Everything at Once

‘Yes,’ said the consultant. ‘Everything points to your son having ADHD.’

My lovely seven year old was at that point torn between prodding the consultant’s computer and running toy cars backwards up a ramp. My heart sank. Not because I thought it was the end of the world, but because I could imagine what people would say.

The ones who’d been telling me so for years would smirk. The ones who thought it but never said would sneer. Close friends and family would go into denial. My father would probably buy a book about it.

I had been in denial for a long time. My son’s playgroup had hinted it. His first school told me to take him for assessment. I wasn’t happy with the school and chose to ignore them, although terribly upset, I rang to tell a friend, leaving a message on her landline phone. She didn’t pick up the message for weeks by which time my distress had been replaced with belligerence. 

A year later, we moved a hundred miles and he’d changed schools. The new school couldn’t have been better. But as sitting still became harder, concentrating more important, my lovely happy child lost his self-esteem and confidence and finally his joy. When this school suggested an assessment, I listened. 

Is it my fault? It never ever occurred to me to blame my husband, but I certainly blamed myself.

Was it because I’d eaten red meat, shrimps, nuts and had the odd glass of wine during pregnancy? Was it because I’d craved cheese and ate it in almost any format? Was it because I had what seemed – for a first time mother – a rather traumatic if fairly quick childbirth? Was it because an hour before he was born and they said ‘the baby is getting distressed’, I thought ‘what about me? I’m distressed. Am I invisible?’ None of that made any sense. 

Was it genetic? The consultant said it was often hereditary. I am a natural fidget and daydream as is my husband. But discipline at my home and school was fairly rigid and I long ago learnt to daydream with 90% of my brain while the other 10% appears fully engaged in whatever boring thing I’m supposed to be concentrating on. I struggle in a lot of social situations because I’m trying to listen to every single conversation around me regardless of whether I’m part of it or not. I am very easily bored. I try to do everything on my to-do list at the same time but I do get through it eventually.

My son wasn’t like that. He didn’t seem able to concentrate at all, unless it was something he was absolutely absorbed by. Oddly, this wasn’t always what was deemed ‘important’ by school or society. He found it easier to listen if he wasn’t looking at someone. If he was looking at them, he was concentrating on their face, their mannerisms, their mood rather than their words. Did people understand that? No. Of course they didn’t. He just got into trouble.

Was it because I didn’t discipline him strictly enough? I was conflicted on that one. I demand good manners and an interest in knowledge but I also want openness. I don’t want my children to be hung up, to be afraid to express an opinion or afraid to be honest even when they knew I won’t like their opinions or their honesty. I want them to come to me if things go wrong without fearing I will judge them. I want them to have the space to make stupid decisions knowing I am there to catch them if they fall. 

‘Sleep when he sleeps’ my friends with children said when he was born. My son barely slept in the day and didn’t sleep through the night till he was nearly seven. I went back to work part-time when he was six months old and had to learn a new role but still found it more relaxing than managing a child who didn’t know how to rest. Changing nappies and bath time were activities easier done by two. He rolled over at six weeks, was running by nine months. Trying to get used to managing on a reduced income, I remember sitting with him on my lap trying to read a bank statement and work out where the money was going. He flipped the paper over and I started to cry – and I don’t do crying. He was utterly exhausting. Somewhere around this point, the health visitor gave me a questionnaire. She must have been worried about my mental health and she was right. It was a whole year before I woke up and realised I felt ‘normal’.

Forget all those stereotypes. We don’t eat junk food except on occasion. I was rigid about early bedtimes and a regular routine (if not for my children’s sake, for mine.) My son is not and has never been deliberately rough and rarely angry (although now, as an adult, perhaps righteously so over injustice and political stupidity). He does not always ‘get’ people but he’s sensitive and kind. If he has ever been violent it has generally been through exuberance rather than out of any desire to hurt. (Quite possibly this does not always extend to his little sister but she gives as good as she gets.) I am proud that he knows how to be polite to others and equally proud that he is honest with me and has opinions he’s not afraid to express. 

‘His brain is wired differently,’ explained the consultant. ‘We think it can’t stimulate itself, and so it’s constantly looking for external stimulus. It’s actually concentrating on everything simultaneously and can’t work out what’s important. Medication may create stimuli that his brain can’t so that he can concentrate on what’s necessary.’

