I’m fond of my dentist, a close personal friend of many years, a skilled and ethical professional. But just as McCoy opined, “I’m a doctor, Jim, not a bricklayer,” there’s only so much even the most competent practitioner can accomplish. My friend is a dentist, not a magician. When the anesthetic wore off, I was in pain, as I could not help but notice as I enthusiastically scattered medicines on the kitchen table top frenetically searching for the appropriate bottle. With metaphorical flames shooting out of my mouth and ears, it occurred to me that I would have done anything to make the pain stop.
I am an ultra athlete. I understand discomfort. Unpleasantness and I are intimately well acquainted. I appreciate nausea and the need for IV fluids as much as the next runner. Thirty miles up a single track mountain trail lost and bleeding in the dark is one thing, but this was a horse of a different neurotransmitter. No finish line, no aid station, just searing pain.
I hope I have never been insensitive to the craving associated with drug seeking behavior. But after my root canal, I think I understood at a more intuitive level how a parent can spend the grocery money on opioids, how good people can make bad decisions, how people can trade sex for drugs. I always appreciated how substance use disorder is a physiological disease rather than a poor moral choice. At three a.m., frantically scrambling for the Tylenol bottle, I would have happily signed over my parental rights. Make the pain stop; I will tell you where the treasure is buried.
Psychological pain is harder to quantify. Consider a student with undiagnosed learning differences. Through 11 years of schooling, he has been told incessantly, he’s so smart, he articulates brilliantly, he refuses to study, he chooses not to turn in homework, he pretends he can’t write, he doesn’t try, he could perform if he wanted to, he’s not college material.
If his teachers, parents, and peers are all singing this same harmful song, I could certainly understand how this high school junior could act out, self medicate, become a behavior issue, disengage, give up, drop out. This “smart but lazy” kiddo could develop concomitant behavioral issues. Bored in class, disconnected, he could talk out of turn or worse. Kids would rather be incorrigible than incompetent. How many class clowns are brilliant, neuro-typical, high-achieving students? Answer: none.
I spent only a few days in abject misery with pulsating chipmunk cheeks. I felt confident that my life would ultimately return to normal. Whereas the misunderstood kid who learns differently doesn’t see a way out. Where is the finish line? High school graduation–a distant and unlikely event–doesn’t stop the torrent of subtle abuse. He could have done better if only he had put his mind to it. The discomfort is quotidian and unrelenting. The oft quoted definition of insanity–repeating the same behavior, expecting a different result–applies: unremitting duplication of the same unwholesome message. you are choosing not to perform well in school. The torrent of abuse never abates.
Can’t morphs into won’t, and won’t takes on a terrible life of its own. Giving up and acting out are bad enough. Disconnecting from parents is even worse. It has been said that parents should never accept anything but the best from their children. But knowing what our children are capable of is a sacred responsibility. Think of all the broken relationships between parent and child. Consider families whose only interaction is a card once a year, a brief, awkward conversation on a birthday. How many of these tragedies were caused by parents who didn’t understand that their kids were doing the best they could? How many parents caused pain that could not be assuaged by a few Tylenol? How many parents should have accepted that their kids were doing the best they could, taken them at their word, accepted them for who they were?