Grief Without a Timetable

DSCN0669“Every childhood has its trauma. This will just be theirs,” said my therapist who helped me through the separation that led to my divorce some five years back. I nodded, holding back the tears. What had transpired in the previous two to three years seemed too traumatic for me to bear in my last thirties. How were my boys, only 10 and 6 at the time — babies, for goodness sake–supposed to weather this trauma? Shouldn’t their greatest traumas at these ages be skinned knees and dropped ice cream cones?

My greatest trauma prior to the slow, agonizing end of my own marriage was my parents’ separation when I was 15. The divorce, a year later, and subsequent remarriages were brief showers of grief compared to the devastating hurricane of my 15th year that followed the (to me) shocking announcement of their separation.

Around that time, I took a religion class in my Catholic high school about death and dying, and Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief were a focal point of the class. Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance. Presented as a linear progression of grieving for the dying and bereaved, I don’t recall relating those stages to the depressive fury that filled that next year of my life. Acceptance actually came quickly after a brief period of denial I kept to myself. I was to live with my dad for the rest of high school, visiting my mom a few times a week. That wasn’t going to change, and I had not one fantasy about parents reunited and family restored. But mine wasn’t a peaceful acceptance, but rather a resigned one punctuated with an anger so deep I couldn’t speak it or even acknowledge its existence, and depression that, while not incapacitating me, sucked a light out that had burned brightly before. At once I was accepting, angry, sad, and, come each holiday and all its dilemmas, incredulous that I was in balancing act forever. Over the years, after I could touch more of the anger without retreating in pain, all of those feelings softened, but they’ve never remained entirely away. It’s grief without a timetable.

Our human condition and resulting emotions are messy and chaotic, but our human brains prefer organization. We like logical progression, moving from A to B to C over days or weeks or years. We like to categorize people and feelings and ways of being in the world. Consider Erikson’s stages of development, the DSM’s divisions of mental illness, the Enneagram and Myers Briggs personality categories, and even astrology’s assignments of traits and fates. We sort and order our belongings and ourselves, desperate for the comfort of order. So ordering grief? Why not?

Because it doesn’t work. Mark Epstein, psychiatrist and author of “The Trauma of Being Alive” (New York Times, August 3, 2013) says it well:

Mourning, however, has no timetable. Grief is not the same for everyone. And it does not always go away. The closest one can find to a consensus about it among today’s therapists is the conviction that the healthiest way to deal with trauma is to lean into it, rather than try to keep it at bay.

Dr. Epstein goes on to describe his mother’s grieving of her first husband’s death, a long process never entirely resolving. His mother goes on to marry again and live a full life, albeit with the occasional nagging doubt, “Shouldn’t I be over this by now?” His answer? Trauma never goes away completely.

While my trauma from my parents’ divorce nearly three decades ago has largely receded from my thoughts, the unwinding of my own marriage, a long and messy process, brought fresh grief that has yet to mellow to an occasional wistful sigh. Far wiser at 38 than at 15, I knew from the start I had to acknowledge those feelings that churned up without bidding and with little respect to time or place rather than deny them, as I had done as a teen.  As the separation morphed into divorce, I could usually tuck the tears of fear and anger and resentment away at least until I made it up to my room and shut the door. There, alone or with a friend on the other end of the phone line, I could let the feelings rise then ebb, like some unpredictable and cruel tide.

But grief wasn’t always that neat and manageable. Grief resists containment, corroding the container if bottled up and exploding out when the lid is just slightly loosened. But sometimes I shoved a particularly painful emotion inside, finding it ugly or just inconvenient. Sometimes it spilled out at church or in the car or while cleaning the garage or when talking to my then husband turning ex-husband or parenting my children. I know at points I have deepened their trauma by poorly managing my own grief.

After a few years, the grief surfaced less often and with far less intensity. Too many times I’ve asked myself what Dr. Epstein’s mother asked: Shouldn’t this be over by now? Recent events and revelations have again brought me back too often to a place of deep sadness and hot anger. They come so fast and hit so hard they threaten to knock me out of the tenuous equilibrium I thought I’d reached. I’m floored by their ability to render me incapable of right speech, right action, right view, or any other peaceful way of being in the world. It is, in one sense, a new trauma to add onto the pain of five years back. It is also far more manageable, since it is really just another chapter of the old trauma. I know this pain, and I know that my best response is to do as Epstein says: Lean in. It works. And the pain passes, whatever expression of emotion it has taken, at least for the time being.

The first Buddhist truth says it well: Life is suffering. That’s not too far from my therapist’s wise words about every childhood having its trauma. We will experience trauma. We will suffer. It’s inevitable. And grieving? That’s what inevitably follows trauma, or at least the traumas that aren’t our own deaths. Everything ends. That’s the promise of life, after all.

So is it depressing that grief with no timetable will follow inevitable trauma? A bit, but it’s a truth worth accepting. Perhaps that’s the acceptance we should really strive to find: Not an acceptance that ends to our disbelief, anger, sadness, and pain but rather an acceptance that these feelings may just not ever evaporate entirely and that it’s okay that our minds and hearts work that way. It’s still unsettling, and grief brought to one’s own children is a trauma all its own. It’s life, though, so I’ll lean in, wait out each round, and watch their tides and ride my own.

Peace.

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Thankfulness, Fears, and Hopes

Aaron's Pictures 8 2010 038Not long ago, I posted about a spate of existential depression that hit this winter (Existential Darkness in the Dawning of the New Year). My mood has improved, perhaps due to news avoidance and regular use of a light box for my anxious, moody version of Seasonal Affective Disorder, but perhaps also due to taking some advice from a friend. A friend from church told me she started each day with a simple meditation, asking herself three questions:

  • What am I thankful for?
  • What do I fear?
  • What do I hope for?

