My boots and skis become dead weight as I’m scooped up by the chair lift and hoisted into the air. Inside my gloves, I wiggle my fingers to disperse the heat from my hand warmers, tiny sandbags in my palms. Adjacent to the lift stands a line of conifers, the lucky ones, left by the excavators to ornament the slopes and differentiate the trails. The serendipity of their survival does not undermine their authority over the landscape, their power, their beauty. Ancient and knowing, they ask: Who are you? Why are you here?
I’m a mother, I whisper, my hot breath crystalizing in the air. Here for relief.
They wish me well, their pointy tops nodding in the wind.
Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD). It’s when your child wants to eat Cheez-Its from the box even after you’ve explained, “They’re for everyone here”—everyone being your husband’s family, here being the vacation house you’re sharing—and instead of letting you put the Cheez-Its in a small bowl, he spits in the box, claiming them all for himself. ODD is the positive feedback loop that occurs when your anger feeds his anger, when you take the Cheez-Its box away, and he calls you a “fucking idiot.”
It’s your in-laws looking away, your sister-in-law zeroing in, her children, roughly the same age as yours, watching in disbelief. It’s your other child’s intent focus on the television and your husband’s attempt at a diversion—who wants to go kayaking?
It’s the tantrum when you lead your child upstairs, the screaming and crying, the snot, the tears, you thinking: he’s too old for this. It’s allowing him to rip the sheets and blankets from the bed, letting him pull the mattress from the frame, but restraining him when he tries to break the lamp. It’s when he thrashes in your arms, punches, claws, kicks.
It’s when he breaks free from your grip, wields a pillow over you, and brings it down on your head with surprising force. It’s his lack of empathy when you cry. It’s the documentaries you’ve seen about sociopaths, people saying, “He came from a loving family.”
It’s the exhaustion later, both of you wrung out, entwined in the rubble and the glimmer of hope when he says, “Mom? Can I have some Cheez-Its? In a bowl?”
My first time skiing was in ski club, sophomore year of high school. I bypassed lessons, banking on athleticism and the advice of friends. On the triple chair lift, we smoked American Spirit cigarettes and drank beer, pilfered from the case on my grandparents’ sun porch. With our birds-eye view of the black diamond trails, we catcalled kids from other schools and cheered our boyfriends as they worked the moguls and helicoptered off jumps.
At the summit, I learned to point my ski tips inward, moving like a very slow snake from one edge of the trail to the other. When I got going too fast, or my skis crossed, I employed a bailout maneuver, becoming a rag doll, falling onto my side. The unfortunate side-effect of the bailout was that it sometimes resulted in a ski falling off. Retrieving the rogue ski, and re-clipping it on an incline, was a frustrating process involving butt-sliding, logrolling, and assistance—from friends if I was lucky, from a tree or a pole, if I was not. The whole downhill experience was exhausting and humiliating. But the lift? So fun. Of course I went back up.
I didn’t have the proper apparel, like good gloves or wool socks, so I never lasted more than two or three runs before frostbite set in. Eighty percent of my time was spent in the lodge defrosting, eating French fries. Junior year, I was too busy for ski club, playing indoor soccer and waiting tables at my first job. I didn’t ski again for over twenty-five years.
I found Dr. Kravec on the website for Psychology Today. Her listing looked promising: she took our insurance, her office was close to our house, she advertised “a holistic, family-centered approach” and she was taking new clients. On the phone, she requested that our entire nuclear family attend, so she could assess our dynamic. She would offer creative solutions to help us break free from old patterns. She’d address my younger son’s behavior systemically, rather than symptomatically. I told her I was open to anything.
Dr. Kravec was very much the aged hippie with frizzy curls, coke bottle lenses, a gap between her teeth, and a plaid vest. After introductions she told us to talk freely while she listened and observed. She offered nothing—no prompts, no questions, no need for clarification as my husband and I fumbled to construct a comprehensive account of our home life and the issues we were facing with Jamie. Meanwhile, my other son, Peter, stacked blocks and Jamie knocked them down. Peter found a Matchbox car, Jamie snatched it. Occasionally, I paused my narrative to intervene, ever-cognizant of Dr. Kravec’s quiet presence and scribbling pencil. When the hour came to a close, I asked if she had any advice, based on what she’d seen and heard so far.
It was the first time she’d spoken since we’d arrived: “Try a family game night! Kids love board games. And charades! If Jamie acts naughty, just say: You don’t want to lose family game night, do you?“
On the way home Jamie said, “Mom, can we not do a family game night?”
Everyone should have a friend like Erica, someone who inspires you to try things you otherwise never would, like strapping on skis and going up a mountain, despite the fact that you’re middle-aged and were never good at skiing to begin with. She’ll appeal to your ego, assuring you you’re in great shape, still every bit an athlete. She’ll promise to stay by your side the entire time and buy you a beer afterward. She’ll make you believe skiing could be a cure for your winter doldrums and your chronic Vitamin D deficiency. She’ll give you a winter activity, a way to enjoy the outdoors. She’ll give you an excuse to get away from your family.
The next session, Dr. Kravec consulted her notebook and looked up with excitement. “So, how did family game night go?”
