The Unpredictability of Shoelaces: Raising Kids with Mental Illnesses

My husband’s mother, who the boys called Nana, was a pragmatic and calm nurse from Maine. But even the most sedate of persons have little peculiarities. Nana read a lot of books, including Jane Austen, detective novels and Harlequin romances. But with every book she read, she always turned to the final chapter, read the very last page, and then returned to the beginning. She started every book knowing for certain that the butler did it.

But there are some mysteries for which we are not meant to find answers: Where does the other sock go in the dryer? How did your favorite pen move from the bottom of your backpack to the pocket of your winter jacket? I call this place the “Ballpoint Zone,” that mystery spot where what we know to be true no longer matters.

How is it that on most days your shoelaces will remain tied, but on some days your shoe laces choose to be untied, that no matter how many times you bend down and re-tie them, they will come untied, just as you are in the crosswalk of a busy street?

Raising any children, but specifically raising children with mental illnesses, is another mystery. There is no guidebook for which I can turn to the last page. Neither Doctor Spock nor the Super Nanny have ever experienced what it is like to be a gay man and his husband navigating the whodunit of raising at-risk children.

Brian and I have two sons, Zane and Aidan, and on many days, they seem like normal boys. But then there are the days that the mental shoelaces go untied.

Zane suffers from a mood disorder, and mixed in with that is oppositional defiance disorder, hyperactivity and depression. Aidan suffers from a conduct disorder, mixed in with attention deficit disorder and sensory integration disorder.

Like I wrote, some nights are normal. Some nights we eat chicken and broccoli for dinner, and watch Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Some nights, we lie quietly in our beds after brushing our teeth and putting on our pajamas, and we tell stories where Zane is a ninja and Aidan is a Jedi. And some nights, both of our boys sleep.

But then, for reasons we cannot predict, the shoelaces get untied. Zane gets mad at Aidan and runs away. Not down the block, but to the next town. Aidan gets mad at Zane and lights a bonfire in the bathroom sink. The struggle is that we never know when those shoelaces are going to unravel. We never know when Zane will throw a punch at the teaching assistant or Aidan will give away his great-grandmother’s wedding ring.

When the veterinarian suggested that Krypto suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder, I almost lost it. In this crazy world of inscrutabilities, what I longed for was a week’s worth of normal. But all we got was crazy.

But the good thing about crazy is that no one expects you to be able to deal with it. So we get psychiatrists and social workers and psychologists and education coaches and music therapy and family counsellors. They throw everything at you, hoping that some scrap of sanity will stick to the wall.

Here is what I learned: We are all of us living in chaos. The natural order of the universe is for those two shoelaces to go flying apart. We can either spend the rest of our lives complaining about it, or instead learn to live with it, grabbing the moments of joy that we can. Even in chaos, a crystal can grow, order being a tiny part of every disorder.

There are some nights that are special, when all the mental shoelaces remain tied. And on those nights, we get two exuberant boys who finish off their pizza, put on pajamas with capes that don’t match and sit down for an episode of The Flash. And that is when I know that the mysteries may not have an answer, but I can learn to enjoy the questions.

Posted by Kevin Fisher-Paulson

Kevin is the author of "A Song for Lost Angels," his memoir of how he and his husband fostered, raised and lost newborn triplets. Kevin is also featured in "When Love Lasts Forever," "MHR is my home," and writes a column for the San Francisco Chronicle. He lives in San Francisco with his husband, his two adopted sons and his four rescue dogs.


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