It’s a simple list, and it immediately reminded me of guidance I received on prayer some 25 years back. During my Catholic years, I was taught that prayer had four elements: praise, thanksgiving, petition, and listening. Fast forward to a time when I use the word divine to describe tiramisu, a passage of music, or that first sip of coffee in the morning, and that formula for prayer is hard to translate into atheist meditation. While I can sit in awe at a sunrise or a child’s sleeping face, I don’t believe in a being to praise for that natural wonder or rush of love. The lack of belief in a divine meaning leaves asking for help out of the question and listening an act of searching the silence and self rather than the whisper of a savior.

But this list I can do. I tried it at first at night, a few weeks before my artificial sunshine lamp was suppressing morning melatonin and lifting my mood. As anxiety mounted, I asked myself, “What am I thankful for?” I can’t recall my answer that night, but I know I didn’t ponder the question but rather answered immediately, in the privacy of my thoughts. “What do I fear?” came next, and in my anxious state, I could have gone on and on, but managed to name one, the first that came to mind. And in naming it, its power reduced. Not a lot. But enough. “What do I hope for?” was the last, and that answer was certain: I hope to not feel this existential angst and anxiety that had plagued so much of the previous month. And eventually, I fell asleep.

While I never managed to start each morning with that list,  I’m still  working through it most nights. Well, I work through most of it most nights. Often I fall asleep before getting to hope, a more positive outcome than it sounds in writing.

For me, the order of the questions matters: thankfulness, fears, hopes. Were I to start with my fears, I’d end up wound up in such a knot I’d never sleep, effects of my artificial morning light be damned. And leading with hopes would seem somehow greedy and ungrateful. And to end in fear? That seems, well, sad and scary. Thankfulness, fears, hopes. It works.

I’m often surprised by the answers to those questions, especially when I do this exercise as my rational mind is shutting down and allowing the more random selector of dream material to surface. At this tender spot between the harried day and sleep, I tend to consider more what lies at my core and far less of what “should” be. One night, after an exceptionally hard day with my boys, I may find myself thankful for the time I share with my children, reflecting on that gift that particular homeschooling offers despite the challenges the day presented. The fear follows but with a different note: Have I done enough and made the right choices, the ones that afford them plenty of options as they move into adulthood? What am I missing? What are they missing? My hope sandwiches the fear, and may be either a hope for peace within me or wisdom as I continue on that journey. Or perhaps even both.

Sometimes what starts as a personal reflection turns outward, away from me, finding focus on the bigger world. Just a few nights back, after again another medical bill was rejected by my expensive and questionably valuable individual health care insurance policy, the following answers to those questions came forth:

  • I am thankful for the coverage I have, which would probably protect me from financial ruin should something awful happen. I’m thankful for the resources to fill in those gaps in coverage and enough professional medical knowledge avoid unnecessary visits and their inevitable bills.
  • I fear for those without the safety net of good insurance, for those who go without care because they can’t afford it and for a society that doesn’t value its citizenry enough to see universal coverage as a right.
  • I hope for change in that society, from the top down and the bottom up. I hope someday we’ll get it right.

More often, though, the reflection remains more personal and, with no effort, focused on a concern in my life that often wasn’t at the forefront of my mind during the day.  The act of being grateful ameliorates the strength of the fear before it is even mentioned. Naming the fear, even if already weakened, reveals the hope behind it. Daring to whisper the hope in the quiet of my head makes it seem somehow less unobtainable — possible, even.

So each night (and sometimes during difficult patches during the day) I finish with a short reflection that often reveals more than I’d guessed was in my head.  It’s not prayer, and it’s not silent meditation, but for now, it’s a way to quiet the noise and focus my attention on the matters of my heart. It is a stillness that brings clarity and peace, and that’s divine.

Dreaming a Little Dream

Hocking HillsI can’t stop reading over the job announcement. These arrive regularly, advertising positions in Michigan for Physician Assistants in a myriad of positions. Surgery. Dermatology. ER. Oncology. Primary care. I don’t even open most of them. Parenting two kids who appreciate that they live just half a mile away from their father and close to all the people and places they’ve known since birth makes thoughts of relocation a nonstarter. Oh, and there’s that homeschooling part where I teach, coach, and drive from dawn until well after dusk. That’s not compatible with 12 hour shifts no matter where the location, never mind one in Ironwood, a town of under 6,000 people in the most northwestern parts of the Upper Peninsula.

But I can’t stop reading the announcement. It spent a week on the stairs, my mail-holding spot, followed by a week on my desk before being pinned to the cork board in the kitchen. It’s not the fine salary, primary care work, flexible hours, and benefits that would ease my mind that keep it in sight. It’s not for a desire of the pace of a small town in the rural northern part of the lower 48.  As I moved the letter from one place to another, rereading it and sharing it with a few friends, I wondered why I was so obsessed with a job that I couldn’t take in a place I couldn’t inhabit until my youngest is grown.

And then the answer came. It offered me permission to dream. That letter lets me wonder about roads not taken yet and all the possibilities that lay ahead. It reminds me that those roads and possibilities aren’t closed for good but just waiting until later. At a point where I feel mired in responsibility for the two people I love beyond all reason, this announcement  offers what has long felt illicit — a daydream where I’m not mom first and me when there is time.

I’ve been told I’m lousy at dreaming. It’s true. I can’t get lost in the what ifs and lose myself in possibilities or impossibilities. A short jaunt down the daydream road is detoured by concerns about finances, timing, the feelings of others, and uncertainty. Especially those dreams that touch the edges of reality. Those are the hardest to leave as dreams to either be realized or just enjoyed in theory only. Those are the most prone to my prodding, probing, analyzing mind.