We had to force him to play. He’d gotten angry when he didn’t do well or when someone else did. It ended with him flipping the Sorry board, scattering the cards and pieces all over the dining room.
“We could really use some suggestions for managing his behavior,” I said. “And I don’t think canceling family game night holds much weight.”
“Have you tried giving him a timeout?” she asked, as if this were a radically new idea.
“He won’t stay in timeout unless I restrain him,” I said. “It makes things worse.”
“Do you have a door that locks?” she asked.
That week, based on Dr. Kravec’s recommendation, we tried a new consequence. I can’t remember what he’d done wrong (was it when he intentionally scribbled on the wall with Sharpie? Or when he spit in my face? Or the time he peed on Peter?) Jamie was screaming and crying as I carried him up through the house and set him on the cold, grey staircase.
“I’ll be right outside. I’ll let you out as soon as you apologize.” Then I shut the attic door—the only one that locked from the outside.
It felt wrong, turning the key. It was like the cry-it-out method for sleep training, only worse, because this was a six-year-old who wouldn’t forget any time soon. And he wasn’t just crying. He was hysterical, pounding the door. I shut all the upstairs windows so the neighbors wouldn’t hear, then sat folded against a wall as my conscience wrestled with the advice from a licensed therapist. When he started kicking the door and the hinges began to crack, I gave up and held him for forty-five minutes until he calmed down.
Afterward, I crawled into bed, hollowed out, numb, and let my mind wander to selfish solutions. People did it all the time. They just left.
Just then Jamie tip-toed into the room, set something on my nightstand, and rushed out. It was a tiny, plastic figurine—a blue troll with wispy hair. I knew he’d chosen the color to acknowledge my sadness. It was a wordless apology. An olive branch. A reminder that after every winter comes spring. I could never, ever leave this troubled, sweet boy.
Skiing after a quarter century hiatus wasn’t exactly like riding a bike. I definitely possessed some muscle memory, but instead of relying on my slow snake and bailout maneuver to get down the mountain, I employed a different strategy: imitation. Following Erica’s lead, I mimicked her body movements, allowing myself to go faster than I’d ever gone in ski club. I turned off the voice in my head warning what might happen if I messed up. This was something I’d become good at lately—just going through the motions.
The next and final session, Jamie had a tantrum in the office. I was trying to get him to recount the “attic incident” from his own perspective for Dr. Kravec, but he was fixated on getting a book from my purse, which I’d already established he could not have.
“I can’t just give him the book,” I said, looking to Dr. Kravec for confirmation. “Once I say no, I need to be firm. Right?”
She looked up from her notebook and tilted her head as if I’d asked her a complicated question. “Um, no. You probably shouldn’t give him the book.”
At that point Jamie went feral, attacking me, trying to get into my purse. My husband restrained him. I talked to him in a calm voice. Peter played with toys in the corner. Dr. Kravec took notes. By the time we convinced Jamie to give up on the book, the session was over.
As we put on our coats to leave, Dr. Kravec said, “Hold on.”
She went to a shelf and removed a rectangular box. Inside was a wand.
“You will be good,” she said, touching it to Jamie’s forehead.
Skiing with Erica was fun, but skiing alone, I discovered, was medicine. On a Monday morning, still reeling from a rough weekend with Jamie, I got the boys on the school bus and retreated to the mountain, arriving as soon as the lifts started running.
Every chair was empty before me. The slopes were brushed with a fresh layer of snow, unmarred. I seemed to have the place to myself. There on the lift, I sat with my sadness, letting the cold, colorless sky and muffled silence envelop me, until I was emotionally sterile, nothing more than a bundled-up body, a singular point of awareness in an objective world.
Once I slid onto the summit, I paused to take in the view, a valley framed by rolling hills; Onondaga Lake, a liquid horizon, some thirty miles away. I pushed off with my poles, asserting my presence, the first skier of the day to cut parallel lines into the pristine landscape.
By the time I reached the bottom a strange sort of alchemy had occurred. I felt stronger, more capable, more sure that I could survive this winter season of motherhood.
My husband and I agreed that Dr. Kravec’s witchcraft wasn’t helping. She seemed out of touch. A quack. As luck would have it, she called me to cancel our next appointment, having double-booked her calendar. I fibbed, saying we had a lot going on over the next month. I’d reschedule when things settled down.
“Dr. Kravec?” I asked, before hanging up.
“Do you have a diagnosis for Jamie yet?”
“He’s a very normal boy. Just a little emotionally immature.”
Normal. Normal was good. He just needed time, like a green banana. This from the doctor who told me to lock my son in the attic.
After the Dr. Kravec debacle, I took it upon myself to devise some strategies to help our family weather Jamie’s emotional storms. Positive reinforcement, I discovered, worked much better than traditional, consequence-based styles of parenting. I made sticker charts and long-term incentive projects. I did my best to praise him for good behavior instead of condemning him when he acted out. I picked my battles.
