Life + Outdoors » Off the pavement

Kids with a capital "K"

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Wind pulsed through the domed labyrinth of quartz monzogranite as I scrambled downward looking for a safer descent. The spring sky was a typically cloudless and brilliant blue. Above, the murmur of voices from the knot of students and my co-instructor at the tabletop summit some 20 feet above faded in and out with the gusty wind. Then something very untypical happened. A half-pound block of stone connected with my collarbone, inches from my face. It had been casually tossed over the shoulder of a careless student who had lost interest in the current activity. Of course it was not just any student. It was Skye, the only kid with a long list of ADHD meds - pharmaceutical names flagged in blood red across his medical form.

Skye of course had talked his way out of taking his litany of meds for this weeklong backcountry backpack, as often happens in the outdoor ed world, much to the chagrin of underpaid and often overworked instructors. Strange logic by parents. In my opinion it is often these parents who have some serious challenges of their own and funnel it onto the kids, but I will wait a few paragraphs to climb onto my soapbox.

Most of us as field instructors don't have the heart to insist on constant medication, even when there are withdrawal symptoms and the odd outburst. After dozens of such situations teaching outdoor ed I am always pleasantly surprised when these lapsed medicated kids turn out to be full of wonder and questions. And when paid attention to and respected, they become an invaluable part of the team necessary to survive, engage and enjoy the wilderness on its own terms. However, after the rock-throwing episode and as the adrenaline surged through me for a good three hours, I began to question the viability of my steadfast stance that 98.9 percent of kids medicated for ADHD don't need it.

I am happy to say that by trip's end Skye was a rock star - helping others put on packs, motivating the group, taking care of himself and listening when he was requested not to risk life and limb while honing his climbing techniques unroped. It was hard, for sure. Several times he sat apart from the group and in tears, and halfway through the week he insisted that he had to go home. But I am fairly sure he had the time of his life and that this trip will factor in hugely on his road to surviving his meds and ADHD.

I think it helped that I could identify with Skye, having been the poster child for ADHD myself. Thankfully, I made it through adolescence unmedicated, thanks to unbelievably patient parents who fostered my love of the outdoors. I faced almost certain annihilation daily due to my intensity and basically failed my way through school by doing the bare minimum, always haunted by the enclosed spaces and the focus required to sit still at a desk and complete standardized homework assignments. With a kind of Zen attitude my parents held on and let me find my way, and by college I had learned to deal with my own nature, eventually differentiating between the times I could and could not focus on homework and learning how to manage and channel my energy.

I am sure that as a kid, more time backpacking, climbing, mountain biking, walking on the beach, surfing, tidepooling, learning a redwood ecosystem in an old-growth forest, hearing stories of constellations and planetary alignments while looking at the night sky, understanding weather patterns and erosion while hiking in the mountains, drawing a desert landscape and composing a haiku while in the desert, relating socially to other kids, teachers and my parents in the real world of the outdoors, would have helped me focus with much less anxiety and angst and fostered a love of education much sooner.

So back to ADHD. Here is a typical definition:

Individuals (usually children) who have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which consists of a persistent pattern of abnormally high levels of activity, impulsivity, and/or inattention that is more frequently displayed and more severe than is typically observed in individuals with comparable levels of development.

My personal opinion? ADHD is a catchall phrase for labeling and dealing with Kids with a capital "K" - kids with energy who do not have an accepted outlet for dealing with things in normal time (think 33 1/3 vs 78 rpm), or parents that do not have the time to. Often the kids suffer from a challenged parental unit, lack of good role models, lack of positive activities and positive reinforcement. Before kids are medicated the parents should be monitored and receive valuable feedback so they can become more effectual and loving parents. Factor in an hour-long walk on the beach or forest twice a week with your kid, encourage questions about natural processes to foster that sense of wonder, and find answers to these big questions together in the library or on the Internet after outdoor explorations.

For adults we often find coping mechanisms: meditation, sex, libations, sports, etc. But my strong feeling is that everyone, not just kids, has "clinical" ADHD to some degree, unless you are certifiably catatonic. Embracing it and channeling these intense bursts of energy is key and beneficial to a healthy survival. When I feel an attack coming on I head out into the forest for a trail run, chase foam from waves at the beach, unlock the puzzle of moves up a boulder. Basically I find someplace it's OK to be a kid again - with the capital "K."

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