Taking care of business—despite mental health challenges
Interview By Andrea Ciccocioppo: Central Penn Magazine
Zack Hix isn’t your ordinary 16-year-old. He’s a cartoonist and entrepreneur, with a successful line of T-shirts—and he struggles with OCD, depression, ADHD, anxiety, Tourette’s and Pediatric Autoimmune Disorder Associated with Strep.
“He was very sick as an infant. Lots of ear infections. Chronic. As a toddler he began to have daily rages,” Hix said.
“Fortunately, my background is in psychology. That was a blessing. I was able to talk to doctors, nurses, psychologists, but it still didn’t prepare me. Nothing I did helped him,” Hix said. “I kept saying, ‘It’s not a temper tantrum. It’s something else.’”
Zack started with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder tendencies at age 2. Doctors said they believe a strep infection induced the OCD.
With the ongoing support of his parents and doctors, Zack started school. “He didn’t have any difficulties in elementary school,” Hix recalled.
And then came middle school—and another strep infection.
Enter PANDAS (pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorder Associated with Strep)
As if middle school isn’t enough of a challenge socially for most kids, in fifth grade, Zack got another strep infection, which doctors believe caused him to develop tics and Tourette Syndrome. He had head, neck and mouth tics and made guttural and gulping sounds. “At the time, they were very distinct, noticeable and disruptive,” Hix recalled.
School quickly became “a disaster.” “He was picked on, teased and bullied a lot,” Hix said. “That was the onset of a downward spiral for him.”
Zack became homebound for the last six weeks of school that year. He was diagnosed with Pediatric Autoimmune Disorder Associated with Strep.
For the next three years, Zack shuffled in and out of schools and homeschooling, trying to find a good educational and social fit. “I really did have to start learning a lot about what schools legally have to provide for a child with diagnosed disabilities and learning disorders” Hix said.
The challenge for Hix and the schools was to distinguish between behavior issues and medical/neurological difficulties. “I knew what was going on was due to lack of impulse control, mood swings, depression and anxiety, but the staff did not see it this way”
Fortunately, in the eighth grade, Zack was teamed up in a regular class with an “Inclusion Specialist” aide. “She finally recognized [a problem],” Hix said. “She got the ball rolling and pushed for testing. They determined his problems are medically based and he was placed in a class with learning-disabled neuroscience students, many of whom had head traumas or Asperger’s or Autism. “Once that happened, it has been much better,” Hix said.
Meanwhile, the tics subsided and are manageable. The tantrums are fewer. This year is going great for Zack. “Every day is different. You learn to never try to predict because you can’t,” Hix said.
Welcome Good Boy Roy
Now, a high school student in Simpsonville, South Carolina, Zack is a pretty typical kid. He has raced BMX bikes, played baseball and has always loved to draw and do silly impersonations. His creative outlet for dealing with his issues has been drawing.
Two years ago, he brought home a stack of drawings of characters he had done. “I thought they were really cute,” Hix said. She had a T-shirt made up of one of the characters, Good Boy Roy.
“He names all his characters. He picked Good Boy Roy as his alter ego because after his rages, he is always very remorseful. ‘I really am a good boy, I don’t know why I do this,’ he says,” Hix explained.
As Zack wore the shirt, it got attention. Other kids wanted shirts. Some friends asked him to create characters just for them. Thus began GoodBoyRoy.com, a website that sells items featuring Zack’s characters.
“The T-shirt was nothing we had planned on, but my thought was mental illness does not go away. He’s gonna have to get a job and work when he’s able to work, he is never stable for long, and being able to work for someone else we feel is probably not going to be possible” Hix said. “This is a great way to start. The hope is we can grow this and it will provide him with a source of income after high school and allow him to be financially self-sufficient. Not depend on government support or handouts”
Zack is gifted at art. “Whenever I had an idea in my head, I see the picture,” he said. “I try to think of names. Most of them start with the same letter [such as Hippie Heather]—that’s what makes them catchy.”
Zack attends trade shows to sell his work. “It’s a good opportunity for him to work on interacting with people,” Hix said. “It’s really been great for his self-esteem.”
Drawing his characters has often been his best friend. Zack said he wants other kids to know that if you have a dream, go for it. Everyone has obstacles and challenges of some kind, but if you believe in yourself anything is possible.
Zack said he does all his artwork on paper, rather than a computer. It takes him about 10 minutes to create. “My friends think it’s pretty cool,” Zack said. “My goal is for Good Boy Roy to become a household name like The Simpsons.”
The most recent addition to the Good Boy Roy brand is the new coloring book. Full of the fun, whimsical characters he draws and fondly calls “the Good Boy Roy Gang“. These characters share inspirational and motivating, positive messages for the children to read.