The House of Chaos: Surviving Family ADHD

One of the first articles I pitched to GeekMom, in the application to be a writer here, was a piece on the incentive program we’d set up in our house, so our children would earn their screentime through chores and good behavior.

But by the time I actually started here, our program required a complete overhaul, on account of it no longer working.

Maybe I’d wait until the new plan took hold and write about the evolution of the process. But other topics distracted me before I got around to it, and now the new improved program has tapered off, too.

Well. I could hardly be the one to plug a successful incentive program now. Not that that’s the program’s fault. It’s all on me. You see, you need a grown-up to administer an incentive program.

And I need a grown-up. It’s possible this entire household needs a grown-up.

It was a bit of an opposites-attract case when I met the man who became my husband. He had so much energy, and I’m hopelessly chill (the word “lazy” comes to mind). His hyperactivity could inspire me to get moving. My chill helps him stay calm. The problem is that hyperactivity often, if not usually, comes with an attention deficit disorder, but attention deficit doesn’t always come with hyperactivity. It turns out we’re an even-tempered couple who both have trouble adulting and have mixed our genes into a house of chaos.

He’s jumpy and impulsive. I’m a Highly Sensitive Person. Mix us together and you get our son, a hyper-aware worrywart with an explosive temper.

He’s hyperactive and daring. I’m a scatterbrained klutz. Mix us together and you get our daughter, the most accident-prone child you will ever meet. She is responsible for every trip to urgent care or the emergency room, every set of stitches, every bout of poison ivy, and the one call to poison control I’ve had to deal with as a parent. (She’s also responsible for most of the loud crashing noises followed by “I’m okay!”s: I’m responsible for the rest).

They’re nice kids, sure. But they bounce off walls and furniture and act without thinking things through. They forget instructions or lists of choices moments after hearing them (“What would you like for breakfast?” “What do we have?” “Bagels, yogurt, Honey Nut Cheerios, Golden Grahams, this cartoon cereal you demanded we get four months ago and haven’t finished, or toast.” Long pause. “So what do you want?” “What do we have again?”)

Obviously her bedroom door needed some pictorial commentary expressing her displeasure, possibly about that list of things to do. Image: Amy M. Weir
Obviously her bedroom door needed some pictorial commentary expressing her displeasure, possibly about that list of things to do. Image: Amy M. Weir

They’re both super-creative, which is awesome, though he hyper-focuses on Lego or Minecraft until you can’t drag him away, and she, after nearly seven years, still hasn’t learned that drawing must only happen on paper, not on furniture, doors, walls, clothing, other people’s stuff, or herself. And they have utterly no sense of time. But neither do their parents. We tend to get places late.

Their dad might arguably be the least scatterbrained person in the house. He’s the one with a mental list of things that ought to happen and stuff that ought to be done. But he will announce a plan, then sit down and get lost in a movie, or his best friend will call, and they will literally spend hours (each day!) hashing out details of plots and characters for RPG campaigns they never get around to.

Recently he got a new Wii game (Xenoblade Chronicles X for you gamers out there), and ever since he opened it he eats, sleeps, goes to work, and plays that game (with weekly breaks to watch Agent Carter and The X-Files with me at least). Last week I was looking for new suggestions for dealing with the boy’s Minecraft addiction and came into the room with the Wii to tell him about it. “Hey, according to this article I found, Minecraft addiction is actually extremely common in kids with ADHD,” I said. “Says it’s easy to get sucked in since there’s endless possibilities.” J kept playing. “Says parents have to model other …yeah. ” I glanced from the screen to my 41-year-old with ADHD and back. Then, “Hey, it’s time for supper, do you want to stir-fry?” He looked up and out the darkening window. “It’s supper time?” he said slowly. “…I haven’t eaten anything yet today.”*

And then there’s me.

Unlike my husband and son and probably daughter eventually, I’ve never been diagnosed with ADHD, or even considered for it. There’s the total lack of “H” for one thing. I also did too well in school, because I was a nerd and learning was a preferred task for me** (until proofs in 10th grade geometry. Why did I have to write every step? Can’t you just see they’re equal?!), if you ignored my abysmal track record with practice-type homework, which was pointless and boring and I usually did well enough on tests to counteract my skipping it.