I chose to accept medication for him. This involved a battle with the extended family. They said I was labelling him, drugging him, that I just needed to discipline him better. We used it for school alone. On holidays and weekends, we didn’t use the tablets at all. At school, he regained his confidence and started to do well in class again. When he was called ‘ADHD boy’ by another child, my son put his head up and said he was proud to be an ADHD boy. The one time I took both children (both under eleven) to London on my own and decided to medicate him, I regretted it. Who was this quiet child who wasn’t trying to run in three directions at once and asking a million questions? He was easier to manage but was he enjoying it as much? I still don’t really know. When he reached sixteen, the decision whether to take medication was left to him. He took it for his academic subjects but didn’t for music and drama. ‘I need my mind to be free to be creative’ he said.

My son is now an adult and he sometimes uses medication and sometimes doesn’t. What have I learned about ADHD? I realised that everyone has it to some degree, the majority only at a very low level. I look back at my own school years and wonder if some of those ‘naughty’ but intelligent children might have made something of themselves if someone had realised that their brain was wired a different way. I wonder what opportunities for them were lost. I realised my father probably had some form of Asperger’s syndrome and this helped me understand him and become less frustrated with some of things he said and did.

People say that ADHD didn’t exist before the modern western world got too soft. I think this is utter nonsense. People are just people. There have always been people who have very clear thought patterns and people who think about lots of things simultaneously. We need both. We need people who can make straightforward unemotional judgements. We need daydreamers. Perhaps in industrialised cultures there is less respect given to the dreamers. In our culture we want the output – the film or music or jet engine but don’t realise space needs to be given to the wild idea that leads to them. Our culture doesn’t always appreciate a person who walks to a different beat.

As a small child, yes, my son was exhausting. But he was fascinated by everything. He laughed, he was happy. Sleep was a waste of time when there was a whole world ready to fiddle with. He danced in my womb when I sang in a concert and as a pre-schooler, he danced in our small front room to a CD of classical (sorry – Baroque) music. He was full of joy. I bought him a tiny toy keyboard in a charity shop for £3 and all by himself he learnt how to play Silent Night at the age of three. He was the only child in playgroup who could sing in tune. He is a musician. 

He is now a delightful young man full of passion and ideas and creative energy. I don’t always agree with him but then I am his mother and older, why should I agree with him? And he is young, why should he agree with me? Hopefully there is plenty of time for both of us to find out when to bend and when to stand firm.

If I had ignored that diagnosis or tried to discipline him out of ADHD would he be as creative and have as much potential now? Or would he be frustrated, angry, rebellious, bitter? 

I suspect the latter. I know which I’d prefer.

If you’re a parent struggling right now, find someone to understand and don’t be afraid. There will be someone. If your child had asthma, no-one would query your need for help or theirs – ADHD is no different. 

If you think you may be attention deficit and/or hyperactive – it’s a good thing. But again, seek support.

If you don’t understand – do some research. Many highly successful people have ADHD. A diagnosis doesn’t mean you’re undisciplined, unnurtured, badly nourised, violent or useless.

Whoever you are, be kind to yourself. 

Whoever or ‘whatever’ you are, the world needs you.

BBC video – the joys of ADHD

A Winter Forest at Night by Matthew Harmon

The National Attention Deficit Disorder Information and Support Service

NHS information

Information for adults with ADHD

UK Support Groups

a thousand connections

Words and photograph copyright 2019 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

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Territory Unknown?

Once upon a time Napoleon rode a dinosaur into the jungle and…

went on a resolution quest perhaps? Well these are mine:

Number One – this is the important one: Do not to try and do forty things at once all the time. (I’m thinking of my personal life. Multi-tasking is sort of what I’m paid to do it at work.)

In private however, I must not try to reorganise four bookcases, sort laundry, cook dinner, argue with teenagers/husband/self, find that thing and reorganise furniture in my head all that the same time. 

In particular, I must not try to juggle a ton of writing projects. I think there was one month last year when I was writing and/or revising four different projects. If they’d been all set in the same era it might have helped, but as one was Victorian, one in the 1950s, one in the second century and who knows what the other thing was, because I’ve forgotten, it’s no wonder I came out of that month feeling frazzled and wondering where the fun had gone.

