Live it to Learn it – It is a powerful message that my friend Elizabeth shared with me about her journey parenting her son. I work with so many parents who worry about their children’s futures. That worry is what makes us human. But what we do with that worry is what defines our strength as parents. Knowing when to push, when to pull, when to hold on, and when to let go. It’s not easy, and it takes tremendous insight and knowledge about your child to be able to trust your intuition. I asked Elizabeth if she would share her journey, and her message of hope and strength, with you. I am blessed by her friendship and her wisdom. Please read her story below.
I am not an author or a specialist. I am the mother of a 25-year-old young adult who has ADHD. I would like to share my story about the experience with my son to perhaps instill hope and renew faith in our magnificent and gifted children who confront not only inner challenges on a regular basis but challenges each and every day from the world around them.
We are a loving, close, and supportive blended family, with a wonderful extended family and good friends. My son was diagnosed with ADHD in second grade and what followed was a very bumpy ride through behavior charts, counseling, as well as many educational and emotional supports. He fought each of these almost every step of the way. I often heard from testers, an occasional teacher, counselors, and tutors that my son was extremely bright, creative, engaging, a natural leader and he had a unique way of thinking.
By seventh grade, the bumpy ride included a stint with medication, which my son did not like. In his sophomore year of high school, I started to get a clearer sense of my son’s potential epitomized by an encounter one night. My son had been in his room doing what I thought was homework but for hours he was as quiet as a mouse and that was not my typical experience with him and homework! I looked in on him and found him surrounded by paper printouts of ski goggle prototypes that he was designing with his set of colored pencils and magic markers. Long story short, he had entered a “Design-A-Goggle” contest sponsored by a leading national sports company. In the end, he won the contest and his goggle concept was manufactured and distributed throughout North America. He found something on his own that resonated with him – independently creating something, doing it his way, on his own terms, in his own time. My eyes, mind, and my heart were blown wide open.
On and off medication throughout middle and high school, he took himself off medication permanently in the first year of college. In hindsight, our son wasn’t ready for college or for a “gap year”. At that time, we did not know what step to take next and received little guidance. So, at our suggestion, our son took the typical route. The first year of college was what most people would consider a disaster. Academically, he almost failed several classes and passed only those classes that interested him. He was partying, snowboarding, and going at life untethered. He was feeling the freedom that so many of our kids feel once they leave home for college. Yet most kids at this age are often not ready for that freedom and for those who have ADHD there is an even greater chasm making the leap to adulthood, thoughtful decision- making, planning, critical thinking, etc.
Yet this first year in college proved to be one of the most pivotal turning points in my son’s and our journey. He told us he did not want to go back to college for sophomore year, that he needed something different, that he needed to take time away from school to see if he could make it as a professional snowboarder. He wanted to move to Colorado. He had no plan other than that. (Looking back on that time now, I also believe he needed a break from us – his four parents and the world that had been defined for him). My husband and I, my son’s father and stepmother all conferred and we felt that we had to let him go (both literally and figuratively). It was the most difficult and emotionally wrenching thing I had to do, but I realized at that moment that my son really needed to do this, that I could no longer be the one to teach him whatever he needed to learn. It was visceral for him, it was immediate, it was now! He needed to live his life on his own terms and be responsible for the choices he was going to make – he had to “live it to learn it.” Needless to say, it was the most difficult and emotionally wrenching year of my life.
With the love and support of his immediate and extended family, my son went to Colorado but he had to financially support himself. This move was not without incident and I experienced new and at times, alarming bumps in the road. I went out to visit him at one point and saw how he was living – he had a job shoveling snow after other jobs did not work out, lived in an apartment with a roommate (not a pretty sight) and he was snowboarding. He was actually doing what he set out to do, what he needed to do for himself, his way. It may not have looked like what I wanted it to look like but it was what he wanted and that is what mattered the most. What got me through that year and subsequent years was my new mantra – he has to “live it to learn it”. This kept me from dissolving into tears and overwhelming worry on a daily basis and continues to keep me centered and grounded.
My son eventually found his way to Oregon that summer for a prospective snowboarding job that in the end did not materialize. He found a part-time job as a sales associate in an upscale kitchenware store and fell in love with sales. After work one day while sitting on the floor of a book store talking on the phone to his uncle about opportunities in sales, my son experienced an epiphany – he identified exactly what he wanted to do with his life! He explained to us in great detail his plan to come home, go back to school to pursue a degree in business so that he could sell high end technology to large corporations and to one day get his MBA and become a business consultant.
That was five years ago. During those five years, he completed 1½ years of community college to re-activate his brain. He then transferred to a four-year college as a sophomore and was completely invested in his academic future and career path. He spent his junior year abroad at the equivalent of an Ivy League University and exceeded all expectations. His goal for his senior year was to have a job before he graduated. He graduated cum laude with Departmental Honors, made the Distinguished Honor’s List for his last 2 years, started the “Toastmaster’s Club” on campus, was the Senior Business Consultant in the Business Consulting Club and was inducted into the Phi Delta Kappa Honor Society for academic excellence in International Studies. The day before he graduated from college he was offered a job at Google, Inc. in California and has been working there for almost 1½ years! It has been an incredible journey for all of us and it is a journey which is ongoing.
Today, my son continues to adjust to living in the real world outside the bubble of college and not having his family nearby. He continues to adjust to being responsible for both his professional and personal lives. It is not always smooth, but he tackles whatever comes his way in his own way and it becomes an opportunity for growth. I continue to use my mantra, have a regular meditation practice and try to find time each day to do something for myself. As we all know, life has a way of developing bumps in the road. But the big difference now is that my son identifies and handles many of these bumps himself, creates his own plans of action and advocates for himself because he knows he has the ability, confidence, and skills to do so, he has the belief to do so. I trust in him, have the faith I’ve always had in him and know that this is his life, his journey.
The bumps in the road continue to rise up, but they seem smaller to me now. I have seen and continue to see the strength and joy my son has in living his life. I am inspired by him every day. He has a great sense of style, is an adventurous and creative soul, and has a keen sense of humor. He is a true leader with an incredible mind. He is a compassionate, kind, loving person. He is his own person, his own magnificent and gifted self, with his own way of doing things. I continue to learn from him. He has been and continues to be my greatest teacher…