Things were better, but there were still blow-out tantrums that left me shell-shocked for days. We floated along, bobbing up, bobbing down, until, at the end of third grade, Jamie told a teacher to “shut up” and called her “stupid.” He refused to do his work and got into a fight with another kid on the playground. We needed to revisit the idea of therapy, and this time, I consulted Jamie’s physician. After ruling out anxiety and ADHD, she gave us a referral.
The initial phone call with Caitlyn was completely different than the one with Dr. Kravec. Caitlyn said it was not appropriate to include the entire family. In fact, Peter’s presence would likely increase Jamie’s shame and keep him from opening up. My husband and I were welcome to attend, but she hoped to develop a one-on-one relationship with Jamie.
I hung up the phone, feeling a sense of relief for the first time. The word shame had stood out in conversation, like a clue to a mystery.
“Can I join you?” a woman asked, sliding into place next to me in the lift line. She was older by a decade or so, wiry-thin with a long, grey braid cascading out of her helmet.
“Sure,” I said. It was customary for single riders to share a triple chair. I just hoped she wouldn’t be too chatty. I was still upset from the most recent incident with Jamie, resulting in a three-day suspension from school. He’d requested help from his teacher and she’d told him to wait a second. Feeling brushed off, he ripped up the assignment and flipped his desk over. Then he ran from the classroom down the hall, tearing student artwork off the walls. The other students were scared. There have to be consequences for disrupting the learning environment, the assistant principal had explained. This was Jamie’s third suspension since he started fourth grade.
Together, the woman and I slid forward and boarded the lift.
“I need this,” said the woman, desperation in her voice. “It was a long night.”
I looked at her and saw deep shadows beneath her eyes.
“I’m a pediatric surgeon,” she explained. “I just need a few runs to burn off the adrenaline so I can sleep.”
The rest of the ascent was spent in silence. I tried to imagine what she might have seen, the children she operated on, the parents. Looking around, it suddenly seemed possible that everyone had come to the mountain to work through something.
We disembarked and the doctor sped off, zigzagging through the snow like a lightning bolt, her grey braid whipping behind her.
“What are some things you love about Jamie?” asked Caitlyn, breaking the ice.
Jamie, who’d been extremely upset about the prospect of starting therapy again, perked up from his side of the couch.
“He’s so funny,” my husband and I said at the same time. We took turns describing some of his positive attributes and giving examples. By the time we were done, Jamie was beaming.
“Wow. I’m excited to get to work with you,” said Caitlyn, addressing Jamie. “Why do you think you’re here?”
“I’m bad,” he said, working away furiously at a Rubik’s Cube he’d brought with him.
“That’s not what I just heard,” said Caitlyn. “Your parents obviously think you’re really great. Maybe you’ve done some bad things, but that doesn’t make you bad.”
It took Caitlyn several sessions before she settled on a diagnosis of oppositional defiant disorder. We learned that Jamie was not “neurotypical.” When he was upset, his brain chemistry changed, so much that he couldn’t see beyond his own emotion, even to consider the consequences of his actions. Also, the distinction between adult and child, teacher and student, mother and son hardly mattered in the face of a perceived injustice. We had to see the world through this lens if we wanted to understand his disability, if we wanted to understand him.
Soon after his diagnosis, Jamie came home from school upset. He threw his backpack down, went to the couch, tucked himself into an angry ball, and yelled, “I’m never going back to school again!” Eventually, he told me he’d sworn at his teacher. As a consequence, he’d have to eat lunch alone in the Behavioral Intervention Room the next day.
For the first time, I saw the situation through the framework of ODD. He didn’t enjoy getting angry. Swearing at his teacher wasn’t something he was proud of. And since he was hard-wired to respond to his emotions in real-time, there was no lesson to be learned here. No punishment would keep it from happening again in the future. I saw how deep his shame ran, how just talking about it was a consequence in and of itself. The lunch detention tomorrow, in Jamie’s mind, was a continuation of the event and he just wanted it to be over. That night I emailed his teacher: Jamie has oppositional defiant disorder.
Having a diagnosis changed everything. We arranged a meeting with teachers and support staff to design a plan to support Jamie in school. It was up to him to recognize his anger mounting and indicate he needed help by holding up a red card. Then the teacher would send him to a “safe space” he could go to calm down, the “sensory corner” of the classroom or the school counselor’s office. The key was to address the situation before he lost self-control, not afterward.
He rarely needed to use the red card. Just knowing he could made all the difference.
I ascend alone.
This year single riders are not allowed to share a lift because of COVID-19. Another consequence of the pandemic: neither my husband nor I had the ability to work from home to oversee remote learning, so we transferred the boys to a small, private Catholic school in our neighborhood where they could safely attend in person, five days a week.
I still can’t quite wrap my mind around it, but Jamie hasn’t had any behavioral issues in fifth grade at all. His teacher seems genuinely shocked whenever I mention his diagnosis. “I just don’t see it,” she says. “He behaves beautifully.” I joke with my husband that he’s been touched by the Hand of God, but I attribute his success to myriad factors—therapy, maturity, how we handle his behavior at home, a fresh start in a new environment with a different set of peers, more individualized attention from his teacher. He is by no means “cured,” but for the time being, we’ve found a groove that works. He’s doing well.
I push off the lift and slide onto the summit. Today I ski because it’s fun.