This is it. The last of my suggestions for creating a happy and healthy home while dealing with autism (or anything else, really). It’s being thankful for the struggle.
I have met a lot of people who express sympathy in some form or another for my “having to parent” a child with special needs. Sometimes they come right out and say, “Oh! I’m so sorry about your son. That must be so hard!” Many times they get this look on their face. It’s like they experiencing pain in my behalf, trying to imagine what life must be like, and feeling bad for us. This makes me sad. It makes me sad because they don’t know! They don’t know the secret!
I’ve even met other parents of special needs kids who haven’t learned the secret yet. It’s not as common, but it happens. This hurts my heart to see a family so caught up in turmoil. I just want them to know! I want everyone to know! Unfortunately, this is something you can tell people all day long, but we all have to discover it ourselves. So what is this secret?
We really are. Does this mean that my heart doesn’t feel like it is being ripped out of me when watch my son fight the limitations his mortal body has placed on him? When I watch him crumble in defeat? No. Heavens no. I promise you, I bawl my eyes out at night sometimes. Actually, to be more honest, I cry in my heart for him.
What it does mean, though, is that I have seen the beauty in it. And I really mean it’s beautiful. I have never seen tenacity in anyone like I have in him. And the tenderness, the beautiful tenderness of his heart is something that I know would have been squashed were his limitations removed. And where would that leave the world? Where would that leave my family? We would all be less. There are so many more things I can tell you about this life that I am grateful for…like the increase in my knowledge and faith, my understanding of my Savior, my understanding of people, the absolute knowledge I have that love is unconditional, the closeness it has brought to us all, my appreciation for people that strive for relationships instead of writing them off because they are hard…I could go on. The point is, more often than I am discouraged, I am grateful. Truly. And it has made all the difference.
There is another part of autism that I absolutely love. Let me tell you a story. I have melasma on my face, my upper lip to be precise. It’s just incredibly fantastic. (Picking up on the sarcasm?) If you don’t know what melasma is, it’s basically when your skin gets dark in spots. Mine happens to make me look like I have a mustache. Super cool. I mean, what woman doesn’t want a mustache?! Blah. Anyway. A few years ago when my son was about 9, he started to notice it. Needless to say, he was incredibly worried about it. After all, I’m a woman and shouldn’t have a mustache. It didn’t matter how many times I told him it wasn’t a mustache, he would daily ask me, “When are you going to get rid of your mustache, Mom?” or “Mom, did you know you have a mustache?” As if I didn’t already know!! In the interest of full disclosure, I will tell you that my confidence was taking a huge hit. HUGE. Finally, I told him that he was hurting my feelings, and that he shouldn’t talk about it. I don’t like to tell people that my feelings are hurt, but I figured that was the best way to reach my boy. It worked! Sort of… He stopped talking about “the mustache”. What did he do instead? He would mention “the thing I’m not supposed to talk about.” HAHAHA! Seriously!!! He would say things like, “Hey, Mom. You know that thing I’m not supposed to talk about? I can see it really good today.” HA! It was awful…and hilarious.
One day, I had to go to church earlier than everyone else because I was accompanying someone on the piano, and she wanted to practice one more time. Just as I was ready to walk out the door, J grabbed me in a desperate attempt to stop me. “Mom!” he said. “Have you seen yourself in the mirror?” I replied that I had, indeed, made a valiant effort to groom myself in front of a mirror. “But, Mom! I don’t think you saw it.” I asked him what he was talking about. “Mo-o-o-o-om! It’s that thing! That thing I am not supposed to talk about! You look like a man today!” HAHAHAHA! He really said that! I was half hurt and half tickled by him…again. So what did I do? I laughed. I couldn’t help it. It still makes me laugh.
My point? Without his autism, I don’t know that I would have been able to laugh at so many things in life. And you would be surprised (or maybe not) how much better it feels to laugh about things than to cry about them. Howard W. Hunter said, “There have always been some difficulties in mortal life, and there always will be. But knowing what we know, and living as we are supposed to live, there really is no place, no excuse, for pessimism and despair.” My J, autism, and life in general have verified this to me so many times that I am grateful for all of it. Things always get better. And worse. And better again. The trick is to not go through any of this alone. We do best when we go through it with God at our side. If we can find a way to be grateful, we will find ourselves yoked to Him. Gratitude will give you more strength than 2 hours at the gym every day. It will.
I know it can be a challenge sometimes. Like I said, it needs to be practiced. Believe me, I know. There are serious physical limitations for some people, illnesses, disabilities that don’t just go away with pretty words, all sorts of things. They all make it hard to be grateful, but I really feel like that is what makes our gratitude so much more meaningful. It’s easy to say thank you for cookies. It’s more difficult to be thankful for fish head stew. (I actually gagged a little typing that.)
If you are struggling with feeling thankful, here’s my advice to you. (And you can take it or leave it, just like everything I have said here.) My advice is to mourn the loss. Whenever I find myself struggling with gratitude for all that my son endures and that we endure, I realize that it’s because I am holding on to an idea or a dream or a wish that I have for him or us, for things to be something other than what they are.
