“Be Quiet” by Brian McCurdy

30 April 2021 on Nonfiction   Tags:

My son, Leo, talks a lot. From the moment he is fully awake in the morning, at the breakfast table in robe and slippers, to the moment he is back in bed, listening to me read a book, or struggling to keep his eyes open—in a near continuous flow, broken only by activities that require concentration (reading, homework, drawing, video games), the words pour out, roiling, surging, at times too many words for even Leo to keep up with.

“Hey, Dad,” he begins. “You know that Godzilla costume you're going to make for our movie?”

I say “yeah,” knowing I've opened the floodgates.

“Well, I think I know how we're going to make the mask. We'll put some small holes where my eyes are so I can see, and the mouth will have—what is it, oh yeah—hinges so it can move up and down when I move my mouth up and down, and the mask will be connected to the rest of the body, probably with Velcro, and there will be a zipper down the back, but it will be covered by the scutes—you'll have to zip it up for me—and the tail will be really long and sticking up in the air, kind of like Shin Godzilla—we'll probably have to use wires for that—and the claws will be gloves that also attach to the body with Velcro, and for the roar, we'll make a recording of the Godzilla All-Out Monster Attack roar, but we'll put some effects on it so it's not copyright infringement, and then we'll set up a—what is it, oh yeah—green screen and show Godzilla stomping through a city, and oh, I have this awesome idea for a scene where . . .”

By this time my brain has had enough, and I start thinking about work stuff, or an essay I'm trying to write, or the bills I have to pay, or the illogical treatment of time travel in a superhero series my family and I have been watching on TV. Simply put, I replace my son's verbal noise with internal noise of my own. If Leo realizes I'm doing this, which I suspect he does, since I'm no longer looking at him, he doesn't let it deter him. The words continue unabated.

“. . . and we can also show Godzilla's foot coming down and there can be a shadow that gets bigger and a guy going like this [arms shielding body against invisible Godzilla foot] and screaming 'ahhh!' We'll have a green screen for that, too. And oh, I know what we can do . . .”

Since my ignoring Leo has no effect on his recitation, my wife, Mayu, feels compelled to intervene.

“Brian, are you listening to him?”

“Uh, I was.”

“Then say something. Leo, who are you talking to?”

Leo shrugs his shoulders, glancing at both of us. “You guys,” he says. Then he gets the point of the question. “Ugh, you guys never want to listen to me!”

I try explaining to Leo that, on the contrary, we're interested in his ideas, we're glad he's so creative, but sometimes it's just too many details, too many words. Too much.

“Okay,” he says glumly, returning to a drawing he's been working on.

I feel bad when we put a lid on Leo's talking like this. No parents want to squash their kid's free expression, and this kid clearly has a lot he needs to express. It does appear to be a need within him, a compulsion, an accumulation of words and images and ideas welling inside his mind, pressing against his skull and finally escaping through his mouth. The pressure appears to be significant, for I've seen him tighten his lips against it, and heard him growl and grunt with the exertion, the frustration, of keeping it inside.

It's always been thus with Leo, from the moment he was able to string words into sentences. On educational field trips to nature centers and museums, he is constantly raising his hand, both to answer questions—often correctly, to his credit—and to offer expert commentary, some detail or association he has noticed, which he believes everyone has missed and must not be deprived of. Year after year at school he receives “clip down” disciplinary reminders from his teachers for “talking too much” or “blurting,” and his report cards show lower scores for “self-control” and “listens attentively” and “follows verbal instructions.” These reports don't surprise us.

It wasn't until recently, having received an email from Leo's fourth-grade teacher about his “behavior,” that Mayu and I started to consider seriously that Leo's incessant talking may not be a habit, not a proclivity, but a physical condition. The teacher called it “oblivious talking” and described Leo's inability to at once talk during class and “know what's going on,” his inability at times to “function.” We had received similar emails from Leo's teachers in the past, but there was a tone of concern and frustration in this recent missive that made us pause. Were we nearing a crisis point? Was it time for us to take some next step, some decisive action in figuring out what to do for our son?

