ETWG First Chapter Book Awards: First Place for Nonfiction/Memoir

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Wandering in the Wilderness-A Journey of Me, My Son, and His ADHD by Karen Snead Partee is the First Place Winner in the Nonfiction/Memoir Category of Published Books for the East Texas Writers Guild First Chapter Book Awards.

The Story

“Mommy, how do I get the madness out of me?” It was a question my seven-year-old son posed to me one dark evening after coming off a manic rage that took him through intense range of emotions.

I have not decided for myself if the heartbreak of that question came from the sheer innocence of it or the sobering maturity behind it. How perceptive he was because he was so right – IT was madness, a madness captured in a catchall diagnosis that filled every crevice of our lives. It was a sickness that robbed us daily of peace and comfort.

Attention deficit, hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, is not merely a behavioral issue; it is not a question of adequate parenting skills; it is not the effects of too much sugar, not enough exercise, or even a learning disability.

IT is a mental illness; and, yes, it is an incorrigible madness that has left an indelible mark on the most incredible little boy.

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The Award-Winning First Chapter

These are wells without water, clouds carried by a tempest, for which is reserved the blackness of darkness forever.

~1 Peter 17

THE FALL

Weather-wise, it was an incredibly beautiful day—a picture postcard sun-kissed morning on the outside. The crisp blue fall sky, void of clouds, hid the storm that was brewing inside the room. If I had tried, I could have seen all the way to heaven that morning, but I could not think about that now. My head was bowed so low that I could not see anything really. All I could feel were the walls closing in on me, the room giving way to an immense darkness, and the deep muffled sounds of her voice. She was still talking. Why was she still talking? Had she not already said enough? Her coarse words had already sent a shock through my body, and now in spirited fashion, she was still trying to put a positive spin on them—the very words that had sent me tumbling down into this well of darkness.

When I came back to the moment, I felt the warmth of my tears streaming down my face, with the string of damning words I had prayed over the last few weeks I would never hear still echoing in my head. I could feel the salt in each drop cut through my skin. “We just don’t think he is mature enough for our program,” I heard her say again. Bryan sat just inches from me, and yet I felt like he was miles away—out of reach. He displayed no abject emotion, instead nodding politely as if he was being read some benign weather report, or even worse, he was agreeing with her every word.

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It was a Wednesday morning, just six days into October. We had come to Noah’s pre-school for a scheduled parent-teacher conference. We arrived shortly after eight, eager to speak with Noah’s pre-K teacher, Ms. Kiera. Our presence at the school was nothing new as we had spent many days with her in the six weeks Noah had been attending the private Episcopal day school. Noah began the year with another teacher who unexpectedly left the school after only a week leading his class. The rambunctious group of three-year-olds was left with a revolving door of substitutes until Ms. Kiera arrived the first week of September. Kiera was a young, dark-haired woman in her late twenties. A recent college graduate with a degree in elementary education; she had sharpened her skills substitute teaching in the local school district prior to joining the preschool. She spoke in a calm, almost effervescent tone with the kids. Her demeanor was the polar opposite to Noah’s, which we secretly prayed would balance his “eagerness” in the most positive way. Bryan and I had a great time visiting with Kiera that morning, despite our attempts to comfortably wedge our adult frames into the miniature chairs surrounding an equally diminutive table. In the face of Noah’s initial difficulties in the past six weeks, she was encouraged by his development, rating him one of the top students in the class academically. For the first time since Noah started the school, I found myself actually relaxing within its walls. We all emerged from the meeting confident in our plan to help Noah settle down and find his way.

Bryan and I left Ms. Kiera’s class shortly after eight-thirty and immediately wound our way through the maze of connected rooms to the director’s office. We had carved out additional time to visit with her about the meeting we had with Noah’s new psychiatrist. When I stepped into the sparsely furnished office, something about the moment did not seem right. The warmth that had surrounded Ms. Kiera in her classroom was replaced by a distinct chill here, one that persisted despite the sun streaming in through the plastic blinds on the windows.

