Taller Than the Trees

Mentoring in Muncie, Indiana

Nathan Barnett’s story.

As told to Kira Childers

I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees.   — Henry David Thoreau

If you ask me to tell my story, the first thing I’ll say is that my mom tells it better. For seventeen years she has watched me grow and change, with wonderment, awe, and fear in equal measures. She knew there was something different about me long before anyone else did, even before I knew or realized.

Her fierce love for me – and at times it was the very definition of “tough love” – is, at this point in my life, beyond my understanding. I’m just me – the kid who knew all the answers in school but couldn’t keep them to myself in class, a tiny mental superman who killed every standardized test from day one of elementary school; an excellent swimmer who loves the water, a kid who played and loved basketball and baseball.

I was also the kid with ADHD, then bi-polar disorder, allergies, a form of scoliosis called Scheurman’s Kyphosis, and finally, the piece to my puzzle that no one except my mom even knew was missing: Asperger’s Syndrome.

I was four when I was diagnosed with ADHD. I struggled to sit still, pay attention, and would blurt things out, have outbursts in class. How was I supposed to sit still? My brain was firing faster than everyone else’s, occupied with higher concerns. I was bored. I knew the answers. I knew so much more than any of my teachers even guessed, especially considering my behavior. I went through psychological testing twice, in 2nd grade and in 6th grade, and the ADHD was the only thing that showed up. ADHD, confirmed so many times, but my mom still had a nagging feeling that something was missing. Maternal instinct, if you will. She knew there was something else.

Junior high is a constant state of misery for most everyone. But especially for certain kinds of kids. Smart kids. Kids who are a little different. Kids who don’t fit the prescribed mold that is ever-changing and impossible to follow unless you instinctively know the rules. Even with the behavior struggles of elementary school, I was pretty happy until junior high. The kids there, though, turned brutal. Not helping matters was my small school and its limited quantity of students—who had known me since kindergarten—remembering my every awkward and embarrassing moment. I quit playing sports and swimming. I spiraled into depression, which would oftentimes display as anger, frightening my mom. And then, another diagnosis: bi-polar disorder.

That didn’t help. Things only got worse.

I changed schools for a fresh start, but the depression stayed. By the time I was a freshman in high school, I was so depressed that I didn’t want to go on. We also found out I had severe allergies and would be required to take allergy shots three times a week. Then I was diagnosed with Scheurman’s Kyphosis, a form of scoliosis that worsens as you grow taller.

Between the depression, the sickness, and a multitude of doctor’s appointments, I missed quite a bit of school and got very behind in my classes. Even in spite of my difficulties with every other aspect of school I was still taking academically challenging classes that I couldn’t afford to miss. All of these factors combined to make going to school very unappealing to me, and I shut down completely and refused to go.

This is when things between my mom and I got really difficult—she couldn’t force me to go to school herself, so she called the police. I was beyond enraged that she would go that far. I became suicidal, and after an incident with a knife where I threatened to kill myself, I ended up in a mental health facility for almost a week. After I returned home from my brief stay, there was one final showdown between me and my mom that resulted in the police taking me first to the hospital and then, finally, to the Youth Opportunity Center.

My time at the YOC isn’t at all something I want to repeat. That’s actually a massive understatement. It was, by far, the hardest 10 months of my life. And that’s saying something, because if you’ve been paying attention, you have seen that my time there would have some stiff competition.

I was at the YOC for a month before the Asperger’s diagnosis. I underwent extensive psychological evaluation and testing to a level that I had never before experienced. After learning that I had Asperger’s, I was moved to a different cottage and began a very intensive schedule of therapy and counseling. The counseling included my mom and also others in my group. But I learn quickly—and learning how to improve my interactions with others was no exception. Over my time there, I became equipped with tools to help me better relate to and communicate with others, and began to understand how to model my social interactions for optimum success. I had to make it through five stages at the YOC before I was allowed to leave and move back home. Ten long, difficult, and exhausting months.

After I was released from the YOC, I returned to my same high school. I felt different and like I was ready and more capable of handling the challenges of the environment for which I had previously felt unprepared. I made friends, I started swimming again, and immediately started being recognized for academic excellence and intellectual ability. It was then that my mom got the idea to have me apply to the Indiana Academy, a residential high school for academically gifted students.

While the thought of more change was nerve-wracking, the thought of being surrounded by people who were more like me, interested in intellectual pursuits, was tantalizing. I knew getting accepted wouldn’t be easy, as the Academy only takes a small number of students from around the state. During my interview with the Academy, I spoke openly about my harrowing yet life-changing experience at the YOC. The Academy accepted me, and I just completed my first semester. I love living independently but adjusting to an environment where I have both independence and accountability has been challenging, and the ADHD hasn’t gone anywhere. I’ve had to come up with some creative solutions to help me with the issues that I have encountered, but my teachers have been helpful and supportive.

What is it like to have Asperger’s? Or how is my life different now that I know?

I highly doubt that a name for something I’ve always been makes a difference in who I am, at my core. I’m the same person I was before I knew, just now somewhat more explained, justified, and differently equipped. My social interactions may be different and more refined, but I’m still cracking up laughing at Kevin Hart; watching South Park, and destroying every math and physics exam with minimal effort.

Now, though, I’m also envisioning my life in the future; soaking up knowledge, going to college, becoming a doctor or a scientist; maybe even someday being a dad. My mind wandering to those things was unimaginable just a few years ago. As my much-admired Henry David Thoreau said, “The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.”

My exchange of ten painful months for the possibilities of tomorrow that now unfold before me?

Worth every moment; past, present, and future.


Kira Childers hasn’t written anything creative in far too long. She loves telling stories through photography, particularly those little moments that seem so ordinary but are really what you want to remember about your life, family, and children. Her favorite subjects are her daughters, Mia and Charlotte, and she would like to thank her wonderful husband Ryan for his unending support of her quest to balance work, family, and creativity. 

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About The Facing Project:

The Facing Project is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that connects people through stories to strengthen communities. The organization’s model to share stories and raise awareness is in cities across the United States focused on topics such as poverty, sex trafficking, mental health, immigration, and more. Facing Project stories are compiled into books and on the web for a community resource, used to inspire art, photography, monologues and—most importantly—community-wide awareness, dialogue, action, and change toward a more understanding and empathetic society.

This story originally appeared in Mentoring in Muncie, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Delaware County in Muncie, Indiana.

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