My Little Jem


"Humans and other living creatures are amazing!"

Watching Michael Moore's movie: "We _need_ to change our prisons."

(This is a Jemmerism from 2015, which I just found written on a tiny scrap of paper inside my desk. It's also the nicest thing he said to me all year.) "Do you know how much I love you, on a scale of one to ten? ...Ten trillion!"

"It's impossible to have one and a half bites of something."

After watching "Crazy for You": "They did movie-kissing in this. But in _real_ movie-kissing, they switch sides."

"Mama, do you ever call people 'Chuckleheads'? ...Papa does, a lot, when we're in the car."


Jem attended the Lantern School until February. He had been enjoying it all fall, when the kids were spending a lot of time outside, but after New Years he was extremely reluctant to return. Each afternoon he came back looking more and more unhappy; he was exceedingly distracted, his behavior was deteriorating, and he was feeling awful in various other physical ways. While I can't know for sure if he was reacting to the mold in the old schoolhouse, Jeff and I finally realized that we couldn't continue sending him when he was feeling so rotten. Jem kept saying that there was no problems with the kids or the teachers, and he "didn't know" why he didn't want to be there - but he just didn't. I couldn't stand the smell of mold in his hair and clothes after he'd been away for the day, which was sad because I had so wanted him to attend such a wonderful program. But in any case: in the spirit of John Holt, we obviously had to withdraw him from the school.

I still don't know how much (if at all) mold plays into Jem's health issues, although I think it's a Factor. But there are other factors too, and pulling Jem out of the Lantern did not suddenly solve everything, nor was he radically more happy and chipper and focused. Instead, we now faced long winter days during which he and I (and the rest of the family!) could confront his symptoms of intense distraction.

It's been quite difficult to talk about Jem's issues with Jem. It's clear that many of his challenges fit into the label of ADD, but as usual, that doesn't provide much information on how to proceed. And Jem is so sensitive that I can easily imagine injuring his self esteem if I were to discuss things in the wrong way.

The Basic Issues: during his lowest moments, Jem is incredibly and detrimentally distracted, unable to focus on _anything_, even eating his breakfast or fetching a pair of socks or brushing his teeth. Focus on reading or math or even a topic of conversation is nearly impossible at these times; it can take him an hour to sponge off the table. Socialization in this context is obviously Impaired. After a morning when it took him two and a half hours to eat a bowl of food, I asked him if he realized how long he'd been sitting at the table. He said he hadn't noticed anything strange - he felt like he had been eating quickly!

Possibly due to the torturous boredom that seems to accompany Jem's bouts of distraction, he is also unable to engage in any activity other than the easiest possible pastime: Teasing His Siblings. In between sessions of teasing, he fidgets and bops and hums and rattles and runs around the house, dropping and spinning and bouncing objects, asking me to read to him, telling me how I should improve my parenting, repeating the same melody line of a song roughly a hundred and fifty thousand times per hour, teasing his siblings some more, trying to do everything that Ben does, and otherwise driving his mother very nearly completely and bat shit crazy. I suspect there are many cognitive glitches that contribute to Jem's overall inability to motivate himself, or socialize with many other kids, or come up with ideas for how to occupy himself, or how to Figure Stuff Out. I know that he's smart. I know that he's generally kind. I remember when he was such a bright-eyed little kid. I know that he cares about people, and things. But when he gets his glazed-over expression, and is so incredibly slow, it's sometimes really hard to see what's going on in his brain besides confusion, sadness, and utterly blank thoughts.

Of course it wasn't like this 100% of the time over this past winter. But it got to the point where Jem was, as we called it, "distracted" about 95% of the time, and I had to be constantly on alert to prevent him and Eliza from having massive blowouts, or him and Ben from having loud altercations...and the net result was debilitating lack of focus for him, and Unpleasantness All Round. During the 5% of moments when I could see my sweet, sensitive, creative, compassionate, and adorable son hiding within, my heart ached to allow the Real Jem to come out. During the other 95%, it was all I could do not to punch something and scream in frustration.


(Summer is the Hopeful Time of Year, in our house. For as long as I can remember, Jeff's and my children's issues are way, way worse during the months of September through May. The warmer months are better, and so when I discuss their Low Moments, these are almost always during the winter/crappy weather months. I have a lot of new theories of why that may be so, but for now, I just wanted to note that - Jem was doing a lot worse over the winter, and he is doing somewhat better now.)


Back in March, Jem and I discussed (or rather, I monologued) about the different ways brains work, and about some of the ways that he is frustrated and bored - not because of a lack of things to do, but because he can't get started on anything, or get his brain to Go Forward and do what he wants it to do. And why, while this isn't his fault, it _is_ definitely a problem.

