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.

Amazing Things Do Happen

ASD, atypical, autism, inclusion, neurodiversity, parenting, special needs, special needs parenting

“Am I autistic?”
“Yes, honey,” I push a lock of hair behind her ear and watch the emotions flick across her face before she smiles knowingly, “Are you autistic?”
“Nope.”
“Can you tell me what it means again?”
“Sure.”
“Can you tell the other kids at Girl Scouts?”

I was stunned, proud, and bewildered yet again by this kid. This girl that never ceases to amaze me with her kindness, sensitivity, thoughtfulness, vulnerability, and, yes, her many wounds from the mistreatment of others. She desperately wants to fit in and be accepted yet many days this world doesn’t seem to be meant for her and it goes out of its way to show her so.

We watched a video recently, Amazing Things Happen. It popped up as a recommendation in my YouTube feed and my faith in the internet was restored. What a fantastic piece of work and a way to explain autism to kids, not only about themselves, but to others that want to understand how it feels. The first time we watched it she turned to me and said, “Can we watch it again?”

After the second time, she asked, “Can we show this to the other kids?”
“Yeah, is it accurate? Is this how you feel?”
She hugged me and whispered into my body, “It’s how I feel all the time.”

I cried not because I felt pity for her or any other kid that experiences the world as she does. I cried, like so many days, because I don’t see the world as she does and I struggle to understand how or to protect from the people that would abuse her because of this. What she senses eludes me at times and I’m trying to help someone that doesn’t need help but for the world to stop judging and imposing their expectations on her. To just stop. Stop being so loud, so demanding, so imposing, so much of everything.

Many have shared with me once that they’re offended by the puzzle piece symbol. The Autism Speaks rainbow puzzle piece has become ubiquitous with awareness around autism but the symbol itself has a negative connotation of implying that a person with autism is a “puzzle” to be solved, to be cured. This negative perception is only heightened by its origin of Autism Speaks creating its use seeing that they have come under fire from the society of autism for only investing towards a cure. A contentious outlook from those that believe autism is not a disease or disorder requiring a cure.

It’s unfortunate that so many parents use the puzzle symbol with wholly good intentions to represent the struggles that their children face and I understand why they identify with its use. They want to belong to a movement of awareness and for that I don’t blame or judge them. But, for me, I prefer the rainbow infinity symbol that represents neurodiversity and the acceptance of autism. Yet the use of either symbol doesn’t offend me or change my opinion towards the subject of autism or the people I love that are diagnosed. To me, it’s undeniably a large part of who they are and a physiological difference they have from others; however, it is only one aspect of them and not their entire identity.

So how do you explain all of that in terms that a neurotypical, average kid can understand? How do you create an activity analogous to autism to illustrate how autism feels to a child?

Well, that is exactly what we’ve undertaken these past two weeks. We’ve been preparing a presentation for my daughter’s Girl Scout troop and practicing answering questions that might come up. As we were eating lunch together, I asked her if she wanted to watch the video again today. She said yes and we watched it companionably in silence. It ended and I asked, like I do every time now, “Again?”

She smiled and said, “Yes,” with a giggle.

I hesitated and asked, “Nora, what does it feel like to be autistic?”

My throat tightened and I secretly hoped that she would share with me and not be upset with my question. That her feelings weren’t hurt by me pushing and prying a little further so that she would let me in to her world. Yet again, I was astounded by her insight that always seems to come unexpectedly and at an angle I could never predict.

“It feels amazing. I’m different but so is everyone else.”

Amazing Things Happen: http://amazingthingshappen.tv/?projects=amazing-things-happen

Acceptance is a far off destination.

adhd, ASD, autism, equality, motherhood, neurodiversity, parenting, special needs, Uncategorized

Cathexis. Definition, the concentration of mental energy on one particular person, idea, or object (especially to an unhealthy degree).

I’d never heard of this word until yesterday. It’s an accurate label for this phase of my life and for the many parents, like myself, that have kids with special needs.

It takes a dedication and level of commitment that no one can prepare you for. Much like the all encompassing weight of stress and worry over their well-being and future if you’re not there to care for them some day. The fear that they’ll never be independent. That your life will end too soon and fall short of the length that they need you. Is there a greater fear than your child dying? For me, yes, the fear that I’ll leave them alone in the world unprepared, or incapable, to care for themselves.

Parenting kids with special needs becomes a vocation that seems only achievable if you throw yourself fully into researching on their behalf and supporting your kid as much as possible. I’m reminded by well meaning, unintentionally insensitive folks, that I really need to focus on “self care” and “get out more”. As if care workers are sprouting on the vine and all of them are willing to watch my kids overnight. Strange, but most sitters don’t want to stay over to watch two kids on the spectrum. One of which has ADHD and likes to wake up throughout the night to sing and scream demands while he rattles his baby gate. Quite often dragging his baby bottle against the bars like an inmate with a tin cup begging for water. Funny that.

