnosis, I went into the bathroom for privacy. I hunkered on the edge of the tub, the phone wedged between ear and neck. I balled up wads of tear-soaked toilet paper. “He’s got ADD,” the doctor said, and I studied the scuffed white baseboards and the strands of hair draped like tinsel on the plumbing behind the toilet. “And an anxiety disorder.” He mentioned that the two diagnoses are often co-morbid — that is, they exist simultaneously but independent of each other — but I already knew the truth. It was my body that made him, after all.
Now we’re here at seventh grade, academic accommodations, therapy, and an outpatient study at the National Institutes of Health. The researcher we’re working with asks me about M’s medication. We’re up to four now. Every day. Concerta, Intuniv, and Ritalin for the ADD, Lexapro for the anxiety. Is it working? she asks. And I don’t know what to tell her. I don’t know how to judge anymore. Does she mean that since he’s only failing two classes, and it used to be three, that’s progress? Or should I tell her that recently he’s been getting through more consecutive days without ripping up his math homework and slamming his door?
The study will help psychologists figure out the link between ADD and mood disorders. She smiles happily when she tells me he’s “not nearly dramatic enough for the severe mood disorder study.” But his ADD and anxiety and the intensities of his emotional shifts make him perfect for this one. Well, I think, now I know how it feels to have a perfect child.
M is led off to another room with another researcher. Later he tells me he played on a computer. It was fun, he says. I stay in this little windowless room, gray walls and gray floor and empty but for a desk, two chairs, and a box of tissues. I shift in my wooden chair and my knee bangs the desk loudly. It hurts. The researcher across from me winces. I want to cry. She asks me endless questions. I tell her everything. I gut myself like a fish and give her everything I have.
Was it a normal pregnancy? she asks. I think about those days, the summer of 2001. Because of my husband’s job, we were living in Kiev then, and I clearly remember the blue of the sky and the little old ladies selling bunches of flowers in the Metro. On the day I found out I wasn’t alone in my body anymore, I couldn’t believe my luck. This baby was planned and hoped for. Even when the morning sickness began, and my own blood felt like poison in my veins, and a good day was only vomiting 5 or 10 times, I had this sense of deep peace.
That feeling lasted through the long summer days and into the turning of fall, when the Ukrainian evenings chilled and the leaves began to color. It lasted until the day I turned on the cable TV and saw that our American channel had a live morning show on. The very Americanness of the chatty blonde anchor comforted me, and I curled up to watch. I sucked on ginger Altoids and dry-heaved into the garbage can at my side. It was morning in the U.S., and afternoon in Kiev, and it was the wrong time and day to be watching morning TV live from the East Coast.
I tell the NIH researcher I felt a physical jolt that day, like electricity zapping through me, when I realized what was happening on the TV. I tell her I can’t shake the notion of something changing on a cellular level inside me. That day, I held the place in my middle where M was just barely a beating heart. I felt the dank breath of regret for giving him a world so flawed and broken. Then I watched people leap from those buildings and fall like stars.
I didn’t have a right to be as upset as I was. I didn’t know people in New York then. I had no claim to the terror I felt. But when I called my parents back in Washington, D.C., I could hear the F-15s tearing at the sky and the fear tightened around my bones like a snake, heavy and suffocating.
This was a familiar feeling, this blossoming of dread inside. Legitimate under these circumstances, but not unusual for me; I’d stopped taking my own antianxiety pills for the pregnancy. I told myself I’d be fine without them, that things were good. I had a loving husband with a secure job, and I’d begun to practice keeping my anxiety at bay — I was comfortable wading at the shoreline of fear and worry. I could breathe through the little lapping waves.
But that day was a tsunami of crushing panic that pulled my baby and me under. I wasn’t in control of anything. I couldn’t breathe through the heart palpitations and the heat that filled my veins and filled M with whatever toxic concoction the fear was poisoning me with. I couldn’t protect the growing thing inside me. I could only crawl under my covers and sob for days while the waves tossed me around like nothing more than flotsam.
The NIH researcher tells me what I know already — anxiety seeps into the womb like nutrients, and it’s possible my baby’s brain was imprinted with the fears I felt, with the unease I’ve wrestled with since before I can remember and which was loosened again that day. He may have gotten the ADD from somewhere else, but the anxiety is all mine.
