My name is Jan. My son, Chad Kesler, took his own life in 2004 at nineteen years of age. Even though life with an Attention Deficit child had always been somewhat of a roller coaster ride, with perseverance; we usually chugged our way back to the top. We were at that pinnacle in the spring of 2004 before the final plunge that would steal our son from us; forever changing the lives of those who were left behind. Chad was a gift in life and even in his passing, if I look closely; I am able to see shadows of silver linings. This Blog is intended to promote a healthy conversation about ADD, Addictions and about a subject that no one wants to talk about – Grief!
If you have read my website, you may notice that I’m not a huge fan of labeling kids with a disorder simply because they experience a different way of learning and operating in life. As Mel Levine, M.D., author of One Mind at a Time, so eloquently states, “The brain of each human is unique. Some minds are wired to create symphonies and sonnets, while others are fitted out to build bridges, highways, and computers; design airplanes and road systems; drive trucks and taxicabs; or seek cures for breast cancer and hypertension.” Labeling a person with a disorder seems to be a convenient way to categorize in Medical Journals, a group of individuals whose traits are similar. Pharmaceutical companies can then target these different groups by funding studies and identifying a drug therapy that might be able to benefit these individuals in some way. I don’t believe that the majority of these kids are broken; but rather, I believe it’s our systems that are broken. There is no doubt that few of us are chemically balanced; it’s just that some of us are better able to function and survive in our societal and educational systems. This is about the “others”; those who are labeled Attention Deficit.
Chad was unofficially diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder in 1997 when he was failing sixth grade. At that time, ADD was a relatively new diagnosis and few people really understood its consequences. There is so much on the internet now; yet I run into parents and teachers every day that are still confused and frustrated. Typical of a parent who has lost a child, I carried a huge burden of guilt after Chad’s death. It became my mission to understand what went wrong and how I could have prevented it. I took copious notes after reading everything I could get my hands on about addiction, disorders, ADD specifically, and suicide. At that time, unable to help Chad, I wanted to at least share what I had learned with other parents. I created a website in Chad’s memory and honor: http://www.add-and-addiction.com/ . It has a lot of information and, of course, my biased opinions based on my personal observations. My hope is that it has in some way served others over the past years.
“Some Stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.”
What is the measure of a life? How do you sum up nineteen years, Chad’s lifetime, in a page? There were so many good things and wonderful memories, yet this blog is primarily about the last year of Chad’s life. As much as I hesitate to focus on a bad ending, unfortunately, that is why I am writing, and you are reading, this blog today. Life happens and what choice do we have other than to go with it. Of course you can live in a state of resistance and grief for the rest of your life; or you can embrace what is and surrender to a higher divine wisdom. I am finally finding peace after living the better part of ten years in a state of resistance.
My son, Chad, was a spiritually and empathically connected young man who was creative by nature. He was artistic and an incredible athlete. He had a dry sense of humor and a great smile that would either melt your heart or tell you something was definitely up. Like the majority of children who learn differently due to a more ‘right brain’, low Dopamine bio-chemical profile, he was a kinesthetic and intuitive learner. He was bright, although he never viewed himself that way due to his struggles academically. He was the “Mikey” of Life Cereal who would try anything, at least once! He was an impulsive child who wore his heart on his sleeve. You could easily see the pureness of his spirit. He was empathic by nature, something that I didn’t really understand until now. What I witnessed was a young boy who connected to others who, like himself, struggled. He became a crusader for underdogs in school and as a teenager, would give the shirt off his back to the homeless on the streets. As a teenager he tried to console me by saying, “Well, at least I’m learning all of the hard lessons while I’m young.” How ironic that his compassion and generosity would ultimately lead him to his demise. His lessons were just too much of a challenge for his sensitive nature!