It seems that sucks the fun out of dreaming. Okay, I can see that. If you’re musing along, thinking about what might be, reality isn’t your best friend. Whether that be fantasizing about the writing the book that’s brewing in the barrier between consciousness and unconsciousness or sketching plans for the house overlooking the shore of Lake Whatever, reality isn’t welcome. And yet I can’t chase it away. I wonder about if the book would ever be published or purchased. I worry that I have nothing to say than anyone would ever read. I do the math on the land plus materials while realizing that I like a more urban setting and despise driving in lake effect snow (or any snow). Reality bumps its big nose into the dream, shoving it into the closet or simply sending it crashing to the floor, breaking it into a hundred different pieces.

So I stink at dreaming.  I don’t know if I’ve always been this way or if it’s a product of responsibility for children and a home. I can remember dreaming with my once-husband. He’d buy a couple of lottery tickets a few times a year, tickets to dreaming about what we’d do. It was a far better investment than tickets to the movies or dinner out. For a few dollars, we’d dream about the house we’d build, the trips we’d take, jobs we’d change, the mortgages of family we’d pay off, of the giving we could do. For an hour, reality stayed away. Everything was open and change was possible. I can’t recall us bringing up what we knew money wouldn’t change — that all stayed away for a time, irrelevant and unwelcome to the dream state. We had other (non lottery-based) dreams, too, but time has erased them from my memory.

And now for too many years, I can’t access that freedom to dream, at least for myself.  I can dream for my children. I dream of them happy and gainfully employed, loving partner at their side, perhaps with grandchildren decades from now. I dream of them immersing themselves in what they love, passionate and persistent with, ironically dreams of their own. Perhaps it’s the undeniable truth that I have no say in the outcome of their lives (aside from loving and educating them now) that makes this dreaming possible. It happens beyond me, after they leave my reach.

So why now? Why does this job announcement live on my cork board  carried to the kitchen table to be read and reread? Why do I find myself wondering about a house in the woods or high on a hill, surrounded by trees and space. Why do I think through the ten twelve-hour shifts a month in the walk-in clinic, with plenty of days to write, teach writing, or do something else that occupies the wordy part of my brain? Why do I think about the view outside my dreamed-window, watching snow pile deeper and deeper, with a fire in the stove and music in the background?

Perhaps it’s the sheer impossibility of it that makes it dream-fodder. I’m planted for now, close to friends and close to the father of my boys. I don’t really know that I’d like living remotely, urban/suburban person I’ve always been. That may be the magic of the dream. It takes me out of myself, letting me be whomever I might like to be. I can imagine that I like that rural life, that snow, the potential for solitude and freedom of schedule while doing two jobs I enjoy. With no real possibility of making that move in the next many years, I’m free to dream what might be someday without feeling reality intrude.

So I’m working at it. I’m dreaming a bit, here and there, reminding myself to stay in the dream and exclude all the evaluation and concerns. The job announcement flits between my desk and cork board, not so much because that job is my dream but because it reminds me I can let my thoughts go to what might be without that being an evaluative statement on what is. With some practice, I might not need the paper reminder to drop concerns about finances, logistics, and general problems while allowing my heart and mind to wander to Ironwood and beyond.

Running With Ambulances

The first ambulance made me smile. Two and three-quarter miles into what would be my first three-mile run, I heard the siren behind me. I’d only planned to run the two-and-a-half, but three just seemed too close to stop. My breath was ragged and my gut was protesting this last half mile commitment. The ambulance roared up the street, sirens blaring and lights ablaze, and I was certain someone had called it for me. If I looked half as bad as I felt at that point, that seemed like a logical conclusion. As it streaked past, I turned my last corner toward home, half chuckling and half wondering if this was a sign I’d pushed it a bit too much too soon.

Per the advice of my esteemed running mentor, I backed off on my next run and promised not to increase my mileage for another few weeks, and then only by ten percent. (I also promised to take a tissue since it seems blowing snot onto neighbors’ lawns violates running etiquette. Why spit is acceptable by snot is not, I am not sure, but I follow the advice of my mentor. From shoe selection to tech shirt decontamination, she’s my go-to woman for all things running.) I’ve committed to running three times a week, weather and body permitting, with a goal of increasing cardiovascular fitness and running a few 5Ks this summer. I’m following no particular program or schedule but do check in with my expert and friend.

A few days later, I set out on what was to be another 2.5 mile trek. By the two-mile mark I was feeling something akin to sweaty moxie, and decided to go for three again. That’s when I heard the ambulance. Rather than coming from behind me, this one approached from the front, perhaps in an attempt not to frighten my in my fragile state. I stared it down and wondered if I was missing a message. I’m healthy and fairly fit for my age. I shook off the question, turned the corner toward home, and finished the last leg of my run. I arrived home far less fatigued than after the first three-mile loop the previous week with the confidence that the first time hadn’t been a fluke.

I’ve been feeling my age lately. Thus the running. At  >42.5, I know there’s still likely plenty of life ahead of me. I also see how much is behind me. I’m not one to live in the past, but I did spend a significant part of my younger years planning my life far into the future. Children and divorce taught me both are futile paths, although learning from yesterday and preparing for tomorrow are essential for growth and assure there’s enough milk for tomorrow’s cup of coffee. I am, however, wondering when I’m going to get to it.

Now if I only knew what “it” was. Homeschooling and home maintenance fill much of my time, and the moments between are flashes too easily filled with phone class, errands, social media, and other distractions. I’d like to be writing more, doing something larger and longer, but I can’t summon the sustained time, attention, or energy. Inject a fair amount of doubt about what in the world I’d have to say of interest or importance in this vast world, where nothing is really new, and the result is an uncomfortable ennui. That ambulance may not be heading for my decently healthy, somewhat fit body but for my fatigued and discouraged heart and mind.

