Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Reflections from the raft trip

The John Day River is America's longest free-flowing river--no dams whatsoever. Its origin is in Eastern Oregon in the Strawberry Mountain Range. It drains 8,100 square miles of land, and it's source is mainly snow melt. So it's cold.

It was flowing high and swiftly. The section we ran is really more of a float than a run, with two class II rapids.

More on the particulars of the trip later, perhaps. I'm thinking about Scott right now, and the implications of his behavior on this trip for more aggressive rivers.

Late last year after his IEP meeting I made the decision to try medication with him. He's on the lowest dosage of a ritalin-type drug. And it has helped his self-control and focus; I would put him in the camp of children for whom ritalin is a benefit. I generally don't give him medication on weekends, and didn't think it would be necessary for this trip. In the last frantic minutes before departure I'd decided to bring it along as a just -in -case, but got distracted by something else and forgot to get it.

Gary was right--he could fit camping gear for 2 nights for 4 people (sans camping table) + 75# dog in an 8' x 13' raft, but it wasn't pretty. It wasn't roomy either, and there was a lot of slack time in a small space with two children who could care less about scenery, one of them with ADHD.

I could really see a marked difference in Scott without medication. He seemed much younger, even in speech tones--more like a 5 year-old than a nearly 8 yr-old. His self-control deteriorated markedly. This would cause behavior that inflamed Connor, who had just returned from a week-long outdoor school. That trip had been a disappointment, and he was bitterly disappointed by the prospect of another. He really seems to be a homebody type, and he'd looked forward to "band practice" with his friends for the school talent show in two weeks.

So, small confined space, lots of slack time, child with ADHD, and child with negatively predisposed attitude.

My cousin once sent me a link to Scott Noelle's website Enjoyparenting.com; the title explains it. I was impressed enough by the essay she called out that I got on his 'parenting thought-for-a-day' emailing list. His essays are generally short, but speak very much to the heart of things that are dear to mine.

A few days before we left he'd sent a thought about unconditionality which shed a whole different light on the subject. Frankly before reading his essay I'd considered the idea of 'unconditional love' as a kind of 'Should'--a bar to clear, a standard to reach. It was something I felt I failed at whenever I'd feel irritated at my children's behavior. I'd been under the impression that unconditional love means NOT being upset at some kind of immature behavior that causes me grief or extra work. Here is Noelle's definition that turned that belief around:

Unconditionality is a state of mind in which you are willing to allow well-being into your experience... NO MATTER WHAT

I suddenly realized that I had preconditions for my own sense of well-being that had been hiding in plain sight. Well-being was conditioned upon either the presence or absence of certain sensations within my body. Certain elements tell me whether or not my inner state is, say, irritable. Generally I called well-being absence of such elements. Therefore if I felt those sensations I believed I was unhappy. So I was entitled to be unhappy because the preconditions for unhappiness were being satisfied. Now I understand that those feelings, ANY feelings can be part of my soul's general condition--yet not a determinant of my well-being. That's what unconditionality means. I can be unhappy, angry, irritable, whatever, and still have well-being too. This is an amazing insight for me. I don't have to be unhappy because I'm unhappy!

And this muscle received a real work-out on the trip. I hope it gets stronger; right now it aches a bit. It did get me through many uncomfortable moments--knowing I could hate how I felt sometimes and still be ok.

I need to find a way to be a more effective mother of a child with ADHD. It is so easy to react to the behaviors on their surface apparency, and from within my own frame of reference. My own inner condition does not give rise to hyperactivity, and I assume that his inner condition is the same as mine. Therefore when he behaves the way he does, I think it must be perverse, because I experience in terms of my own inner universe. It occurs to me that perhaps within his frame of reference, his internal thresholds, he feels a much different kind of baseline. In his world, in his internal feeling environment, his behavior makes perfect sense. If I felt the same way in my world as he does in his, I would be behaving similarly. I'd probably have an extra engine fueling my behavior too, which is resentment from always being reprimanded and the focus of much negative feed-back from others. We all start our self-control marathons at zero, but children like him start saddled with a backpack full of bricks. They look just like us, so we can't understand the extra load they're under. Why can't they keep up?

This trip often took him far beyond his endurance. Even to an older child like Connor it seemed endless and boring, the long stretches it took to unload the boat to set up a camp, and then to break down and re-pack next morning.

On Sunday we pulled off the river to a BLM camp, just for a break. I wandered off to find some juniper thick enough to give me some, uh, privacy, and when I headed back toward the river Scott was howling as he was walking up the little trail. He'd wanted to stay down by the river and play; Gary had wanted to walk up to the camp. Scott can absolutely not be left alone on a river bank, especially with the level of impulsivity he was showing. I happened to be feeling generous and so said I'd go back down by the river with him. Where we'd beached the riverbed dropped steeply, so I suggested we walk over to a shallow little area with some willows and a shallow sub-channel. He could pick up mud and drop it to his heart's content and was quite happy there. Unbidden, he said that inside, he feels like he doesn't have "any control, and it scares me". I told him it is very powerful that he could tell the difference between knowing he is in control, and knowing when he isn't. I told him that my job is to find a way to be more patient. (And shortly thereafter became impatient with him when he found a little frog and could not stop picking it up--I was afraid it would get hurt, and to him it was irresistible.)

The delusion is that I require compliant behavior from him; when I don't get it I'm entitled to irritation. All the preconditions for irritation are met and none for well-being. I see that if his failure of self-control is the spoke in the wheel, my own failure of self-control and empathy is the empty space between. His failure is more obvious and so it's easy to lash out at him. It's easy to miss my co-failure.

We need to find ways to keep a family conversation going that doesn't single him out as peculiar (already Connor, in one of his own lapses of self-control, has used the fact of the ADHD against Scott), but promotes empathy and understanding.

He is not defiant. But the latency period between asking/requiring something of him and compliance is often much longer than I'm accustomed to. This could be life threatening on a raft trip. Immediate response is sometimes required in an unexpected situation. The urgent tone of voice that says: "Act-now!" that is usually sufficient to change someone's trajectory is not sufficient for Scott. At least when he's unmedicated. He was not in imminent physical danger on this trip--that's the nature of a leisurely float. Still, even seemingly benign circumstances can be deceiving. I realized this on a stretch where we'd allowed the boys to hang onto the perimeter rope on the raft and drift along beside it in the river. It was cold enough that they didn't do that for very long, and instead laid on the tubes with legs dangling. I saw willows ahead and realized this was shallow water and ordered them to pull their legs in. Connor complied immediately. I had to pull Scott into the boat. I realized how easily a leg trapped between rocks and boat could lever him over the side, to be ground under as the boat passed. It's a full loaded raft--and we would not be able to lift it off of him.

If a slow river was to be a trial before a more adventurous float, then we need another trial of a slow run with him medicated. If he is as slow to respond to verbal direction while medicated as he is without, then he just can't go on trickier runs.

1 comment:

Sheri said...

The trip sounds adventurous in so many ways. It sounds like your vigilance and patience were on "high."

One of the most difficult things about raising kids is thinking that they see the world from the same perspective that I do...because sometimes they do, and sometimes they don't.

I admire you for "testing the waters" and being very observant to see what will work and what won't -- and keeping everyone safe.