A Short History of Mental Health

Looking backward to move forward

Acting on Impulse

Why do children do what they do?

We didn't have ADHD when I was a kid.  I don't mean that ADHD didn't exist back in the 1970s or 1980s - by that time millions of North American children had been diagnosed with minimal brain dysfunction, hyperkinesis or any number of other synonyms for what we now call ADHD. No, what I mean is that it didn’t exist for me, my family, my teachers, or anyone else I knew, growing up in rural Alberta. ADHD as a concept had not made its way to our sleepy little school, or if it did, it passed unnoticed.

That is not to say that there weren’t problem kids at my school. I remember kids who were always in trouble, who always acted out, who always caused a fuss. It’s just that these kids tended to be sorted out with the principal’s leather strap, rather than a tablet of Ritalin. Sometimes, though not very often, the problem kid was me.

I remember one time in particular, probably in the month of May, when the snow had finally melted, after being part of the landscape for six months, and the warm sun was starting to encourage shoots and buds in the quickening shrubs and trees. I was sitting in sixth grade Language Arts class in the period after lunch, listening to my teacher, Mrs. Fine, read from a very boring novel in her transatlantic accent.

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Now, although most kids didn’t like, or were probably scared of, Mrs. Fine, I kind of liked her and, me normally being a well-behaved kid, she liked me. She also taught art and, though my drawing skills would have had me drummed out of the caves at Lascaux, she encouraged me to try abstract art and just have fun with colors. So, I had time for Mrs. Fine. But on this afternoon, with the warm sun streaming into the classroom like the song of a Siren, beckoning me to come outside, something snapped. As I slumped on my desk, head held up barely by my arm, the sun caught the watch on my wrist. The light reflected off my watch and onto the wall, shivering like a newborn puppy. I watched it for a while and tried to keep it still, tried to hone my hyperactive spotlight into a motionless laser. It was impossible. The more I tried to hold my wrist still, the more the light seemed to dance and twitch. Frustrated, I began instead to direct my light around the room, tracing the letters in the EXIT sign, flashing it off the pencil sharpener, and, eventually, inevitably, hovering it right above Mrs. Fine’s silver head.

I don’t know what compelled me to make that microscopic adjustment that would see Mrs. Fine blink once, twice, look at me in surprise, bemusement, and disappointment, and point me out the door and into the hall. I suppose the rational answer was that it was simple impulsivity, but I know in my heart of hearts that it was something more than that. The sun, the birds, that warmth you feel from the earth in the spring once it has finally thawed and is beginning to heat up for good, all of these things colluded against me, goading to me to act out rashly, recklessly.

I didn’t know what to expect as I waited for Mrs. Fine to come out into the hallway. Would I be headed for the Principal’s office and the slap of the strap? Would she assign me a draconian detention, preventing me from slipping the surly bonds of the school at 3:15? Or, worse, would she insist on telling my mother? The door opened. Mrs. Fine, who I noticed for the first time, was now shorter than me, looked at me sternly for a moment and then sighed. “I suppose even the good boys get spring fever.” And with that, and a fairly clear description of what would happen to me if I flashed her with my watch again, she ushered me back into the classroom where I was greeted with wide eyes, open mouths, and the warm breeze blowing gently in from the window.

I often think of Mrs. Fine when I’m sitting in a soul-destroying staff meeting or listening to a sub-par conference presentation. Luckily, however, I am now an adult. I can shift in my seat, harrumph, doodle (abstractly), read the ingredient list on my biscuit package, write a new Psychology Today blog, or, if I’m really fed up, simply get up and leave (usually making like I had one too many cups of tea at lunchtime or pretending the nursery’s called about my son - I don’t want to be a jerk). Kids don’t really have those options, or at least they don’t to the same degree as adults, who, as a rule, are better at controlling impulse full stop. As I progress in my blogs about the history of ADHD (and I really will get to the history of ADHD, I promise, I’m just easily distracted), I’d like you to, every once in a while, think about what follows from a child’s point of view: vulnerable, yet curious; energetic, yet uncertain; wanting to please, yet driven by, well, who know’s what. Although I haven’t really written a child-centered history of ADHD, sometimes I wish I had.

Matthew Smith, Ph.D. is a Lecturer and Wellcome Trust Research Fellow at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow.

 

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