Let Them Fail?

The hardest part in getting help is letting your kid's problems show.

A 9th grade single mom called me, distraught. “I know my son has attention problems,” she said, “and I don’t know what to do.” She went on to describe a history of rat-nest backpacks, forgotten homework, impulsive decisions and other familiar-sounding struggles.
The sooner you can let him fail, the sooner you’ll get the help you need.
— Kristen Caven
My mind went back to those desperate ninth grade nights, when the red marks would start showing up on the online grading system. Until then, we’d believe our son was doing just fine. All the teachers would just tell us what a pleasure he was to have in class, and for the most part, he liked school and understood what he was learning. But in spite of his good attitude and a good work ethic, his world was crumbling around him and he couldn’t see it. He wanted to take care of things himself, but when we’d open his binders, it was like peering into the abyss. We’d help by sorting papers and trying to triage the problems. There were plenty of pep talks, but the feelings of overwhelm drained and distracted our whole family.
Enzo passed ninth grade only because he had two parents involved on his side in The Big Struggle—pushing through feelings of blame, shame, and resentment. I tried a few times to wake him up at 4am to finish his homework like Obama’s mom did for her son, but I couldn’t wake myself up—we all needed our sleep to prepare for the marathon of constant do-overs. Every single marking period was a white-knuckle ride, made worse when overworked teachers didn’t sound the alert until a few days before the end of the term. Every single report card caused a family blowup as our high expectations of our GATE-identified child were challenged again and again. We began to whisper, then say out loud, maybe he’s just a C student. By tenth grade we were much less hopeful...and completely exhausted.
“The reason that our son got a 504 plan,” I explained to this parent, “is that his grades were spiraling downwards, and we couldn’t keep him on track by ourselves anymore.” Other parents we knew had brought paperwork from specialists showing a learning disability, but their students were stonewalled from getting help—because in a public school, B students do not appear, mathematically, to need accommodations. This mom’s bright young quarterback had been to a private middle school on a scholarship, where differences were not seen as disorders. The teachers there had bent over backwards to help her charming son succeed—and not because they had a legal obligation to do so.
I gave her the best advice I could. A letter from the private school would help, but the sooner she could get her son a referral, the sooner the school would be on her side. “Tighten your seatbelts,” I said—hating what next came out of my mouth, but wanting to save her the pain we’d felt—“the sooner you can let him fail, the sooner you’ll get the help you need.”


Guess What?! (Ta-Dah) You’re ADD!

At last, someone sees me through my own eyes.