So it’s time to turn the corner and stop listening to the whining in my head (which could easily be confused with that of an oncoming rescue vehicle).  There’s a road to run, one that for now is paved with homeschooling, home maintenance, work, a bit of writing, supportive friends, and perhaps too many distraction. I can work on decreasing the distractions (no, the kids are staying) and carving out a bit more concentrated time to think and write while remembering that much of the rest of the list is worthy and necessary work. This is my road. It’s been the right road, although sometimes a bit rougher than I liked at the time. It’s part chosen and part chance, and while I don’t know what is beyond the next  corner, I’m sure I have the breath and sweaty moxie to make that ambulance up the street unnecessary.

 

Privilege, Autism, and Mistakes Along the Way

I’ve turned off the lights at Asperger’s at Home.  My short-lived third blog fell prey in part to time pressures and in part to my reluctance to screw up.  Some stinging comments and scorching tumblr feed rants from my post, Love, By Any Other Name, left me shaken and doubting.   A few weeks of theoretically “dialogue” posts on The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism, each day with dozens of comments from autism self-advocates (those on the spectrum who advocate for themselves and others on the spectrum) and parents of autistic children, vitriol flowing back and forth (mainly from self-advocate to parent), kicked me closer to the electronic door.  I’ve decided to leave regular autism blogging to others.

A few good friends have encouraged me to grow a stiffer spine and thicker skin. I wear my heart on my sleeve, and that advice would serve me well across my life.  But that’s not why I’m leaving.

Neurotypical privilege is the term I learned a few weeks back in the dialogue turned diatribe on TPGA.  I’ve long been aware of my white, middle-class, right-handed, heterosexual, (currently) able-bodied privilege.  I’m also a female non-Christian.   I’m not so sure what I’m to do when any of those situations unto which I was born or raised except be aware and alert to the benefits that brings me while being sensitive to those who aren’t that long list.  I was brought up firmly middle class in a largely black upper middle-class neighborhood, and the privilege part of “white” didn’t resonate until around the age of 10. Still, I’ve received plenty of privilege for characteristics I did nothing to earn.  I’m sorry seems grossly insufficient.

So, unaware neurotypical privileged person that I was (I know better now), I blogged about my son’s autism.  Specifically, I blogged about how it affected me.  I used language that suggested that some of the characteristics related to my son’s Asperger’s were hard on me.  I discussed his difficulty with perspective taking, his difficulty reading nonverbals, his social delays, and, in a fit of honesty, I even said I was tired of Asperger’s.

A bit of self defense.  I love my son.  I’d not remove his Asperger’s (although I’d love to release him from his anxiety) anymore than I’d remove his brilliant mind, laughing eyes, and sweet snuggles and purrs.  It’s all part of who he is.  It’s not to be cured, exorcised, rejected, or “treated”.  It’s just him, and I love all of him.  (For the record, sometimes that mind drive me nuts, too.  Don’t get me started on the mouth that goes with that mind.)  But sometimes, I’m tired and defeated.  I had written out of my experiences and feelings. I had often written to sort those two things out.  Trite as it sounds, I’d written from the heart.

But it seems I made mistakes.  Re-reading some of those posts, I can see where I went astray. I overstepped my experience with my son and mused about the ways the characteristics of Asperger’s (generally from the DSM IV) were reflected in him.  This matching of definition to experience is a favorite word pastime of mine, especially when writing or arguing a fine point.  Yes, I’m blogging from my own experience, looking for personal growth and a bit of release from the stress that builds up some days.  I’ve worked hard to be fair to my child in that process.  Since he likes to read what I write (and would undoubtedly complain if he disapproved), I’d not worried about offense.  Yet, I’ve offended.

Could I do it differently, with more thought to those with autism who may read it.  Probably.  Do I want to throw my thoughts through another filter?  Not now.

Not because I don’t care about the rights of autistic people.  Not because I don’t think the voice of those with autism matters.  Not because I know more about autism than those who live it from the inside every day.  Simply because it’s not a battle I want to fight now.  I don’t have the energy to make sure I get it all right, that I really give those with autism their due.  Because I don’t entirely have my head wrapped around that neurotypical privilege that I’ve just learned I have.  Perhaps later, with more time listening to self-advocates and simmering this new stew of information, I’ll step back in.

Not that autism won’t find its way to this blog and Quarks and Quirks. It’s part of my life, part of our lives.  My younger’s Asperger’s touches our daily routines, homeschooling, church life, play, and sleep patterns.  It’s not leaving, and that’s fine by me, but I’ll return to this forum to ponder, wonder, and wander about what autism means to us.

I’d challenge others to consider neurotypical privilege.  Visit Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism.  Lurk on the forums on Wrong Planet.  Keep your mind open.  And if you really want to know what’s going on in the self advocacy world, here’s a few reading opportunities: AutisticSpeaks, Illusion of Competence, Journeys With Autism, and many more.

Breathing Through the Teens

I have a teenager.  I’ve had one for over 13 months, but his “teenagerness” is increasing by the day.  As he alternates between needy child, independent adult, and some amalgamation of both, I find myself reeling, unsure of which child I have at the present moment.

I know I should delight in his increasing independence.  Sometimes I do.

I know I should accept his moodiness and tendency to look sullen during the most festive of occasions.  Sometimes I can.

I know his body and brain are growing and changing so quickly that rational thought, planning, and follow-through are as elusive as a homeschooling family with an orderly house.  I know I should be patient with his uneven abilities now, and, given current brain research, for the next seven to eleven years.

Breathe in.  Breathe out.  Repeat.

Knowing helps a bit, but not as much as I’d like. Of greater help is conversations with friends with 14-year-old boys.  Boys who, a few years back, were smart and generally smelled fine.  Boys who had clean(er) rooms and let parents know where they were going.  Heck, they even asked permission to change location.  They were the same boys with soft skin and the remnants of the sweet smell of earlier childhood.  They seemed to be maturing across the board, becoming more responsible and capable at a fairly steady albeit slow rate.  They seemed to be Getting Somewhere.

