The pounding inside was relentless, and often so powerful it made my pupils dilate. There was no doubt I was carrying a powerhouse. When our first child finally arrived, we knew we were in for a wild ride. True to her in-utero self, this kid had energy! While she was content, happy, and friendly, she never stopped moving. We stacked the chairs in the corner so she would stop scrambling onto the table to swing from the light fixture. I was that mom who never sat down at the park yet managed to lose her daughter on occasion anyway. If there was something to climb, she climbed it. If there was an exit door, she discovered it.
She was soon followed by five curious, rambunctious kids. Some were high-speed talkers, some dismantled and rebuilt with vigor, most preferred running to sitting, and all found the world a fascinating place to discover.
By the time they all arrived, I had been an educator for some time. The first year of teaching was rough, to say the least. There was one boy, Ilya, who locked eyes with me the very first day, letting me know silently that he was in charge (or that he desperately needed me to be in charge). As I handed out beautifully designed worksheets, Ilya leaped out of his seat, gathered and crumpled up all the handouts, and promptly threw them out the window. Thus began a year-long collision course.
I made every mistake in the book. As I struggled to develop much-needed skills and to get to know my precious charges, it never occurred to me that any of the children were disordered. Each kid had a story, a personality, strengths, and weaknesses. My sole responsibility was to help each child become a lifelong learner to the best of his or her ability. These were healthy kids responding appropriately to difficult circumstances. These children schooled me on what it meant to be a teacher, a lesson that took some time and hard knocks to absorb. My job was to discover who each child was and to reach out to them on their frequency.
After completing my master’s degree in special education, I became a classroom teacher in an inclusion setting. Many of my students had been diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). I loved these kids! They were vibrant and alive, had the quirkiest questions, and wanted to absorb everything about the world.
The one thing these kids did not do well was sit and learn. But I had a plan. With the help of a new program I developed for my remarkable students, they began to learn. These were motivated kids who loved to learn and wanted to succeed, but they were missing some important habits and skills, and in some cases had too few supportive adults to guide them. These kids needed solid respect, consistent rules and discipline, love and attention, and of course, interesting and relevant lessons.
You could imagine my shock, considering my professional background, when my eldest was rejected from an “elite” local kindergarten. She apparently decided to make a different picture, using different paint than the other children. With a perfectly straight face, the teacher let me know that my three-year-old was probably suffering from a neurological disorder.
Thus began the labeling, bullying, parent-blaming, and overall deconstruction of my healthy kids. At first, I was stunned into submission. The doctor knows what she’s doing, even if she gives a diagnosis after only five minutes, without ever making eye contact with my child. Right?
Self-doubt set in. I bought the doctor’s confident narrative. The picture I had of my children shifted: they were now disordered, so I had to expect less! He “couldn’t” organize himself. She “couldn’t” sit without medication. Until recently I had thought I had the best kids on earth, and now they had been reduced to how well they could pay attention or stay still.
There I was, absorbing the sad tale of my children’s disabilities, when one sunny day I picked up a book at a library book sale, titled Blaming the Brain, the TRUTH about Drugs and Mental Health by Elliot S. Valenstein, PhD. I couldn’t put it down. Dr. Valenstein confirmed what I already felt in my gut: blaming the brain for ADHD and other mental disorders was misguided. Convincing people that their personality was governed strictly by brain chemistry causes real harm, said Dr. Valenstein.
Wow, the soundtrack in my head took on a very lively tune! Dr. Valenstein gave me permission to question and pointed me right in the direction of further research, which entirely changed my perspective on my children, ADHD, and the dangerous partnership between modern medicine and the pharmaceutical companies.
Anatomy of an Epidemic by Robert Whitaker was my next major find. Whitaker was a psychiatric medication enthusiast, until he did his research. He now devotes his time to ensuring that every parent and child is fully informed before consenting to any medical treatment.
Armed with new confidence, I began to investigate the claims about my children’s and students’ capabilities or lack thereof. The questions rolled in fast: