Why I May Have to Abandon the Best Coping Skill I Have Ever Had

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My heart is sitting in a basket on my desk next to my computer.  I stare at it wondering if I should leave it where it is or if I should shove it back in my throat where apparently it now belongs.  I  am faced with a dilemma I have fleetingly looked in the eye before but this time I pause much longer as if memorizing the outline of the face of a loved one I may not see again.

I love Facebook. I am like a Pavlovian dog when I hear that DING! and will switch over from work to see whats going on my feed.  Facebook is the most existentially layered version of the real world I can imagine. Everyone from my closest friends to those folks who have crossed paths with me for a brief yet meaningful time are there.  It’s the place where my elementary school besties and bullies post about their versions of how they turned out. People from a former life who hold keys to doors which ushered me to my current self are there too. There are writers and authors and even a real-life famous person here and there (sorry…I won’t out anyone) in the cache of my 560 nearest and dearest.  And I have access to all of them at the same time all of the time.

I take real 1-2 minute life diversions on Facebook multiple times a day.  It’s a weird and somewhat pathetic paradise.  Being a working mother is complicated enough, but I have a few extras thrown on top including a husband that travels and kids with varying special needs which means extra meetings for school, schlepping to therapies, staying current on research, hiring, supervising and managing a home team…and that’s all before actually dealing with the territory of settling in at the end of the day with  kids who just need extra.  Just when I might be taking myself a little too seriously or am feeling a little too isolated…boom….a cat video or Joe Biden meme reels me back.  Connecting in cyberspace is so much more my style and because of that connection I know I am not alone in this.  When I deal with work situations that matter to me, I am a rock star.  I have a purpose and can completely focus externally on the needs at hand.  But socially…yikes. Eye contact, staying focused, not accidentally making a connection out loud as to how the topic focuses back on something I can relate to better….none of those things are my forte.  When posting on Facebook–I can be funny and smart in sound bytes. I can get hoards of people invested in an ongoing saga about my fear of spiders.  I can walk away from a conversation mid-sentence without consequence.  I don’t have to think about where to look or how I am coming across because unlike in real life, by the time my human brain catches up to my monkey brain I have not yet hit “enter” and can edit what I REALLY wanted to say.  Sometimes those two things don’t catch up and that is what the “delete” button is all about.

Facebook levels the social playing field for quirky people like myself.  It gives me a social outlet when I don’t actually have time for a real one.  It keeps me invested in people, events and causes that are important to the real world all around. It provides an escape into brief, clever and timely humor.  It helps me find like-minded people.  It expands the repertoire of  discussions and ideas of which I might not otherwise be exposed.  And I can have all that in tiny spurts all day as needed. It really is miraculous if you think about it.  Communities of individuals who never stood a societal chance before are finding their communities right here on Facebook.

We know to take the good and the bad here. On good days, Facebook is my outlet. Internet trolls and maddeningly misinformed opinion presented as fact are the yin to the yang of my Facebook fascination.  I can roll past things or people who ultimately shouldn’t matter to me.  Something that I fail to do all that well in real life.  But this is changing too quickly for me to cope with in a way I find  acceptable by an election that divided the country before I had any idea we were THAT divided.  I am overwhelmed by Facebook friends and their words of hate or indifference being presented on a platter and served up as just another white meat with no other options for dinner.  I am breathless because I don’t feel like I can scroll past any article that has anything to do with leadership appointment, policy or ideology that may affect my family or anyone else I love.  Suddenly, realities of Facebook friends as minorities, the poor or disenfranchised are inundating my news feed faster than I can read, process and consider and as a seasoned social worker I feel like I am back to my overwhelming roots of weeding which causes need to get the majority of my energies and time.  I have a list of issues and phone calls to congressmen that will trump my everyday life tomorrow.   I am sad and fearful and agitated and distracted and rightfully so. While I have felt this way before on social media, I shut my computer down for the evening, be completely present and come back to a virtual life renewed. I can go back to meaningless status posts that make at least me chuckle at myself. However, in this political climate, I would be this way without Facebook and am having trouble finding meaning in those meaningless status updates. And with it?  Well, I feel much like I often do about real life.  Like I need to take a break from it.

Now I lay me down to sleep….

