Pixie Dust at the DMV

As a special needs mom, give me mean, bitchy people any day. I can respond to hate with hate or simmering rage. But kindness. Kindness undoes me. It strips the strong façade from my face and leaves me a shivering mess. People who say they understand rip me apart. It’s not that I don’t want people to be kind. It’s that I have grown to not expect it. When someone is compassionate or sympathetic it leaves me as vulnerable as a new spring leaf in a thunderstorm.

Few strangers have shown unexpected kindness to Caleb and me. When Caleb was four, a woman was in line behind us at a restaurant. Caleb was stimming and talking in high-pitched echolalia. I felt her looking at him, at us, before I ever turned around. After a few tense moments I pulled courage up through my spine and used it to propel me to meet her gaze. I was expecting a reprimand or a nasty stare. Instead, I was met with watering eyes and a smile full of sadness.

“Hi there,” she said. Caleb beamed.

I don’t remember the rest of the conversation but I do remember that she told me she was a pediatric nurse. She said it in the quietest of whispers, with a tilt of her head that tore into my soul. It took a breath from me.

“So you know?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied.

From the time Caleb was little I learned to look straight ahead rather than make eye contact with anyone. I’ve written before that staring does no good, no matter the situation. Even if Caleb were a neurotypical child having a tantrum, rude stares, whispers and tsks only make a tough situation much worse.

The problem with not making eye contact is that you can miss the kindness as well as the criticism.

Another time we were shown such radical kindness was on Caleb’s Make a Wish trip in 2014. At 18 Caleb chose his favorite place in the world, Orlando. We had several blissful days at Disney World and then tried our luck at Universal. Caleb has never liked anything faster than the Buzz Lightyear ride, so he and I waited on benches in the shade while Sophie rode the tallest one.

Sophie had just finished her freshman year of college but I still worried over her every second. I was also worried because the day was warming up. One of Caleb’s medical conditions is that he can fatally overheat. At midday, the temperatures were cutting it close for him, even though we were under a fan in shade. I kept looking at the exit for the ride, waiting to see Sophie running toward us, because I knew she would. She knew it was getting too hot for him. She would worry so much about him that she wouldn’t even enjoy the ride.

With my head swiveling between Caleb and the exit, I’m sure it wasn’t hard for anyone who was paying attention to connect my worry dots. Most people don’t. The woman sitting next to me did. As usual, I was avoiding her stare, preoccupying myself with a loose thread on Caleb’s t-shirt.

“I can watch him,” she said, laying a very kind, soft hand on my shoulder.

“What?” I asked, sure I had misunderstood.

“Your son. I can tell you’re worried about your daughter. I’ll keep him safe while you go find her.”

Kindness. It created a lump in my throat that made it hard to speak.

As lovely as she was, there was no way I would have ever left Caleb with anyone I didn’t know. Her offer was so pure that it made me want to hug her, even though that would have been social overkill for the moment and it would have simultaneously set Caleb screaming because I was touching a stranger.

“You are so sweet,” I said. “Thank you, but I know she’ll be along any moment.”

Sophie was. I told her the story. She said, “You didn’t even consider it, did you?”

What would life be like in this often violent, turbulent world if we were met with kindness instead of fear?

People who meet Caleb now, when he’s 21, six-feet-two and 240 pounds see a happy, confident young man. They see a kid who laughs at fart jokes and still loves to color and do preschool word searches. I need to learn to see with their eyes.

Since the day he was born in 1996, when he was taken from me at 12 hours old so he could have open-heart surgery in another state, I have lived in fear. I was learning to let it unravel when he was four months old, when I was recovering from the trauma of caring for a critically ill newborn, when I was told he needed another heart surgery, a balloon catheterization. I slipped the cloak of fear back over my shoulders and that time it sank into my blood, my bones.

There are so many children with worse stories. There are so many parents who have lost their children. None of us can compare stories because our paths are so different. But I bet we all have that plasma of fear running through our bodies.

Kindness is the antithesis of fear. Kindness negates worry and smooths over so much negativity. But fear eats kindness for breakfast and spits the bones out from under the door.

I am trying so hard to extricate the fear from my soul. I feel like I’m always holding a breath, waiting for the next diagnosis or injury or outburst. Months, years can go by with little incident but that soul-sucking fear keeps me constantly barely balanced on a precarious log over a rushing river.

As Caleb nears his high school graduation in a few months, I find myself evaluating his life. Milestones can do that, I know. I’m trying to look back through all of the sadness and extricate the kindness and love that has been there all along. I know it was there. I know it’s my interpretations that have extruded and buried that beauty. Maybe there’s comfort in fear, in expecting the next bad thing, since so many bad things have happened.

