In the case of my son and I it means we bark at one another with the slightest provocation. We're ready to see intent where none exists. We misunderstand. We speak in incomplete sentences. Our expectations for one another are very high, and when they're not met it hurts.
John has had a lot more therapy than I did at 16. He's gotten a lot more help. He's given himself more help, too, joining a church of questioning believers. Yet he has a lot more trouble than I did dealing with people his own age.
I think it's because in John's life he's lacked peers. I mean real peers, people like him. Not just the same age, but similar in temperament, in attitude, in intelligence and love of learning.
That's the lesson of my own life, anyway.
Instead I went off to a school that, at the time, was filled with crazies just like me, a regular ADHD festival. There I was the social one. I fit right in. Science geeks, engineering geeks, even theater geeks. I was an academic geek. But we were all geeks together. For the first time in my life I was surrounded by people who were just like me, and people who believed in me.
“What do you want to do?” a teacher asked. I admitted I didn't want to be a lawyer, I wanted to be a journalist, a writer, and wasn't certain I could measure up. “You're a Rice person,” he said. “Whatever you want to do, you'll be great at it.”
I'm not great at it. I'm good at it. But I was fired up by that talk, and the work I do is the work I love. It's a happy life.
In those terms, of just fitting in, John has it much harder than I ever did. There's nowhere for him to fit.
We live in the inner city. John has usually been the only really smart, intensely academic kid in his school. He has no friends. He spends his off-hours at his computer, playing strategy games, sometimes on the Internet. Those people aren't real. They're what they do on the screen. When he loses he jumps up-and-down, he pounds his fist and pounds the floor. If the other player were with him, they'd leave.
That's his social life. Not that we haven't tried other things. He goes to a wonderful camp each summer , filled with kids like him, and there he's a role model. He played recreation soccer for years, but now that he's 16 there's no team for him, and he refuses to play for his school, says it would take too much time away from study. The church youth group was strong his freshman year, but it has withered. Usually when there's an event, a hike or a trip to the movies, he's the only one who signs up, and it's canceled.
Imagine being the only one like you for miles around. We're in the middle of this immense city of 6 million yet he'd might as well be in the Alaska wilderness.
The way John deals with this world is by trying to follow the rules. Every rule. Every single one. He believes in the rules, and believes everyone else should too. It upsets him when anyone fails to obey the rules. It burns him up, but he got in trouble when he used to get on them about it, and now he just burns inside. Follow the rules, he thinks. If you follow the rules you can't get in trouble.
But of course you can get in trouble. You can get in lots of trouble. If you can't read other people, if you don't know how your behavior looks to them, if you're isolated, alone, you can get into a lot of trouble. And when he does get into trouble, John seeks protection in the rules. It's maddening, to him, to me, to everyone around him. But he didn't learn those things in kindergarten you're supposed to learn in kindergarten. Thanks to ADHD those parts of his brain which are trained in kindergarten did not exist then. They came later, and now that he's ready to learn those things you learn in kindergarten everyone else has moved on. They assume everyone knows them. Those who don't are bad. Or stupid. Or something.
Or just brilliant? I ask myself that sometimes.
For the last months John was working hard as part of a Model Arab League. Some of the history students would go to another high school for two days and compete there. He did a lot of research. He did a lot of writing. He marshaled his arguments. He was looking forward to it. Probably more than he let on.
Then two days before the event his teacher calls. There had been an incident in class. There are always incidents. His intensity is often frightening. But this was too much. “I'm afraid I can't take him to the Arab League,” she said sorrowfully. “I had to write this up.”
That scared me. When a public school teacher “writes up” an incident, it can mean detention, it can mean suspension. In the most recent case, which regular readers here may recall, it nearly got John kicked out of school. It still might. The “cover our ass” process leading to legal protection, through what's called the Program for Exceptional Children, should be complete next week. But only if the powers that be accept that John does indeed have ADHD and it did indeed cause the incident in question will they even let him stay in this school and challenge his mind. They'll send him back to another, closer school which can't teach him anything and dare me to sue, having covered their asses so completely I wouldn't have a chance.
So when John got home, after I got the phone call, I was mad out of fear for him. “How could you?” I demanded, and he “How could you?” 'd right back. He slammed the door. I slammed the door. We couldn't talk about it. I dropped him off at his bus stop next morning and, rather than waiting with him for the bus to arrive, told him to just get out. Slam went the car door.
There's a therapy called DBT I'd like him to try. It was designed for people with serious problems, who used to be called bipolar. There's a woman who recently moved to Atlanta, who wants to make her name applying DBT to ADHD cases. She wants to set up a group.
I want John in that group.
I called the day of the phone call. Got an appointment with, it turned out, an associate, a man my own age, who had moved here a year ago to associate with a college and, I assume, this professor's work. He didn't promise to get us DBT therapy. He took John's history, and told us there was some administrative hang-up in getting the group started. You know how it is.
Near the end he asked about the incident with the teacher. John repeated what I learned he had told his mother.
The teacher wanted them to bring an extra notebook to class. Plus some readers, some additional books. To every class. On top of his other stuff.
“'I can't do it,' I told her. 'I can't carry the books I need now.'” He insists he can't get to a locker, then to class, in the time they give him between classes. That would violate the rules. He believes in the rules. So everything goes in his backpack or under his arms, and gets lugged around. From home to school. From class to class. Back home. This was the straw that broke the camel's back. “'I tried to reason with her. I tried to be logical.'”
“You don't understand. They have hall monitors. They'll give you detention in a minute if you're late. I can't do it. I explained it.”
“And when that didn't work?” the therapist asked.
“I guess I got mad,” he said. “I don't remember.”
He lost his chance to shine because he wouldn't break the rules to use his locker.
So we wait. For therapy. For a decision. For college, perhaps some peers. And John remains isolated, terribly isolated. Brilliant, an A+ student in the toughest curriculum the public school system here can find, but still, terribly, terribly isolated. From me. From his classmates. Maybe from himself.
Life sucks sometimes.