The director was a thirty-something, soccer-mom type with stick-straight blonde hair and a complexion infused with a light perpetual tan. Her appearance had always seemed at odds with her position at the school—even more so on this day as her obvious silence betrayed her naïveté for her role. I had never felt completely comfortable in her presence. In the times we had spoken, she was polite, though never overly friendly. For all intents and purposes, she was “that” girl, favored from the time she was born, unable to adequately relate to those not like her.

A third chair sat conspicuously in front of the director’s desk. Unbeknownst to Bryan and me, the school’s headmistress had arranged to be a part of our meeting—a fact that was not lost on me. I wish I could have said the same for Bryan. The room grew icier by the minute. Bryan remained oblivious to the implications of our expanded group. We began with the usual meeting pleasantries and idle banter. They inquired innocently enough about Noah’s doctor’s visit. We had taken him to his first psychiatric appointment the week before. I found myself rambling on about the doctor’s initial assessment. Rambling. It is what I do when nerves have taken over and I try desperately to fill the void consumed by silence. Nevertheless, I believed, though naively, that in this instance, we had all gathered this morning to work on that “plan of action” the doctor had suggested to get Noah on the right road and comfortable at the school.

The head of school waited patiently for me to finish speaking before she pulled a single white sheet of paper from a stiff manila folder resting comfortably on her lap. It is rare when one can point to a single action changing the course of one’s life. But for me, this was that moment. In one swift movement, every sense of peace I had about the world, about being a parent, about raising my son, about being in this place…changed. Unaware of my inner struggle, she immediately launched into a carefully worded soliloquy on the kindred spirit and family friendship she believed we shared because she, too, had adopted children and grandchildren with attention-deficit disorder. She handed both Bryan and me copies of the white sheet she held in her hand. She was confident in displaying the time and care she had taken to prepare for this moment. Looking down on the neatly typed words was a list of “Noah’s Strengths” and “Noah’s Obstacles.” She had compiled this list of descriptors just two days before from a one-day classroom observation of our son.

From the tone of her voice and the curtness of the preschool director’s reaction, I could sense what little warmth left in the room evaporate. Despite the fall sunlight filtering into the quiet room, the clouds looming above us were blanketing the air with cold and darkness. The room was being drained of all warmth right before my eyes—so icy was it becoming that the words of the headmistress crystallized in the air as she spoke. The sharpest of them would eventually go on to pierce my skin.

When the headmistress said she had prayed about this situation, I knew what was coming; the foreshadowing in those words was palpable. Call it a mother’s intuition, call it too many Lifetime movies watched, or call it me spending more times than not on the short end of someone else’s prayers, the inevitable was about to come. Everything was about to change. Despite the fog I was now descending into, I could still hear her talking. When I finally hit the bottom of the well, the echoes I heard bouncing off the walls were always the same: “While Noah is brilliant and creative, we believe he is too immature for our program.” Oh, they were polite words meant to help us appreciate all that they had endured with him over the past month-and-a-half; but they were not comforting in any way. They provided neither warmth nor a sense of support one craves in a moment such as this. Quite the contrary, they left me empty, numb, and cold; and when I completed my descent through the darkness, I found myself very much alone…Or was I? Out of the dark, I heard my son crying for me that day, just on the other side of the wall. “Mama, stand up for me! Mama, please! If you don’t, who will?” But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I simply could not find the strength to stand. I was paralyzed from the fall.

Back on the surface, my three-year-old son had been kicked out of a preschool. Does that really happen? They had given up on him. Now, she kept reassuring us that this was not the case. They were simply asking us to bring him back when he was a little more mature—yes, a three-year-old, not mature enough! Unfortunately, with no option to stay, he was indeed being kicked out.

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  • This is the first time I ever heard of ADHD being referred to as mental illness, yet I can understand it. The chapter is poignant in its presentation–a mother telling us how her heart is wrenched because, through no one’s fault, her son is not accepted in an educational facility designed for children in his age group. Does that make him a monster of some sort? I can empathize with the mother. My nephew and his wife have fought a similar situation during the past year, although their son is in 5th grade and has to deal with autism. But the description of their visit with the school personnel is almost a carbon copy of what my nephew’s family has endured. I hope this book becomes a best seller and is on every teacher’s professional reading requirement list. I’m putting it on mine.

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