A badge or a burden: the trauma we carry

adhd, ASD, atypical, autism, Complex PTSD, Homeschooling, mental health, motherhood, neurodiversity, parenting, PTSD, special education, special needs, special needs parenting, trauma

My friend phoned me to tell me what I expected. Her mother had been placed in hospice only days before but I knew. We only called each other when it was too hard to write what we needed to say or we needed to hear each other’s voices. Her mom was gone.

I sat in silence and thought about her family and my own. Trying to imagine what my friend was feeling at that moment. Thinking of how many struggles she had endured in so little time. How the length of our friendship was colored by so many of those for us both. I began summarizing in my head all of those traumas in my own life and began with the one that my family thought was amusing and I found painful still. Our move to Oregon (but that’s a story for another time) and touched upon the one that truly shaped me from that day forward.

I’ve had PTSD since I was six. It began the moment I watched our family home burn to the ground. Frozen in place, listening to the sounds of my mother screaming and keening. I would like to say things improved from there but they didn’t. So I learned to expect another crisis around every corner and that good luck was for other people. It took years to unlearn this thinking, a diagnosis of Complex PTSD
, and the acceptance that we all have our sorrows and come 1through life wearing our setbacks as a badge or a burden.

The layers of trauma changed in variety over the years. The moments compressed into me like the striation marks in the earth. Ever changing, ever present, and unbidden. Once a source of shame and now simply marks on my body like the remnants of pregnancy or aging. Something I can acknowledge and feel a sense of achievement from or something I can hide and only deepen the pain brought on by seeing them in an unkind light.

Listening to those dark, ugly voices of criticism in my low moments can dtill happen but I’ve learned to question those voices and quiet them with kindness for myself. Those same voices that lurked throughout my childhood are now gone but the memory of them haunt me like tinny piped music. I can choose to escape them or confront them but I acknowledge that the hurt from those people marked me but hasn’t marred me.

Now, as a mother, I feel as if I have a new terrain of PTSD. The terrain of trauma sustained by my children. The bullying, the attacks, the judgement.

Accepting my children’s neurodivergence wasn’t difficult. Accepting the treatment they receive from others is something I have to fight on a daily basis at times and it can feel insurmountable. From strangers to doctors, to teachers to extended family, we’ve had a litany of interactions where we’ve had to navigate the misunderstandings around autism and tolerate or battle the misconceptions people have of autistic people.

Whether you’re neurotypical or neurodivergent, misunderstandings happen constantly but the difference is that I can process this and respond whereas my kids, by in large, cannot. The lag time in processing in combination with their trauma compounds into a snarl of frustration that results in simply being overwhelmed to the point that they shut down or melt down. Many of us can relate to this feeling but not to the extreme that they experience. Their experience is our version of being tongue-tied amplified by the thousands. Take that feeling and color it with trauma and they end up blaming themselves for not being able to keep up or join in a mundane conversation.

It was during one of these interactions recently that I had an epiphany. Because autistic or otherwise, trauma colors our filter of the world for better or worse and that filter never leaves us but can unexpectedly be a strength. For instance, and I’ll freely admit I’m biased, my kids are the most thoughtful and forgiving souls I’ve ever met. They will go out of their way to be kind to others and generous to a fault. Their struggles to find and keep friends haven’t hurt them but made them more empathetic towards others. Maybe a little too intensely at times, but all and all, to their betterment.

After three long years of trying to make public general education work for both of our kids we made the hard decision last year to place our son in a self-contained classroom and opt out of school completely for our daughter and it’s been the best decision we could have made for either of them. I had many doubts seeing that I knew little about special education three years ago and never intended to homeschool and was always an advocate for public schools. Especially the strong belief of staying in your neighborhood school yet when that school doesn’t want your child to attend, and makes it clear that they are not willing to accommodate them, you’re not left with many choices.

I feared that she would be socially isolated, bored, or – worse – regress if we homeschooled. To my relief, none of that was true. Except for she admittedly became lonely until we found independent studies and activities for her to join with like-minded kids. (It’s no easy feat to find other eight year olds who want to read history books and knit. We found the first and the second request was met by her making friends with the “Chicks with Sticks” club at her grandmother’s assisted living facility.)

We allowed her to unschool for a year and then gradually added academic structure back into her life. It’s made a world of difference not only for her but our entire family. It reinstilled her confidence and renewed my hope in her being able to attain an education and a sense of fulfillment. Her trauma can be a source of learning and not an impediment to her growth.