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4:17am

My beautiful boy wandered into my room tonight.  His curly hair tousled around his cherub cheeks, pajama bottoms twisted in a spiral around his hips from tossing and turning…he marches in quickly as if he had somewhere important to be and then suddenly stops at the foot of my bed with purpose.  He rubs his dazed eyes all the while smiling that big Cheshire Cat grin of his. “Hug”, he says as he makes that long trip to the other side of my California king.   I can’t say I hate it when that happens.  He is warm and cuddly and doesn’t thrash and kick like he used to when he was little.  To the best of my knowledge, A2 has never slept a full night in his life and no one can tell me why.   As he gets older, he seems no worse for the wear for it either.  The stretches between night time explorations have become longer and my husband and I have become a tag team settling into separate sleeping arrangements at night over the years to ensure at least one of us wakes to the new day refreshed.   He tells me “scootch magooch” as he encroaches on the sliver of bed where I sleep and drifts off as swiftly as he made his declaration of his sleep intentions.

The thing is, my husband and I never wake up fully refreshed.  There are Things That Keep Me Up at Night. Who will hug him when we are gone?  Who else will find his sweet smile so endearing even at 3:00am?  We try to be optimistic about his future.  A2 will likely never be able to live independently, but dammit, we bought him a house and we rent it out to people today so in 15 years he will have a place to live….maybe even with 24 hour support staff and 2 or 3 other guys who are sweet spirited sports and music fans like he is.  We live in an expensive school district despite struggling to afford it to make sure he has the best education and connections for his future.   Though we are socially isolated as a family because such is the nature of autism, I remain involved with my religious congregation so he is never alone. SOMEONE will always know and recognize him.  I advocate and I write and I stay present in the disability community so he will always have that community too when it comes time for some else to step in as a guardian when I can no longer do it. A touchpoint for that kind stranger to get guidance or direction. We save the best we can.   We plan for the best possible services and outcomes to give him a meaningful life worth living. We are uncertain what services  will help house him, feed him, care for him.  We can’t be sure that there will be vocational training or health insurance or social security disability payments. All of which is unnerving when you know there will be no one to love him or snuggle with him or wipe away tears.  So we plan as best we can knowing surely, there will be some kind of services for him.

But tonight there is no sleep because now I am not so sure.  I know in the morning light I will look at everyone with a suspicious eye and wonder who around me willingly voted for another reason to keep me up at night. Half the population wanted political change and they got it and whether the overt intentions were there or not, they were willing to make children like my child the sacrificial lamb.  My child will always be dependent on others to be his voice, to protect him….his rights, his body, his dignity . My child and others like him often have no option but to live in poverty and have no political influence as adults.  I am terrified for him because no matter how much we plan, no matter how much we go without today, if it is acceptable for the leader of our country to marginalize him, make fun of him, call him the R word what does that say for the people around us who brush that off and traded my baby in for not voting for the vague “yeah, but she’s worse”?   What happens when it is a decided that my “standard retard” is a drain on the system making everyone elses’ life more difficult?  There will be a supreme court in place likely for the rest of his life who will err on the side of believing that as a universal truth.

The only politics I ever talk about in my writing is my belief that most people are good but misinformed. Perhaps not in my lifetime, but certainly in his, I believed that it was possible to change the world around him enough that true inclusion and a dignified life were possible and through that, the need for the work of disability advocacy would dwindle.  Perhaps I truly believed all that because I see the innocence in his eyes.  He is a pure soul who has helped me see good first and maybe I can spread that message for him.

So, forgive me if you were one of the people who so desperately wanted political change if I seem a little distant from you.  While I am hopeful that my fears are akin to “they’re taking all our guns from us!” it’s a bit harder for me not to be devisive when we are talking about my baby.  But don’t worry….A2 won’t judge you.  He is forgiving and will love you anyway.

The Mending Wall

IMG_6047These wildflowers grow on a narrow strip of grass between someone’s property up against a century old stone wall and a city sidewalk near my home. There is a handwritten sign on a stake stating simply PLEASE DO NOT MOW OR SPRAY WILDFLOWERS. THANK YOU. While seeing them in full bloom one might wonder why someone would do that even when instructed to.

