They sat nervously at the table, watching as the general manager of the restaurant made a b-line toward them. Glancing at each other, they knew what was about to happen.
“Sir. Ma’am. I am very sorry, but I need to ask you to leave. We have had multiple complaints about your son, and some of our other guests are threatening to leave.”
Embarrassed, both parents stood and gathered their coats, trying their hardest to avoid eye contact with anyone. They corralled their sons and quickly exited the restaurant.
I’m at Mike’s house. He takes me out his back door where I see a nice deck, a stone patio, a fire pit, and a spacious back yard where the kids can play. He has a nice house, and for a moment, I try to remember what he does for a living. Sales, I think. He must be pretty good at it.
I met Mike for the first time only a few months before, but we were like old souls. We grew up in the same county (without previously knowing it) in Indiana, so there was an instant connection. When he told me he was from Carmel, I laughed, knowing I had grown up no further than 20 minutes from where he did. Our experiences must have been so similar.
But as we sat in his back yard and talked, I learned that wasn’t the case. Not at all, actually.
Mike starts his story by recounting the time he and his family got kicked out of a restaurant, and it was his fault. He was a terror. Running up to other tables, yelling and laughing, just an all-out whirlwind of movement and noise. His parents were at their wit’s end with him. After the embarrassment of being asked to leave a restaurant, they needed some help.
In 1992, Mike’s parents took him to see a child psychologist. This is where it all began. He was diagnosed with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD. At the tender age of five years old, Mike was started on a medication called Ritalin.
Mike explained that he had a good childhood. He loved baseball, being outdoors, playing sports – he was a typical boy. And to this day, that’s his stance on it – he was just like any other five year-old boy. But, he recalls, there was one thing that stood out to him that might have been a little different.
Boundaries are something that every child needs. I can attest to this because I’ve got a 21-month-old son right now, and we’re very much in the boundary-setting phase of life. And hooboy, this kid loves to push those boundaries. Not even push, he wants to destroy those boundaries and then watch my reaction once he does it. But that’s typical. At the end of the day, Hendrik is testing those boundaries for a reason. He wants to, but more importantly, he needs to test those boundaries. He needs to understand what he can and cannot do, what is safe and what is not, and whether his mom and dad are going to provide stability or if he has to fend for himself.
That’s where Mike’s story differs from so many others. “My mom wasn’t able to set boundaries with me,” he says. Even as a child he sensed that weakness in her, and like any hyper little kid, he made it a game to push her as far as he could. Again, I can attest to this being a normal thing. My mom tells me that she used to spank me after I did something wrong, but I’d smirk defiantly and proclaim, “that didn’t hurt”, just to push her buttons. It’s just what little boys do.
Mike made it a game. He wanted to see how far he could push things. He wanted to see if he could get his mom to break. He wanted to get a reaction out of her. And he enjoyed it.
When Mike first went to the child psychologist, he didn’t have a clue what was about to happen. After starting the Ritalin regimen, he felt like every time he met with the psychologist, some new issue popped up that needed to be dealt with. This led to more medications, leading to more side effects, leading to more sit downs with the psychologist, who would go on to discover some new issue that needed a new medication. Can you see the spiral? At one point in our conversation, Mike mentioned he sometimes felt like the doctors were using him as a guinea pig, testing their theories (and medications) on him. What Mike feels he really needed were boundaries.
To further complicate matters, the medication clouded Mike’s “sense of self”, as he put it to me. The meds would make him hyper-focused on one thing at a time, therefore making whatever he was doing seem incredibly interesting. In essence, that’s a big part of the medication’s goal. But, Mike tells me, living like that, with that sort of mentality 24/7, it was incredibly overwhelming. He felt like he got to a point where he didn’t know what really mattered to him. What his likes were. What he was passionate about. On the medication, he was passionate about everything. To him, that was just about as useful as being passionate about nothing at all.
Mike couldn’t understand why he had to go through all of it. Even at a young age, he sensed his experience wasn’t normal. None of his friends had to go see a special doctor, so why him? This confused him even more, which led to more acting out.
In third grade, Mike tells me he was kicked out of Catholic school. His teacher, who had a reputation for being the hard ass of the school, couldn’t handle him. He was sent to a “special school”, as he puts it, and felt even more isolated. Mike felt like the odd man out, like he didn’t belong there. And he didn’t belong there. Did he? From there, he bounced around to a couple other schools, each time getting kicked out for one reason or another. I can see just from the way he talks, he carries those experiences with him to this day.
Being a wild and uncontrollable kid tends to grate on adults. Even those in positions to help kids with ‘special needs’, which is where Mike found himself. Sometimes pushing these adults to their utmost limits had scaring consequences. Mike tells me about the time his teacher told him to be prepared to live in his parent’s basement the rest of his life, because he’d never amount to anything. Can you imagine hearing that message as a child? Mike heard it multiple times, from multiple sources.
Everything the doctors tried, everything his parents tried, none of it was working. It was decided that Mike needed something drastic. Eventually, in sixth grade, Mike was sent to an inpatient hospital.
“Terrifying,” he says, describing it for me. “When I first got there, they put me in isolation for three days.” What?, I asked, reflexively. It didn’t compute in my brain. When I think of someone being put in isolation, my mind immediately jumps to Hannibal Lector, or a hardened inmate who keeps getting in trouble while serving their prison term. But here I am, sitting on the back deck of a beautiful home, with a guy who is evenly and calmly telling his story, focused and engaged in the details. Not the type of person who’d need to be in isolation for three days. Three days?! Somebody screwed up. So many questions popped into my mind, but one really nagged at me.
