Mommy's Mental Health - Chapter 2: ADHD, Mogwais and Gremlins

Snips and snails, and puppy dogs' tails

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When I was 11, I remember falling in love with a boy in my class: exuberant, curious and energetic. I remember his magic and his struggle to fit into the confined boxes, created by the unrealistic expectations of institutions, academics and cold hard judgement of those who were meant to be there to guide and care for us.

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Image Source: Grove Primary Grade 7 faculty and pupil year photo - 1998

I remember watching him as his self-worth crumbled and the light in his eyes began to dim as he was consistently told he was too much, too loud, too naughty and too distractible.

I remember him being him, my best friend in all his craziness, before 1st break and then watching him transform before my eyes into an agitated, over-concentrating, almost zombie-like or alien-invaded machine after his daily dose of Ritalin.

I remember him emotionally disappearing. Conforming. Forgetting.

Sugar and spice, and everything nice

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ADHD and it's "sister" attention deficit disorders present very differently in girls though, and most of us are only discovering now, in hindsight, that through our school careers, something was seriously wrong: but we flew under the radar, you see: scraping by. Not quite failing badly enough to raise eyebrows and not performing strongly enough to deserve recognition.

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Image Source: Me: Taken by one of my best friends, during our happier and dorkier moments

Instead of climbing walls with hyperactivity, we became the forgotten girls. The dim girls. The girls in the corner. The nerds. The weirdos. In the shadows. Alone yet safe in our disassociation.

In my day, you had to be extremely bright, extremely beautiful, extremely sporty or extremely rebellious to be noticed by the faculty or peers. It was only closer to grade 7, when I found my voice and my ability to create and perform, that I felt any sense of self worth. The feeling was intoxicating and incredibly relieving. Finally, an avenue to express my emotions and communicate with the outside world while deeply connecting with those around me and excelling, like really excelling for the 1st time in my life.

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Photo credit: my sister and I: photo taken by one of our parents. The guitar was a constant throughout my childhood and adult life

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Photo Credit: Me: Unknown photographer: age 11

Unfortunately, there was already a deep amount of damage done to my self esteem in my early developmental years and it didn't take much to throw me off the horse completely as I hit highschool and was introduced to heartbreak, narcotics and horrendous psychological and physical abuse: an unfortunate repeat of the cycle and continuation of my childhood.

Left with crippling and undiagnosed depression, anxiety, body dysmorphia/ anorexia and ADHD, I didn't stand a chance.

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Photo Credit: Me: Unknown photographer: age 15

I dropped out of school half way through grade 9 and stopped singing for 20 years. I refer to the year I dropped out of school as "The Dark Year," and hopefully, one day, I'll be brave enough to write a chapter about it here.

My own little Gizmo

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Skip forward 20 years, and I find myself somewhat recovered, twice divorced and up until very recently, a single mother. Although my mental health is still very much a work in progress, I am determined to not repeat the mistakes of my own or previous generations. To not fall prey to the temptation of sweeping these very serious issues under the carpet and to be brave enough to discuss them as well as to be open enough to receive credible advice from reliable sources.

So here I am at 36, as a mother of a 9 year old boy, and more recently, a step mom to two other gorgeous children of 11 and 13: and I have the unwavering and unconditional support of my incredible partner and co-parent @ZakLudick.

Secrets of the Mogwai

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After seeing what my peers and I went through, I am sure you can imagine my instinct to grab my pitchfork when confronted by my son's teacher about the possibility that my son may have an issue in this department.

Of course, although the science and research behind these lables suggest that children who present with ADD and ADHD are generally highly intelligent children, one can't help, as a parent (especially a single one) that you have done something wrong and you certainly don't want anyone to point that out to you, or that there is something wrong with your child.

We picked up early that he was behind the other kids, emotionally and in language development. He was frustrated. He was teased. He was hurt and he was bullied. Unfortunately, damage had already been done by teachers who were ill prepared to deal with a child that learns differently and the lable of "stupid" or "not good enough" had already been pretty firmly cemented into his mind by the time I went looking for help through pediatricians, occupational therapists and speech therapists (he was 4 - heartbreaking, right?).

