If Only I Could Send Autism to a Black Hole

I typically try to write positive blogs because I know there are so many people out there who need to hear words of hope.

This one will not be like that. Maybe this one will reach the other people who need to hear another type of blog, one that they can understand and relate to.

Are you ever just bopping along on a typical day, feeling pretty good when something comes along and shatters that feeling like a rock through your bedroom window? You’re left thinking, “Hey, what just happened here? How did we go from there to here?

Today was Mother’s Day. The day we planned was going to be wonderful. My incredibly sweet boyfriend and I would cook and entertain my mom, attempting to show in some miniscule way how much we appreciate her. Caleb knew the plans and was excited about everything. He spent the morning coloring at the kitchen island rather than up in his room, where he chooses to spend much of his time.

My mom came, we had brunch and champagne and it was such fun. She brought a few movies that she wanted to share with us and that was good, too.

Until.

I’ve written that Caleb can’t handle emotional changes in others. I was told years ago that people with autism actually gather too much information in facial emotions and that it’s painful. I live by this credo. I am intentionally blank all the time when I am around him. But sometimes others, no matter how well-intentioned, forget.

That’s what happened today the movie. I don’t even remember the plot but once I felt tears sting at the corner of my eyes, I stifled them, like pouring sand on them to keep them from coming to the surface. My mom, who was loving every second of the movie, welled up, tears covering the entire surface of her eyes, threatening to spill over like a dam into a river.

Caleb, who misses nothing, looked at her. I could feel the anger surge up through him until he turned to me and said, “Shut up, bitch.”

No one has ever spoken to me like this.

I know that if I yell at Caleb, it exacerbates the situation. If I ignore it, he thinks it’s okay. I simply pointed my finger to his room upstairs.

“Sorry, Mom,” he said, with true regret.

“I understand, but you need to go upstairs and calm down.”

“Sorry, Mom,” he said, but now he was standing.

“Upstairs,” I said, pointing.

“I push your face,” he yelled, hitting my pointer finger with such force that it reverberated up my arm and shook my neck, aggravating the two plates and six screws put there four years ago.

My boyfriend told Caleb that he can never hit his mom. My mom sat in her chair in open-mouthed shock.

Rather than engage, I left the room, I went to the back of the house to my bathroom. I leaned on the counter, taking deep breaths and trying and failing to not cry.

I know he doesn’t fully comprehend what he said. But I also know that he knew it was incredibly incendiary. I know he knew it was bad.

In the novel and documentary Life Animated, Ron and Cornelia Suskind exquisitely told the story of their son, Owen Suskind, who was locked in the isolated and isolating world of autism. At age three, autism descended and Owen stopped speaking. But over time, he did begin to talk, using phrases from Disney movies. He was using them appropriately and finally able to communicate with his family. His family adapted and they were overjoyed that they could finally communicate with their son. This young man grew up to be a motivational speaker. It’s a magnificent story.

Caleb also used Disney movie quotes to talk. Years before I ever saw Life Animated, I had adapted my verbiage so that Caleb and I could communicate. Caleb has an innate ability to understand and mimic phrases that he could never string together on his own. He uses them in completely appropriate ways and it opened up a world between us.

I don’t know from where these new, dark, sickening phrases have come. Even though he is 22 years old, I have parental locks on all of his devices. His TV does not have cable. He knows older people at his day program and perhaps he’s picked up on what they say or even movies they watch there. I’m not blaming anyone. He’s 22. But I wouldn’t allow any other 22 year old to speak to me in this way so we will work on it.

Tears gathered in my eyes and I let them fall. I breathed out and breathed in, in an exaggerated pace, trying to calm myself. Those words were an assault, especially compared to the absolutely lovely card he had given me hours before.

Just yesterday, Caleb, my boyfriend and I were out running errands. Almost near home, Caleb asked, “Mother’s Day card?”

My incredible, wonderful, exceedingly kind boyfriend took Caleb to help him pick out a card. He said that Caleb zeroed in on one right away. Key phrases were: “I know you gave me all you could, and that you worked and worried.” Another was: “You had my back, no matter what, I never felt alone. Knowing you were always there made our house a home.”

Could Caleb have read and comprehended that card? I will never stop believing that he did, that he knew exactly what that card communicated.

So what happened in the hours between lauding me as a good mom and him calling me a bitch?

I’m there, leaning on the counter in my bathroom, tears slowly falling, when he showed up at my side.

Seeing the tears in my eyes, Caleb angrily said, “I will punch you in the face.”

“Get out of here,” I said quietly, slowly shutting and locking my bathroom door.

If I could kick autism in the ass and send it screaming into a black hole oh, I would do it in a heartbeat. No regret. Autism resounds like Alzheimer’s, dementia, TBI and other mental disorders. It scrambles the brain. It twists a personality until it looks like a petrified forest. It ruins families and it leaves those affected with minds riddled with disease. It’s horrifically unfair. There are few times that I have hated it more than I do today.