Life in the Fast Brain | posted by Kristen Caven

The most amazing thing happened after I quit my out-of-pocket therapist who Just! Didn’t! Get! what I had been trying to tell her for a year. (That sometimes I don’t know who I am when I wake up on an unstructured morning. That I have trouble sticking to routines she suggests and my days get away from me, or that I’m overwhelmed by all the wonderful things in my life.) Although kind and caring, she felt doubtful whenever we talked about ADD. She kept measuring me by the same confusing tests that required me to have been a problem child, which I never was.
Your symptoms hide under competence, confidence, and wisdom.
— Kristen Caven
On the day we parted ways, I flipped through my Attention Issues Class manual and found the name of a therapist in my health plan in another city that had been scribbled on the back. And finally, after years of educating professionals, on my nickel, about ADHD, someone saw me as a complete and complex person, and not a set of numbers on tests.
After just a short time together, Dr. Aha said what I already knew, “When you have problems, they are ADD problems, but you’ve developed so many successful ways of working with your mind and coping with your differences that your life mostly works (except when it doesn’t), and you don’t appear to have a disorder.” But he’d seen a lot of cases and saw me on the spectrum with (ta-dah!) combined-type ADHD.
“I can see why others wouldn’t catch it,” he also said. “Your symptoms hide under anxiety, but they also hide under competence, confidence, and wisdom.”
“Yes, sometimes I seem to have it, and sometimes I don’t,” I agreed.
“But inconsistency is the hallmark of diagnosing ADHD in adults,” he said.
I KNOW!!! RIGHT??? In college, my teachers called me “consistently inconsistent.”
I felt so relieved, so validated that a knowledgeable professional had finally seen me through my own eyes. (Driven by Distraction was already on his shelf; I didn’t have to loan him a copy or educate him on what ADD was about.) He understood that my challenges with forgetting things, being confused, feeling disconnected, losing track of things, and having trouble starting and finishing things, were the cause of my anxieties, not the symptoms.
He asked the right questions. Like, “is your house a mess?”
“No, my husband gets us to clean it for a family fun time on Thursdays.”
“What did it look like when you lived alone?” (Clever doctor!)
“Creative chaos, so I’d have friends over every month to force myself to clean it.”
And then, “Do you fidget?”
“You don’t seem like you’re fidgeting”
“I can hide it,” I said. “I am always clicking my teeth to a tune in my head.”
“And you’re getting my full attention, too,” he said. I just wanted to jump up and hug him. He understood that my symptoms disappear when I’m engaged in personal interaction.
I told him what my frustrated father once said about me, something that sounded a little mean but that really defined my Life Issue.“You don’t do anything half-assed. You do things four-fifthed assed.”
Dr. Aha smiled when he heard that. He knew what it meant. And, after years of trying to understand, finally I knew what it meant, too.


You’re Not ADD (Part 6): You’re a Virgo

How many ways can you explain away your personality?

Life in the Fast Brain | posted by Kristen Caven
“I will always have this tension inside me,” I explained to my husband once, as we pushed our baby around the lake on one of our weekly walk/talks. “I’m a Leo/Leo Rising, with my moon and all my other planets in Virgo. I’m like a lion in a cage with all of this powerful artistic energy that can’t come out except through the perfectionist side of me.” This was the emotional “stuck point” that I came up against year after year… the painful feeling that I could never truly accomplish my goals. That I could never be fully understood, that I could never truly get traction because I’m always at war with myself somehow.
But when it all comes down to it, neither Astrology nor Psychiatry can help you when your glasses are on your head and you can’t find them.
— Kristen Caven
My understanding husband would laugh at the paragraph above. Not necessarily because I left out his eye-rolling, but specifically, the fifth word after the quotation—“once.” I explained this known fact about myself enough times that he would bring it up sarcastically in our arguments about incompletions. “Yeah, I know Leos can’t remember there’s laundry that needs to go in the dryer, bla bla bla…” (But he’s a Cancer/Gemini cusp, so I’m used to the different sides of his personality…)
Astrological readings have brought me a nice perspective in my life, the two or three times I’ve done them. (Learning Mars is in my house of marriage helped me stay married, since I’d probably have these spats no matter who I was with.) Astrology has helped me be more accepting of other peoples’ personalities (Capricorns, for example, don’t tend to like talking astrology), but more importantly, to be accepting of myself. The good Astrology books I’ve read have helped me understand that our stories may be somewhat sketched out, but we are free to shape them for better or worse, since every human quality can have a negative or a positive expression. These understandings have helped me strive to be a better human being.
When I began my journey to understanding ADHD in adults, I spoke to a friend whose life keeps taking those telltale turns one’s life takes when one can’t keep one’s thoughts inside one’s head…. “For me,” she said. “It’s just because my Mercury’s in Virgo and my Sun is trine with both Pluto and Uranus. Plus I’ve got Chiron conjunct North Node.” I very nearly blurted out, “I wonder if there’s a pill for that…?”
Anyone who is not Astrology-averse must wonder about its relation to modern Psychiatry—since, after all, we are talking about the same human minds that have been on the planet for millions of years. Both fields are observations on the subtleties of the mind, tied to available science (Psychiatry: Chemistry; Astrology: Astronomy), more complex than people realize, imprecise, and, I might add, mutually maligned. In Medical Astrology (yes, it’s a thing) there’s been some research into the connection between natal charts and ADD that points back to chemical sensitivities.
But when it all comes down to it, neither Astrology nor Psychiatry can help you when your glasses are on your head and you can’t find them. That’s why it’s good to have a husband.


