The Wonderful, Awful, Blessed, Lucky, Cursed, Beautifully Frustrating World Of ADD

by Hannah Mayer
Hannah Mayer

It’s difficult to explain what it’s like to have a child with ADD to someone who has never experienced it firsthand.

“Oh, it takes my daughter forever to put on her shoes and socks too. That doesn’t mean she has ADD. That’s just kids, dude.”

What my friends don’t realize is that I’m talking about the literal forever. I could tell my daughter to put on her shoes and socks and come back three years later to find her skeleton sitting in the same spot as when I left, probably staring out the window, her bare little skeleton feet still uncovered. And I promise you her dying thought wouldn’t be, “Wow, I’m really thirsty.” It would be, “Awww! I was almost finished looking at the leaves on that tree.”

“Don’t worry — my kid zones out during her softball games too. I think she spends half the time picking dandelions in the outfield.”

Okay, but how many times have parents complained that your kid is scaring the shit out of their kid because she keeps sneaking up behind them playing “Lion’s gonna getcha!” the whole time they’re in the field? And that’s when I’m not fishing her out of the tree in the woods behind the backstop every time it’s her turn to bat.

Getting to this point — understanding why she can write and illustrate a novella but goes deer in headlights when asked 2+2 — has been the scariest, most stressful and frustrating experience of my life.

It all started when I enrolled her in a little preschool class at 18 months old.

“Have you ever noticed that Ellie sort of…spaces out a lot?” her teacher asked me one day. “Just sort of…goes away…and sometimes it takes a lot of effort to bring her back?”

“Ummm, yes?” I lied. Not realizing your child was going on regular mental vacations seemed like something a bad parent would do.

What I had noticed was that I had a 1-year-old, a 5-month-old, and had just found out that I was pregnant with baby No. 3. Every night when I put them to bed, no one was more surprised than me that I had kept everyone alive to see another day. I already felt guilty that I was failing her, and this observation from her teacher, that I obviously should have noticed, sent me into a bit of a tailspin.

Like any good parent, I immediately internalized it. I didn’t know what “it” was, but I decided “it” was something, “it” was bad, and “it” was definitely my fault.

“It” was because I didn’t give her enough one-on-one time. Because I didn’t make her baby food from organic vegetables. Because I had a glass of wine at my friend’s wedding when I was pregnant with her. Because after she was born, I was working from home and put her in front of cartoons whenever I had a conference call.

“Let’s just keep an eye on it,” she said. “It’s probably nothing.”

“It” was something.

“We’re confused about Ellie,” her teachers always started out, like they were reading from the same script. “Some days she comes in, knows exactly what’s going on and breezes through whatever we’re doing. But some days she comes in and looks around like she’s never been here before. She doesn’t know where to put her coat, and when we do letters or counting, she looks at us like we’re speaking a different language.” Then they would pause, “But boy, is she ever imaginative! Look at this picture she drew!”

The spring before kindergarten, her teachers recommended we have her screened. For what, I wasn’t sure, and neither were they. A three-hour evaluation where I sat on the other side of a curtained partition overhearing whispers like “above average,” “fine,” “unnecessary,” and “Why did they send her again?”

I left with a “within normal range” slip in my hand, feeling humiliated, like I had fabricated some sort of problem. It was all in my head.

Aside from the fact that I was a complete psycho, everything was fine.

I breathed easy until…

That fall she started kindergarten, and soon afterward I got the letter: “Based on assessments and recommendations, your child is available for additional services…”

The room spun, and my stomach dropped. I realized I liked it better when I was a crazy person. And thus began the roller coaster of inconsistency I was strapped in to for the next two years.

The roller coaster of inconsistency is feeling like you have failed when you get a letter home that your 5-year-old qualifies for special math and writing services. It makes you feel like a deranged lunatic when you take a little girl in for screening who flies through all the tests. It’s feeling panicked when her teachers tell you over and over that they have “major concerns about her attention.” It’s feeling embarrassed when the school counselor tells you she is “fine. Let her be 6.” It’s a little girl who one day breezes through her homework, and the next day sobs because she doesn’t understand. It’s your friends telling you all kids do the same things that make you want to beat your head against the wall. It’s reading books that tell you without medication your child will develop self-esteem issues that will manifest into things like drugs and promiscuity. It’s horror stories of parents who gave their child medication and it turned them into zombies, killing everything that made them creative and amazing.

To be honest, the idea that what was going on had something to do with ADD was not immediately obvious. It wasn’t until her first-grade teacher used the word “attention” that a light bulb went off, and I began to read up on ADD. Until then I had associated it with squirmy little boys who can’t sit still. The fact that it often presents differently in girls (and boys, as well) was news to me, but it was like the books I read were written exclusively about her — the daydreaming, the struggles with math and spelling, the difficulty with picking up on social cues from her friends and acting overly silly, the Tony-worthy pretend play, the imagination that writers would kill for.

In a perfect world, my daughter would spend all day in what we’ve come to affectionately call “Ellie Land,” daydreaming about fairies and flavors of ice cream and god knows what else. But we had to be realistic, and the reality is that she’s gonna need to get the hell out of our house someday and that will require a basic understanding of math.

Also, Ellie Land doesn’t work out so great in the classroom. A little over a year ago, my normally happy, carefree little girl came home from school and burst into tears. “I don’t understand what’s going on at school,” she sobbed. “My teacher thinks it’s because I’m not paying attention, but I am. It’s just that my brain keeps interrupting what she tells me.”

It was then that I realized that she was the only one I really needed to be listening to all along.

We started with weekly math and spelling tutoring sessions with an amazing woman who is fluent in speaking Ellie. We cut out the majority of dyes, sugar, and have an early bed time. She sits in the front row of class, and her teacher is wonderful about discreetly “bringing her back” without making it a deal. We made an appointment with a child psychiatrist who specializes in ADD for an official evaluation and diagnosis, and continue to see her monthly. And this year we began medication.

My hands shook as I gave her the first pill, moments later checking her pupils. “How do you feel? Are you seeing spots, or having any difficulty breathing?” I asked, every 30 seconds pulling her lips back to check her gums for bleeding.

Like many people, I was terrified medication was going to change her. Take away her sparkle. Make her — gasp — ordinary. Images of the hamburger grinder in The Wall kept popping into my head.

And she has changed. We’re learning as we go, far from figuring “it” out completely, but we are in such a good spot right now. She is able to harness those creative thoughts that used to buzz aimlessly around in her head and organize them into constructive ideas. Her bed is surrounded by “Invention Journals” filled with sketches of prototypes. She’s written and illustrated several books. She designs board games out of discarded items like egg cartons and shoe boxes. She doesn’t love math, but she’s doing great in school and no longer needs any special services.

Her “Sparkly Brain” has become an honorary member of our family, and we love it. It makes us laugh. It makes us frustrated. And someday she is going to use it to change the world.

A few weeks ago I was sitting at the dining room table with my husband after dinner.

“She’s going to be fine,” he said. “I was a bluebird, you know.”

“What’s a bluebird?”

“The ‘special’ reading group,” he said, using air quotes. “I couldn’t read to save my life until, like, med school. In fact, I’m pretty sure I have ADD so she probably gets it from me.”

“Holy crap,” I said, slamming my palm down on the table. It suddenly all made so much sense. “You’re right. But you know what? That information would have been helpful, like three years ago when I beating myself up for screwing up our kid!

“Yeah, you’re right,” he said, nonchalantly taking a sip of his wine. “I just didn’t really think about it until now.”

“Shhh,” I said, patting his hand. “It’s okay. Just go back to Nick Land. I hear it’s beautiful there.”