I have to tell you about my Mr. Fantastic. (When I am through, you will believe him to be as fantastic as I know him to be.) He was a very athletic fellow in his youth, and terribly gifted in that arena. When he found out we were having a boy, he was like a lot of guys and started dreaming of playing baseball with his son or doing sporty things. There was nothing wrong with those dreams. Well, my son isn’t sporty. Proprioceptive movements are difficult for him. Really difficult. Complicated rules frustrate him. And to make things more difficult, our son is very much his momma’s boy. We have always had a special connection that was just there. It never occurred to me that these things might be hard for my husband. Never.
But they were. However, you would never have known it. He handled it all so well. He just quietly mourned the loss of that idea, that dream, his idea of father-son bonding. And then he decided to join J in his world. The things that J is interested in, his dad joins him there. And when he is feeling a little sad because his son confides so much in his mother, he remembers that J talks to him too. And he’s thankful for anything he is given. (Pretty fantastic, eh?)
Sometimes our dreams have to die in order for the gratitude to be born. I’m not saying that we lower expectations or anything like that. Heaven knows a special needs parent has incredibly high expectations! But when we give ourselves the chance to mourn lost hopes or dreams or wishes (no matter how pure!), from those ashes rises gratitude for what we have. I like to think of those tears washing away the film that was covering our eyes, keeping us from seeing what was really before us.
It’s actually why I call this blog “Take It, and Be Thankful”. Have you ever seen or read Nicholas Nickleby? If not, there’s a scene where the wicked matron of the boys’ schoolhouse is feeding them brimstone and treacle. Meanwhile the wicked schoolmaster is singing her praises about how good she is to those boys, caring for them that way. I don’t know if you know what treacle is, but it’s essentially a dark black syrup made from the sugar refining process that is about 55% sucrose. Brimstone is sulfur. Yummy, right? (I dry heave imagining that anywhere near my mouth.) Well, they used to believe that it was good to cleanse the blood and was a laxative as well. The bonus, of course, was that it spoiled the boys’ appetites.(One of the reasons she’s so wicked.) Anyway. While she’s shoving this spoonful of nastiness down their gullets she says, “Take it. Take it, and be thankful.” It kills me! But then when it came time for me to start a blog that would be about homeschooling and special needs and being a mother and being a woman…that was the obvious choice to call it. Why? Because I really do believe that is what life is.
Sometimes we get lovely little blessings that are like candy. They’re divine, and we know they’re divine as we watch them coming to us and as we receive them. They’re just lovely. But a lot of the time we get something shoved down our throats (it feels like) that tastes awful. We didn’t want it. There can’t possibly be anything good about it. But we’re told to be grateful in all things right?! And we’re told that “all things work together for our good?” Well, it’s true. It is! I have found that even these things we receive, nasty bitter and foul tasting as they may be, are blessings. It really is the theme of my life the past several years, to take it and be thankful. And if we can be thankful, it changes everything. We just have to try…and practice it. And how meaningful, really, is the gratitude we feel for the cookies and candy in life? It’s easy to be thankful for those things. But I have found that when we have to do the work required to be thankful for the fish head stew or brimstone and treacle we get, it means more. It’s not something we will easily forget or lose. It changes us…for the better.
These limitations that are the natural consequence of autism (or ADD or cystic fibrosis or so many other things), can become remarkable sources of learning and insight. They have in my life. As this is the last post of this series, I want to share with you one of the greatest lessons that my son’s autism has taught me. It is simply this. I think we’re all a little handicapped in our own ways. My son’s autism causes him to resist affection sometimes, to ignore us completely sometimes, to be so caught up in his own mind that he misses signs of danger or caution, to misunderstand some things and completely excel at other things. And I think we are all like this. We all resist at times in our lives. God and those we love are always trying to break through the barriers that we construct ourselves, trying to straighten out our misunderstandings, teach us to use our talents and enlarge them. We all have sensory issues. Whenever any of us is overwhelmed, we retreat or try to lessen the stimuli coming into our minds. (Have you ever turned off the radio and made everyone be quiet when you are lost/trying to find your way in the car or hit heavy traffic? Have you ever been so emotionally overwhelmed that you couldn’t stand the thought of being touched?) We all have meltdowns. We all lash out at others when we don’t understand or are so overloaded that we can’t process anything. We all misunderstand and willfully persist in those misunderstandings. None of us are without limitations.
Is it hard to be a happy parent when you have a child or children with special needs? Yes. They require more patience and more attention than I thought it possible for any one person to need. But when we consider God’s infinite patience with us and the handicaps that we have/create in our lives, our patience grows. Our understanding is enlarged. We are made equal to the task.
We don’t have to doubt ourselves all the time. There can be harmony and balance in our homes. Not all the time. There will still be turmoil, but it will not last. Especially if you start some of the things I have suggested this month. If you only want to try one, I hope it’s finding gratitude. If you can find it in small moments every day, the bigger moments will find you.
Take It, and Be Thankful