After 21 years in Neverland, I have to believe that there was so much more pixie dust and kindness than there ever was cruelty and exclusion.  I know how gratingly cringe-worthy my next paragraphs will be. I apologize in advance.

If you find yourself in Neverland, look for the fairies. Look for the pixie dust. Listen for singing from the forest. In my version, I kick Captain Hook in his nose and walk away.

Now that Captain Hook is out of the way, I borrow his periscope and am astonished to see the scales fall from my eyes as I peer through it. Hook used it because his periscope could see everything. It illuminates Caleb’s past and I fall to my knees seeing all of the kindness that I had chosen to not remember.

There are cashiers at our favorite grocery store who go out of their way to greet Caleb. Untold devoted teachers, therapists, doctors, surgeons who have all given their best to help Caleb be as healthy as he is. There’s a wonderful young woman at the restaurant we visit on Saturdays who brings Caleb word search books, crayons and the dressed-up ducks he is obsessed with. We have amazing friends who brought balloons, cake and favors to Caleb’s birthday party without even being asked. These same friends came over when it was snowing in January because they know how it frightens him. They knew they could make him smile when he was scared.

I began writing this blog on a Sunday night, the day before taking Caleb on a past-due trip to the DMV. I had been dreading the crowds, the stares, forgetting one doctor’s signature on a line so small I couldn’t even see it. Within 30 minutes we were handing over the handicapped parking placard forms to the clerk. I had told myself that morning I would only look for kindness for the entire day.

The clerk smiled at us and Caleb smiled back. Our forms were processed in seconds, and then she told me that his state ID expires in July.

“I know,” I said, in my head groaning already, which is definitely not part of looking for kindness.

“We can renew this right now if you’d like.”

Kindness.

We were sent to the picture station where another clerk took about five pictures of Caleb, trying to get one with his eyes open. We waited a moment and then she handed us the new ID, saying, “Good bye, Caleb. It was nice to meet you.”

People turned to stare at her kindness. Caleb did his happy growl. I swear I felt Tinker Bell swirling around our feet.

You can find kindness and pixie dust anywhere if you look hard enough. Even at the DMV.

 

Photo credit: Timothy Kurek

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The Side Order of Anxiety and Depression You May Receive When You Are the Caregiver of a Loved One with Anxiety and Depression

 

Anxiety and depression can quickly siphon the strength of the strongest person. Caring for a loved one who suffers from the crippling effects of these disorders can be debilitating for the caregiver. If your loved one also has special needs, like my son, these challenges are magnified and may render you limited in any help you can provide.

As a caregiver, the inordinate stress of caring for someone with many needs makes you vulnerable to your own set of anxiety and depression. When you are the sole caregiver, it is imperative to be a steadying force to help your loved one navigate frightening emotions.

Unfortunately I completely fail in this regard most of the time.

My son Caleb is 20 years old with a primary diagnosis of 22Q Deletion Syndrome and a related diagnosis of autism. He tests cognitively around age three to five which significantly complicates the level of care he requires. It’s difficult to look at a six-foot tall young man and remember that inside he is truly a tiny child who hasn’t developed the coping skills one would expect of a young adult.

Caleb has struggled with anxiety for two decades. Anxiety and depressive disorders run in both sides of our family so he was already predisposed to them, but our family life situation helped to create a constant state of anxiety for Caleb, his sister and me. I was in an abusive marriage with his father until I left when he was 16. There was no adequate way to explain the concept of divorce to him, so Caleb now thinks whenever any situation isn’t working that a divorce, of any kind, is coming his way, which raises his anxiety level.

Prior to the divorce, Caleb’s anxiety over his father’s verbal attacks on me became anxiety over anticipated abandonment. When these attacks would begin, Caleb’s older sister Sophie would find him and the two of them would hide in a closet together until my ex-husband stopped screaming. When Sophie went to college, even though Caleb and I lived on our own by then, he lost his beloved protector and his anxiety level climbed because he felt so vulnerable without her. I now take Caleb to a wonderful male therapist twice a month but it has taken him four years to try to process the horror of divorce and a splintered family.

Before Caleb was born, I already struggled with significant anxiety and depression of my own. Caring for him has accelerated my own conditions, and I now tend to fall quickly into the pit of depression and episodes of crippling anxiety. Ten years ago, when Caleb was in a body cast recovering from a broken femur, the inordinate stress of his care caused me such anxiety that I went blind for 90 minutes on two occasions. It still happens occasionally but thankfully for no more than 10 minutes at a time now. A few years ago a very intense panic attack sent me to the ER and the hospital kept me overnight.

