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Diagnosis Disorder: A Dreadful Word

Wendy Sachs
Dec. 21, 2010


My son has ADHD.  This is not news to me - my husband and I have known this for years, but last Friday we finally told our son.  It was a doctor, an expert in ADHD, who gently, but in a matter-of-fact way explained to my son that he not only has what appears to be an increasingly common neurological issue, but that he is actually lucky to have this.     

Talk about messaging.

Diagnosis Disorder
The doctor began by telling my son how super smart he is and how he has a Ferrari of a brain and how fortunate he is to have such a "gift."  "It's the gift you can't wrap," he said cheerfully.

But the only word my son heard in the doctor's monologue was "DISORDER."  As in, "you have Attention Deficit Disorder."  He did leave out the word hyperactivity, which was probably a good thing.

My watershed moment came a few years ago, when we figured out that my son's inability to concentrate and his perpetual movement and impulsivity could be biologically blamed.  He literally couldn't help himself.   So while I have become intimately familiar with all aspects of this acronym for what seems like eons now, I had almost forgotten that the second "D" stood for "disorder."  It seemed innocuous, but for my son, the "D" might as well have been the Scarlet Letter.   

While I no longer even considered the word "disorder" to be anything other than part of an acronym for a common condition that affects both children and grownups, I didn't realize how it would resonate with my son.   

But hearing my son utter it over and over again, "I have a disorder? What's wrong with me?"  The word stung and the pain, confusion and sadness my son felt ripped into me.

What have I done?

"There is nothing wrong with you," I told my son countless times during the excruciating car ride home.  "You are amazing and creative and so smart and awesome.  You are such a cool kid." 

But he couldn't hear me.  He was consumed by his own anguish.

"You did this to me.  You screwed me up.  It's your fault I'm this way.  People are going to think I'm a loser."

These were the words coming from my 9-year-old.  I always imagined children reached their 20s before blaming their mothers.  Isn't that when you explode to your therapist and accuse your mom of creating your issues?  I didn't expect this, not from the little boy who still snuggles with his blankie, who still obsesses over WebKinz, and who still falls asleep as I sing him made-up songs to a "Frère Jacques" tune.

The doctor had promised me that when children understand what's affecting their behavior, their focus or their impulsivity, it's a relief for them.  It's about owning it and then understanding it.  For the hundreds of children he's treated, the doctor assured me that kids breathe easier afterwards

Not my kid.  My son is atypical of the atypical.  I know this and I feared his reaction.

For years we have couched ADHD in euphemisms. He takes vitamins, not medication.  His battery gets overcharged and he needs to calm down so he can focus.  The word "disorder" has never crept into the conversation.  I try to protect my son because I know that he feels a little different.  He is preternaturally self-aware and a deep feeler. He also does things his way -marching to a different beat.  He's an out-of-the-box thinker and embraces his ingenuity which is why he will be incredibly successful in life...if life doesn't first get in his way.

And that's where I feel my job as a parent comes in.  With tears in our eyes, my son and I listened to the doctor who spoke of both the challenges and magic of having a Ferrari engine of a brain.  Interestingly, the doctor told us that he too has ADD.

So far there has been no relief for my son, only moments of extreme anger and sadness.  In some ways I think it confirmed to him that something inside is askew and that he is a little different, but this is of no comfort to a nine year old. Children don't want to feel different, even if the messaging makes the unique sound like an exceptional strength.  And as parents we just desperately want our kids to fit into the conventional flow and feel comfortable in their own skin. 

Disorder is a dreadful word, especially as part of a label for my beautiful son.

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