Ever since Leo's kindergarten year, when his teacher told us, in a matter-of-fact way, that he was “not normal” but that he would “be okay,” we've been turning over the possibility of ADHD in our minds. Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder—this compact cluster of words seems to describe our kid. He has difficulty paying attention. His mind—and often body, too—are exceptionally active. And the practical details of his life, unless some adult is directing him, reining him in, are decidedly not in order. In our research, we ran through the usual checklist of symptoms:

  • Does he overlook details and make careless mistakes? Yes. Math homework, in particular, has a loose hold on his attention.
  • Does he have problems sustaining attention? Yes, especially during parental speeches.
  • Does he seem not to listen when spoken to? Yes, especially when anticipating aforementioned speeches.
  • Does he get easily sidetracked and fail to follow instructions? Yes. The expression “in one ear and out the other” could be applied here.
  • Does he have problems organizing tasks and activities? Yes. When I use the word efficiency, he stares blankly.
  • Does he dislike tasks requiring sustained mental effort? Yes, unless it's drawing or video games. He can do those for hours.
  • Does he lose things? Yes. Gloves, hats, lunch containers, school supplies. If it’s not attached to his body, it’s at risk.
  • Does he become easily distracted by unrelated thoughts? Define unrelated.

While it's true that Leo's hyperactivity has never been excessive—the indoor screaming and racing variety that makes you fear for someone's safety—he has always felt to us to be not in complete control of himself. The volume of his voice in particular has been difficult for us and others to cope with. It seems to have just one setting: loud. In a calm, quiet room, he'll begin talking at the decibel level one employs in busy cafés and outdoor events.

“Leo,” we interrupt. “Why are you shouting?”

“I'm not shouting,” he says.

I know, from an alternative point of view, that Leo's behavior could be framed as that of an average developing kid. His teacher, the one who wrote the concerned email, said as much in a recent conference with us.

“Some of this is just normal kid stuff,” he said. It would be preferable, of course, to hear that all of this was normal kid stuff. “But I can tell you,” he continued. “I've been doing this for many years, and I've seen kids like Leo. Some of them are even teachers now. They come back to see me today, and I'm amazed. Is that really the same kid? So often they grow out of it.”

Again it would have been more encouraging to hear they always grow out of it. But a little reassurance, I figured, was better than none.

We have to admit, Mayu and I, that Leo has already been changing before our eyes. He's not the kid he was last year, and last year he wasn't the kid he had been the year before that. And Leo's academic performance is excellent. His brain, no matter how crowded and disordered it might be, seems to be working fine. Maybe some kids simply require more work than others. Maybe we—two parents worried about the future of their first-born child—need to relax and have faith.

*

This latest round of research into ADHD and interactions with Leo's teacher both coincided, in a revelatory way, with events at my place of work. I belong to a small team of technical writers, a family-sized group that has managed, against a backdrop of nearly seasonal company restructuring, to stay close, intact, and committed to a shared mission. Recently, however, the pace and degree of change have started to pull us apart in ways that none of us fully understands or is willing to address openly. Like any family, a team of workmates accumulates internal stress points over time, and acquires, in response to them, a unique mix of dysfunctions. To its credit, my company provides an outlet for this social pain in the form of anonymous “team health” surveys. The results of these are shared with us, and as intended, they let us see and hear how healthy or unhealthy our team appears to be.

One theme that emerged in the comments of my teammates was a dissatisfaction with the discussions we have together. The gist of it was that, all too often, a few people on the team were doing most of the talking, dominating the conversation, while the others, unwilling or unable to assert their opinions, were silent, disgruntled, and increasingly disengaged. Though surely not an unusual problem in environments where collaboration is valued, this instance of it resonated with feelings I had already been having, not about my fellow writers, but about myself. For I felt strongly that one of these inveterate, domineering talkers was me.

Something happens to me when I'm in the midst of a group discussion, or any conversation. If the topic is one I don't care about, I can tune out easily, letting my mind drift into its own train of random thoughts. But if I'm “engaged,” as they say, if I feel invested in the ideas or the purpose of the talk, my brain revs up, a kind of mental excitement, which includes a mounting, accelerating, overwhelming need to speak. Sometimes this need becomes so urgent, it's all I can do to wait for the current speaker to finish, hearing only the voice in my head as I organize the words I plan to say. But in truth I'm not aware of planning anything. My words seem to materialize all at once, ready to deliver, and I feel that if I don't let them out, if I don't release this pressure of thought in my cranium, I will explode. Indeed, I'm aware of wincing at these painful moments, opening my mouth expectantly and closing it again, and making other odd, nervous gestures that those around me must notice. How blatant this behavior must appear to them when I'm least able to suppress it, and how poorly it must reflect on me.