Then came adolescence.  As the mom of a late bloomer (okay, at 75 pounds he still is a bud), I’ve had some extra time to revel in the child that is smaller than I, leading to a false sense that he’s remained a child when in fact, he’s quite the adolescent.  As his friends’ voices have lowered, scents have, um, deepened, and shoes grown to the size of canoes, he’s remained small and relatively unscented.  But the small body has been a ruse, lulling me into complacency, thinking this child was still just, well, a child.  Mindwise, brainwise, he’s all teenager.

Breathe in.  Breathe out.  Repeat.

I’m not ready, although I’ve not been truly ready for anything past conception.  No parent is really ready, even as folks wait later and later to have children.  We think we’re ready, but preparation for the unknown takes only acceptance of change and surprise.  There is no class, book, email group, or mom2mom sale that prepares one for parenthood.  It’s trial by fire, with plenty of sweat and tears along the way.  The joy comes as a surprise as well.  No matter what love we thought we’d had when waiting for the child to arrive, the intensity of our love for them is beyond what can be imagined pre-parenthood.  Thank goodness, because all that love keeps it all together, from the sleepless months (years) with little ones needing to nurse or snuggle to the sleepless months (years) when older ones can reveal the worries that only can be shared after 11:30 p.m.

I’ve asked my teen, “Are your okay?” more times in the past year than in his previous 13 years.  His face says nothing when it used to display his every emotion.   Most times, I receive an animated, “I’m fine!” that sounds, well, fine.  And I think he generally is fine.  As I think back to my early teens, I can remember hours spent just thinking, reading, staring into the mirror, and just wondering at life.  I didn’t wonder in a linear way, actually reaching conclusions about life, but I did quite a bit of reviewing events and wondering how it all worked.  I looked to books for most of my information, reading fiction and looking for similarities between myself and the teens in the books.  fortunately, the teen fiction of the early 80s was fairly tame compared to now.  Since my son largely reads about meteorology and other sciences, I doubt his path to self discovery will follow mine.

And it shouldn’t.  He’s his own person, and if nothing else, the work of adolescence is figuring out what that means and who you want to be.  Again, it’s hardly done in a systematic matter, but it’s happening, largely unconsciously.  Which is odd, given it’s such a self-conscious time.  At no other point, it seems, does one spend more time thinking about who one is and less conscious work on shaping that person.  That’s not a slam to teens, but I think it’s just the way the brain works at that point.

Aside from being present to hear him at 11:30 p.m. whenever and from maintaining consistent rules and unending love, there isn’t much I can do for him.  I can’t kiss away his fears about growing up like I could a skinned knee.  I can’t strap him into a backpack, knowing up there he’s safe from the crowds.  And I can breathe.

In.  Out.  Repeat.

I can also cultivate more patience for the confusion he has about himself and the idiosyncrasies of a adolescent’s brain.  I can set aside the expectations from a few years back, where slowly over time he became generally more capable, like height on a growth curve. Growth now is like the stock market: volatile with spurts upward and precipitous drops. Like the market, the trend is up, but it’s easy to get mired in the crashes, the days when I wonder if I’ve done it all wrong.

And so go the early teens. Go they will, all too quickly. Just as the blur of days from his newborn weeks seemed painfully long at the time but only a blink now, so will these teen years fly. And through them, I’ll continue with patience, listen in the dark, and breathe.

Asperger Storms, Kittens, and Hope

This was me last week, before our appointment.

I snapped sometime last week.  I hoped it was just hormonal flux that was the cause of my sniping at, stomping around, and screaming in the vicinity of my kids last week, but the calendar said no.  For weeks, my younger son had been losing it more and more, defying my directions and suggestions, griping at his brother and I, throwing progressively longer and more frequent tantrums, and otherwise unnerving the household.

It’s not that any of that behavior is new.  I’ve been caught in the vortex of his downward spiral before, sucked into despair and anger as he swirls in a storm that doesn’t seem to abate for long enough for me to step into sunlight and hope for a better tomorrow.  I’ve walked on eggshells many times before, as has his brother.  It’s just that every time my younger climbs out of one of those seemingly endless tempests, I like to pretend that it won’t happen again.

But it always does.

And it sucks every time.  Sucks joy out of the house, hope out of my heart, life out of his brother’s eyes.  All around, it just sucks.

His recent pattern has been increasing refusal to do anything directed by another.  Homeschooling is, to say the least, difficult when he wants to whatever he wants to do whenever he wants to do it (and unschooling isn’t the answer, for many reasons).  Parenting is several shades worse.  Meals, grooming, errands, karate class, and chores are all potential minefields.  As I’ve done before during these sieges, I pare down my expectations and plan very little.  The result is sometimes a bare cupboard, a missed trip to the bank, or less than stellar attendance to karate class.  The fewer requests I make, the less he can refuse.  Of course, this doesn’t help us get the tasks of life done.  And it’s not fair to his brother or to me.  It’s just what happens.

Collateral damage also includes a rather shaken mom who sleeps less, yells intermittently, and cries often.  Not that tears have any effect on my younger.  He just doesn’t “get” crying (unless he does it).  When I’m caught up in one of these seemingly endless seasons, I can start to think of him as a psychopath, heartless and cruel, despite knowing it’s just a brain difference gone awry.

By last Thursday, I was ready to run away, sell him to gypsies (or pay them to take him), or start with the wine at breakfast.  All were ideas with unpleasant consequences, so instead, I lost it at his therapist’s appointment.

“So how’s it going?” asked Dr. L to my son.

“Fine.  I’m doing well.” he replies, while reaching into the couch to feel for the plastic rod that holds the couch cover on.  He checks for that every time we come.

Dr. L  caught my eye roll.  She checks for it, and I’ve developed a roll rivaling any teenager.  While usually there’s no one around actually looking at my eyes to see them roll, on Thursdays, my rolls are seen and acknowledged.  For my son’s benefit, I add my verbal dissent.