This is the dark and chilly secret my son and I share. I gave my firstborn this blood that speeds through his veins too fast, leaving him breathless with terror for no apparent reason. I gave him this blood that makes him wonder what he did wrong to constantly endure the punishment of feeling like the other shoe is about to drop. It is my arterial fingerprint, my cells and my memories that have fed into him and made him this way.
I learn that for M the ADD makes every thought equally important. His brain is engaged in a constant battle to decide which of a million things should be attended to first. His head is a wild, noisy place where the firing of neurons and synapses and the creation of ideas is like the burst of candy from a piñata smashed open again and again and again at high speed, every thought a temptation. M tells me his mind exhausts him sometimes. The medication helps the chaos recede, but it’s no magic bullet. The anxiety is dulled, but not forgotten.
Emotions are impulses too, the miracle of signals sent back and forth between the dark folds of the brain, and like all ADD impulses, they don’t just shift quickly, but they also need to find immediate expression. It’s science. When the fear clutches him before school, and every step toward the front door is an unexploded land mine of shoving his brother so it hurts, and throwing words at me that cut like shrapnel, it doesn’t feel like science, it feels like despair. No one, not even M himself, knows when the cocktail of unregulated impulse control and anxiety will lead to an emotional explosion.
Now, at nearly 13, he’s almost as tall as I am, and when he’s throwing his body around in frustration over homework or screen time or his brother looking at him the wrong way, it can be scary. I tell him so in a journal we share. His shoulders are wide and his muscles fresh — stronger than he knows. My husband can wrap his arms around M like a bear hug, or a straitjacket, and calm him that way, but I can’t anymore. He writes back that he’s sorry if he scares me. His letters are carefully formed and precise, yet I know he was crying as he wrote them because the pen is smudged, unclear. He writes, “I wish I wasn’t this way. I wish I wasn’t a monster.”
And I’m reading it while lying in bed, grateful for the quiet nighttime house and the fact that my husband is traveling for work, because I cry too. I cry big painful sobs that turn my face raw and make the muscles in my shoulders ache. He’s my little boy. I want to search the spaces between his bones; I want to examine the heart of my terrified man-child and find the baby he used to be so I can go back and fix what needs fixing.
He was given to me for care. His slippery skin was placed on mine, our eyes locked, and his instinctive mouth searched for things only I could provide. I gave him bad blood. Now I want to know what I can give him to make up for it. I will give him anything. I will do anything to lighten his load. What will be enough?
Over time, I have become close to the wary moms of M’s new friends. We get together and we don’t trade stories about how hard it is to help our sons balance the lessons and sports and student government. Instead we breathe deeply and exhale. We order margaritas. We know the statistics; that kids like ours, with these kinds of special brains, are saddled with an increased potential for suicide, for alcohol and drug abuse.
These are the kids who always feel out of step and who search for ways to feel included and to numb the pain that comes from being just a little different. We trade stories about sobbing through the numerous parent-teacher conferences and Individual Educational Plan meetings — our boys require constant academic accommodations and special learning strategies. Working with the school to ensure our kids receive the support they need is almost a full-time job. We blame ourselves while assuaging each other of the guilt we feel for gifting our boys with whatever it was that made them this way.
I think of M when he first blinked up at me, watery eyes open wide and filled with wonder, my anxious blood staining his body, the two of us linked forever. My own guilt rises and falls like mixed tides. There are days when I revel in his creativity and the compassion he exhibits — both the homeless man outside the grocery store and the little bent old lady shuffling for the bus bring him almost to tears — and days when I hate myself for wishing I could erase the parts of him that prickle and hurt. I wonder how close and how long I can hold him.
We mothers think of our awkward sons together, each unique and flawed and utterly beloved. We drink tequila and murmur our hope that they will turn out happy, and OK. We watch as our breath moves the air around the candles on the table so the flames flicker up. People at other tables laugh and chat and silver utensils clink against plates. For a moment, our table is still, and quiet.
Be all right, we mothers wish fervently to ourselves and to our sons who aren’t with us here — hopefully they’re in bed by now, curled in their too-short pajamas, gangly arms and legs relaxed into sleep. Be all right, we wish. Please be all right.