Today we were shaken again to our core. Today we were reminded again that nothing should be taken for granted. I am angry that again I feel afraid for my children when they leave the comforts of home.  I am conflicted because A2 is sick and at a time I should be saddened for 50 families and frightened at the fact that laws continue to exist that allow for permits for individuals to decide the fate of 50 people in one rain shower of shots. People who were given the right to exist with equal love are gone and we are all reminded there is still an opposing view.  But A2 is the kind of sick that makes his father talk in circles and makes me stone faced and logical. The kind of sick that sinks our instinctual fears as parents until the wind kicks up again and fills our sails to let us know it’s smooth waters soon. I can’t fear all things at the same time.

So I can stop to show you these flowers I saw today. And you can stop to see them. And we can all appreciate that someone stepped up to make sure that they bloomed to their full beauty for all of us. Please see them. Just for this moment. ‪#‎onepulse‬  

Day 4 2016: D is for Diagnosis

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D is for Diagnosis

By the time my oldest was 18 months old, I knew he had Asperger’s….but no one else seemed to know except for maybe my husband.  He spoke like an adult yet seemed confused whenever anyone asked him something directly.  (“He’s a genius!  Listen to him talk…he’s just busy thinking about other things”).   At Mommy-Tot class while all the other babies would watch with wonder as technicolor bubbles floated by, he was finding his way across the gym to open and close the door over and over. (“He’s a genius!  Bubbles are beneath his intelligence!”) And yes, he loved to go to the park….but would decide which park based on what kind of public toilet was there and then would spend the majority of his time in said toilet if allowed….and I would often have to threaten him with a consequence if he didn’t go and play (“He’s a genius!  He’ll be an engineer one day…he just wants to know how it works!”).    While he also never hugged or kissed me, he would let me do it to him.  I said “I love you” any opportunity I had but he never said it back.  He would let me sit down to play with him, but his back would soon be turned and he was playing on his own again.  His conversations often consisted of repetitive phrases over a video he watched over and over for months at a time.  The list could go on and on….but the fact was that he was not particularly disruptive, he was functional and he was so cute and tiny and spoke so well people mistook him for a quirky genius.   What was difficult is that we lived far from family and friends so when they saw him for brief periods they would just tell us we were worrying too much.  They would see the quirk for a few days at a time….not hours on end like we saw.  So when my youngest got to be about 8 months old and clearly had serious medical issues all concerns we had about A1 went to the way side.  My concerns were still there but again were also pushed aside by the pediatrician when I would bring them up (“Some kids are just persistent” “Drooling has just become a bad habit”)  It wasn’t until he was 7 years old that I had him tested and really, it was only because he was floundering at school.  I was being told that “some kids are average to below average”….the same kid just 2 years earlier everyone was telling me was a genius.  I had to see if he had a diagnosis in order to get him the assistance he needed at school…And sure enough….psychoeducational testing by a licensed psychologist showed what we always knew.  ADHD and Asperger’s Disorder.  A few years later I actually got a second opinion from another psychologist…and guess what….same outcome.  On standardized testing. Across settings.  Again.  He is definitely not a genius…but he is also definitely not below average.  A1 is the fall-through-the-crack kid.  His rigidity can be seen as defiance.  His poor social skills makes him look like a loner.  His attention issues make him look lazy.  And as the person who lives with him 24/7 I can tell you he is no more of those things than any 12-year-old.  He is a people pleaser and when he thinks he has failed at that he kicks himself over it.  Overall, A1 is going to be fine….but I believe it is because we have recognized the thing that makes him different…but not less.