I don't think, even now, after all this time, that teachers are given enough training or that it is emphasised nearly enough, how fragile these children are, and how quickly they can go from being excited about learning (even if it takes a little more effort for them) to developing total mental blocks to school work due to being told that they are "bad" or "naughty" or god forbid, "stupid" for not keeping up with their classmates.

What is equally frightening to me is how quickly, like faster than the speed of light, the diagnosis of ADHD is made and how quickly that script gets made out for whatever stimulant seems to be the current favourite.

Seeking the wisdom of Mr Wing

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I have seen significant improvements in children who have been correctly medicated, and this is by no means a rant against the effectiveness of amphetamines (in whatever form from Adderal, to Ritalin to Concerta).

My issue is that, having suffered from mental health issues myself, these drugs are being handed out like candy to small children, who have not yet developed any capacity to determine whether or not a medication is negatively affecting them. Aside from contraindications with other mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, methamphetamines themselves cause depression which leads to low self worth.

Now add that into an environment where your child already feels inadequate, hand them a fix-all tablet, and you'll probably find they're less likely to identify negative affects or even worse, tell you about them, because they so desperately want to feel acceptance.

Of course, I am no doctor. I am a fervent believer in vaccinations, medication for mental health and have enormous respect for the chemists, scientists, biologists and doctors responsible for creating, trialing and making these medications available to us. Without the correct anxiety/ depression medication combination, I personally, would be 6 foot under by now, but that being said, it was a massive trial and error to get it right. I did not know what serotonin syndrome was until I had it for almost a full 48 hours, due to misdiagnosis and mismedication.

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Unfortunately, here in South Africa, if you are not on a medical aid, your access to mental health resources, especially when you can no longer be treated by the pediatrics department or are of school going age, become severely limited. Your only go-to being state facilities - who have extremely limited capacity or for treating the mentally ill. Your chances of getting worse, receiving the wrong treatment or even dying are multiplied when you take under resourced and underfunded government institutions into consideration. When I experienced horrific side effects to the depression medication they prescribed, I waited 6 hours to be seen by the same mental health nurse I'd seen the week before, who then sent me home (after sobbing hysterically in her office) with EXACTLY the same medication as previously prescribed, but with a different brand name (thank heavens for Google, actually). It turns out that I cannot take SSRI's and I am a prime candidate to suffer extreme bouts of serotonin syndrome. Eventually, my family took me to a private doctor and got me the right medication, which quite literally saved my life and has kept me going for years.

Now to put that into perspective: imagine a 9 year old child trying to navigate his own underdeveloped psyche, and you introduce the wrong kind of medication into that mix? I recovered (barely) from my experience because I understood that the medication I was trialing could make me very sick. And it did. And thank goodness I picked it up before they rolled me off to the looney bin. But children, without the support from their educational facility or medical practitioner or parents, or any kind of self developed coping skills, would not be so lucky, and permanent damage is far to much of a possibility for me to be willing to take the gamble.

Unconditionally Accepting my Mogwai

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We were informed at the end of last year, that my 9 year old, the youngest of our brood, would be repeating grade 3 this year. Is my stubbornness regarding these stimulants getting in the way of my child succeeding at school? Am I doing the right thing by delaying jumping into heavy medication? Is it my fault he's being held back? Does he just need a little love and patience? I don't have all the answers, but I am his mom. And I am certain, that out of anyone on this planet, it's my gut that I need to listen to. And while I will do my best to remain open to the school counsellors and teachers, I need to do what I feel is best for my child, at least until we get a clearer view of the whole picture.

All shame and other gremlin feelings aside, I love my boy. My boy is smart. My boy deserves acceptance. Right now, with the move just behind us and as he settles in with his new siblings, I can honestly and without a doubt say that my child is genuinely happier than he has ever been. Repeating a grade is fine. Working at his own pace is fine. Not being perfect is fine and he does not need to fit into anyone's mold.

The absolute and most important gift I can give him is unconditional love and acceptance to grow and be himself.

Other than that, I'll just do my best to not unnecessarily spray him with the hosepipe or feed him after midnight ......

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