A Heartbreaking Conversation I Had With My Self-Aware, Little Ball of Fury
Names have been changed to protect the identity of the author’s son.
“Ma’am, it’s Vice Principal B. I need you to come get your son.”
My heart drops to my stomach. I can feel the blood draining from my face. It’s not the nurse, so I know he isn’t sick. Dread coating every word, I ask, “What’s going on?”
Her answer chills me and breaks me all at once. It would seem my 8-year-old son, who lives with severe ADHD and childhood bipolar disorder, among a host of physical issues and other neurological/mental health problems, spent two hours hiding between bookcases in his classroom, screaming. He attempted to run out of the building. He threatened to kill his teacher.
Why it took two hours to call me, I don’t know. What I do know is that I have an obviously troubled child who can no longer stay at school. I am 10 minutes away, standing in the middle of the day program I work in, tears welling in my eyes as my coworkers struggle to understand me through the tears. “I have to go. I have to… my son. I have to go.” Hands shaking, I call my supervisor at our main office on the other side of town and tell her what’s going on. Thankfully, our company deals specifically with individuals with mental health problems and she understands. Take your time, she says. Do what you need to do, she says.
I’m not taking my time, though. I’m taking his time. I’m taking his classmate’s time. I’m taking his teacher’s time.
Not for the first time, I wonder if I should have homeschooled him. When he was younger, I knew he was a ball of rage. I didn’t know why, but I knew he was. He’d been through so much, though, and I thought…”Well, maybe it’s the trauma. He’s been through surgery. His dad left. We haven’t had the easiest life. He’ll be OK.” I asked for help. I was told he was a boy. He’d grow out of it. He would turn into this tiny ball of fury on a dime, throwing things, hitting people, holding pillows over his brother’s face. I walked around with bruises all over me from trying to stop him, trying to put him into a hold until the rage had passed. His little brother was terrified of him. Even I was afraid of him.
But no one would help, until the first time he threatened to kill someone at school. That’s when “childhood bipolar disorder” was first tossed out. That’s when I was finally told he would struggle with this all his life.
In the 10 minutes it takes me to drive from where I was at to his school, a dozen emotions course through me. Anger — at the school for not calling sooner, at his father’s genetics, at myself for failing him. Sadness — for the kids in his class who are surely terrified, for his teacher who has done nothing but love him all year, for the ball of raging fury that is my little boy. Confusion — how did this happen? Blame — myself, his father, the school, the universe. I am not a religious person, but I find myself begging a God I’m not sure exists, once again, to cut my boy some slack. Hasn’t he been through enough?
I get to the school, and there he is. My skinny beanpole of a son. All 50 pounds, 4’3″ of him, sitting on the bench in the office, head in hands, vice principal standing beside him, arms crossed. “This can’t go on.” I nod, agreeing. This can’t keep happening. “This time, we’ll allow him to come back. If he does this again, he can’t. It’s not safe for the other students or the staff.” I nod again, hiding my shaking hands on my son’s shoulders. I sign him out, my signature a mess of scribbles as I try not to cry again. I pick his backpack up off the floor without a word and steer him out to the car. Our house is right behind the school, in walking distance if I hadn’t had to pick him up. We drive the block home silently. In the rearview mirror, I can see his eyes, red-rimmed and bloodshot, looking nervously at me. He knows I am at the end of my rope.
We pull into our driveway and he gets out of the car, grabbing his bag and trudging quietly inside. He didn’t get lunch yet, so he settles himself at the table and pulls his lunchbox out of his bag. I pull my phone back out and call his therapist, making an emergency appointment later today. Hopping up on the counter, my favorite spot since my teen years, I stare silently at my son. I don’t know what to say.
He’s the first to break the silence. “I did it again, didn’t I?” I don’t quite know what he means, so I ask for an explanation. “I disappointed you again. I’m sorry, Mom. I wish I was a better son.”
My heart, already broken from the phone call and the years of wishing I could help him and feeling like I’d failed, shatters. The tears start again as I hop down from the counter and pull my son into my arms. I don’t have any words. Even if I did, I don’t think I can talk. We sit there, his skinny arms around my neck, for long moments. Finally, we pull apart and he settles back down to eat his lunch. I hop back up on the counter, trying to find words. “You didn’t disappoint me, and you’re a good son. You’re just….” It’s here I lose my words again, and it’s here I get a glimpse into what my little ball of fury thinks of himself.
“I’m just broken.”
Nothing I can say will convince him he isn’t broken. Silently, he finishes his lunch and piles back into the car to see his therapist. The therapist reminds him, again, that he’s not broken. He just feels things more intensely, and he needs to be careful of how he reacts when his feelings get too big. The therapist pulls me aside at the end and tells me he’s not sure bipolar disorder is exactly the right diagnosis for my son, but he doesn’t know what else could be, because my son is still so young. He tells me again that my son needs me, that someday we’ll have more answers. My son, quiet as only he can be, speaks up from behind me. “Someday isn’t soon enough. I want to be normal.”
My son is the most self-aware child I’ve ever met. He knows that he struggles, and he knows that not all kids struggle like he does. He’s aware that his other classmates don’t explode into a ball of rage at the drop of a hat. He understands that his classmates don’t feel invincible one day and like they’ll never be able to be happy again the next. He knows they don’t have to go to therapy, that they don’t take medication. He knows their brothers aren’t afraid of them like his is of him.
It is because he is so self-aware, I think, that he is also so self-destructive. I fear his teen years, when substance abuse may begin to rear its ugly head as it once did for his father. I dread the day no one can stop him from doing something he can never take back. I fear that my brilliant boy, who wants to become a scientist so he can cure hemophilia (another illness of his), may fall through the cracks, that the wiring in his own brain will let him down and he will lose himself to a cacophony of mental illness.
Mostly, I fear that my precious boy can never see his own self-worth beyond the voices in his head that tell him he isn’t normal.
Getty image via bodnarchuk