I try to not let this exchange ruin what has been an otherwise happy Mother’s Day. I have my mom here and it has been such fun to spoil her with a gift she loved and food that I know felt like a treat to her. She was the main focus of this day and she told me she had a wonderful one.

For me, Caleb’s actions sucked all of the air out of the day. They left me feeling like a sock puppet without a hand. They left me feeling like all I have done, all I have sacrificed for 22 years, has delineated to this crushing moment. I feel like I have failed, like I forgot an important lesson or missed a crucial teaching moment.

I haven’t, I know. I’ve poured everything I am into this child. This wonderful, vibrant, inquisitive, funny, incredibly intelligent child.

But he’s not a child anymore.

At six feet, two inches and over 240 pounds, Caleb is a man to be reckoned with. It’s so challenging to look at that visage and try to remember that he is mentally about six, though there are parts of him that are age-appropriate. That’s what the three deep breaths in the bathroom were about. I was stepping outside the situation, calming myself and trying to remember how I would have dealt with him or his sister at age five.

I don’t have the answers for this one. I spent yesterday curled under the blanket that used to lie on his little twin bed. It is tattered and worn almost through in spots because I have used it almost every day since he outgrew it. It reminds me of the precious baby I almost lost to open-heart surgery. It reminds me of the chubby baby hands that clapped and giggled while reaching for me. It reminds me of a time where I was blessed with an innocence that saw Caleb’s future in a much different way. I guess it’s my very own super hero cape because it allows me to slip into sweet memories instead of whatever is happening that day.

To all of you out there who have been through something like this, I’m so sorry. I wish I could hug you. To all of you who know and love Caleb, don’t let this change that.

One of the greatest lessons that Caleb has taught me is that each day is a fresh day. He wakes up happy and ready to meet the day, without bringing up whatever sad things happened the day before.

He inspires me to do the same.

 

Photo credit: Springer Nature

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Ladies and Gentlemen, We Now Begin Our Initial Descent into Neverland

I first began worrying about Neverland in 2009. Caleb was 13, still making progress, but it was becoming clearer that he would never be independent. I vacillated between the idea of him living with me forever or living in a residential home with others like him. It’s a mental battle I like to call the sleep thief.

My past life, before I left my ex-husband, was pretty opulent. On that night in 2009, I was in a limo, riding to a lovely restaurant with the wife of one of his employees

She was complaining about into which of several schools her two middle-school athlete sons might gain acceptance. Which college, that is.

Even though my ex had whined at me innumerable times to avoid this topic, I said, “My only problem is that one child will leave for college and one never will.”

What followed was the silence of a bleached-blonde (actually, no prejudice against that one), gel-nailed, spray-tanned, four-hours-every-day-in-the-gym content woman. I wouldn’t trade Caleb or Sophie for anything, but I did wonder what life would be like if it was like hers.

Pink flushed down her face to her neck, and she replied, “Uh, um, I never thought of that.” She then looked out the window at the tapestry of Tampa traffic for the next half-hour.

Caleb has loved Peter Pan since before he could walk. It honestly wasn’t until our 86th time on the Peter Pan ride at Disney World (I already mentioned the opulent lifestyle, right?) that I realized that my son was Peter Pan. He would never, ever grow up. There are so many blessings for him in that world, but so many trials for me.

My Sophie graduated high school with honors. She graduated college with honors. She’s now in a super competitive graduate school program. She flew out of the nest and made a strong, loving, independent life with her darling husband. She’s done all of this on her own. She gives me the great privilege of being her mom, a gift which is not lost on me.

Caleb graduated high school in May, standard fare for a 21 year-old in our state. I was lost, not knowing the next step, until an incredibly attentive friend told me about a day program. I am a support parent for the entire state. I have advocated for countless families for a few decades. But even I didn’t know about this particular program.

Caleb started in July—it’s fabulous. The age ranges are from 21 to 70s and beyond. He goes out into the community for park visits, movies, outreach events, everything you can imagine. He wakes up every morning extremely happy to meet the day.

It’s enough for him. But not enough for me.

So I began a new journey.

For the past six months I have been navigating the horrid, unthinkable, soul-crushing, heart-stopping world of finding a residential home for Caleb. The requirement in my state is that I prove I am physically unable to care for him. On regular visits to three of the specialists who treat me for various ailments, I asked them to write letters stating my health conditions and how they affect my ability to care for Caleb.

The three letters I received listed 18 serious and degenerative conditions. I knew I wasn’t doing well, but I was shocked. If you passed me on the street, I would look like a normal healthy 49 year-old.