But I am a master of daydreaming. I’ve literally made an art of it, since I am usually writing stories in my head (except when I’m actually trying to write a story, of course, at which point my brain has decided to think about anything else). I’m so good at checking out that I can stare into space for hours and not even realize time has gone by. I’m cluttered and indecisive. I can look at a mess over and over but it won’t even occur to me that I could clean it, or even that it should be cleaned.

As our son’s first psychologist ran down a list of behaviors to watch out for, I kept responding, “Well, I do that.” Then when I said, “…because the ADHD comes from him,” pointing at my husband, he and the psychologist said simultaneously, “And you, too!” “Well, it’s in my extended family,” I said. “I don’t have it.” Again they both said, “Yes you do!” and J added, “Have you even been listening to yourself?”

Is that what it is? Is that really what’s going on? I’ve felt like a moderate failure at adulting for some time. Discovering that an ability to ace tests is pretty useless in the real world wrecked my confidence completely for awhile. The actual life skills I did need seemed missing.

My undergraduate degree is in elementary education. I did know I wanted to be a children’s librarian, but I thought then that I might work in a school library. I loved education, in theory. I loved lesson plans and pedagogy and educational philosophy. I aced all my PRAXIS tests, naturally.

Then I student-taught. Then subbed. Then was hired to run a brand-new middle school library. And no matter how much I worked, how much I tried, how much I wanted to succeed, I was an utter disaster at classroom management.

“It’s only student teaching,” then “Subbing’s like that,” then “It’s your first year,” everyone said at first. “Everyone’s student teaching/subbing/first year is like that. It comes with practice!” Then it was “Here, try this behavior management system, works like a charm!” Then after awhile, “It’s because you’re too nice, don’t try to be their friend,” or “You just have to be firm!” or “You have to nip bad behavior in the bud! You let it go until it gets out of control!” Then finally, “Why do you let them walk all over you?!”

I don’t know. I wasn’t trying to be nice. I didn’t want to be walked all over. After a series of in-class breakdowns and a principal-instigated “mental health vacation,” my doctor wrote an actual doctor’s excuse prescribing that I quit my job immediately. It was bad for my health. And yet, through the next few years of under- and un- employment, relatives and friends could not understand why I refused to even look for another school position. “You were just in a bad district!” “You should try a different age group!” “You’re smart, you can do this if you try.”

Having dealt with chronic depression for about a decade at that point, I recognized the parallels between this and those lines people would give about that situation: “Why don’t you just try to be happy? Why don’t you go out and do things? Why don’t you just get over it?” Completely useless suggestions given by people who have no trouble taking their own advice because they aren’t the ones with dysfunctional brain chemistry.

The teaching advice seemed likewise directed at someone not-me, some imaginary person whose brain worked like theirs. I was confident in my inability. I CAN’T. I am lacking the vital character trait my professors had called “with-it-ness”: not “stylish and hip” with-it. PRESENT with-it.

Alert, quick-thinking, quick-acting, catching and fixing problems before they happened. Able to make decisions on the spot without saying, “Um, maybe you should pay attention? Or maybe we should try something different? Or maybe….” It means ON TOP OF things, everything happening in that classroom. It wasn’t something I could be taught. It might have come with practice–a LOT of practice–years of kids getting a sub-par information science education and of me constantly on the verge of a panic attack. NO. Some people are just not cut out for certain jobs, and I am not cut out for classroom teaching.

I wondered if I might be better at it after I had my own children. When I’d become a Real Mom, the kind who can put her children in line with just that Patented MOM-Look. Some part of me was pretty sure that was an instinctual thing that would show up with the hormone shift.

The hormones apparently did bring with them acute middle-of-the-night wake-up abilities, an extraordinary tolerance for cleaning up all manner of bodily fluids, and a more intense feeling of love than I’d ever imagined possible. But not the Patented MOM-Look.

But I can’t quit motherhood like I could quit trying to teach. Cut out for it or not, I’m here for two small people who are depending on me. I have to get my brain to stop checking out when I’m supposed to be in charge.

One thing I learned from our attempts at incentive programs is that the more streamlined I can make a routine, the better. I needed to make as many decisions as possible in advance, and have them spelled out, so that I know exactly what to do in the moment. I needed to restrict screen time to certain times and situations, so it wasn’t a constant rotation–five minutes on, another chore, another five minutes of screen time again.