Medications don’t help me, but they are the only option for Caleb because he lacks the communication skills to be talked out of his anxiety. When something frightens him, he will ask me questions about it, about every 60 seconds, until it has passed. His doctors and I are very careful to be sure he’s not overmedicated, but his dosages are higher than I would like because anxiety can otherwise pilfer good days from him.

We’ve tried using picture-exchange cards with some success and his therapist has taught us some creative communication skills. Both of these coping mechanisms are limited in approach, so when something new pops up that causes Caleb anxiety, it’s like I’m learning a new language. Delays in coping create more anxiety for both of us.

I try to remind myself that beyond the tiny piece missing piece of Caleb’s 22nd chromosome and the autism and mental retardation that he is in some ways a typical 20 year-old young man. He has no interest in talking about feelings with his mom. He isn’t interested in breathing techniques or yoga. Unlike neurotypical 20 year-olds, though, when Caleb is extremely upset he hits himself in the face with such strength that he draws blood. He screams and retreats. It’s very difficult to find a balance and for me to know how to help him.

Caleb and I are connected in a way that transcends most parent/child relationships. Because his verbal communication is so limited, I am his voice. I know what he’s thinking at almost any time, from nonverbal cues and from spending all of my time with him. I’ve been told that my aura merges with his when he needs help. Consequently, I can sense when a situation arises that will cause him undue anxiety, which raises my own anxiety, which Caleb feels and then reacts to. It’s the worst kind of cycle and it leaves us both exhausted.

Along with depression and anxiety, being the caregiver of a young adult with special needs often leads to isolation and confinement, which causes another level of depression. Caleb is charming and funny, but all social situations exhaust him to varying degrees. Disruption of routine causes a full-body meltdown. We live in a part of the country that rarely sees snow, but when it happens, the entire county shuts down for days, interrupting routine, school and activities that Caleb enjoys. Over the past four days he has said, “I hate snow. Snow go home” on repeat for all of his waking hours.

I’m sharing this here so that medical and psychological professionals who care for those with special needs can get a glimpse into why the caregiver maybe didn’t shower or put on clean clothes before an appointment. We may look older than our years. Many of us struggle with sleep disorders.

Research is building on caregiver stress, but we need more. Caregivers are often diagnosed with post-traumatic stress and anxiety disorders. The divorce rate when a couple has a child with special needs is 80%. Whatever we are doing right now isn’t working.

Most of us were not paragons of mental health to begin with. Then the ones whom we love more than life, through no fault of their own, drain away whatever reserves we have left. Most of us put a brave but fake smile on when we talk to others because if we let a glimpse of our inner turmoil surface we would completely fall apart. We can often rally for big events, like surgeries or illnesses, and then we collapse in a mess of our own. It’s not a winning situation.

Raising and loving a child with special needs is already a situation rife with challenge. Of the dozens of families whom I have been privileged to meet over the past two decades, most of the parents tell me that they already struggled with both anxiety and depression before their medically fragile child was born. Disappointingly, having a child with special needs doesn’t automatically imbue you with the strength which will be required. If anything, a child with so many needs simply reveals in harsh relief the fissures which already exist in both an individual and a family.

What can caregivers do to strengthen themselves and give their special needs loved one the best platform for a successful life? I really wish there were a simple, one-size-fits-all answer. One thing most families struggle with is finding appropriate, dependable help and assistance. I have no idea how to accomplish this.  Respite isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity for families who are burdened with so many doctor appointments, behavioral challenges, illnesses, injuries, surgeries and the constant stress of atypical days. We need to learn to ask for and receive help, another endeavor in which I constantly fail.

If we are struggling with anxiety, depression or a paralyzing mix of both, we need to get help for ourselves. This help can be medications, rescue medications, therapy and support groups. I can’t overstate how much it helps to be able to talk with those who fully understand. You will find that you all speak the same language and this in itself is relaxing.

Because we are so often “on” for those around us, we need to find somewhere to release all of our own emotions. I keep two lists on Netflix: one of movies that make me cry and one of movies that make me laugh. Some days it’s hard to pick which one I need, but laughter and tears can get so many ugly emotions out and refresh our souls.

Every caregiver of someone who suffers from anxiety and depression needs to take care of themselves so that they can provide care without it draining them of the energy they need to provide that level of care. Each caregiver needs to decide exactly what they need to be able to function as a super-caregiver, and then seek out whatever it is they need to be that person.

Our loved ones deserve nothing less.