The Rest of the Story
Untreated Attention Deficit Disorder
can Result in Self-Medicating Addictions
Growing up, Chad seemed unable to exhibit good judgment, or process future consequences adequately, as is fairly typical of someone with ADD. The area of the brain that is responsible for linear, organized and judgmental thought processes, the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC), is primarily fueled by the Neurotransmitter Dopamine. High levels of the Neurotransmitter Histamine may result in low levels of Dopamine. ADD bio-chemical profiles typically indicate low levels of Dopamine, which, if left unattended and un-supplemented, will most likely become further depleted over time by medicating behaviors, pharmaceuticals drugs and/or substance abuse.
One of the reasons that parents and teachers become confused about ADD, and the lack of focus exhibited by those with this disorder, is outlined in the book “Answers to Distraction” wherein the authors share the following common misnomer. “It should be attention inconsistency or attention variability. People with ADD, children and adults alike, can pay attention extremely well at times. At times they can focus with great intensity. This is when they are highly motivated or captivated by a situation full of novelty.” With these fast brains, however, it takes a lot of energy to keep these individuals captivated; especially in an antiquated and outdated auditory learning environment. Studies show that the Prefrontal Cortex of an individual with ADD has even less activity than usual when they are being asked to concentrate, such as in the circumstances of taking a test. Teachers in large or public classrooms rarely have the luxury of catering to the individual needs of the minority. When these children consistently miss information due to their lack of focus, cracks begin to form in their educational foundation. They begin to retreat and cover up more and more often until they become expert liars and fakers using distraction, drama and risk taking to cover up their feelings of inadequacy. When something happens, whether in school or at home, these are the kids who become the immediate targets or suspects.
Chad seemed to always be in one kind of trouble or another in school and at home. Hours of homework each night became an arduous punishment for parent and child. This frustration was further exacerbated when Chad repeatedly “forgot” to turn his homework in, resulting in failing grades. He interpreted all of his struggles in a way that affected his fragile self image. He saw his failings projected back to him primarily as a result of his inability to test; the measure for intelligence in our current educational systems. Placing him in special reading or study hall accommodations certainly did nothing to provide him with any sense of achievement or success, in fact, it only added to his image of being ‘less than’ his peers. Holding him back in sixth grade was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Dr. Levine tells of sad tales of children who come to equate education with humiliation, accepting labels of dysfunction such as ADD or LD. Others are placed on drugs to soothe their kinds of minds. Their intellectual identity has been reduced to a list of exam scores; exams wherein they are most likely to score poorly. These academic records and the child’s performance will sadly determine their destinies while shedding little light on their true strengths, weaknesses and educational needs. One of the quotes that I found most apropos and have never forgotten over the years is by Edward M. Hallowell, M.D. and John J. Ratey, M.D. both practicing psychiatrists and authors of Driven to Distraction: “There is a corrosive effect of ongoing humiliation on a child’s psyche. The worse consequent of having undiagnosed ADD throughout one’s school years is not attributable to the ADD directly, but to the indirect emotional damage that occurs. The child takes in all the bad things that are said about him and, over time, begins to believe them.”
Attention Deficit individuals not only struggle to sustain focus and motivation, they also have to deal with the corrosion of their self image as well as fight a “blah” type of depression that is typical. Statistics show that more than fifty percent of these kids will grow up to self medicate with cigarettes, coffee, sugar, alcohol and amphetamines; substances which are used for stimulation in their Dopamine Center. From a very young age, risk taking and drama often become addictive as a means of self medicating for these same reasons. These acts cause the release of adrenaline, which becomes a poor substitute for Dopamine, all the while slowly burning out the adrenal system. While drama causes shame and chaos, the risk taking activities clearly are a threat to their health.
Left to our own devices, each of us will unconsciously seek balance in our brain and body chemistry. The substances I will crave will be different from those another will crave. Not only that, but a substance will interact with my chemistry differently then it will with another individual’s personal chemistry. This is where a parent has to really weigh self medication versus the bad side effects of pharmaceuticals; at least the pharmaceuticals, which can be controlled, have time release characteristics. Pay attention to the foods your child craves and you will learn something. Intervention while your child is young is optimal. This is the time you will have some level of control with diet, supplementation, and TV and gaming restrictions while promoting exercise and creative projects. Take advantage of that short window of opportunity that you will have while they are young to help balance their brain chemistry and mentor them with techniques to help them cope. Read and seek a spectrum of avenues for advice. Help your child understand himself and why he may be different in school; and at the same time, solicit his help so that you and his teachers may better understand him. Perhaps the best alternative would be a private or special school if that option presents itself. In any case, praise them for their strengths; don’t just focus on their weaknesses.