And when I do launch into what I have to say, it's rarely terse or aphoristic. Rather, I speak in whole paragraphs, sometimes miniature essays, with introduction, elaboration, culmination, and conclusion. If I had enough sleep the night before, and I know particularly what I'm talking about, these elongated recitals flow fairly well and make the intended point. But there are times, of course, when I get to where I'm headed in a more groping, roundabout fashion, surely losing listeners along the way. In either case, I feel purged and unburdened, able to relax and listen once more, at least until my head fills up again.

As much satisfaction as I derive from this verbal participation, I'm also aware that I'm probably talking too much. After many a team meeting, I tell myself I will do better next time. Prepping for the next gathering, I coach myself. “Okay, Brian, no talking today. Keep your mouth shut. Just listen and be quiet.” But once again, as the final agenda item slips away forever into the past, I find that I have failed utterly in keeping my private vow. The only sound lingering in my head, fading still as an echo in a cave, is that of my own voice.

In the last year or so, I've been grooming myself, you could say, for a leadership role in my company. I expressed this intention to my manager so that he could help me find leaderish opportunities for practice. I even initiated a mentor relationship with a colleague whose leadership style I've always admired. Something else I did was ask a few of my teammates to share their impressions of my communication style, using (once again) an anonymous online survey. Sure enough, a few of these comments corroborated my fears that I've been erring on the side of verbosity.

One read: “I'm sometimes not sure what point you're making or advocating. It seems like you start talking and you hope you're eventually going to reach it.” (Though I might expect as much from an essayist, the meandering exploration of a topic, I knew what this person was talking about.)

Another read: “At times you may belabor a point a bit longer than necessary.”

And another: “Sometimes too much information is given, making it difficult to parse out what's truly necessary.”

As I reflected on the impressions of my peers, and as I paid closer attention to myself in action, I started to see similarities between my son's verbal tendencies and my own. The way Leo sometimes speaks beyond the border of clarity, as if he's talking faster than he can think. The way his thoughts wander from one association to the next, arriving at a destination he had clearly not planned. The way he hums to himself while engaged in some activity, monotonous, idiosyncratic ditties repeating forever in unconscious loops. His absent-mindedness, his self-absorption, his oblivious disappearance into one distraction after another. The way he suddenly broadcasts some goofy thought that has occurred to him, sometimes standing on a chair to achieve maximum projection. All of this—except the standing on the chair part, though figuratively I've stood on plenty of chairs to make myself heard—all of this, unfortunately, reminds me of myself.

*

One provocative finding about ADHD is the inclusion of “genetics” in the list of possible causes. If this is true, if Leo inherited these problematic behaviors from me, then perhaps I, too, acquired them in this way. It also stands to reason that, somewhere in my hazy memories of childhood, I might find evidence, harbingers, of the person I would become. But I've been unable to recall any events, any scoldings or parental lectures, that suggest I once exhibited some facet of the ADHD triad: inattention, hyperactivity, impulsivity. I asked my mother, the only adult left with any intimate experience of me as a child, but she had nothing to share.

“No,” she said, “you were a very mild-mannered, well-behaved boy.”

I was willing to believe her, but something still felt missing, some unrecognized clue.

How about my mother and father, or their parents and siblings? In their generation, ADHD would have gone undiagnosed. My father had a brother, I recall, who talked incessantly, always telling corny jokes, and who could barely hold down a job. He seemed a likely candidate. And a couple of aunts on my mother's side definitely exhibit a scattered, jittery unpredictability. You never know what they will say or do.

My father was a hot-headed Italian, which certainly had an effect on his life, not to mention his wife and kids. But otherwise he seemed “normal” enough, a smart, cheerful, responsible mensch of a guy.

My mother, on the other hand, though on the surface calm and seemingly dispassionate, provides glimpses into a mind that may at times be overwhelmed by the chaotic stimuli of the world. Her almost compulsive attention to physical neatness and cleanliness, in herself and her surroundings, could be her way of smoothing out nature's disorderly ways. And during a heated argument, I've seen her eyes become distant, disengaged, as if the words issuing from her are no longer directed at me, but instead have become a distracted conversation with herself. If there were, behind her serene exterior, a churn of emotions and tumbling thoughts, her achievement in keeping them hidden, keeping herself under control, would be impressive indeed, if also unhealthy.