During our talk, Jem was more self-introspective than usual. He admitted that it's really boring to sit around watching Ben all day...and yet he can't think of what else to do. He says that sometimes, randomly, and for no apparent reasons, he just feels "all hot, and I want to whack something!" He is extremely unorganized in his (shall we say) (lack of) time management skills (total hallmark of "ADD"). Yet another feature of ADD is attraction to novel experiences and risk-taking, and this shows up for Jem when he makes Snap Decisions Involving Poor Judgement - but the flip side is that he's always, always up for an adventure.

I have been trying to fine-tune a supplement protocol for him as per William Walsh, but it's been a process of experimentation, getting some bloodwork done, more experimentation...and now, waiting on a consultation with a doctor at the Mensah clinic (i.e. the process is sssllloooowww). We have seen some improvements for sure, but nothing dramatic. (Although this is worth noting, nine months in: for the first time in six years, I managed to discover supplements that kept the Awful Horrible No Good Very Bad Chronic Winter Facial Rash at bay for an entire winter. The fact that nobody had a blistering rash-around-the-mouth for months on end...was a Big Step Forward. Actually, Eliza did have a rash for a while, until I started spending hours upon hours re-encapsulating powders and tablets into itty bitty gel caps so that she could take them, too.)

Meanwhile: I told Jem that even though we're attempting to figure out the _cause_ of his distraction, we still Right Now need to deal with the symptoms.

I described to him the ways that brains can thrive in different environments, and how people with ADD-type challenges might have been really well-adapted to hunting and gathering and living a very active lifestyle. He liked reading about different learning styles, and was happy to discover that he is a "visual/kinesthetic/auditory" learner. I signed Jem up for a sewing class, which he loved, and in which he sewed his own awesome pair of pants! And despite the challenge that it is to find even a few moments alone with Only One Child, I have been very informally and occasionally giving Jem piano lessons. He even started reading music! This was very exciting, and gave me great glimmers of hope that he can develop hobbies and interests, if his body/brain would just give him a bit more of a break from Distraction.


One of the authors of a book on ADD talks about making the distinction between "signs" (physical characteristics that point toward the likeliness of a disease, like abnormal cells in a test, or a low level of a nutrient in the blood), and "symptoms" (the way a sickness feels to a patient).

Another way to think about it: primary symptoms are something like an elevated amount of lead in the body, or an infection, or gut dysbiosis...that then result in "secondary" symptoms like frustration, or a fever, or diarrhea. These secondary symptoms in turn lead to "tertiary" symptoms, otherwise known as behaviors, like tantrums/violence/aggression, or fatigue, or...well, a lot of pooping. Basically, a lot of Things underlie a tertiary symptom, which are exactly those symptoms that are collected into DSM diagnoses like ADD/OCD/etc. That's why one person might exhibit violent behavior, another person might get depressed, another person feels distracted, and another person simply goes through his or her life with a lot of issues surrounding eating and pooping....even though all of those people might have the same _primary symptoms_ (otherwise known as a cause).

My goal with Jem: I want him to understand that he's not "behaving badly" for no reason, but I also don't want to try to make him "accept himself fully" and pretend that his challenging behaviors aren't impacting his life, his family, and his social life. But trying to Just Change tertiary symptoms/behaviors without the underlying challenges going away isn't so easy and straightforward.

And yet, Jem is certainly in the habit of behaving in certain ways, and of thinking about himself in certain ways. I wouldn't say that his self-esteem is terrible - especially compared with what might happen if he were in a classroom with people trying to make him do work requiring a ton of focus that he doesn't have, alongside other kids capable of handling such challenges - but it is not super great.

I tried to ask him: do you see other people around who have similar challenges? What do you think it means for a person/you to have symptoms of distraction and boredom and non-motivation? What do you see other people doing with their lives? What would you like to do differently in your own life? Do you think you are capable of doing more?

One of the books recommended that I somehow, delicately - and this was hard because I didn't want to say the wrong thing - point out some limiting beliefs he might have, concerning his own potential. Rather than having him define himself by these challenges, I was supposed to frame it like: "I wonder how many days or weeks it might be until you feel confident enough to go knock on Matteo's door to see if he wants to hang out?" etc.

The books on ADD all have useful pieces of information, but not the whole picture. Some compellingly describe the ways that our modern world is super stressful for kids. Others claim that it's not the fault of The Parents, while in the same breath note that animals who aren't touched enough, loved enough, fed enough, yadda yadda yadda experience ADD-like symptoms (which of course drives me to note, in an annoyed tone, that Jem was carried in a sling for the first 10 months of his existence, nursed until he was four, slept in our bed till he was five, and we did feed him as well as we possibly could, all along!). (Not that I'm defensive about my kids' multiple issues, not at all.) (Just saying.)