I also needed to focus on awarding time, not on taking time away: the kids don’t respond well to punishment (indeed, it seems to make the boy fly so completely off the handle that he only gets worse), and I’m much better at withholding rewards than taking previously earned rewards away. Focusing on earning made me better about enforcing it, which made me more consistent, which is something everyone in our family needs!

The point tallies haven't changed for a few weeks now. Come to think of it, the picture of an Advent wreath hanging above the points tallies should probably have been taken down a month or so ago, too.
The point tallies haven’t changed for a few weeks now. Come to think of it, the picture of an Advent wreath hanging above the points tallies should probably have been taken down a month or so ago, too.

But even that couldn’t keep me from tuning out when the kids started grabbing my Nook to play Minecraft when I was busy elsewhere, only to have their dad come home and say, “Wait, are they supposed to be on there at this time?” And I’d come out of my haze like, “Uh… I guess not?” “Sooooo, do I have to be the bad guy again? Or does this mean the new points system is broken, too?”

And you know, I’m still not really sure. We’ve finally made a genuine habit of doing homework first, so maybe we don’t need to be as picky about the screen time. But maybe I’m just being lazy. I’m sure other people would think I’m lazy. I’m sure other people with their clean houses (not even immaculate! Just DECENT!), their school fundraisers not lost until the last minute, their children’s clothes always fitting perfectly, and all their own hobbies still getting attention, KNOW I’m lazy. But I know fellow GeekMom Karen, at least, has my back.

If only the results weren’t so completely chaotic.

I keep imagining my aunt reading this though (I know she is–she’s one of my most engaged Facebook followers). She’s an adult (obviously) with ADHD, who’s raised three kids with ADHD (I’m exaggerating. At least one of them officially has ADHD, but I’m not sure of the exact distribution of ADHD-like symptoms among them) with a husband who was frequently away on long business trips and who comes from a stereotypically boisterous Italian family. We used to joke that when she and her family arrived at an event, the volume level in the room would instantly triple. I can title this post “House of Chaos” because it sounds good, but I feel like my house has got nothing on hers.

But I know exactly what she’d say to me, because she’s said it before. My mom, her sister, has said it before, too. They both heard it from their own mother when they first started parenting: “Remember: YOU are the grown-up.”

So I can be absent-minded and cluttered and imperfect, but that’s not an excuse to give up my responsibilities entirely. Despite everything I am still in charge here. I have to take a stand when things really matter. In the end, who cares about the mess? But when it comes to kindness and safety and schoolwork and survival, those are the moments I must step up.

Maybe we should get the boxes of Christmas decorations into the attic sometime soon, too.
Maybe we should get the boxes of Christmas decorations into the attic sometime soon, too.

When I really look, I haven’t completely failed at adulthood at all. I cook and buy food and keep my family decently fed (even if they don’t always eat what they’re given). I can be careless getting all the bills out on time, but I’ve mostly managed, and I even do our taxes.

I make doctors’ and other important appointments even though I have a mildly crippling phobia of using the telephone. I’m a gosh-darn fabulous public children’s librarian, if I do say so myself. And yes, I’m even a pretty good mother in some ways: I listen and encourage my kids to be who they are, which is not nothing.

So am I a grown-up enough? I can only try.

*He wants to point out that he was feeling sick that day. I would like to additionally point out that he hasn’t been sick the majority of the days he’s done nothing but play that game.

**This is the same reason, most likely, no one has yet felt the need to test my daughter for ADHD. She at least has the hyperactivity I lacked, though.

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Amy M. Weir is a public youth services librarian in SW Pennsylvania, and there’s nothing she geeks out about more. Outside of work she obsesses over music (especially rock especially psychedelic pop especially The Beatles), sews clothes, gardens when the weather’s nice, avoids housework, and generally is the poster-child for Enneatype 9, which she attempts to counteract with yoga when she remembers. She has an RPG-and-firearms-geek husband who asked her out by playing a Paladin-in-Shining-Armor devoted to serving her character in D&D; a LEGO-and-Minecraft-geek 9yo named after a hobbit; a My Little Pony-and-art-geek 7yo named after a SFF writer; and an Imaginary Husband named Martin Freeman, who isn’t actually aware of this relationship.