As a teenager, Chad became addicted to Cigarettes and coffee and eventually alcohol. He became a binge drinker, which seems to fit the modus operandi for most teenage weekend warriors. Chad had a DUI within six months of receiving his license and had his truck taken away, the worst thing that he could have imagined. He learned then and there to not drink and drive; that is until one fateful afternoon before Thanksgiving, two years later when he rolled my truck at the age of 18. Scared and feeling he had been given the gift of another chance by God, Chad quit drinking cold turkey, sustaining sobriety thereafter. Chad had matured and his self image greatly improved in his last year of high school due to many things including his sobriety. He was excited about pursuing his passions and finally being ‘out’ on his own. After years of struggling to succeed academically, he was so proud to be able to graduate from High School in May of 2004, an accomplishment that most kids take for granted and over thirty percent of those with ADD are unable to achieve. Chad was at the top of the world, as he knew it!
Rearing its ugly head, fate stepped in one last time. An accident a month after graduation resulted in two subsequent wrist surgeries and weeks of pain killers. The very drug that helped to kill his pain became the ‘gateway drug’ that would lead him to the threshold of darkness; the end of life as he knew it.
Late in June, 2004, an old classmate called Chad looking for a place in town to couch surf. During that week, Chad was still recovering from surgery and was happy to have some company. Chad had no clear boundaries with his friend who began taking advantage of his friendship by using Chad’s truck, his phone and dropping by at his convenience, sometimes in the middle of the night, for an entire week. Chad was repaid for his kindness one evening by being encouraged to try the drug his friend had been pedaling unbeknownst to us; Crack Cocaine. Under the influence of Percocet, Chad made a horrible choice; one he was unable to reverse. One exposure to this amphetamine, the type of drug that someone with Attention Deficit Disorder would naturally crave for balance, caused an instant addiction physiologically. To make matters worse, in order to create its high, the use of cocaine and crack inhibits the re-absorption of serotonin. For the record, autopsies of suicide victims reveal little to no Serotonin in the body. Low balances of Serotonin and Dopamine are known to cause depression. Chad was already naturally low in Dopamine and with the use of drugs stimulating the “pleasure centers” of his brain, the small reserves of Dopamine were most likely gone along with any Serotonin in his system. These drugs were depleting critical brain Neurotransmitters at a high rate.
Ironically, during those two months, Chad’s behavior, on the other hand was confusing to us as parents because cocaine has similar attributes to the amphetamines used to help kids focus. Crack, a derivative of Cocaine is an entirely different animal in intensity, but an amphetamine, nonetheless. Chad appeared more congenial, focused and nice to be around while he was quickly headed towards a huge physical and emotional tail spin. Even though I became suspicious that he had started abusing the pain killers, having never had to worry about drugs with my sons, I was caught off guard. I had no idea the gravity of Chad’s situation, how much trouble he was in or even what drug he was using, for that matter. We were unable to detect any signs of just how hopeless he felt his life had become or of the great amount of shame and paranoia that he had begun to carry. That is what 20/20 hindsight revealed all too late.
“Sometimes the closer to death you are the more free and alive you feel”
A week before he killed himself, Chad revealed for the first time his fear of the drug dealers who were now pressing hard knowing he was totally hooked and way in over his head in debt. The drug, from the first time he tried it, owned his body and the dealers now owned his mind. One week later, on November 10th, 2004, Chad disappeared into the mountains. We would never have considered suicide as an option Chad would have chosen; not in a million years. We thought that perhaps he had run to escape the threats, or in a worse case basis, that he was unable to quit using. We had no idea that crack was even the drug he was using or the actual characteristics of that drug until after he had already disappeared. It all happened so fast, just like accidents and drug overdoses happen fast. If only he could have seen that the problems that loomed ‘bigger than life’ were solvable and that he didn’t have to solve them alone. If only he had reached out. In the end, depressed and ashamed, he took care of things himself, the only way he knew how to at the time. After one last tearful phone call, he ended his life.