One researcher on ADHD that I encountered was emphatic about the role of emotion in the disorder. He stressed that it was the inability to regulate emotions that sped up one's thinking, not simply a case of runaway thoughts. This insight resonated with me immediately. I can't be sure, of course, what transpires in Leo's body and brain when he initiates one of his verbal fusillades. It's clear, in any event, that he does so in a state of excitement. Something manic deep inside him has kicked into gear and taken control. The old expression, “motor mouth,” comes to mind. I believe the same may be true of me when I'm speaking in public, though a more controlled version of it. I've even caught myself shaking my foot or leg, or humming some random tune, during those moments of intense mental activity, when it's not my turn to speak but I really, really need to speak.

Am I just a nervous person? When I was a younger man, a girlfriend once told me her mother believed I was the most nervous boy she'd ever met. I had no idea what she was talking about. But I do see, reflecting across the half-century I've been alive, evidence of a mind trying to calm itself. When I was seven or eight, I used to roll my eyes in response to an impulse I didn't question or attempt to understand. I just knew I had to do it, especially sitting in front of the television, and that it somehow made me feel better. Why did I need to feel better? I don't remember. Since I felt no embarrassment about this behavior, my parents had many opportunities to observe it. They were concerned, of course. They took me to a doctor, who ordered an electroencephalogram to see if I might have early signs of epilepsy. I still recall the wet, cold paste used to affix the electrodes to my head, and the needle dancing across the rolling paper like a giant dismembered spider leg. I did not have epilepsy, thank goodness, though what I did have was anyone's guess.

Eventually the eye-rolling disappeared, to be replaced, however, by similar compulsions. I remember them well, as if I stopped doing them only last week. There was the thing I did with my hands, where I successively pinched my thumb against each of its companion fingers, from forefinger to pinky and back again, sometimes several cycles in a row. At school, writing words or numbers caused me considerable anxiety. I needed them to be as perfectly formed as possible. Erasing one over and over to get it just right, I put holes in the paper. When I did reach the excruciating end of an assignment, I would swipe both hands from the center to the sides of the pencil-marked sheet, three times, exhaling through my mouth at each swipe, as if literally sweeping away any remaining doubts. Finally, back at home, this time in the privacy of my bedroom, I would go through my belongings—books, magazines, rock and trading card collections, cassette tapes, action figures, old school assignments—all the stuff a kid accumulates over the years. I would examine each piece, turning it over in my hands, reminding myself of its existence and why I was keeping it. Occasionally I would get rid of something, feeling no longer attached to it, no longer troubled by the thought of letting it go. And I would organize every object, or class of objects, as I progressed through this curation, arranging items by shape, size, color, and the like. Again, I did not ask myself why I felt the necessity of this task. I knew only that, once the necessity had seized me, I had to respond to it and carry it out fully.

Whatever it was under these childhood idiosyncrasies—anxiety, nerves, perfectionism, mild OCD—it has smoothed itself out and found some balance. I imagine many of my readers have similar memories of being an odd kid, but metamorphosing into an only slightly odd adult. If we look closely, we can still see traces. We don't leave everything behind, as much as we'd like to. But I've learned to accept a certain amount of chaos around me, and inside me. The words I write, the sentences I craft, day after day, I believe they help me. The deliberate rhythms and sounds, the symmetries, the music, these may be the coalescence, and the neutralization, of everything that troubles me. If not perfect, at least fixed and realized. A quiet, methodical exorcism of the demons still dwelling inside me.

*

I think of my son, Leo, and his drawing, which he does daily and sometimes to a manic and obsessive degree. Like his talking and humming, the drawing seems to be a manifestation of the noise in his head, or perhaps a means of calming it. Whatever its purpose, its abundance is impressive, and as a sign of the creative spirit, it's a habit I hope he can keep.

Still, I worry about Leo. His restlessness and lack of focus, in a nine-year-old boy, is more or less expected, within the bounds of normal. But will he learn to gain control of his racing mind? Will he be able to center all that energy and harness his power to some directed purpose? Will he be okay? I know these are the typical apprehensions of a parent. Even with the example of our own lives to reassure us that things turn out all right, we concoct the most dire scenarios for our children—as if one's survival were a fluke, one's success a gift of chance. Maybe this is true. Maybe some of us are just lucky.