He seems surprised.  Insert another eye roll.  We’ve been working on a token economy trading school work compliance for “kittens” (small pictures of kittens, not the real item), which can be traded for time on his favorite computer game, Minecraft.  Minecraft should carry a warning similar to that on Oxycodone and tobacco.  It’s wickedly addictive for my more neurotypical son.  It’s crack and heroin together for my Aspie child.  He’ll work to get his fix.

Except he wasn’t really doing that well.  Per agreement with Dr. L, w\he’d started the earning a week before the spending, meaning he had a few hours of kittens stored up when we began the actual program.  By our appointment, he was scraping by, earning 15 to 30 minutes a day, and being highly noncompliant with the rest of life.  Tantruming was increasing.  Parental sanity was in rapid decline.

“Your mom doesn’t seem to think it’s going well,” says Dr. L.  “Why do you think she thinks that?”

I can’t recall his response, but it was hardly insightful or remorseful.  In a span of ten minutes, I moved from politely explaining my concerns to putting my face in my hands while tensely delineating my stress and expectations, to tears.

He never noticed any of those signs of distress.

Yeah, we'd be in trouble if the kitten system required real kittens.

He never does.

Gently, Dr. L asked him to look at me.  He glanced over at me while continuing his tirade.  Why should he listen to me?  Didn’t I understand his brain worked differently?  This could take years, he exclaimed, while I announced through hot, angry tears that I couldn’t last years.

Dr. L asked him why I was crying.  “She just wants to get her way,” he said, his voice laced with scorn and dismissal.

The next 10 minutes or so are a blur.  She gently refuted his assertion that my tears were manipulative and explained, gently but firmly, that parents have their breaking points and it was time for him to actively work on his compliance.  Back and forth they went, with my interjections becoming calmer as my tears and her understanding of both of us brought me back to my ground.

For the last half of our time, we hammered out the start of a more extensive “kitten system”.  We’ve used a token economy with him before, and he thrived on it.  It’s a pain in the rear to administrate, and he quickly becomes a master at making the system work for him, so it requires frequent tweaking of the value of desired behaviors (compliance to requests, sitting at the table, etc) and rewards (computer time, primarily).  But, as Dr. L pointed out, he just doesn’t get the warm fuzzies neurotypicals do from external praise or a happier mom.  He needs something tangible, or, as he puts it, “something that’s for me.”  The kitten system does that.

We touched upon a bigger problem.  He really doesn’t recognize distress in others.  Or joy, sorrow, concern, anger, or most other feelings.  As Dr. L told him, this is a problem, since emotions are the glue that hold relationships together.  Understanding the feelings of others and responding appropriately is a must to social living.  I know he feels anger, joy, distress, sorrow, concern and much more.  He just can’t see it in others.  But he’ll have to learn.

Those are hard skills to learn.   Anything that most of the population does on instinct that one instead must do by intellect alone stresses the system and can be exhausting.  Reading the shifting landscape of a face and body one knows well (like mom’s) is hard enough.  Manage that with others you don’t know, with words flying around quickly at the same time?  That seems near impossible.

But that’s our road.  This week, thanks to those little pictures of kittens and positive vibes he gets from receiving them (due to their promise to buy him access to his obsessions), we’re all in a better place.  He’s pushed through some harder tasks, even making it to karate today without even a whine or whimper, much less a tantrum.  That’s progress.

It’s not perfect.  It’s not even close.  But I’m feeling more whole, and I can again sense the earth beneath my feet rather than those darn eggs that kept breaking despite my tender steps.  Even his brother seems a bit more relaxed.  I’ll take the respite from the storms enjoying it while it lasts, concentrating on teaching him some better coping mechanisms while perhaps giving him some tools to decode the feelings of others.   The winds will blow again, however.  They always do. But for now, we’re living on kittens and hope.

Looking for Signs of Spring

 

My younger prefers cats to people. They're much easier to manage.

Perhaps it’s me. That’s sometimes my conclusion about my increasingly antagonistic relationship with my younger son’s Asperger’s Syndrome. After years of suspecting he fell on the autistic spectrum, his diagnosis three months back was no surprise. Rather it was a relief. A name, beyond oppositional, difficult, anxious, and socially inept, that explained the obvious struggles of my younger opened avenues to treatment. So why am I becoming despondent lately?  I’m sure the longest month of the year, February, is part of the agony I’ve lately felt, but often I wonder if I’m really screwing up.

 

Because nothing about him being officially diagnosed made him easier to parent. I knew this would be true, but there was a brief honeymoon phase after the diagnosis when I was calling psychiatrists and psychologists, arranging appointments for my son. Taking action distracted me from the deep despair I’d felt parenting him over the previous four or five months. Doors opened, and light came in.  Summer must be right around the corner.

Fast forward three months. I’ve made some parenting changes to prioritize what is worth a tantrum (and little is), and this has helped somewhat. He sees a psychologist weekly, a woman with a child on the spectrum, too. She really “gets” him and understands the challenges parenting these kids. She’s my lifeline now, but I can hardly afford to have her move in and coach me through the next 10 or so years with my son. I can afford the low-dose SSRI he takes which definitely knocks his anxiety down, decreasing tantrum occurrences and duration to a more survivable level. (No judgements about this choice, please, or I’ll send him to you to parent 24/7 for a month. Without the meds.) So, sure, it’s better.

But I’m falling again. Not as far as in autumn, when the tantrums were at their height, when my older and I walked on eggshells from dawn to dusk. But I’m falling. The tension in my jaw and neck increase when I have to remind him (again) to get shoes on, leave the computer, come to the table, brush his teeth, clean up a few toys: all these basic requests may be met with pleasant cooperation, impenetrable silence, or rage. And I never know which. The eggshells are still there, worsening as the winter drags on, and, on my darkest days, I’m wondering if perhaps it’s me.