A2 was not diagnosed until the age of 4 despite my husband and I and everyone around us knowing something was very wrong.  What was troubling was that when he turned 6 months old and I started him on solids…everything else stopped.  Except for the worst constipation I have ever witnessed.  He stopped growing.  Stopped.  Completely.  At one year he was about the same size and weight as he was at 6 months old.  He stopped developing but did not lose any skills.  At 12 months he was the same adorable little nugget he was at 6 months.  Was it possible I willed him to stay an infant?  What also did not change was his inability to stay asleep for more than 90 minutes at a time.  Down for 90…up for 2 hours.  This went on for 2 years and one day I got the flu and was out of commission for 10 days.  I had to let my husband get up with him through the night.  When I got out of those sweaty sheets after 10 days….it occurred to me that I was not clinically depressed as I believed I was up until that moment my body became an achy, hot mess….I instead emerged a new woman.  A rested woman forced to sleep by a virus.  A2 had already been diagnosed by a fresh muscle biopsy at the Cleveland Clinic with Static Encephalopathy with Mitochondrial Dysfunction….we got a scary letter to take with us everywhere we went.  We were told not to let his blood sugar drop too low.  We were told to keep him cool in the summer.  We were told to have a very low tolerance for fever and dehydration.  We were told he had an uncertain life span.

At about 2 years old when he started crawling he found that rubber stopper thingy  behind a door. Thhhhwwwaaaang! He’d whip his head to the side and roll his eyes.  Thhhhwwaang again.  Again with the head thing and eye rolling.  I remember my heart dropping to my stomach.  I remember thinking “oooohhhhh shiiiiittt”.  I knew that was a stim (self-stimulatory behavior). For the next 2 years I watched A2 develop at 20% of the speed of the rest of his peers.  He went from being the most social baby of the group and as his peers developed speech I watched him realize he was not part of the group…to standing by the group and watching everyone play….to standing out of the group and not paying attention to everyone.  To this day I believe it is not because he didn’t want to…but because he knew he couldn’t.  He flapped.  He screamed.  He stopped eating all solid food. He had no language other than the vowel sounds of babbles of a young infant.  But he was still sweet, and loving and laughed heartily.  He was finally diagnosed at 4 years old with Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS).  The diagnostic version of “your kid has Autism…mostly…”.

What’s in a name? Autism, Asperger’s Disorder, Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, ASD, HFA, On-The-Spectrum, Neurodiverse, High functioning Autism, Severe Autism, Non-Verbal Autism.  You may have heard any and all of these used when hearing about someone who has Autism Spectrum Disorder (the now official diagnosis to describe all of the above as of 2013).  We will likely intuitively still call Autism all of these terms because as we have all heard “if you meet one person with Autism…you have met ONE person with Autism”.  The criteria was narrowed and Asperger’s and PDD-NOS were eliminated from official diagnosis.  In my private practice as a therapist, I now see children who come through my office with a list as long as my leg (I’m only 5 feet tall, but you get the picture).  Oppositional Defiant Disorder, ADHD, Sensory Processing Disorder, Dyslexia, Social Pragmatic Communication Disorder, Bipolar Disorder……all in one child.  Why??  Because we have eliminated Asperger’s Syndrome from our vernacular.  My children have both been reclassified as Autism Spectrum Disorder (as they are supposed to be due to consideration of prior history and diagnosis).  But they could not be any different.  With hard work that would make your head spin and a hard-core bitch of a mom they continue to improve in terms of working toward being independent, contributing members of our community.  But they could NOT be any more different.  This is autism.

Day 14. N is for Night

Day 14

This photo was taken over the Scioto River in broad daylight but thanks to filters it looks like a cross section between day and night. When sleep is elusive for our children with autism and days roll into nights roll that into days… that sultry blanket doesn’t seem quite as enchanted and that line between light and dark not nearly as defined. I’m not certain that A2 has ever slept through the night in his life. For the first several years of his life he was up every 90 minutes or so. I was told to let him cry it out. So I did. And then abandoned the wholehearted attempts after 11 weeks. We have it easier than many. A2’s nighttime visits do not include damaging the house, self harm or escaping….but is instead marked with fitful wandering, bed hopping, laundry for diaper leaks and sometimes a sneaky visit with The Wiggles on the DVR. We wonder if his slow cognitive development and behavioral issues are exacerbated by exhaustion and we try to have patience in our own exhaustion recognizing that if he could sleep, he would. There is no simple answer for the underlying etiology of lack of sleep for kids with autism and hope that my guy doesn’t feel tortured by sleep being just a visitor passing through. In the still of darkness I wonder if I am the only one awake in the world. Shadows turn into demons of an uncertain future and the quiet becomes a deafening blare of anxiety that the hustle and pace of the day drowns out. Perhaps even if A2 could have restful sleep, I am fairly certain that I still would not.