William Walsh has some really fascinating Root Cause Resolution ideas. Dr. Natasha does, too. As do Paul Jaminet, and Chris Kresser, and a host of folks trying to look at issues Wholistically. It seems necessary to constantly re-examine: how many ways can you affect the problem from the bottom? Symptom remediation via medication is obviously a top-down approach. But even natural remedies can be more symptom-appeasing rather than working to deal with the most underlying issues. Mineral deficiencies/overloads, whether caused by infections, epigenetic problems with mineral metabolism, overloads caused by paint exposure (lead)/birth control pills (copper)/vaccines (mercury/aluminum), etc....are some basic problems that make sense to examine. Even if these aren't the cause of the initial sickness cascade, I think the remaining deficiencies and overloads are one of the reasons why many people don't Just Get Better after dealing with a problem from which other people bounce right back. Gut dysbiosis is another big underlying issue. As are immune and hormonal dysregulation. Maybe it's not actually possible to heal, in some cases, without addressing many, many different variables at the same time.


From William Walsh:

Many years ago I did a study examining chemistry differences between male siblings in which one was a violent delinquent and the other a well-behaved child. We balanced age and birth order and accepted only those who lived in the same household and attended the same school.

I clearly remember a family living in the squalor of Chicago’s south side black ghetto…… The father was in Stateville Prison for murder…. the mother was a prostitute who sometimes entertained her “guests” at home in the presence of the children. The boys were age 10 and 11 and both had suffered physical and sexual abuse from the customers. I’ve never seen a worse environment….. I remember being very nervous just driving into the neighborhood.

The 10 yr old was oppositional, defiant, cruel, truant, and was already in a violent gang. However, his 11 yr old brother was quite amazing…… a well-behaved, polite young man who was an excellent student and also class president. For years I wondered how such a miracle could have happened.

We eventually found 24 families that included an “all-American boy” and a “child from hell”. The ill-behaved children had clear chemistry abnormalities whereas the well-behaved ones generally exhibited expected trace-metal levels.

This experiment was a watershed experience for me. For the first time I knew that environment wasn’t the only causative factor in behavior disorders and ADHD….. that disordered biochemistry (probably genetic) also played a role.

In studying nearly 10,000 behavior-disordered children & adults since that time, I’ve learned the following:

1. A child born with ideal body/brain chemistry is nearly indestructible, and may thrive in a terrible environment.

2. A child with a MILD chemical predisposition to violence may turn out fine, if the environment is good and there are resources for counseling, etc. The same child might wind up in prison if born into poverty or an otherwise terrible environment.

3. A child born with a SEVERE chemical imbalance will exhibit terrible behavior, even in an ideal environment. You can’t just “love away” a severe brain chemical imbalance. My group once visited and tested Charles Manson at San Quentin prison….. his chemistry was so extraordinarily aberrant that I am convinced that if adopted into a different family, Manson would have turned out the same. (July 28, 2003)

In the beginning, we had no way of knowing if the biochemical differences were a causative factor or simply an association. I decided the quickest way to find out would be to correct the aberrant chemistry of the violent children to see if the behaviors changed. 10,000 behavior patients later, I can report that the bad behavior in young children usually disappears completely when the chemistry is balanced. Children under the age of 10 usually correct beautifully without counseling of any kind. However, older children (14+) benefit greatly from counseling, behavior mod, conflict resolution, etc after the chemistry is corrected. I’m not sure if this is because of an ingrained negative self-image, poor social skills, or problems in breaking the bad behavioral habits. All I know is that counseling/therapy seems necessary with teens, even after the chemistry has been normalized. We’ve also learned that adult criminals generally fail to achieve enduring benefits with our biochemical (non-drug) therapies. Most are back in jail within 5 years. We are on a mission to identify the at-risk children and intervene with effective therapy before their lives are ruined. The window
of opportunity (for severe cases) begins to close in the early teen years. Drug and alcohol abuse may be major factors in this phenomenon.

Most children with a predisposition to bad behavior have chemistry imbalances which are fairly mild, and for this large group….. environment and life experiences rule. For them, early traumae might be the deciding factor.

--William Walsh (July 28, 2003)


I always always think that you have to take the edge off physiological problems, at the very least, before moving into Psychology. But the books I got concerning ADD did have some interesting bits, and it is useful to read about the ways a person's development can be shaped when - rather than experiencing depression/OCD/pain/etc. - a child has neuronal pruning issues that lead to distraction, impulse control issues, and novelty-seeking/risk-taking behaviors.

One author writes:

"Recognizing a child's ADD should be simply a way of understanding that helping him calls for some knowledgeable and creative approaches, not a judgment that there is anything fundamentally or irretrievably wrong with him. This recognition should enable us to support the child in fulfilling his potential, not to further limit him.

