It recently came to my attention that there is an actual diagnosis in the DSM IV for a childhood behavioral disorder called “Oppositional Defiant Disorder” (ODD for short).

Symptoms include:

  • Frequent temper tantrums
  • Excessive arguing with adults
  • Often questioning rules
  • Active defiance and refusal to comply with adult requests and rules
  • Often being touchy or easily annoyed by others
  • Frequent anger and resentment

It should occur to anyone that in most cases of small people whose brains are not yet fully cooked and who have not had 20 years of experience in social artistry, these things will happen.

But DSM has that covered.

A child with ODD will do these things “more than normal.”

It is important that I point out two things:

First, I have no children.

I have no desire to tell people when their kids’ behavior is or isn’t normal, to try to make them feel or even suggest that they should feel guilty about seeking help for behavior they think may not be normal, or anything even remotely to that effect.

Second, there is a good chance that, were I born 15 years later, I would have been diagnosed with ODD.  There is a good chance that the more wise-assed amongst you will diagnose me with it now.

It’s a tired question:  Why does it seem like virtually every incidence of childhood misbehavior or difference or difficulty is suddenly treated as grounds for declaring children pathological?  Conspiracy theories abound:  It’s the conservatives and drug companies inventing diseases so they can sell drugs for them; it’s a liberal plot to subdue and pussify children for ease of federal control of civilians in the future; it’s an attempt to pathologize individuality, answer-seeking, and the questioning of authority in general; along with vaccinations, it’s a government plot to sterilize and/or lobotomize the population.  Maybe there are aliens involved.  Or the Illuminati or Free Masons or the Priory of Scion.  Someone get Dan Brown on the phone.

As a child I was…difficult.  I was not violent, and I was not harmful or antagonistic towards other kids–at least not more than was normal.  I have discussed, in another piece, my childhood propensity to tell rather spectacular (but generally harmless and seemingly purposeless) lies.  More than anything, I liked to tell adults and other authority figures where they could stick it.

This is my recollection, at least.  I don’t know exactly what the view was like for the adults in my life.  I was strong-willed enough to cause my mother to buy a self-help book on dealing with me.  I would argue relentlessly, feverishly, dramatically to get my way.  At one point, maybe around 8 or 9 years of age, I suggested one of my teachers was an asshole (or maybe it was that he did or should eat shit), and the powers-that-be at my experimental hippie elementary school threatened to put me in special ed or even kick me out, actions against which my mother, after insisting that nothing was wrong with me, was offered “take her to a child psychologist and prove it” as the only recourse.

It is important to point out that one of the guiding premises of this experimental school was that children were autonomous individuals, capable of thinking for themselves and, with a little guidance, managing their own schedules and making the “right” decisions.  But even as they shouldered us with this adult-like responsibility and somewhat non-specific expectation, we were still treated as children–that is, with the attitude that, as children should, we would accept adults’ assertions about what decisions were “right,” do as we were told, and maintain an attitude of capitulation and submission toward authority figures.  Talk about confusing.

So, reluctantly, not believing for an instant that anyone other than the school was messed up, my poor, beleaguered mother hauled me off to a child psychologist for evaluation.  I didn’t get it.  I asked my mom:  Was I stupid? “No,” she said.

“Are you sure? I took a long time to learn money, and I can’t write 2s or 5s.”

She was sure.

Was I messed up?  Why did I have go see a doctor for crazy people?  I was not messed up, she said.

“We’re going just to prove it to everyone for good measure.”

“Why do we have to prove it?”

“Because you’re smarter than they are, and they don’t know what to do about it.”

I went weekly over the period of a handful of months.  I had to role play with dolls, answer endless simple questions, look at pictures and describe what was happening.  I think she advised my mom to do some kind of rewards system thing, maybe with gold-star stickers that went on a bit of tagboard on the fridge when I managed to refrain from arguing.  I knew it was contrived–intended to manipulate or trick me in some way.  I could not be enticed to care about the gold stars.

“What kinds of things make you angry?”

“When I’m watching TV and my dad comes in and just changes the channel to watch football without asking.”

I remember that question and answer distinctly.  It was a slightly warmer-than-normal winter day and the blinds in her office were pulled against the sun.  I was facing the window and she was facing me.  I remember, vaguely, having misgivings about whether my shrink might like football as much as my dad did and wouldn’t be sympathetic.