Inside, I am rotten, crumbling and more ill than I knew. Genetics? Maybe. Habits? Definitely not. Stress? No question in the world.

I’m not going to list the conditions here but several will cripple me and a few will eventually kill me.

And then what of Caleb? Do I want him rushed into a residential placement in an emergency situation? Hell no. I want to help find him a great place and decorate his room with either what he already has, so he feels comfort, or all new things, so he feels excitement.

Caleb is ferociously attached to me, as I am to him. This break will fully shatter us both.

My goal, therefore, has been to ease him through this. To assist in the process and stay a very active part of his life.

To that end, I gathered up paperwork, met with caseworkers, wrote an excruciating letter about not being able to care for my child. It was reviewed by an entire board.

And they had more questions.

DDSN workers came to my home for “additional questions.” This doesn’t always happen. I questioned and questioned and questioned but was told it was necessary.

The day of the visit, I looked like I normally do. Rachel from Friends top-knot. Clean face but no makeup. Clean clothes but not fancy.

But I failed in a way I hadn’t considered. The house was immaculate. I will tell you, I could have stage 4 cancer and my home would be immaculate. It’s what my family does, no matter the pain or fatigue it causes. Maybe it’s pride, maybe it’s comfort but it’s what we do. Unfortunately, it made me seem to be healthier and stronger than I am.

After the visit, I received a letter stating that Caleb’s application was denied. The reason listed was “other.” I begged for an answer more specific but was told that I have enough support to care for Caleb. I wouldn’t have begun the process if that were remotely true.

So, all of you out there in Neverland, I share this so you know this can happen. Now I must appeal. After more than two decades of fighting for proper supports, school placement, classroom placement, for doctors to listen to me when I know something is wrong, I am sapped.

Why does everything have to be a fight?

I am by nature a peacemaker. I want the world to be happy and fair and kind and accepting of everyone. But this life with Caleb has made me a street fighter; a completely reluctant pacifist street fighter, but one who can throw a heck of a punch.

At six months old I noticed a hole in the crack of Caleb’s bottom. I scheduled an MRI. The day before, with no confirmation call I telephoned to inquire.

“Ma’am, you must not have completed the registration. There is no appointment for your son.”

Adrenaline flooded through me. I had been waiting weeks to see if this terrifying hole was actually a tethered spinal cord. I hadn’t slept. Or breathed.

For the second time in my life, God’s words took the place of my own. I surely could not have conjured the following sentence:

“I don’t know if you have children and if you do, I pray they don’t have special needs, but if they do, I hope that people are kinder to you than you are being to me right now.”

I heard a quiet intake of breath, then a softened voice, “You’re right. I’m so sorry. We can see Caleb next Tuesday at 10:00.”

It ended up being something called a sacral dimple, just a hole. But the process of getting the diagnosis depleted every ounce of energy I had. I scooped up what was left to take care of my two babies, leaving nothing left for me.

Flash-forward 22 years, and you can almost physically see the state of my mind and body. Exhaustion is the slurry at the edge of a dry pond.

After reading the denial letter several times, I spent eight hours on my couch yesterday. Alternating between bent-over sobbing and binge-watching shows that take me to another reality, I gave myself over to the grief. I didn’t used to do this. I used to shove it down, let it fester, take root and then drag my soul to the depths of a dark, gloppy sea for months, years at a time.

I’m smarter now. I gave into it, stared into the abyss and frightened it away. After a nap and a shower, I had shaken the grief off like so many fall leaves.

Today was to be our final visit with Caleb’s developmental pediatrician. We’ve lost all of the pediatric specialists but this one would be a slice on a papercut. I went to shower and put on the mask of false happiness. But when I walked into the bathroom, I said, to the tile floor, “fuck it.”

I picked through the dirty laundry to find the clothes I’d worn the day before. I layered a black sweater over a black wrinkled t-shirt. I twisted my dirty hair into a sad replica of a Rachel top knot. I left the darkened shadows under my eyes untouched. I used no mascara or blush. I wore no earrings. I looked at myself and said, “Well, it is what it is.”

Still, being my parents’ daughter, I walked tall. I made sure that Caleb was freshly shaved, his body and hair properly washed and even applied that bit of gel that keeps his cowlick in place. He was dressed in new, clean clothes that smell like summer. He wore new Adidas sneakers that my extraordinarily kind boyfriend bought him.

We have seen this wonderful doctor since Caleb was two. She walked into the room, took a second look at me and said, “What’s going on?”

Then, “You’re exhausted.”

I told her everything I’ve just told you. She was as confused as me about the denial. She asked to see Caleb one more time and to get him in with some specialists who may help. Her social worker called and offered her help. They are the pixie dust with which Caleb and I have been blessedly sprinkled so many times in 22 years.

Today I begin the appeals process. I will have to scrape energy from long-foraged and scraped cells and do my best for my son once again.