You’re Not ADD (Part 5): Want some Prozac?

Trying to get a diagnosis can be quite a thrill ride.

On my health plan, they have a process by which people are diagnosed with ADHD. First, you go to the 2-hour talk on Adult Attention Issues, where they pass out a test. Then you wait three weeks and they send you a letter. Yes, you have it. No, you don’t. It’s like getting accepted into college... or not. If you do, you get some meds and 4 appointments with a therapist who may or may not know anything about ADHD in adult women.
“When you have ADHD,” the teacher droned on, “you need to be entertained or you lose interest.” I wanted to bolt after twenty minutes of her slow-moving, monotone presentation.
— Kristen Caven
If, because they have awesome services in the Pediatrics department, you ask your child’s psychiatrist something like, “I think he’s this way because of me,” they won’t really talk to you; they’ll say to go stand in line in the Adult department. (If you cry, because you don't understand and are desperate to ask questions like "is it because I was a terrible mother and could never teach him how to floss every night because I can't remember to myself?" Well, they’ll close the door extra-fast.) So, you just keep worrying and having all these questions that no one will answer until you do all your listening first.
In the Adult Attention Issues session, which is standing room only, they describe every aspect of what it feels like to have ADHD. I sat through this meeting twice, five years apart, and had to sit on my hands to keep from raising them every two seconds to chime in with additional information, since it was all so familiar. The test is full of questions that make you sound like a loser, which I’m not. On some questions, I had to be perfectly honest and answer both “Rarely true” and “Always true,” since one answer is correct when I’ve got fun things going on in my life, and the other is correct when I’m feeling overwhelmed. I wanted to explain this to someone, but no one ever asked me what I meant.
The first time I went through the process, they said I was on the borderline, not “disordered” enough to have ADHD, and the psychiatrist kindly offered me some Prozac or other anxiety medication. But I am not a fearful person, I told her, just an overwhelmed one. I only really worry about one thing: can I keep my shit together without dropping all these balls I seem to attract? Besides, I am keenly aware of my body and highly sensitive to medications; I even ask the dentist for a half-dose of novacaine. So Prozac? Thanks but no thanks.
The second time I went through the routine, same story...except now you had to wait 3 months to talk to a psychiatrist if you were 'borderline'. I decided to go ahead and take the 6-week Adult Attention class while I waited. It was all I could do, again, to keep from blurting out and being the cleverest one in the room. “When you have ADHD,” the teacher droned on, “you need to be entertained or you lose interest.” I wanted to bolt after twenty minutes of her slow-moving, monotone presentation. The woman next to me was just as agitated at the poor organization. We supported each other in chiming in. But the teacher said, “please hold your questions and comments until the end.”
One day I got a call, asking me not to return to class. I was baffled and hurt, feeling like I did in first grade when the teacher saw me as a trouble-maker after I screamed from a bee sting. The concussion had added to my antsiness, but was I really as disruptive as they said? Turns out they had intended to kick my confidante out of class for other awkward reasons, and the teacher (who assured us she didn’t have ADD), mixed us up. But I couldn’t take any more. They gave me a refund and I went back to square one.


The Fast Lane Towards the Future

I've gotten us lost, I've made us late, and I can't stop tearing up. We're visiting colleges with our son, and it's bringing up big feelings.