For me, the nightmares don’t go away. I’ll never feel comfortable sitting with my back to a room full of strangers. I’ll never stop worrying that the horrors that befell me might befall my own children. Yet I know that they can not only survive but thrive, not in spite of, but possibly because of those challenges and have a deeper sense of kindness to show from their scars.

https://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/treat/essentials/complex_ptsd.asp

What the &$#@ were they thinking?

autism, mental health, parenting

Out of all the mysteries in life there are four that never cease to fascinate me:  the human brain, what happens after death, the purpose of life, and all the people that I wonder, “What the &$#@ were they thinking?”

It’s a whole list of people that extend from childhood friends I regret losing touch with, exes that I still don’t understand, politicians and celebrities that detonated their lives, people that don’t know how to navigate a busy sidewalk, and the creeps that take up two parking spaces.

These last few years have been tumultuous. This is unequivocally an understatement. Many moments this little world of mine has shifted on the axis and I can’t help but imagine a large hand tipping our globe off its stand and letting us roll under the couch. I’ve had hard times in life where I wasn’t sure how I was going to get through yet I did. Not without help, or humbling myself to be vulnerable, but I managed.

That’s what we all are supposed to do, right? Manage, keep going, hope it gets better. What does better look like though? Is that a way to live? What example am I setting for my kids if I’m perpetually in a state of hoping the next day will be better and simultaneously acknowledging that the present is unpleasant?

Here’s what I’m hoping better looks like. A school that my kids can safely attend. One that is accepting of them and cares about them that doesn’t cost $40,000 per child a year. Finding other families with kids on the spectrum that get it and get us. A house that isn’t falling apart. (I love you house but, c’mon, what the &$#@?)

Mostly, I wish I didn’t go to bed at night worrying about what might happen to my kids if something happens to me. I have no extended family that can support them. Friends that might but I hesitate to impose upon them such a promise. Any guardian would have to take on full time advocacy and coordination of care. I guess what I hope for, what I wish “better” looked like, was a world where I felt my children would be safe without me. It makes me wonder as I look at myself, “What the &$#@ was I thinking?”

Having kids is a cry of hope that the world will continually try to be better and do better. Let’s all hope that this is true despite our current circumstances in my little world and all of ours.

Then a moment came recently that reminded me again of how poignant an event can be with clashing emotions juxtaposed with bursts of clarity that leave you feeling like a small blade of grass weathering a storm, a rainbow, and the sun all at once. One of my dearest, most intimate friends, lost her spouse to suicide. I’ve never seen strength like hers. She weathered so much in such a small amount of time but it took my breath away to watch her take each of her children up to say goodbye to her deceased husband.

We manage and we keep going because there’s always more to discover, more mysteries to ponder, and more beauty to be found. She embodies this despite her doubts. She doesn’t see how strong she is but I see it every time she rallies against her grief yet still notices that her child needs their shoe tied, a nose wiped, a cuddle. Even as the darkest moments befell her and those sweet children they continued on, they found reasons to laugh, they cried, and they keep going. Storms pass, not everything can be understood, and you will always have people in your life that make you wonder, “What the &$#@ were they thinking?”

I don’t know where strength like that comes from. I don’t know why such awful things happen to such wondrous people or why mental health is still not considered part of our overall health. There are mysteries that bring us to tears and those that leave us in awe and there is beauty in both.

The right to be safe.

ASD, autism, equal rights, equality, freedom of speech, mental health, motherhood, neurodiversity, parenting, special needs, special needs parenting, Times Up

The article below was written over a year ago. I would like to say things have improved in the world but the most I can say is that things have improved in my daughter’s world.

She spoke up to us, not for the first time, about being bullied and attacked at school so we’re keeping her at home. Sometimes what’s best for our kids isn’t the easiest option but doing what’s right rarely is the smoothest route in life. I hope my kids see monumental changes in their lifetime of better mental healthcare, equal rights created and protected, and an end to sexual violence.

———————————————–

“Mama, why am I so different?”

For some reason I wasn’t expecting this question, not yet, not from my six year old. How can I explain to her and convince her of what I see and believe about her when everyone around her finds fault with her for those same reasons? She speaks softly and melodically. They tell her to speak up. She is achingly vulnerable without any guile and it terrifies me every day that she’ll be hurt by someone. They think it’s wonderful that she’s compliant to authority.

You see, she’s every teacher’s dream. A quiet kid who listens to directions and does everything she can to please them and doesn’t question authority. Yet she’s also the kid that gets forgotten, mistreated, fears speaking out, bullied, misunderstood, and is bewildered by the malice of others.

She “can’t find the words” and hits herself, “I’m a bad girl. I can’t get it right.”

