A Hero of Mine

I first encountered the good Doctor when Mad Max ran across the road and was hit by a car. It was a reckless, impulsive, attention distracted moment that nearly cost him his life not to mention scared his mother to death! While we had always known he was somehow “wired” differently, he was a good natured kid and tagging him with a label seemed of little benefit. This was the turning point. ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder) was confirmed and I rushed to read everything I could, to get my mind around it and try to keep him alive!

I began a journey of discovery. That journey led me to a book by Dr.Gabor Mate called “Scattered Minds”. It was in keeping with the current medical opinion that ADHD is a valid medical diagnosis but he explained it as a developmental delay caused when circuits in the brain – those responsible for paying attention and self-regulating emotions – fail to develop. This brain “damage” is reversible (praise the lord!) it just takes a LOT longer (BooHoo!) Mate felt that mind-altering meds were way over-prescribed and that emotional support, patience and love provided more powerful remedies than chemicals. Little did I know at the time, that helping my son “re-wire” his brain and “grow up” would become the defining purpose of my life.

Some well-intentioned types feel ADHD is a cover-up for rat-bag behavior. To set the record straight in 2001, 80 of the worlds leading experts on the subject published an unequivocal “consensus statement” reaffirming ADHD as a genuine disorder and in 2005 a further 100 leaders in the field added their signatures, certifying ADHD as a valid mental disorder. “Scientologists” apparently are dissenters but after watching Tom Cruise mimicking one of our genetic predecessors jumping up and down on a sofa I’m not too concerned.

witch21.jpg A potent brew is ADHD. The main ingredient is, not surprisingly, inattention – an involuntary, almost catatonic “tuning out,” or non-presence of mind. “There is a sense of being cut off from reality, an almost disembodied separation from the physical present. People suddenly find that they have heard nothing of what they have been listening to, saw nothing of what they were looking at and remember nothing of what they were trying to concentrate on”. At home, at school, you can imagine the bitter taste.

dots.jpgMix in a dash of disorientation or what I have learnt to be, an inability to “connect the dots” between an idea and the steps required to accomplish it. “Completely lacking in the ADHD mind is a template for order, a mental model of how order comes about. One may be able to visualize what a tidy and organized room would look like, but the mind-set of how one would get there is missing”. It is a mind in chaos – I liken it to a school of small fish darting in all different directions at once. Small wonder he struggled.

hyper.jpgNow add a handful of hyperactivity to the ikky brew. “The individual with ADHD experiences the mind as a perpetual motion machine. One experiences an unremitting lack of stillness internally–a constant background static in the brain, a ceaseless “white noise”. One patient likened it to millions of butterflies in the brain. All I know is, for MM “calm” was a four letter word.

chili.jpgFor some extra spice, stir in some impulsiveness! “Another ubiquitous characteristic of ADD is impulsiveness of word or deed, with poorly-controlled emotional reactivity.” Sometimes reckless, courting danger at every turn MM knows how to throw caution to the wind. Emotions go unchecked, sometimes in a positive way with unbridled enthusiasm and passion for life but also expressing enormous frustration and unreflective verbal “blurt”.

Favorite quote from report card in senior High “Max has to learn soon that charm alone wont get him an education.”

Real Life Situations: Dr Mate (himself ADHD) tells an amusing story. He was so anxious not to follow his usual pattern of arriving at the airport late that on one occasion he turned up the day before! In a not so amusing story, MM worked hard all term, studied like a fiend, determined to pass a University course and when he turned up to sit the final exam discovered that he was not actually enrolled in the course!

There was some good news, or so we thought. There is a type of ADHD child who is socially adept and wildly popular. MM was one of these. On the positive side he was fun-loving, flamboyant and charismatic, with boundless energy and enthusiasm for life, invariably kind and generous, sensitive and tender-hearted and fiercely loyal. No wonder he was popular and we encouraged it thinking it would serve him well. And yet the disappointments and frustrations were mounting and worse, It felt like he was drifting away from us and although he was not yet fully “formed” we felt we had little influence over his life any more. It took a separation to be able to see more clearly.

Half way through my year in Italy I asked someone to send me a book I had heard of called “Hold Onto Your Kids” co-authored by none other than my new best friend, Gabor Mate. It has little to do with ADHD but this joint effort with Child Psychologist Gordon Neufeld, is the best advice for parents I have ever come across, bar none! I had always wondered why his ADHD symptoms seemed to be so much more problematical late in his teenage years. When I read it a massive light went on. Like all “great leaps forward” it was simple. In his later years we had allowed him to be raised by his peers – not only that we had unwittingly delivered him right into their arms. The first thing they show is that success with peers doesn’t translate into success in life. It’s all about attachments. If kids attach to their friends they absorb their values and behaviors (not necessarily good!) whereas if they attach to their parents they are most influenced by them (presumably better). The healthier your relationship is with your kid, the less likely they are to attach to their peers and the more likely they are to attach to the family. We clearly had work to do to re-establish our influence in his life.

Fast forward a few more years, MM and I are driving through the mean streets of town – the area that is the dumping ground for the nation’s forgotten people who sit aimless and forlorn, scattered like litter on the pavements. It’s a sorry sight.My normally compassionate boy was harsh. “They’re just druggies. They have no-one to blame but themselves.” The “work-in-progress” and I have a good relationship now. I continue to influence. “Wait up…are you aware that many of these people have mental illness, most have been brutally abused as children….. no-one would chose a life like this.” He became thoughtful so I pressed on. “How do you think your life would be if you hadn’t come from a supportive home with financial resources to get extra help?” I could tell I had struck a cord.Back home I was able to show him press clippings about none other than my hero Dr Gabor Mate, now the resident physician at a treatment facility on one of the meanest streets of all. His new book is out “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts”. It’s about addictions. Here is an excerpt that describes his work.

“……unique and controversial among addiction services is the core intention to accept people as they are – no matter how dysfunctional, troubled and troubling that may be. Our clients are not the “deserving poor”; they are just poor – undeserving in their own eyes and in those of society. To borrow from Dostoevsky they are “the insulted and the injured”. Virtually without exception, they look back on-or desperately away from-childhood histories of severe abuse, abandonment and neglect.” Beware how you judge!

budhist-wheel.jpg The title comes from one of the 7 realms of the Buddhist cycle of life – the hungry ghost realm – the realm of greed and cravings. The Hungry Ghosts are seen with large stomachs and tiny necks – they want to eat, but cannot swallow; they want to drink but the liquid turns to fire. Frustration comes from clinging to things mistakenly believed to bring satisfaction and relief.

Mate’s thesis is that addictions result from a human drive to fill voids in our lives in self-destructive ways and can encompass not only the usual suspects but also alcohol, tobacco, work, food, sex, power, gambling and even excessive spending. Yikes! Could he mean shopping?

Mate uses the example of disgraced media baron, Conrad Black. From his biographies Mate concludes that poor Conrad was addicted to acquisition because he lacked maternal love. “He’s a sensitive, gifted man who had a very rough childhood and had to compensate for the pain.” Now that’s compassion!

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