From the very beginning, Nathan was different from other children. Not different because of his face shape or his freckles or his personality. A different kind of different. He did not fit into any boxes we could define. Agitation seemed to be a part of his internal motor that revved up each day. People and the world at large seemed to bring him frustration on a regular basis. Every ordinary moment held the possibility of an explosion.
It took a long time before we finally had names for some of Nathan’s differences. Actually, what we eventually had were letters that described clinical disorders and a form of medically diagnosable mental illness: OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder), and ODD (oppositional defiant disorder). Added to this alphabet soup were some learning issues, some personality quirks, a strong will, plus a number of characteristics that have some qualities of autism and even now defy our understanding.
All of these issues were in place long before Nathan was a teen, but adolescent hormones seemed to exaggerate them. It was almost as if they were on steroids! Anger quickly escalated to yelling. Frustration showed itself through tears. A deep (and natural) desire to fit in and to be approved by peers sent him on a careening search for acceptance and validation of his bigger-than-life self.
Nathan’s particular form of difference meant he struggled all the time with germs, meals, machines, guilt, clothes, school, colors of things (yes, this was a big thing with him), authority, arguing, laziness, and excuses—to name a few. With his big and occasionally explosive personality, he was often too much for people he met.
Finding fault with everything Nathan did would surely overwhelm him. So I learned to pick our battles carefully. I tried to focus on those things that mattered spiritually, not minor issues or man-made rules. I intentionally pressed in on issues that would affect relationships, character, and faith and tried to back off of other, less crucial issues (such as those baggy pants worn without a belt that drove me crazy on a daily basis).
Eventually I developed a little acronym, LAUNCH, to help me keep all this straight in my mind. It was not a magical formula that had to be followed, but it helped me to arm myself daily with what I would need to be an adequate mom to Nathan.
It empowered me to shape my reactions to his constantly changing needs and eruptions. It helped me hold a vision for my goal as his parent—not to “fix” him or make him “normal,” but to launch him into life as a healthy, self-actualized young man whose faith was intact and who had a solid emotional and moral grounding. I would do this by:
Loving him with the love of God
Affirming him daily, believing in who he will become
Understanding his limitations and learning to be patient with his disability
Never passing on guilt to him for being limited
Changing his heart gradually through training in character and inner strength
Holding expectations loosely and leaving him in the hands of God
Each time I whispered this “launch code” to myself, I reminded myself what my purpose in mothering Nathan was. Even in those moments—and there were many—when I was convinced God had chosen the least qualified person possible to be Nathan’s mother, I still would plant a flag and make my stand: “I will mother Nathan for the glory of God. I will seek to win his heart for Christ and show him the unconditional love of God so that he will find it easier to believe in Him.”
Such moments of decision—choosing one more time to follow my commitment—were required of me over and over. Those teenage years held lots of frustration, more than one slammed door, and hours and hours of talking, often until after midnight. Battles involving emotional health, spiritual ideals, and moral choices were hard fought, hard won, occasionally lost. Yet with time invested, a compassionate heart to hear Nathan’s voice, intentional validation of his ideas and feelings, plus about a thousand chocolate chip cookies to sweeten conversation and frequent back rubs to soften attitudes, I earned the ability to challenge Nathan without losing him. My engagement in who he was kept him coming back to foundations that had been laid.
I deliberately looked for ways to affirm him, to listen to his heart cry for me to believe in his dreams. I was predisposed to look into the hallways of his heart in order to love him as God loves him.
Always I had hoped and longed for Nathan to understand that he had a role to play in his world, in God’s megastory of life—that he would play a part no one else could play.
And as long as my sweet, different, outside-the-box boy understood that indeed he was God’s, I knew that everything would be all right.
Watch Nathan and his mom describe why they wrote their new book:
Adapted from Different: The story of an outside-the-box kid and a mom who loved him by Sally and Nathan Clarkson.