Life in the Fast Brain | posted by Kristen Caven
Enzo’s in the driver’s seat. I’m next to him and his dad, “Dave,” is in the back, relaxing, reading a book. We are weaving in and out of the fast lane on our way to visit a college in L.A.
Tears are leaking out my eyes, and I want to hide them — except I lost my sunglasses two weeks ago.
— Kristen Caven
planned ahead for this trip. I put in hours of researching, building a Google Map and printing out parking passes, scheduling several school visits per day and a trip to Disneyland in the middle to celebrate his last high school summer vacation. This morning, however, we were late to the first tour, since I had everything packed but my glasses…and we had to turn around and go back.
Without wifi, I can’t access the Google Map I made. We’re trying to use Waze to avoid heavy traffic. Leaving the first school, I program the name of the second into the car’s GPS, and between one road map and another, I soon manage to navigate us onto side streets where we go more than 7 miles per hour…but stop at every light. Now we’re late for the second school tour, too.
When we pull up in front of the building the car’s GPS brought us to, twenty minutes late for the tour, we are confused by our surroundings. Turns out the car found us a satellite campus. I look at the college map I printed out, which has no relation to this place we are in, and notice the address under the logo. I program that into the car instead, and we turn around and go back the way we came.
The breezy chatter we’d been enjoying all morning has stopped. My mind is now going in loops, bargaining with the executive misjudgments I’ve made in the last few hours. I'm wondering if it’s ADD or anxiety or just this… this feeling that is welling up inside of me, subconsciously sabotaging my well-laid plans, this feeling that we are driving to what might be Enzo’s new home a year from now, far away from our family.
Tears are leaking out of my eyes, and I want to hide them — except I lost my sunglasses two weeks ago.
I hold back my sobs, because I don’t want to distract Enzo from the amazing job he’s doing driving on this trip. He’s got his license now. He’s getting his life together. He’s less afraid of being on his own than he should be, knowing what I know about what he doesn’t know aboutthe demanding world he’s growing into. He hasn’t noticed I’m taking notes at all these talks because he isn’t — because neither of us will remember all the details and dates of this crucial information. But I don’t want to shake his beautiful faith in himself.
We pull up to the right campus and see a group of students gathered around a fountain in the distance. I make Enzo pull over and jump out with his dad. Shaky, I get in the driver’s seat and go find a parking spot to have a little cry and pull myself together. Because somehow — and I don’t know how but it always does — this is all going to work out just right.


In the Driver’s Seat with Enzo!

Now that my ADHD teen has the keys to the car, he's borrowing the keys to my blog.

Life in the Fast Brain | by Donald Caven | posted by Kristen Caven
I’ve been driving in one way or another for about ten years now. When I was seven, I got my first Mario Kart game on my hand-me-down GameCube. I played that endlessly, not aware that there was anything more to cars and driving, until one day, at around age ten, I borrowed Need for Speed from my neighbor, and everything changed. I started with my first car, a bright red Mazda, and went nuts. I beat all the races, I bought all the cars, and my knowledge of automobiles grew.
When I drive by myself, there’s no self-esteem ding when I make a mistake. Which I do — I'm new at this.
Fast forward seven years to today, and I’m now in my second month as a licensed driver. Yes, a licensed driver on real roads, the kind that that require driving with an actual car. Actual roads are strikingly different from the world I speed around in on my Xbox. I can’t “press Y to rewind,” I can’t participate in underground street races down at the shipyards without my parents disowning me (or going to actual real-life jail), and I can’t win races or buy my dream Lamborghini. Driving in real life is slower and easier, and a lot more fun in some ways. But still, it’s got its share of new challenges.
In my eyes, driving in video games has a few key advantages over driving in real life. Fancy cars like Bentleys and Porsches and Ferraris are commonplace, and everyone is driving one. In real life, though, I’m constantly distracted by these luxury sports cars that appear every once in a while going the other way down the highway. Every time I see one of these, I point it out to share the marvels of automotive technology to my passengers, but...“ENZO! KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE ROAD!”
I admit I can be a distracted driver when I’m surrounded by exotic cars. But what is harder is when my parents criticize something about my driving, be it nit-picking or an actual, legitimate concern. Fortunately, one of the ways around both problems is to drive by myself. When I drive by myself not only is there no audience to excitedly point out cars for; there’s no self-esteem ding when I make a mistake. Which I do — I'm new at this.
Possibly the most stressful part of driving with ADD is having back seat (and front seat) drivers. My wonderful mother and father are great to drive with—one at a time. However, on occasions where the three of us are all in the car, things can get hectic. Sometimes one of them starts to give directions, and the other chimes in to correct them. Often, the opposing set of directions will result in us getting to the same place in the same amount of time, but no matter which set of directions I follow, I end up in the middle of the tension. Then I have to do my best to tune out the arguing and try to listen for directions from my choice of parents. It makes me miss driving in a virtual world, where the only people yelling in my ear are my friends, who I can more easily ignore than my parents.
Here are a few suggestions — okay, Mom, requests — for helping a young ADD driver:
  • Be kind. We get it, even if we still seem a little bit distracted.
  • If we mess up, we understand that we’re messing up. We have ADD and we’re rebellious teenagers and we're learning; we’re not doing it to bother you!
  • One set of directions is enough. We finally made a rule in our family that only the person in the passenger seat is allowed to direct the driver. (Certain people — I’m not mentioning names here — sometimes have trouble following this rule...)
  • Be a good role model. If we do something, and get snapped at for it, it’s hard to keep our eyes from rolling when we see you doing it when you’re driving!