So why am I sharing Chad’s story? Does his story sound familiar? Could I just as easily be describing your child or your teenager? Chad wasn’t just a great kid who made a mistake; although, he was all of that. He is a perfect example of what can go wrong when a child is misunderstood and either criticized or enabled by parents, teachers, and peers. Most importantly, in those formative years a child doesn’t understand why he’s different; why he can’t do what the other kids can do, why he’s always in trouble. When learning challenges of a child are unmet, it seriously affects their self image and core beliefs about themselves. Most parents, unless their child happens to have the hyperactive component of ADD (or ADHD), do not recognize why their child struggles in school or why they are constantly in trouble. Girls, because their brains are wired more interactively and they behave differently from boys with ADD, may be even more challenging to diagnose. I have felt the pain and confusion of parents. With a trained eye after raising Chad, I see these kids and adults everywhere. One example would be an AA meeting. Many undiagnosed adults frequent these rooms.
Without an understanding and a stimulating ‘hands on’ learning environment including physical activities and artistic outlets, children like Chad, (currently one in three), become easily distracted. Although there is more information now available about the learning challenges of Attention Deficit Disorder, I am still not seeing constructive and consistent help available in the public school systems. While we have criticized our educational systems for decades, it is amazing how little real change has actually taken place. The holes in a child’s academic foundation become exaggerated by the time they reach puberty, and they can no longer hide the gaps. With hormones raging, they begin to act out their frustrations as a cry for help that may be met with more criticism then understanding. The world of these youngsters begins to crumble beneath all of their defenses, lies and pretenses.
Everyone knows that Amphetamines such as Ritalin, Adderall and/or their latest “relabeled derivative”, are the prescribed drugs of choice for ADD. With a time released characteristic, these drugs can somewhat artificially simulate a Dopamine response in the Prefrontal Lobe of the brain. This provides an individual with the ability to maintain a more linear and organizational focus in less stimulating environments. Unfortunately, many kids don’t care for the “flat lined” feeling that is so foreign to their normal fast brain. Incidentally, Dr. Daniel Amen feels that these drugs actually do more harm than good for four out of the six ADD brain profiles he has identified. Teachers and parents still seem to be relying on these drugs as their primary “cure all.”
These ADD individuals, without even realizing why they struggle to focus, wrestle with their inability to filter out the extreme amounts of stimulus bombarding their psyches. Everything sensory seems to grab their attention while individuals with a stronger Prefrontal Lobe presence are better able to filter incoming information. Studies indicate that 400 billion bits of information come in through our sensory organs to our body per minute. Most of us are only aware of approximately 2000 bits. Biologically we are made aware of the things that are important to our survival but the majority of the rest of this information is stored and much of it isn’t even integrated.
Many creative and sensitive people who have ADD are very empathic, taking on everyone else’s energy, feeling it as if it was their own emotion coursing through their body. This is a challenging way to go through life if they aren’t able to learn boundaries to protect themselves. Ultimately, one way or another, ADD individuals will find a means for coping. Many times it may be through self medication, by numbing behaviors with drugs and/or alcohol, or by isolating. With little constructive guidance available to the majority of them, they often act out their frustrations in destructive ways against themselves and/or others.
I beg of you, take another look at your precious child. Love and celebrate them for who they are and don’t criticize and judge them for who they can’t be. Educate yourself and find a proper learning environment, or at least a tutor, so that they can realize a sense of competitive accomplishment in life instead of failure, criticism and shame. Become aware and advocate for them as if their life depended on it!
For more information regarding Attention Deficit Disorder, see my website at http://www.add-and-addiction.com/