This morning, I finished the first draft of the yet unnamed sequel to Murder Britannica. It’s set a year later (AD 191) and the action has moved from a fictional village in what is now north of Cardiff, South Wales to the very real town of Durnovaria. Dorchester, which is not far from where I live, is built on its remains but the Roman town is not terribly visible. Which then leads on to the next resolution:

Two: Do lots of research but don’t disappear down research rabbit holes. As far as MB2 (as it’s currently called) is concerned, this has involved looking up Roman recipes and realising that the majority actually look very nice and wondering if I could cook them (although probably not stuffed dormice, flamingo or barren sow’s womb). For an entirely different project, I’ve also found out that Bristol Basin in New York is actually built from actual chunks of Bristol. For a third one, I discovered that the word ‘knickers’ for female underwear was not current in 1892. Actually, I’m going to ignore resolution number two. It’s much more fun going down the rabbit-holes.

Three: Keep being brave. At some point in my past, I decided that I wouldn’t let myself be ruled by what makes me anxious or afraid. There are too many of these to mention, so I won’t. One of the things about getting back into writing as an older person is writing about people over thirty having fresh starts. While the sequel to Murder Britannica is a light hearted murder mystery, the underlying theme is, I suppose, ‘looking back versus looking forward’. The younger women (both under twenty) are on the threshold of an adult life which is likely to be restrictive unless they do something about it. But the older women (well over forty-five), have all sorts of reasons to find out if there is more to their later years than weaving. Is there? Oh yes.

Four: only keep the clutter I love. Admittedly I’ve actually obtained two ‘new’ bits of clutter since Christmas. One is a – actually I have no idea what it is, a sort of compass I think – but I like to think of it as a time-machine and the other is a 1904 folding camera. I like to think of them as prompts, or even props for my writing and they’re in a cupboard so shouldn’t get too dusty (major advantage). All the same, this year, I’m determined to finally empty the attic when it’s neither too cold nor too cold (April & October??). I know the attic is full of tat. I know there’s even got a box labelled ‘stuff from under Matt’s bed’ which we sealed up when we moved in 2004. I know, I know – I say the same thing every January but maybe this year at long last, I’ll actually do it. 

In the meantime, the long overdue decluttering has at least resulted in clearing out those kitchen drawers where everything has been stuffed for the last thirteen years. This led to the discovery of Napoleon and a dinosaur who were nestled with a gorilla in amongst a hundred dried up felt-tip pens and a few rogue Cub-Scout/gym club/swimming club badges that I’d never got round to sewing on anything. 

Sooner or later, I’ll decide what Napoleon is doing and where he’s going. In the meantime, he and T-Rex have been reprieved and are back in the drawer.

Of course, if you have some ideas about their adventures feel free…

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Words and photograph copyright 2019 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Hot Water

‘And this,’ said Desmond, opening a gate within the high walls and ushering his new pal Gerald through, ‘is the laundry area. It keeps everything in one place, well away from the main house so that we don’t have to look at billowing sheets or smell soap. Bertha loves it, don’t you Bertha?’

A maidservant, sleeves rolled up over muscled arms and a strand of hair stuck to her sweating face, scowled as she stirred the copper in the courtyard.

‘It’s Bessie…sir,’ she replied.

Behind her, other maids scurried across the cobbles between the laundry rooms and drying rooms under grey unforgiving skies. The steady rain which had been falling since breakfast soaked into Bessie’s cap and her boots were stained dark with wetness.

‘I call all the maids Bertha,’ Desmond said as an aside to Gerald. ‘They don’t mind, do you Bertha?’ He stroked her face.

In silence, Bessie kept stirring the boiling cauldron with a large wooden paddle, her eyes narrowed. From time to time, a fold of white linen popped up from frothing bubbles which were a brownish-pink. The smell of soft soap was less pleasant than Desmond remembered, and some small part of his small mind wondered why she was boiling laundry in the yard rather than inside the building but then – he hadn’t been interested in laundry since he was six and wanting bubbles for his toy pipe.

‘Someone had something of an accident with a tablecloth, what?’ Gerald suggested.

‘Something like that… sir,’ said Bessie.

‘By the way Bertha,’ wondered Desmond. ‘Have you seen Lord Charles this morning? He can’t resist a pretty young maid,’ he added to Gerald. ‘He’ll get himself in hot water one of these days. Ha! Ha!’

Desmond pinched Bessie’s flushed cheek and patted her backside. 

Her grip on the paddle tightened, but still she said nothing. 

She merely stared down into the copper and with a small smile watched another brownish-pink bubble explode with a malodorous ‘pop’.

laundry murder

Words and photograph copyright 2019 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.