It’s what you do when you are about to land in Neverland.

Photo credit: scrooge-mcduck.wikia.com

 

Grief and the Special Needs Parent

When my son Caleb was born in 1996, he was taken from me by ambulance before he was  12 hours old to have open-heart surgery in another state. Recovering from my second C-section in 17 months, I was forced to wait four days in a maternity ward, crying and staring at the wall, ignoring the hushed whispers of everyone who passed by my closed door. Finally, I left early, against medical advice, so I could see my son one more time before he might die.

I thank God that Caleb survived the surgery. I marvel at doctors who could create an aorta out of cadaver tissue and use a tiny piece of Dacron to close a hole between Caleb’s pumping ventricles.

Three weeks after surgery, six white-coat doctors came into the room to tell me that open-heart surgery was only the beginning. I had heard the term DiGeorge Syndrome (now called 22Q Deletion Syndrome) bandied about by different doctors during my time at the children’s hospital but the words didn’t stick, falling like non-metal from a magnet.

The doctors who came into the room were an immunologist, a neurologist, a general pediatrician, two geneticists and Caleb’s cardiologist. I listened in stunned silence as they told me that Caleb had this genetic syndrome and would require life-long care, a litany of therapies, special schools and a host of medical specialists to keep him healthy. They meant well. They were equipping me with vital knowledge.

I hadn’t processed the trauma of Caleb’s birth. I hadn’t processed that my four day-old baby had to have his ribs cracked open, his brain put on ice and his circulation stopped for an hour while his heart was surgically corrected. I hadn’t processed the four missed spinal tap attempts when he developed a fever.

When the doctors were about halfway through, I simply fell to the floor. Another parent in the shared hospital room came and helped me into a chair. As soon as I sat down, it felt like I would fall through it, circling endlessly down a rabbit hole.

I eventually got up and was sent home briefly due to risk of a nervous breakdown which I was probably already having. When I brought Caleb home a few days later, I was immediately thrust into being the full-time caregiver of a critically ill baby. Nine therapists flooded our home every week, we had at least two doctor visits each week and Caleb was severely sick for two weeks of every month for two full years.

When Caleb was four, during a routine check-up, his developmental pediatrician calmly tossed out that he was mentally retarded. I stopped breathing. I truly didn’t know. I didn’t want to know. Numb, I went home and fell into the first of many deep depressions. Grief pulled at me in shadows but I kept hiding from it.

Over the years, there have been month-long illnesses, hundreds of tests, horrific injuries and more unwanted diagnoses. Each one consumes me. Once it has passed, I have to remind myself to take time to grieve. It’s not an easy thing to do.

Grieving feels like a betrayal of my son. He’s still here. He’s still breathing. What right do I have to grieve?

Years later, I met with the children’s hospital at their request to tell them about the experience of finding out that my child was so sick. I told them I understood their intentions and was grateful for the information. I then told them that when they tell new parents that their child is not healthy, they also need to tell them that they have permission to grieve.

A few weeks ago, Randi Zaila posted a profound blog, Grieving My Living Child. She wrote: “My child is alive yet I grieve my loss over her every day. How awful others must think of me if they have actually lost their child to this world in both the physical and spiritual sense.”

Grief is a relentless bastard. As Patton Oswalt wrote in a gut-wrenching post about the recent loss of his wife: “Grief makes depression cower behind you and apologize for being such a dick.”

Grief can’t be quantified, compared or explained but it needs to be painfully endured. I was so impressed that Randi Zaila in only 10 months of being a mom to a child with special needs already understood that she needs to grieve the loss of a healthy child, the loss of the life that every parent expects to lead.

I wrote Randi that she will continue to grieve throughout her daughter’s life. Her grief isn’t over. She will need to process it many times or risk falling completely apart.

That’s the other thing about grief—just when you think you’ve gone through the worst of it, it shows up again, knocking at every window and darkening every door.

Caleb will be 20 years old in a few months. I have finally learned to grieve without negating the privilege of having him here.

I’ve written before that one of Caleb’s contemporaries became a Marine this year. Some of the kids who started out in special education with Caleb have graduated and found jobs. Others are in college or travelling the world. Though I rejoice for them, they are all reminders of what Caleb won’t be able to do and they are all triggers for grief.

This week, Caleb’s teacher told me that I need to focus more on all that Caleb can do. She’s right. He has come so far. Hope can deflate grief and I intend to draw that weapon more often.

What gives me the greatest hope is that mothers like Randi Zaila may signal a sea change in parenting special needs children. If they have gotten the message about necessary grief at such an early stage of their parenting, it will only strengthen them and prepare them for all of the challenges to come.

I pray that along with permission to grieve, these truly special parents are also imbued with hope to pull them out of it.