Not that I think I caused the Asperger’s. That’s biology, and I’ve not tortured myself having caused that. I don’t go down that road. But perhaps I’m still doing this wrong, this parenting a kid with different operating system than what most of us have. Why I think I should have it “right” is beyond my rational thought. Heck, I’m under no illusion that I’m parenting the older in the optimal way, although he’s far easier to relate to. And, in my not-so-dark moments, that there isn’t an objective right or wrong to find and follow. All of us parents, if we’re honest with ourselves, are groping our way through, feeling for footholds and clinging to ropes, never knowing if the ground will crumble beneath our feet at the next step or if the rope is secured at the end. All of us parents, if we are awake and open to change, are continually working to do this most important job just a bit better, with just a bit more love and compassion while staying sane and in charge of the ship.

Some mix of frustration, anxiety, and fatigue enter many of my days. As a homeschooling, divorced mom, the days are long, and I can fly through a spectrum of emotion during his 14 waking hours. Make no mistake: his father walks this path with effort and pain as well, but when I’m on duty, there is no relief, no second adult to take the helm when I reach my breaking point. I’m restored (briefly) by the times he’s with dad, but lately I can’t seem to store up the energy from these times to carry me through the far-too-recurring rough patches that return with my dear younger son. Lately, the transfer from one home to the next seems to bring stress that launches a tantrum just minutes after he arrives home. Transitions are hard for him, and, after the fact, I can recognize these incidents as his reach for control during an episode of change. But during it, I’m angry. I’m jarred as he explodes into the house, loudly pleasant until about five minutes into his arrival home, when too often something just doesn’t go his way. I’m frustrated when he balks violently at a seemingly benign request.  Again.

Amidst the struggles, I find points of hope.  After over a month of no interest in playing with friends, he’s returned to bounding down the street most days, seeking out the companionship of others.  I am trying to remember the small successes, times he tells me what is wrong rather than screaming his rage blindly.  Okay, so he generally screams what is bothering him, but the words are a step toward better communication.  I’m hearing more successful negotiations with his friends, discussions that (at least to some degree) recognize the other person might have a different perspective than he.  It takes a microscope often, but glimmers are there.

Not to fatigue the metaphor of the seasons, I see the glimpses of spring that those of us in Michigan feel at the end of February.  Snow cover aside, I’m hearing more birds on the sunny days.  Heck, we’re actually having sunny days without a temperature far below freezing.  Snow fall, which has been way too frequent this month, is followed more quickly by melting.  I’ve lived in Michigan for most of my life.  I know more snow and cold lie ahead, but I’ll take the signs I see and hear and let them warm my heart and soothe my mind.  And when I remember, I do the same with the small steps my son makes toward understanding this world and those pesky people in it.  I see the spring and go a bit easier on myself, knowing neither February will last forever.

It’s Life and Death

Woodstock, the early years

By all accounts, today has been unusual.  It’s also been a bit hard on the heart, too.  This morning, the boys and I were surprised to find Woodstock, our six-year-old guinea pig, dead. Now, six years is a respectable lifetime for a guinea pig, who have a life expectancy of six to eight years, but his death was a bit of a shock.  Somehow, I assumed Alfie, his older cagemate, who is about seven-and-a-half, would go before Woodstock.  And, given the slow demise of a gerbil a few years back, requiring a trip to the vet for euthanasia when his suffering became obvious, I guess I expected death after at least a brief illness.  Coming to the cage and finding him dead never crossed my mind.

Woodstock was my first furry pet.  As a kid, I’d had two goldfish, each named Goldie, and a cricket, named Arthur.  I can’t recall my reaction to the death of each Goldie, but I do know I wept bitterly at the loss of Arthur, which occurred three weeks after his capture from the wild and imprisonment in my room.  Allergies (mine and my dad’s) and an aversion to pets to care for (mom’s) made all non-aquatic or insect pets out of the question.  So aside from the occasional weekend caring for a class gerbil or hamster, furry pets (or any pet interested in a relationship with humans) was out of the question.  The first mammals in my care were my children.  When I’d kept them alive until the sturdy ages of seven and three, they hit me up for a pet.

“How about a fish?” I countered.

My older firmly informed me that fish were not real pets.  You couldn’t hold them, at least not more than once.  No, he asserted, he wanted a pet with fur.  A real pet.

So we reviewed our options.  Dogs and cats were out.  I was allergic to both, and that was far more care and committment than I was up for.  Rabbits?  Allergic to them as well.  Dreadfully.  Mice?  Too micey.  Gerbils?  Too much like mice.  And don’t they bite?  Hamsters?  Stinky.  My younger discarded howler monkeys on his own — way too loud and howly.  Guinea pigs?  Hmmm.  I was stumped on that one, not having been around one since elementary school classrooms.  Research was needed.

So we delved into guinea pig books and websites.  From our reading, they seemed fairly sturdy (good when you have an inquisitive 3-year-old around), generally unlikely to bite, and generally unlikely to escape.  Off to the pet store we went, where we found Woodstock, an eight-week old American Smooth, brown and black, bouncy guinea pig.  We were smitten, and we set on making his life as good as possible, with the best food and hay, a large cage we made from Coroplast and squares of metal shelving, and comfy fleece bedding.

But soon, our reading led us to belive Woodstock was lonely.  Guinea pigs need a buddy, it seemed, and while ours seemed content with our ministrations alone, we set out to find him a friend.  How we stumbled onto the Guinea Pig Lady (our name for her), I don’t recall, but we drove a half hour south to see this woman who gave much of her home to be a guinea pig shelter.  In addition to some 30 sheltered pigs, she had 20-odd pigs of her own, living in the most elaborate three-or-four story (pig stories) structure.  At some point, my younger mentioned that the pigs might want a snack, and the cacophony of squeaks that followed his words was nearly deafening.  Somehow in all that, we found Alfie, a white and brown Abyssinian who was between one and two years.   He was the friend for Woodstock.