"You’re Not ADD (Part 4): You’re A Fine Girl"

They say attention deficit is invisible in girls, and now I understand why: we work our butts off to appear normal.
My personal opinion, as my readers have surmised by now, is that ADHD is a brain type but not necessarily a disorder. I believe that, by choosing the right attitude, we can overcome our challenges and figure out how to live with our limitations. Or better yet, get our mysterious minds to work in our favor. I know that because I managed mine so well that even I couldn't tell I had it!
It’s not a disorder when your life has some order...
— Kristen Caven
As a child, I had grownups demanding and directing my focus. On my own, I had to learn ways to work with my quirks. I never in a million years imagined I had ADHD. I wasn’t hyperactive; I was happy. Having to come back inside three times before I was truly ready leave the house was normal in my family. I thought all young adults had chaotic lives — jobs that didn’t work out, moving 10 times in 3 years, romances in the double-digits.
They say ADHD is invisible in girls, and now I understand why. We care what people think about us and work our butts off to appear normal. We gather support from our friends and try to solve our problems. We focus constantly on self-improvement, and apply our anxiety to managing our symptoms.
I created a lifestyle that leveraged my chimerical focus. My freelance art and design business provided plenty of stimulation in short-term, one-on-one situations, where I could use my problem solving skills brilliantly and hyperfocus beautifully, working under pressure on a kaleidoscope of projects. As a new mom, I could move mountains during nap times.
But when I had problems, they were certainly ADHD problems. I’d put a positive spin on the lost days, the stupid mistakes, or the despair now known as RSD — but they are a fact. Therapists and coaches always helped, but the troubles always returned.
When I’d be tested for ADHD, which happened several times over the years, I tried to be honest. If I’d had a good week, I’d answer no to questions like “I take on so many commitments that I can’t keep up,” “I can’t get things done unless there’s an absolute deadline,” “I have trouble keeping my attention focused when working,” and “I am forgetful in my daily activities” — even though the answer on another week might be TOTALLY!
My husband was no help, either. On the quizzes, he’d compare me to my other family members, next to whom I seemed incredibly sane and stable. And they never asked the million-dollar question, “Do you and your spouse fight constantly over the things she sort of forgot to tell you and the way she can never quite finish folding the laundry?"
So over and over I heard the answer: You’re too functional to have ADHD.
And for years, I agreed. Because I had the good sense to idiot-proof my life with spare keys. Because I had friends who, when I was in a mood and jerked them around, would forgive me. Because I remembered that bright days were always around the corner from bad days. Without a clock to punch, I could always take the extra time I needed to do the job right.
But I could never get the help I really needed.