She cries easily. Her feelings are often hurt. She feels so intensely the emotions of others around her that her stomach pains her with anxiety. This is autism in girls. This is what PTSD looks like in kids who have been sexually abused.

I love my daughter and accept everything about her but that doesn’t mean I love her autism, or my son’s, or my husband’s. Watching someone you love struggle to navigate the world is never a pleasant experience when it ends in tears or explosive tantrums. There are days where I feel like an incompetent ringmaster running from lions. Please hold my hat.

My least favorite moment recently was when a therapist asked, in front of my very verbal daughter with sensitive hearing, “How did you explain to her she was autistic?”

Sometimes I wish I could pause the world for my children so I could ream someone without them hearing my obscenities. I managed to bite on the inside of my cheek and ask, “Good question, she can hear you so why don’t you ask her?”

Nora smiled good-naturedly, waiting patiently, as the woman blanched in embarrassment. We continued the appointment and I suffered through yet another barrage of convince-us-your-daughter-is-autistic. It’s a great game, it only costs hundreds of dollars an hour, no one wins, and it always ends with, “Oh, yeah, she is…”

Diagnosis isn’t a one shot deal. It’s a process where you try to convince people of what you’ve observed and they test your ability to stay calm as you struggle to understand what the !$#% is going on with your kid. We’re at the tail end now and facing more therapy as we try to grasp at what we can do to make her life easier.

Accepting your children’s autism has little to do with yourself and more to do with what choices you make for them. Constantly debating when to get out of their way and when to push, when to go mama bear on their behalf, and when to let them struggle. I’ve made mistakes. I’ll make more mistakes. I can only hope my kids know how much I love them. Even if I’m the mom that says !$#% a lot.

“Mama, why am I so different?”

I bit back tears, hugged her, and looked her in the eye, “Because you’re wonderful.”

I took a deep breath for the next part, “You know how Owen and Papa think differently than others?”

She nodded and looked down at her lap. I made a mental note to myself as I noticed she was picking at her hands again and the skin on her lips. I would need to tell the doctor. I took her chin gently and kissed her cheek.

“You think differently too and that’s a good thing.”

——————-

It’s been a year since that moment. We’ve since found a Psychologist and clinic that specialize in helping girls on the spectrum and supporting them with processing trauma. Our neighborhood school refused to acknowledge any of the medical diagnoses or recommendations so now we’re on a new adventure of finding what works for our kids. The road is bumpy but the journey is never boring.

Just trying to pass as happy.

adhd, ASD, atypical, autism, mental health, motherhood, neurodiversity, parenting, politics, special needs

“What does that say Owen?”
“It say “happy” like me. Like Owen.”
“Wow! That’s great reading, baby!”

I bit back tears of joy and hugged him, “That makes mama so happy to hear that you’re happy.”
“Mama, ok?”
“Yes, baby, sometimes people cry when they’re happy.”
He looked confused and laughed at me, “Mama, silly.”

The conversation spiralled from there when I asked him to wear clothes but despite that I teared up. It was the first time he had said he was “happy” before. It was the first time he had verbally identified his emotions to me.

How many times have we been told that he wouldn’t be the child we have today? How many moments did I despair of not hearing his voice only to wish at moments now that the echolalia would let up for the day? How many of the past predictions am I grateful are wrong and how many of them might still someday be true? There’s so many conflicting emotions in an average day that I find myself spinning and waiting at the center of it all feeling my ears rings from the din.

He’s a happy kid yet a mercurial one. His emotions are always lurking just under the surface like an alligator waiting to lunge or a dolphin surging with joy.

The further we go along the less I understand or feel confident in the research about my kids and the more sure I am of knowing them. I know that they will change the moment I feel I have a grip on the phase they’re in currently. I know that experts are all too often wrong and biased by their own experience. The child they perceive is not the one I know. I know that my kids ache. That it’s possible to be happy in the moment yet carry a deep sadness that is waiting just at the edges like an interloper photo bombing the imaginary picture of your expectations. I see it in their eyes when other kids move away from them and disclude them. I see it when they watch others play and talk themselves out of joining because it’s too loud, too crowded, or too overwhelming.

I ache for them when I see their silent struggle and I rankle when I hear other adults minimize this and their feelings.

“They just need to get out there and play…”
“My kid struggles with that too…”
“Maybe if you…”
“Wow, your kid is REALLY sensitive…”
“Yeah, kids sure can be mean…”
“Well, you know, everybody seems to have autism nowadays…”
“Kids will be kids…”
“Isn’t that just how boys are though?”
“Temper tantrums, huh? Yeah, mine have them too…”
“It must be hard to be like that…”

Yes, it is hard to be like “this”, ignorant stranger. If by “this” you mean that it’s hard to suffer people sharing their unsolicited opinions about my parenting as I try to help my kid through a full-blow sensory meltdown as they hover and ask questions causing my kid the further pain of shaming them in public by drawing attention to their discomfort. Pecking at me with comments and questions like a mosquito feasting at me with abandon. Judging me and my child simultaneously all while trying to be understanding of my plight which implies that you are superior since you have so many nuggets of wisdom to share with me while my child pummels me and screams.

