After a lifetime of fighting labels I’ve come full circle and now accept them daily without any hesitation because doing so means giving my kids access to services they wouldn’t have otherwise. I’ve fought hard for the few resources we receive despite the stereotype that kids with special needs get “lots of freebies”. (No, actually they don’t, Janice. Screw you and your spin class too.)
It also means being labeled myself in the process. “Mother of a child with special needs”, doesn’t really roll of the tongue but is far less hurtful than hearing others whisper as you pass, “She’s that mom with that kid in special ed.”
A friend of mine who is a mom to a kid with special needs (see how wordy that is?), said to me, “I feel like not having a diagnosis is one of the worst feelings.”
Yes, I knew immediately what she meant. That awareness that there are issues but not being able to name them. Knowing that your child needs help but not being able to ask for it because you’re not even sure what support they need to be able to get along with other kids because you’re not even sure what your kid is experiencing. You’re shut out when they’re nonverbal and left out in the cold once they can speak and have emotional meltdowns where they can’t explain to you what their world is like. It’s that feeling of struggling to speak to someone in another language. You’re trying to communicate what you need and relieved when they finally understand. Even if they can’t, or won’t, help you. That’s what it’s like being a parent of a kid with special needs. Alone and marginalized.
These past seven years have been many moments of feeling like a tourist struggling to understand a map in a foreign language. Of knowing the reality of what I saw my children experiencing yet not being believed. Minimized, dismissed, marginalized, ridiculed for speaking out. Told by professionals that I need counseling while my child ripped the doctor’s office apart and crumpled into tears, stimming, inconsolable only until they calmed themselves by rubbing their fingers together rhythmically. The doctor left the room and a nurse returned asking us to reschedule. They wouldn’t look at us or speak to us on the way out. The waiting room full of people stared and Owen grasped on to me to avoid their eyes. Nora calls it “the mean faces moment”. It’s the same moment we experience at school performances, restaurants, buses,…we’ve gotten used to consoling them and rushing them out to head off the impending meltdown all while shielding them from the prying eye contact of strangers. It’s as if our kid is allergic to direct stares and we’re rushing him out of the glare from others.
This month, after five years of being told I was imagining things, and even being told so after my son and husband were diagnosed, came the moment where someone listened. A doctor finally diagnosed our daughter. This doctor, she gave me the gift of clarity, my daughter the chance to be understood, our family the resources we need to move forward in supporting her, and me a light amidst the darkness – literally.
The day I met our daughter’s new doctor I was a jumble of nerves. I was prepared with my stack of folders, with all of my notes and lists to fully explain my daughter to her and defend my observations. I did all of this because I’ve learned the hard way. Every teacher, therapist, pediatrician, counselor, doctor of any type, and so-called experts have tried to talk me out of believing in what I knew to be true. My daughter was struggling. That morning I drove sweaty palmed and jittering in my seat high on too much caffeine to make up for a sleepless night of rehearsing questions in my head like I was preparing for a job interview.
The drive was plugged into my GPS even though I was pretty certain as to where the office was. Even with traffic, I arrived fifteen minutes early and patted myself on the back while I searched for a restroom. As luck would have it again, there was one just outside the entrance to the doctor’s office within the building and I dashed in. As the exterior door closed, I happened to catch out of the corner of my eye that they had a motion light much like the one we have at home in our basement. I passed through another door into where the stalls were located and went about my business. As my cheeks hit the paper liner a not-so-funny thing happened. The lights went out. Someone must have just left right before I came in and the light didn’t trigger for me but instead, went out.
My first thought was that someone was playing a joke but then I really panicked and my PTSD kicked in.
What if someone was attacking me?
What if the electricity was out in this windowless building? What if I can’t get out?
How long am I going to be sitting here waiting for someone to come in to use this bathroom out of this huge office park?
My hands began to shake and I quickly tried to find my phone in my purse. My phone fell out of my hands and went rolling across the floor. I began to cry. I was trapped in a bathroom coffin just waiting for someone to open the door to trigger the light or rescue me. At least my pants were up.
Then I noticed the stack of folders I had brought. One of them was a notebook I had bought when Nora was back-to-school shopping. It had a glow-in-the-dark cover and it was peaking its corner out from the bottom of the pile. I scrambled for it and managed to find my phone not far from the stack of paper and turned the flashlight feature on. The door was five feet away but it might as well have been fifty feet. I tried to pull myself together and managed to get into the doctor’s waiting room with acceptable decorum. A well meaning doctor walked in and made eye contact and I fell apart. She offered me water and patted my arm.
We went into her office and I did as I usually do when I’m embarrassed, I cracked jokes. We both were laughing within seconds of me being seated and she made one herself, “Well, I better be able to give you a correct diagnosis. It’s the least I can do after trapping you in my bathroom.” She took my stack of notes and we discussed Nora’s history. I cried some more. She listened. We agreed to meet again and that I would bring Nora with me next time. She promised me that we would sort out everything and help my daughter. I sat in my car afterwards and cried until I could see clearly enough to drive.
I returned with Nora two days later. The doctor greeted us and shocked me when I thought I could no longer be shocked. She didn’t need to do further testing. Most of it had been done previously based on the notes we requested and I hadn’t been informed of those tests or the results. The school knew all along. They had labeled her with autism themselves but didn’t want to acknowledge it because they would have to help her if they did.
The doctor reviewed Nora’s artwork, books she had constructed, and listened to her stories. She looked at me levelly and announced, “Your daughter is amazing.” I swallowed back tears and welcomed the hug as Nora sensed my emotion before I felt it and came to embrace me, “It’s ok, mama.” I set the stack of paperwork aside with the doctor’s summary and pulled her onto my lap.
“You’re right, baby. Everything is going to be ok now.”