I remember, for our last meeting, we didn’t sit in the boring office.  She took me in her sports car to get ice cream.  I think the place was in downtown Minneapolis’ famous skyway system.  Maybe not.  At any rate, I didn’t have the heart to tell her I didn’t really care for ice cream, and she gave me a hug when she brought me back to my mom.  The shrink was a nice enough lady.

The finding, incidentally, was that there was nothing wrong with me, aside from a bad case of not knowing my place.  Or knowing what it was supposed to be and simply rejecting it.  I had no personality disorder and I wasn’t retarded or in possession of a learning disability.  There was a personality clash with my own father–something about a power struggle.  I was a bit spoiled.

In my mother’s defense, she believed I was wrenched from the hands of death himself to be in the world (I was, in a manner of speaking), so she coddled me.  I. Me.  The miracle baby.  I got away with things that children with less dramatic births may not have.  I was special.

I was a difficult individual, but not a pathological one.

My impression of the situation, both at the time and in hindsight, was that I knew and understood more than I was given credit for.  I could not stand being talked to, reasoned with, or treated like I was a child, even though I was.  I would say to people, “don’t talk to me like I’m a kid!” which they often found adorable and worthy of a chuckle.  Laughing at me was about the worst thing any adult could do; it made me all the more furious.

Even now, the slightest whiff of condescension is to me as the word “chicken” to Marty McFly.

In the end, I was not put in special ed or kicked out of school.  I was given a more structured schedule than some of my peers, and that helped.

Thus began my long-standing academic habit of being difficult enough to be a monstrous pain in my teachers’ asses, but never out of control enough to suffer any very serious consequences.

I vacillated between As and Ds in jr. high and high school.  I’d escape summer school, barely, every year, and spend my semesters maxing out my tardies & unexcused absences, bribing the man at the parking lot gate with Egg McMuffins & coffee.  I was a master test-taker and walked out of high school with a sparkling ACT score and a C average–an average average–though everything else about my record indicated I was a born delinquent and hopeless loser.

My life certainly would have been easier had I left high school with an A average.  Had I not spent so much time forcing my way and fucking around for rebellion’s sake.  I made a lot of headaches for myself, in addition to the headaches I made for other people, often just to prove a point.  To assert my self-ness.   My am-ness.

My 2s and Zs remain identical, as do my 5s and Ss.

My first Facebook status update after I graduated college with my B.A. was something to the effect of “Haha, suckers!  I win!  I WIN!!!”

(My outstanding student loan balance begs to differ, but that is a separate issue.)

I wonder what would have happened if I had been put in special ed?

Part of me fears that I had been born 5-10 years later and my mother were a slightly more pliant woman, I would have been medicated into oblivion.

Would I even be here, talking to you?  Would I have been beaten down, told I was a walking malfunction, tranquilized into capitulation for long enough that I would never have found the confidence to go to college, let alone do as well as I did?  Would I have been made afraid to challenge, to question, to search for unique answers to run-of-the-mill questions? To reject answers that I found insufficient?

We don’t need no education…

Or would my early life and education (both scholarly and social) simply have been easier for everyone involved, including me?  Maybe I wouldn’t be here because I’d be a shrink, a lawyer, a doctor instead?  Maybe I’d be too busy rolling around in money and influential connections to care about any of this stuff?

The answer is: I don’t know.  I can’t know.

But the question is important because there is a good chance that either by virtue of genetics or simply knowing me, any future children of mine will not be entirely easy to deal with, either.

They may inherit my husband’s much more agreeable personality, but should they not, should the moment come when I’m sitting in a principle’s office somewhere, my child staring at her shoes, kicking her heels on the chair, answering some administrator’s questions–or mine–monosyllabically out of either shame or fury, I wonder if I’ll be strong enough, prescient enough, lucid enough, to recognize the reality of my–and more importantly, my child’s–situation.  To discern whether it’s my child or the adult system around her that, in fact, has the problem.  To act accordingly.

The challenge, no matter how speculative, frightens me.

I have to hope and trust, though, that my mother’s example wasn’t for naught.  That because my mother knew her child, because she didn’t let them wrest it out of me, when the powers that be are wrong, I’ll still have the ability and willingness to look them in the face, narrow my eyes, cross my arms, and with total disregard for their authority, say, “No.”

I will try not to stick out my tongue.