Then there’s my daughter whose meltdowns are typically silent. The agony is in her eyes and stooped posture as other children stare and whisper, push past her, refuse to speak to her, skip over choosing her for games, or demand to know “what’s wrong” with her as she further shuts down. She forces herself to smile, make eye contact even when it hurts, pulls at her hands and lips to stop herself from stimming, and panics over every word and how she enunciates it only to make herself stutter and stammer more pronounced. I see it before I hear her as I go to pick her up from a three hour day camp. I watch her in the backseat as she stares out the window singing along to a musical that she’s memorized by heart.

She’s trying to pass as happy. She desperately wants to be liked and accepted. Yes, just like your child but, no, she is not like yours. Yours is neurotypical, mine is many labels but ultimately judged as atypical by others. To me, they both are as exotic as an undiscovered species stumbled upon in an unknown world and I’m fumbling through their language.

I love them exactly as they are and hope for a day that people stop pressuring them to pass as anything but themselves. Wouldn’t we all love for that? I know that’s where most of the advice and questions come from so I smile, answer candidly, and keep grasping myself at trying to pass as happy even when I am not.

When you’re a parent of a child with autism there’s the additional expectation of being their champion from others. There are moments where I don’t feel strong enough for that mantle. I just want someone to tell me it’s ok to be a mess that day. I just want someone to see me and tell me I’m not alone in feeling that it’s fucked up but that’s probably too much to expect. We’re all trying to pass as happy in our own way.

It takes one moment.

mental health, politics, Times Up

“What?! Anthony Bourdain? Oh no! Why?!”

I said this aloud to myself as I read the news. My daughter looked up at me and asked, “What, mama?”

“Oh…,” how do you answer that a writer and celebrity chef you looked up to had suddenly died by suicide? How much do you share with a seven year old?

“A man I once met, who I looked up to, passed away because of mental illness.”

“He had a sickness in his brain?”

“I think so, baby. That’s what some people are saying but they don’t know.”

She thought about this and startled me with an insight only the young possess, “Did you see the sickness when you met him?”

I was at a loss for words. Not uncommon in her presence, “Honestly, no. He was gracious, funny, full of life, and generous. He bought silly grown up drinks for everyone and told stories….Not in a million years would I have thought…”

I trailed off as it hit me that maybe it isn’t shocking at all. We so often think we know someone, whether it’s family or an idol, and yet we only know them as well as we can. We see what they share of themselves and not the struggle or darkness laying below the surface of pleasantries. How often is there ever a clear reason as to why someone succumbs to suicide? How many of us judge them, reasoning that it’s a choice and label it “committing suicide”? As opposed to, what I’ve narrowly missed myself so many times, a moment of illness and despair.

My parental brain ached for his daughter, his ex-wife, his siblings,… One of my worst fears is having a loved one pass from suicide. No matter how angry or shitty the interaction, I always try to end the conversation with “I love you”, unless they’ve hung up. Then I text.

Because you never know if it’s the last time you’ll speak. You never know what someone else is battling in life. It’s not easy, but I try to forgive even when I can’t forget. I try to teach my kids the same. I try to show others the kindness I hope is in us all and rankle at the intolerance of others. Sometimes all it takes is one kind word to save someone’s life.

How many times have I been saved?

How many moments was I close to doing the same?

What are the words that can magically help?

Little arms hugged me and looked up at me, “You want a tissue?”

I laughed, “No, I’m good.”

She was looking at me intently.
“You want to play Minecraft, huh?”
Giggles, “Uh-huh.”

She dashed away with her tablet and I watched her retreat. As parents, how do we avoid this fate? How do we help our kids be healthy mentally?

I tapped her on the shoulder and she looked up at me with slight annoyance, “Can I talk to you for a minute?”

“Ok.”

She crawled onto my lap and, not for the last time, I thought about how this might be the last time she would do this. She’s growing so quickly and I’m fortunate to be a witness to her evolve. I pet her hair and murmured, “I’ll always listen when you ask for help and you can always come to me. I’ll never stop loving you, no matter what.”

She sighed, hugged me, and stared intently into my face, “Will you help me with my house?”

Damn you, Minecraft.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).