Recently I got the idea to try something with Leo that, at almost regular intervals over the years, I've tried incorporating into my own life. I'm talking about meditation. I've never had the patience or discipline to stick to a meditative practice. Like yoga, another failed personal enterprise, meditation is too hard and boring for me, and too slow in producing the promised results. But I believe in its benefits, so I keep coming back to it. Now, with the Leo problem to solve alongside my own, it seemed like the right time to try again.

When I was a young man, I would have needed to buy a video or audio cassette to bring a guided meditation narrator into my home. Now I've got YouTube, which as you can imagine has an overwhelming variety of selections in this category. In seconds I found a twelve-minute “Guided Meditation for Deep Relaxation” video that seemed to fit the bill. Leo would certainly not last longer than twelve minutes, and frankly I didn't see me doing any better.

It took some cajoling to get Leo on board with the idea, especially the prospect of lying down to do anything but sleep.

“I don't know about this,” he said. “Meditation's not my thing.”

“It'll be good for you,” I said, as if selling the virtues of green leafy vegetables. “You'll see.”

He exhaled dramatically. “Why do you want to torture me?”

The only place I could think of for two people to meditate comfortably was my queen-size bed. So one morning, while Mayu made school lunches in the kitchen, Leo and I lay down beside each other, lights off, my smartphone queued to the selected instructional video.

I've done plenty of guided meditation in my life, so I was already at it—gently clearing my mind as it filled, again and again, with aimless, intruding thoughts, and mentally traveling up and down my body in search of tension to release, trying to sink into that blissful state of total relaxation.

Leo, by contrast, an absolute meditation beginner, was busy exercising his usual faculties: talking and fidgeting.

“This is sooo boring,” he said. “How much more time?”

I told him only a minute had passed.

“Ooohhh,” he moaned, as if the attempt to relax were causing him physical pain.

Once he had managed to quiet down, the same animating force shifted into his legs, bobbing his knees and twitching his feet. I reached over and pushed down a knee, which, like a warped book cover, popped back up after I released it. “Leo,” I said, louder than I had wanted. “Please. Try to relax.”

“I'd feel more relaxed if I was playing Roblox,” he said, sighing again to underscore his suffering.

Then it occurred to me that, while I was busy with Leo's state of mind, I was neglecting my own. I could do only one thing at a time: help someone else or help myself. And maybe, it also struck me, the challenge of meditating with Leo was not to keep him quiet, not to control him, but to silence my own mind and body beside the noise of my son's existence. Once I let go, once I stopped caring about what was happening around me, time flowed again, and my body disappeared into stillness.

Before I knew it the recording was finished, the last ocean waves had washed ashore, and I was opening my eyes, recalling where I was and who was beside me.

“Okay, Leo,” I said, “that's twelve minutes.”

“That was twelve minutes?” he said. “It felt like an eternity.”

There had, I agreed, been a touch of eternity in that fleeting cluster of minutes. But for me it was that pleasurable feeling of timeless, limitless floating that a successful meditation session can give you. On this particular occasion, I had felt that brush with eternity for perhaps thirty seconds, which is relatively long in mediation time. After all, I was just a beginner, too.

“That meditation made me hungry,” Leo said suddenly, interrupting my reverie. As one might expect from a nine-year-old, he was not waxing philosophical—gastronomical, rather. And with the smell of toasting croissants and brewing coffee wafting from the kitchen—thank you, Mayu—I had to agree with my son for a change. Another way he and I were categorically alike was our mutual interest in big, starchy breakfasts. No reason to be quiet about that.

***
Artwork: "Cheap Red Paint Job" by William C. Crawford.

Brian McCurdy has been writing personal essays about anything and everything for more than twenty years. He lives with his wife and two children in Michigan, where he works as a technical writer. His essays have appeared in The Iowa Review, Under the Sun, Fourth Genre, and most recently in Work Literary Magazine and The Boiler. His work was published at one time under the name Pappi Tomas.

William C. Crawford is the inventor of  Forensic Foraging, a latter day technique of photography utilizing minimalist, throwback techniques. See more on Instagram @bcraw44.

No Comments Yet

Leave a Comment
error: Content is protected !!