Talking about my childhood isn’t something I relish. In fact it is something I generally try to avoid. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy being a kid – I had some of the most amazing adventures that most backyard-bound kids these days only dream about—but encompassing my hair-raising adventures was always a sense of doing the wrong thing or saying the wrong thing. Only I celebrated my daring activities… everybody else seemed to live in dread of them and then use them as anecdotes during family reunions later in life.
The first sense I had of being different was when my mother made me use salt water one night to brush my teeth. She seemed pretty anxious about it and after I refused to do it the second night she just gave up. She told me I couldn’t have red cordial or lots of sugar. I didn’t understand why but accepted it. I have vague memories of my mother giving me medicine to take and for a little while life was swirly and everything a pleasure…. Then my mother took me off the medicine (Ritalin) because she said it so altered my personality it frightened her.
My mother always seemed anxious to me. I don’t remember her laughing much when I was a little girl. What I do remember are the moments where she was upset with me. I remember her telling me to buzz off when I was four. I remember her having a fight with my Dad and driving off when I was seven. When she returned we all went up to hug her sobbing and she pushed me away. I remember when I broke her favourite bowl. I had put the cat in it to see if she fit. Then I broke the replacement bowl the weekend Mum and Dad had gone away to Melbourne.
The happiest moments of my childhood were spent exploring our farm or when we moved into the village, the local township of Hahndorf, in South Australia. There was a tadpole pond just out front near the road and when it rained we’d catch them and put them in the fish bowl inside. Somehow they all disappeared. I think it had something to do with the cat.
I used to take off in the early morning to brush one of our horses down. Tango was a beautiful sweet soul and we had long conversations, just the two of us. I’d brush her from mane to tail and she didn’t mind a bit. It was the only time I felt truly at peace.
The saddest moments were when I felt everyone’s disapproval in the bowels of my heart. I never quite understood why I upset people but somehow that’s what happened. There are moments I remember quite clearly: When I was seven years old I won a prize in a gymnastics competition. My school principal had brought a few of us down to the competition and after winning the first prize I’d ever won in my life I was so excited. I kept repeating “That was spectacular!” (a new word I’d learnt). My school principal just sat there and berated my glee as self-centeredness but I couldn’t understand why. I came away feeling like it was wrong to celebrate an achievement or wrong to feel good about doing something well. Considering I had never felt like I had done anything well up to that point this was a crushing blow to my self confidence and the label “self-centred” stayed with me for years. Consequently, out of my brokenness, I’ve devoted much energy to doing things to please others just to prove I wasn’t “self-centred”.
The pinnacle was when at Grade Seven camp, the parents of a girl who disliked me intensely (the feeling was mutual) pulled me aside and told me I was an “evil child” and that I should change my ways or else I’d never be “any good”. I was so distressed by this I buried this event deep in the recesses of my mind and it came to surface about a year ago when trying to come to terms with some of the emotional baggage from my childhood. I had never realised how these awful words spoken over me had impacted on my sense of self and on my relationships with others.
Throughout most of my school life I felt bullied and berated in one respect or another. I had friends on and off but always felt lonely and took great comfort in playing in some far off corner of the farm or the creek. I used to love Wednesdays because Mum would pick me up at lunch time and take me into the city to the Children’s Hospital where I’d get to sit and play with whatever I wanted. I didn’t realise at the time that I was being observed by a bunch of white coat psychologists. It would be interesting to read whatever study came out of those play sessions.
As a teen my unawareness of appropriate conduct got me into all kinds of strife with my peers. One day in grade eight, I very innocently asked a friend when her mother was having another baby (her mother had a rounded belly so I just assumed she was pregnant) which was met with a hotly hostile response and lost me the company of that group of friends for the rest of the year. I ended up making friends with people much older than myself and this seemed to help me ride the tide of rejection from those my age.
I fell in love with the cello and played everyday until my fingers hurt. Immersing myself in music was one way to ride the storm. I started entering singing competitions and traveled across the country to perform. It meant that on some level people would like me but inside I felt that if they got to know the real me they wouldn’t, so I kept everyone at arms length.
Into my late teens relationships with guys were unrealistic and one-sided affairs. I would move from one tempestuous infatuation to another and would never really connect with anyone in any meaningful way.
My work life was pretty chequered too. I got a job at a local McDonalds at 15 and promptly lost the job six months later because of interpersonal issues. I became the laughing stock of my school. Who loses a job at McDonalds?
In the years following, a string of work-related misdemeanors made me feel unemployable. I could never understand why I would fail even when trying really hard to succeed. At university a professor who took us on an archaeological excavation in Israel labeled me “unteachable”.
Over the years emerging awareness has been a gradual and slow process. Lessons learned through cold hard experience have often paved the way to realisations and new truths. It has taken a deep sense of faith and honesty to revisit the moments that bruised me as a child and as a teen and move on from them. And, in many ways the bruises still exist.
Amidst all of this were some very happy and affirming memories too. Throughout my early 20s I joined my university choir and developed some really close bonds with others in the group and some of us are still great friends to this day. I developed a love of writing and started working for the university newspaper. My supervisor was so impressed at my enthusiasm and ability to meet deadlines that he promoted me to copy editor in my Senior year (at a US university). It was the first time I felt like I could do a job well. When I did a linguistics course at uni all of a sudden I felt like I could learn. While my peers were struggling with the concepts, I flew through the course with ease. It gave me new-found confidence.
There are still things I struggle with to this day but it gets easier with age. I understand now how important it is to carefully consider your words before committing on them but when I get tired that’s when I make mistakes. I don’t always connect the dots like most people seem to be able to and often feel a bit stupid for it later on. Meetings with new people often cause a great deal of anxiety and even outings with people I know well (always afraid I’ll lose my friends). Often I just forget what I am supposed to be doing and go off on about 10 tangents before realising that I had changed course. My husband often gets frustrated with my absent-mindedness and inattentiveness but at least he understands why, to some degree anyway.
Now as a mother, I am faced with the prospect of raising a little boy who has also been diagnosed with ADHD as well as Autism Spectrum Disorder (Waiting for Daniel in the Spring 2006 NP and Summer 2006/07 NP). In some ways it makes me feel sad knowing that there will always be people who will misunderstand him or who will berate him even when he tries to please. But I also see my own experience as such a huge advantage in that I can understand him and support him when many others can’t.
There are many opinions on ADHD. Some say it is a biological problem. Some say it is a cultural construct. Some say it is induced by food chemicals, pollution, drugs at birth or immunisation. Some say it isn’t real, doesn’t exist. Some say it is a conspiracy to sell more pharmaceutical drugs. One thing is for sure though, whatever the cause, it has been real enough for me.