And the handsome guy on the right is Alfie

Cautiously, we introduced them, first putting them in adjacent cages, then supervising time with them out of the cages, and finally caging them together.  And they didn’t care.  Sure, they chuttered at each other a bit over which shelter to use, and for the first few years of their cohabitation, they would mount each other, with no clear dominance emerging,  but really, they just didn’t seem to care about each other.  Ah, well.  We decided they were friends.  And we’d become bona-fide pet owners.  My parents were surprised.  Honestly, I was surprised.  I hardly needed more bodies to care for, but I really did bond with the stinky, messy guys (the guinea pigs, well, and the boys).

Gerbils followed, then aquatic frogs.  Mealworms, ants, guppies, fighting fish, slugs, and snails all found shelter in our home for prolonged periods over the years.  And while the gerbils and most of the rest have passed on or been released, only the guinea pigs and those immortal aquatic frogs remain.   The pigs were our gateway drug of sorts, opening our doors to an ark-load of creatures over the years.

And, over the years, we’ve lost fish and gerbils, ants and slugs.  But this was different.  Woodstock was my first furry pet, and, for a rodent, he had a remarkable amount of personality.  He was the one who squeaked every time the fridge opened, hoping for lettuce, carrots, curtains, fleece, plastic… he was hardly a discriminating eater.  He was the one who greeted each foster cat that batted a paw between the bars of the cavy cage with a hopeful sniff, looking for food.  Yeah, he was a bit slow.  We didn’t dub him least likely to survive in the wild for nothing.  But he had personality.

My older was initially sad, although not as bereft when, several years back, we had his first gerbil put down.  My younger was a bit scornful of his brother’s and mother’s long faces and sad tones.  “It was just a guinea pig,” he scolded.  “It’s not like it was a cat.”  Ah, priorities.

But life goes on.  Alfie seems unphased by the loss of his cagemate of six years, and I imagine he’s glad to have the food to himself.  And the three of us are rather distracted.  Today, February 22, the boys’ half-brother was born.  They’ve been excited about his coming, which is a contrast to their reactions when first hearing about him seven months earlier.  In contrast, I’ve been sad and pensive over the past few weeks, as birth became imminent.  I’ve ridden waves of anger and sorrow, tempered by the hope that my children and this child can bond and grow to love each other.  I’m watching what I feel become colored by my thoughts and vice versa, and simply watching that process reminds me how easily I can confuse those thoughts and feelings with the reality of the situation.  Reality is that one life has left the world and another has entered.  Reality is a universe taking care of itself, ever maintaining balance.  So I keep breathing, sometimes crying, sometimes simply being, and, occasionally  — just occasionally — smiling.

Ready or Not

Disclaimer:  This promises to be a whiny, selfish post.  Hopefully, I’ll come to a better spot by the end. 

She’s dilated four centimeters.  No contractions yet, other than a few Braxton Hicks, but the baby is clearly on the way soon.  She’s ready, at least as ready as a first-time mom can be.  Those of us who have had babies know you are really never ready, not for labor, not for birth, and certainly not for parenthood. 

But I’m not ready.  Fortunately, it’s not my baby.  My son’s stepmother, my ex-husband’s second wife, is due anytime with her first child, my sons’ half-brother.  It takes a half-dozen words at least to describe how this baby relates to my children, and there are no words to relate the child to me.  It’s not my nephew (yes, it’s a boy), certainly not my son, not a friend’s child nor my own godchild.  It’s my sons’ stepmother’s first child, their half-brother, and that’s the shortest description I can give.

And I’m not ready to be the mother of sons with a half brother who is the son of their father’s second wife.  Not that it matters.  No one asked me what I thought about the whole thing. Remember the disclaimer.  And it really doesn’t matter what I think. 

Mostly I’m worried.  I’m worried my sons will get lost in the shuffle of the new baby excitement.  I’m worried my younger will exhibit a greater range of not-so-pleasant of I’m-unhappy behaviors than he already does.  I’m worried about another change in my children’s lives, lives that have had far too many changes already. 

I’m also sad.  This impending birth is yet another reminder of the losses in my life through the past few years.  I’m not much better with change than my sons are (hey, apples don’t fall far from the tree), and my older put it best a few months back when he announced he’d had enough of change for a while.  Me too, buddy.  While I’ve settled into divorced life with a remarried ex-husband a half mile away, I’m feeling the need for the status quo, at least as far as family arrangements go.  True, my house count stays the same, but I know the rumbles a half mile away will work their way to my home.  It’s inevitable.

So tonight, rather than wishing contractions come my sons’ stepmother’s way and that new life rush into being in all its wonder and glory, tonight I sulk, whine, worry, and, just a bit, weep.  It’s selfish and childish, I know, but it’s where I am, at least right now.  And I know I won’t stay in this place for long.  It’s just a stop on the way to a new part of my children’s lives, a new part of all of their lives.  I think it’s my mind’s last (okay, perhaps that’s optimistic) resistance to this new presence in their lives.  They’re actually fairly excited about the baby’s impending arrival.  My older has a moderate amount of baby and young child experience, thanks to neighbors with six children, and he’s quite good with the younger set.  My younger son, well, he’s more of a cat person, but he’s still intrigued.  Let’s just say I’m hoping he acknowledges this baby as a person before the child is three.   (He has a habit of calling small children “it” and seeing them more as furnishings than humans.)

She’s four centimeters.  Ready or not, this baby will be here soon.  My sons are gaining a brother, an intimate, lifelong connection.  I’m still somewhat teary and worried, yet somewhat less whiny.  May the journey be safe, little boy, and may your life be filled with love and peace.  Ready or not.