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Our Life With Shelby

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My daughter Shelby turns 17 this month. We have been through some hard times with her over the last few years. Shelby has read this and is fine with me telling you about what has happened. The name of her second grade teacher has been changed in this account.

My wife says that our middle daughter Shelby came into this world anxious and has been anxious ever since. She was a colicky baby who cried constantly. As a small child she was fearful of many things and hesitant to try anything new. She was most comfortable when she was alone and often played by herself. She spent hours in her room talking to her toys and creating her own magical worlds of imagination. Sometimes I would stand at the door and listen with a big smile on my face. She was delightfully creative and smart as well. She asked all sorts of interesting questions about God and death and the meaning of life. She was fascinated by graveyards and tombstones, loved horses, and was afraid of just about everything else. I adored her. She was different from a lot of kids, but I liked that about her.

Many children cry a bit when they go off to kindergarten. Shelby sobbed for two weeks. She tried everything possible to avoid going to school. When we finally got her there, she went to the nurses office with stomach aches and various ailments almost every day. But she finally settled in and got used to school. Things seemed to be fine. She made good grades and scored very highly on various standardized tests. When Shelby was in second grade, her teacher called my wife and said, “Shelby has a severe problem. She obviously has Attention Deficit Disorder and needs to be medicated. You need to take her to the doctor and fix this.” When she got the call, Jeanene was devastated and frantic. We hadn’t heard anything like this from her kindergarten or first grade teachers. And her grades were pretty good too, all As and Bs. We met with her teacher and a school counselor who told us that Shelby wasn’t paying attention at school. She was smart enough to make good grades in those days without paying attention. But she was constantly drifting away into her own world. I suppose that shouldn’t have been surprising, given her personality. Maybe I should have known that she was going to have a hard time fitting into the standard model of public school education.

After discussing things with her doctor we chose not to medicate her because her grades were okay. This irritated her teacher, who responded by calling Shelby down when her attention drifted. Shelby would be staring off into space or doodling. Her teacher would tap her on the shoulder to get her attention. Then she would say, “Class, is Shelby paying attention?” “No, Mrs. Anderson,” they would respond in unison. We didn’t find out about these episodes until a year or so later. What we knew at the time was that Shelby began to dread going to school. She felt very different from the other kids. I found a picture she drew on a piece of paper that was folded in half. On the outside was a drawing of a girl who was frowning. Under it was written: The other kids think I’m stupid. On the inside of the folded picture was another drawing of a girl. This girl was smiling and under her Shelby had written: But I’m not.

In 5th grade Shelby became a target of ridicule for the other girls in her class, who found her behavior to be a little strange. Most girls wanted clothing for their birthdays. Shelby asked for a lemon tree. We thought that was charming, but the girls at school were not as forgiving. She was teased and tormented and bullied. This increased her already deeply felt anxiety exponentially. Just the idea of going to school was enough to make her feel nauseous. Her grades began to slip, and by the time she was in 6th grade, she was in a crisis. She scored very highly on standardized tests, but she couldn’t keep up with her work. She would do her homework but lose it before she could turn it in. She made good grades on exams and excelled in written essays, but she would have three or four zeros in every subject at the end of the grading periods. We tried everything we could think of.

On her physician's recommendation we started her on various medications for Attention Deficit Disorder. None of them worked. We took her out of public school and put her in a smaller, private school, hoping the change of setting would give her a fresh start. Her grades worsened. She failed 6th grade and had to go to summer school. The same thing happened the following year. And yet, somehow, her achievement scores continued to be very high. And when she did an assignment, it was always good work. Anyone who talked to Shelby knew that she was a bright, curious, and intelligent child. She just could not function at school.

When Shelby was 14 she sank into a deep depression. The little girl we had known seemed to be gone. She moved through life with no reactions, no emotions, and no desires. Her lack of motivation, combined with her continuing organizational problems and the fact that she was behind in many subjects added to her problems at school. Her doctor prescribed a variety of anti-depressant medications with mixed results. That year she began cutting herself. She covered her wounds with long sleeves and managed to keep this a secret for a long time. Somehow, in the middle of such emotional pain, cutting herself provided some comfort. I remember the two of us talking about it. I wanted to understand, but she had a hard time explaining why she was doing it. Jeanene and I felt so helpless in those days. We kept thinking there must be something we could do to help Shelby be happy and well-adjusted and successful. But whatever interventions we tried didn’t seem to work. The only thing we could do was love her and stay engaged. Sometimes the only thing we could share with her was her sorrow.

I thought things had gotten about as bad as they could get. Then I got a phone call from the assistant principle who told me that Shelby had tried to commit suicide at school. How can any father describe his thoughts and feelings after receiving a phone call like that? It was like our whole world exploded. Shelby had to leave school and spend some time in a psychiatric hospital. That experience was terribly difficult for her, but in the end it was a good thing. A team of psychiatrists and therapists told us that Shelby had a mental illness that could be controlled with specialized medications. She began taking those medications when she was 15. Shelby’s suicide attempt and hospitalization changed Jeanene and me in some important ways. I admit that I had been a rather smug parent. We’ve always been very close to our kids and have good relationships with them. While I would never have admitted it openly, I thought that parents with “problem children,” were just not very good parents. Certainly any child who tried to hurt herself must have very terrible parents indeed. Probably even abusive parents.

When your child is in a crisis, many things die, your own prejudices among them. I also lost the need to make any claims for myself. Easily stated categories like good and bad parents or functional and dysfunctional families suddenly became unimportant to me. I only wanted Shelby to be healthy and happy and well. I know that our experiences with Shelby have made Jeanene and I more grace-full people when we meet parents with children who are struggling and not making their way in this world. When it comes to children in crisis there are no easy answers, no convenient categories, and, as we found out, no quick fixes.

Coming next week: We help Shelby re-enter the world of public education.

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