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The ADHD Islands

Posted May 20 2011 10:12pm
I have been thinking a lot about the isolation that seems to come along for families who are struggling with ADHD’s presence in their lives. Sometimes the isolation comes in the form of escapism, sometimes it feels as though you’re banished from life all together, sometimes you choose to withdraw and wallow, and then there’s just the isolation that can come about when you realize you have to create the best life and environment you can for your family. I’m going to focus on four different types of isolation that can come about during the rough times.

Smiles, Everyone, Smiles!

On Fantasy Island, it’s all about escape. You sit around and daydream that all of this will be removed from your life and your family finally be “normal.” I put “normal” in quotes, because I really don’t believe that there is a true normal that everyone should strive to attain. Normal to me is what works for you and works for everyone in your family. However, it can feel like there is a figurative “normal” that gets imposed on us when our lives aren’t fitting that idea. When we let ourselves visit Fantasy Island, everyone gets to smile all of the time and problems magically work themselves out! The desire for the Fantasy Island can be intense at times, especially when things are at their darkest. You may even have people in your life who would prefer you stay on Fantasy Island and who don’t really want to hear what is going on for you.

Sitting on Fantasy Island for too long can lead to yucky thoughts that start with phrases like “If only I didn’t have…” and “I wish I didn’t have to…” When you feel yourself going there, enjoy the daydream for a minute, but don’t stay too long. Instead of living on Fantasy Island, focus on the things you do well when you are there – you may have a desire to speak a little kinder, feel a little more lighthearted, and find the fun in the little moments of your day to day grind.

Why Don’t We Fit In?

We visited The Island of Misfit Toys most often when my son was still attending his old public school. I say “we” because when your kid doesn’t quite fit, you don’t fit either. Parents were never outright mean to me the way some of the kids were mean to my son, but there was always this chasm between us because our kids weren’t sharing anything that could help us form the bonds that turn acquaintances into friendships. Sure, there are a few parents at his school that I would consider good friends, but with the majority, things just never progressed beyond the level of simple chitchat. We tried, but we were like the train with the square wheels. We spent a LOT of time on that Island of Misfit Toys – knowing that birthday parties, play dates, sports activities were going on around us and we were not a part of it. Some things we chose not to be a part of (after third grade, we decided Tae Kwon Do was a better fit for my son than baseball), some things were beyond our control (the parties and playdates – you can’t exactly force kids to want to include your child).

Ultimately, we had to change his environment. Lo and behold, we found lots of other kids who didn’t fit into the public school environment too! After a while, it was no longer about being misfits who didn’t hack it in public school, it was about fitting where WE fit. It took a long time and a lot of healing (we’re still healing) to come to realize that we weren’t flawed, and that was extremely liberating. I experience the benefits of a better environment every day when I see how much happier and secure my son is with his place in the world. This is not to say that changing the environment requires changing schools – it’s just the choice we made. I read inspiring stories every day on this blog and the A Mom’s View of ADHD Facebook page about parents who fight tooth and nail to get their children the services they need from their schools. I frequently hear about parents going the extra mile to make sure teachers are informed and that play dates are well orchestrated. Sometimes even the smallest change in one’s environment can reap huge rewards.

Cast Away

Feeling cast away is about emotional isolation. I frequently say, “There is nothing worse than feeling alone when you’re surrounded by people.” When you’re here, you feel so alone. Those times when you are at the bottom of the barrel and reach out for help, it can still feel like no one really understands. You may wonder why you feel isolated, even though there might be many people in your life who would bend over backwards to come help you and take care of you whenever you asked. Sometimes it hits you that no matter how many people love you, how many people would sit with you, talk with you, hug you, just BE with you, no one – and I mean NO ONE – will ever truly know what it feels like to be you. No one will ever truly know what it means to live in your shoes, see out of your eyes, feel the pain (and joy) your heart feels. Sure, they might relate to how you feel, be able to empathize with how you feel, and even imagine how you feel, but they’ll never, ever truly know. THAT’S isolating, and being with others can almost make it worse.

When you’re in this place, it is all about self-care until you’re ready to reach out again. Take a walk, breathe, listen to good music, use self-talk to give yourself the messages that you need to hear, and do something good for yourself. Once you’ve pulled through, you’ll be more in a place to receive the love and acceptance that people are willing to give you.

Sit Right Back, and You’ll Hear a Tale

A lot of the time, life can look like Gilligan’s Island. You do the best you can to keep things going, and once in awhile you think you’re going to be rescued (your kiddo had a good day at school, a med change went well). You start to think that you may finally get to live that “normal” with everyone else! Then, BAM – a crappy day at school, a meltdown, another phone call from the teacher – and you’re right back on that island. I am usually feeling like Gilligan – doing my best to make sure everyone is okay and doing whatever I can to keep it together, knowing that I’m probably making mistakes along the way.

The interesting part about the Gilligan’s Island is that you get to have all sorts of different personalities there with you! You might have a “Professor” in your life telling you how if you gave your child more fish oil or made him eat kale chips, your kid’s brain would work better (Professors are extremely good at sending you the latest articles on ADHD treatments). Maybe you have a “Skipper” telling you how you’re handling things wrong (it’s usually our INTERNAL Skipper that is the harshest). You watch the Gingers and Thurston Howells of the world seemingly glide through life with ease - sending their kids to school without worrying what will happen or what phone call they are going to get, having coffee with friends every morning, going to the gym five days a week, pretty much constantly shoving it in your face that their life on the island is a whole lot better than yours. If you’re lucky, you get to have a sweet, honest, kind Mary Ann to sit with you and just listen. I really hope you find a Mary Ann.

How else do you combat the isolation that inherently comes when you’re living in a tough situation? Don’t stop reaching out. Talk to as many parents as you can who have had similar experiences. Be bold and honest at your child’s school and let people know what’s happening for you. Seek out support groups, hit message boards and read as much as you can about ADHD. Seek help from a professional who will, at the very least, validate these profound feelings you are having. These feelings are yours, and they’re real. You deserve to be able to process this experience with someone who will really listen (professional or not) and who will at least TRY to understand.

Try looking at your relationship with your child as an ocean cruise. What are the things you can do to make sure he or she knows that at the end of the day, no matter what islands you both have had to visit, they’re safe in your home and safe within the confines of the relationship you have together? As you find those elements that bring peace and balance to your lives, I hope you’ll be able to sit back, relax and enjoy each other.

Kara Thompson is a Marriage and Family Therapist in Lenexa, Kansas. She likes to listen to "Islands in the Sun" by Weezer when she needs a quick escape. You can find her on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/karatherapy or follow her on Twitter at @karagthompson.
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