"That even open-minded people may have difficulty coming to terms with this diagnosis is only to be expected. Our usual mode of thinking about illness (or anything else, for that matter) is not comfortable with ambiguity. A patient either has pneumonia or does not; she either has some illness affecting the mind or does not. There is a popular discomfort with any condition of the mind perceived as "abnormal." But what if illness is not a separate category, if there is no line of distinction between the 'healthy' and the 'nonhealthy,' if the 'abnormality' is just a greater concentration in an individual of disturbed brain processes found in everyone? Then perhaps there are no fixed, immutable brain disorders, and we could all be vulnerable to mental breakdowns or malfunctions under the pressure of stressful circumstances. We could all go crazy. Maybe we already have.

"...As Drs. Hallowell and Ratey point out in 'Driven To Distraction,' ADD is a diagnosis not of category but of dimension. At a certain point on the human continuum, the characteristics associated with ADD become intrusive enough to impair a person's functioning to one degree or another.

"...'If you have many of the features of ADD,' I say to people, ;and if they produce a lack of order in your life, then you have ADD. What is order? A sense of organization. A consciously planned sequence of activities. Knowing where things are and what you have done and what remains to be done. And what do we call a lack of order? Disorder.'"


Another author notes "How Freud was half-right":

"Freud hypothesized that remembering childhood traumas will cure the neurotic adult behaviors which have resulted from them. An entire school of therapy emerged from this - Freudian psychotherapy - which seemed to work quite well for hysterical paralysis which was a common condition among women in Freud's day."

Anyway, this author notes that sometimes it can be cathartic to re-open and discuss old wounds and sufferings. But that other times, possibly equally often, discussing and transforming old memories into new ones 'can itself be traumatizing, essentially forcing the patient to re-inflict on him- or herself repeatedly the old pains which they would just as soon be done with.'

Also, "there's the voyeuristic element to this type of therapy which is disconcerting to some observers of the psychological scene."

"What we've learned [since Freud] is that content isn't nearly as important as the way content is stored and responded to (the stories we tell ourselves)...It's entirely possible for good therapists to work with patients to cure phobias, neurotic behaviors, and a whole host of other 'psychological ailments' _without ever once having to know or listen to the details of content._"

(I think this is a testament to neuroplasticity, and something I do want to pay attention to with Jem _along with_ addressing underlying health problems. It turns out that most "psychological" conditions are much more malleable than OCD, something I have noticed with Ben and myself - you cannot talk OCD away, although some things can help the body relax and perhaps hasten the exit of an OCD episode. But Jem's symptoms are not always such "hard" physiology.)

This author continues with an interesting observation about how we live in a culture heavily influenced by nearly two thousand years of rule of the Catholic Church, which "taught that one method for people to be 'saved' is to first tell all of their secret sins to a high official of the church, who would then, speaking on behalf of God, instruct the penitent as to which particular ceremonies or prayers or deeds to perform, or how much money to give to the church, in order to have God forgive the sins. Back in the old days, the Catholic Church ended up with the blackmail scoop in _everybody_, a fact that was not lost on Church officials (or the 'leaders' of the countries they unofficially ruled) for centuries.

"Out of this tradition, which served well the traditional religious and political power structures of our culture, came the popular myth that 'confession is good for the soul.' In some cases this is no doubt the case, particularly when that confession gives people a lever to process their own internal pain and change the submodalities associated with a particular memory. In other cases, however, and particularly in those types of 'therapy' where old and forgotten 'sins' are ferreted out, confession can be merely the perpetual re-opening of a once-healed scab or even the fulfillment of a voyeuristic need on the part of the therapist.

"Instead, it is necessary to reconnect the part of ourselves which controls the behavior back to its original goal - that centered place within."


At the beginning of this winter, I decided that I was sick of cleaning. So, while I still picked up messes often and frequently, and did a lot of ongoing cleaning chores, I pretty much gave up on the bathrooms, laundry, and vacuuming. Pretty soon, even the kids were noticing how Really Gross things were getting. And that's when we implemented our Family Cleaning Day, as per our excellent neighbors, Michelle and Joe (they and their kids have held a weekly cooperative Cleaning Day for the past ten years!). This was - ahem - a Tough Sell at the beginning.

But there came a Saturday morning when a miracle occurred. We had been discussing how nice it was, during the past week, to pee and poop in clean toilets, and wash our hands in clean sinks, and when Saturday rolled around, this was an actual conversation overheard:

Ben: I want to do a toilet!

Jeff: Okay! you can do the upstairs one, and Jem can wash the sink.

Jem: But I want to do a toilet, too! I could do the downstairs toilet _and_ the sink.

And then he did. We all did. And then our house was clean.

All I can really say is, I can die now, because I have transcribed that conversation accurately, and for posterity.


Onward and upward, no choice about that. Today, a toilet and a sink...who knows what tomorrow will bring!