Here’s another truth, it’s lonely. Even if you find other parents to kids with special needs that commonality makes it difficult to congregate. It’s difficult enough with small kids to have a conversation but with our kids we might not even make it to the door or we’re occupied with keeping them from running off, melting down, or some combination so maintaining a conversation beyond exchanging names is an accomplishment.

Autism Awareness month, for most of us, is bullshit.

What we need is acceptance. What is required to make that possible is equality.

Acceptance for our kids within families; because, yes, extended families are known for shunning you once your child is diagnosed. I’ve experienced this first hand and have had many arguments to explain that certain stereotypes are untrue and, no, us accommodating your preference of food is not the same as us asking you to make an “accommodation” of putting up baby gates before we visit so our son isn’t injured or elope out the door.

Acceptance in our communities. I can’t count how many times we’ve had to bodily remove our kids from an event or a public space because of others being rude or insensitive and triggering a meltdown that we then couldn’t avoid because of their presence. Insult to injury, those same people want to argue about our parenting while we’re trying to calm our child or, worse, continue to stare and trigger our child as if they’re baiting them into acting out. The mumbled agressions as we leave as the cowards then feel brave enough to comment to our retreating backs.

“If I had a kid like that I wouldn’t take them out of the house.”

“Why don’t you tell that kid to shut up?”

“Some people really need to learn how to parent.”

“That kid just doesn’t belong her.”

“If that was my kid I would spank him.”

We’re limited as to where we can take our children. We know that most places won’t accommodate us and not to expect it even if they have in the past. Many times we’ve had to leave places with our kids in tears because we couldn’t stay. The line was too long and no one would help us, the sound was too high and they wouldn’t turn it down, the restaurant was too busy and we couldn’t get a table in a quiet spot,… We’ve become accustomed to being discriminated against. Our kids have internalized their otherness and anything we say to bolster them up against it is futile to heal the wound of being rejected. We try our best and keep asking for accommodations but every day feels more and more like a gerbil wheel of failure. I’m chasing cheese that I can see and smell but never reach.

Accommodations are a form of acceptance in action. Awareness simply means you know about a condition or topic. Awareness means that you know when discrimination is occurring but acceptance is doing something about it and creating equity for others.

Equality is allowing my child to attend his neighborhood school so he can make friends in his community and be accepted as a member of that community, yet we’ve been turned away not once but twice. I have two separate drop offs and pick ups for my kids every day.

Equality is a place at the table, equity is having a functional chair.

For instance, my daughter’s school has ADA accessible entrances but half of the door buttons are malfunctioned so if you’re wheelchair bound you have to wait for someone to open the door. The school by law is up to code for ADA standards yet they chose to house the children with special needs on the second floor so they have to use an elevator to access their classroom when there’s ample space on the first floor for their class. Yet that would be mean them being visible to other students and part of the daily community. A community that they entered into after most likely a long battle on their parents part because I’ve yet to win that battle for my son who is not allowed to attend the same school as his sister.

Even if I was to get my son into the neighborhood school, they like many others, make it very clear that they do not accept children with special needs. They are aware, they will accommodate them begrudgingly by law, but they do not accept them as equal to all other students. It’s not as if a sign is posted telling them to “go home” but it’s unmistakable when every area of a school is geared towards able students and kids with special needs are excluded.

So often children with special needs are shoved off into inadequate classrooms and corners. Given “sensory corners” to sit in and calm down when they are overwhelmed. The clear message being that it’s their problem, their fault, for being over stimulated not that the class needs to be reminded to keep their volume down or that the space needs to be reconfigured. The child with sensory issues is told to put on headphones and sit in a corner. It sets them apart and reminds them that they are different and unaccepted.

School assemblies and celebrations, a flood of students all talking at once in a high ceiling gym without a single student with special needs or disability in sight. Every week or month appointed for awareness around Developmental Disabilities, Autism, or a physical condition goes unrecognized as children make decorations for other events for more important to the rest of the school to acknowledge like Presidents Day or a “Fun Run”.

The cathexis of my existence is my children. That might seem unhealthy or unwarranted to some. To that I say, do you feel accepted? Do your children fear being excluded at every moment of their life? Do they feel unwanted in their own classroom? Can you leave the house and experience moments as a family, together, without fear of being discriminated against and turned away?

I’ll continue on with my cathexis until all the chairs at the table are functional and every person has a place.