“How was your relationship with your parents, growing up”, I asked. It was tough, came the reply. It didn’t make sense to Mike. He never felt understood. Or listened to. Mike felt like his parents chose to listen to the doctors over their son. He tells me another story about how he dumped all of his medication down a sink once, yelling that he didn’t want to be on them any more, he didn’t think he needed them, didn’t think they were safe. But his parents didn’t understand. His mom stood by and watched. “Just draw some lines,” Mike remembers pleading with his mom. “Punish me for all the dumb shit I’m doing.”
He must resent his parents, I thought. With everything he went through?
“Sam, honestly, I can’t say that I do.” Again, my first thought is really? But then he explains it to me. They did the best they could with the tools they had. How can you resent someone for loving you and for trying to do for you what they think is best? It’s not their fault they trusted people who were supposed to be trust-worthy. If what they did was malicious, sure, that’d warrant resentment, but they were trying and they loved him.
Mike later tells me that his parents realized that sending him to the hospital was the wrong decision, in hindsight. Once they pulled him out, they took steps to find alternate, less invasive therapies for Mike. The decision to send him was not an easy one, and after it happened, they wished they would have trusted their gut. They felt like the doctors led them astray. It’s heart-breaking to try to put yourself in their shoes. No one wants to put their child in harm’s way, either physically or mentally. But Mike seems to understand their heart behind their decision, and he knows his parents were trying to help their son the best they could.
Mike’s attitude is incredible. Unbelievable. But that doesn’t mean it’s all okay. He doesn’t have ADHD now – all the evaluations and tests he’s taken as an adult are negative – but the question remains: did he grow out of it, or was it even there in the first place? Maybe that’s not a fair question to ask in hindsight, but it is one that Mike wonders about. In his case, Mike was given medication after medication, but what he desperately needed were boundaries.
He stopped taking ADHD medication altogether when he started high school, but after a few semesters of poor grades, he started taking Adderall his sophomore year. During his second semester that year, he started taking it more sporadically, and at that point he noticed the medication seemed to hurt his schoolwork more than it helped. Mike realized that when he took Adderall to help with schoolwork, sure, he’d get the task done, but it messed with his relationships. He couldn’t connect with the teachers. He was moody. A bad friend, he admits. When he stopped taking it, he noticed his grades actually improved.
Community is so important to Mike. He’s a social guy, loves to connect with people. In college, he and his roommates spurred each other on. When he achieved things without the medication to help him focus, it gave him confidence. His relationships flourished, which helped him to be more intentional with his studies (he credits his friends for a lot of this – the routine was this: ‘Let’s get our stuff done, then we’ll go party. If you don’t get your stuff done, you don’t party.’ Simple as that – it was a boundary). He started to understand how to use his childhood experience as a chip on his shoulder. A chip that had once been a giant stumbling block.
I asked Mike what his takeaway was from this story. What did he learn, and how did it make him better? It’s important to point out his successes: thanks to the giant chip on his shoulder, he was the highest attaining sales rep in the Americas in his second year in sales at a former employer; he has a beautiful family; he has a strong (and developing) faith. But just as important is the need to acknowledge the scars that still haunt him.
The big struggle these days is anxiety and fear. He’s constantly wondering when the next failure is coming. He wonders what his successes have to do with anything, why they matter. What does it all mean? What’s the purpose? Why did he have to go through everything he went through? These questions still nag at him relentlessly.
And yet, it didn’t break him. Sitting on his patio, talking about his family, I know it didn’t break him. There are scars, some still healing while others may never be fully restored.
Like being asked to leave. It wasn’t just the restaurant as a kid. It wasn’t just the schools he bounced between as an adolescent. A couple years ago, as Mike was having a down year in his sales job, again he was asked to leave.
“All the old feelings came back. I questioned everything. Like, am I just an imposter? Am I really what all my old teachers said I would be? A failure?” It shook Mike deeply. He struggled with depression and anxiety after being let go from his sales job. Well, technically he resigned. But again, he was asked to leave.
All the feelings, all the pain and frustration, all the letdowns – they’re not for nothing. Mike has learned from his experience, and as a father of three daughters, he does his best to listen to them. And I’m not just talking about listening to how their day was or what they had for lunch, but to really listen to what’s going on with them and engage them. Mike wants to set strong boundaries for his girls, and that means working together with his wife to understand different perspectives on setting boundaries. “Kids need to understand expectations, to know that consequences are real. As parents, we should be advocates for our kids, and not be afraid to push back if something doesn’t feel right.”
It still doesn’t make sense, and it probably never will. But Mike has his head on straight. He knows what he went through, and he vowed to protect his family from a similar fate. If others can learn from that as well, so be it. But his questions may never be fully answered. And that’s okay, says Mike.
“There really isn’t an ending to this story,” Mike explains, answering my question about the moral of his story. “It’s a work in progress. And it probably always will be. There’s no sense in being angry about it anymore. What happened, happened.”
“If you could go back in time, would you change any of it?” I asked. Mike pauses, and then he smirks.
“I hope not.” It wasn’t the answer I was expecting. A gentle reminder that my interviewing skills need lots of work. “My life is pretty great. I mean, yeah, all that stuff really sucked, but I have a great family, I’m doing okay in a financial sense, I’m healthy, overall things are pretty good. I probably wouldn’t be where I am right now without some of those experiences.”
As we sat on his patio on a cool Southern winter evening, I had to agree. This isn’t a bad place to be at all. ♦
Author’s note: I don’t think everyone’s experience with ADHD (and the medications that come with that diagnosis) will be the same as Mike’s, and neither does he. Many children and adults are prescribed ADHD medications and their world is better for it. In no way am I trying to demonize Ritalin or Adderall, or any other ADHD medication, as they have had a positive impact in many lives. But in Mike’s case, he needed boundaries (perhaps in addition to the ADHD medications). The goal of this story is to highlight Mike’s experience of needing boundaries and being allowed to deal with real consequences.