Monday, October 24, 2016

Trying to radically accept myself

Although I fall far short, my favorite philosophy in parenting Janey is radical acceptance.  I want to accept her as who she is, not try to change her.  I want to delight in her special qualities, without the special being a "special" as seen in "special needs".  I want to be frustrated with her as who she is, not who society feels she should be.  I want her to be herself.  I read a good blog post about this today (read it here) and it got me thinking a lot.  I want to radically accept Janey, but lately, I'm having a very hard time radically accepting myself.

Last summer, I spent a day being researched upon by the Framingham Heart Study.  If you don't know about them, it's worth following the link to find out more.  My mother's family is from Framingham, and I feel lucky to be part of the 3rd generation of my family to participate in the landmark study.  It's mostly about the heart, as the title would imply, but this time, they also included a liver scan, something called a FibroScan.  Usually you don't hear about your medical results from the study, except for a sheet of basic information like your cholesterol reads, but if something fairly major is detected, they let you know.  About two months after my day there, I got a letter saying that the liver scan showed a high possibility of significant scarring to my liver.

That letter sent a chain of appointments and tests into action, the most recent one being a liver biopsy, the gold standard of liver tests.  It gave me a diagnosis---something called NASH (non-alcoholic steatohepatitis).  Basically, that means my liver is inflamed and scarred by means of something other than alcohol.   It's a strange disorder.  No-one knows exactly why you get it, and there is no treatment.  It's just---there.  Sometimes it doesn't progress further (although it in itself is a progressed stage of something called fatty liver) and sometimes it does, leading to cirrhosis, which also has no cure, except a liver transplant.

There aren't too many symptoms of NASH, but the top of the list of the ones they are is fatigue. Just by luck's draw, I have two other medical issues which also cause severe fatigue---a thyroid which works almost not at all, along with what is most likely Sjogren's Syndrome.   The result is a kind of tiredness that is hard to even explain.  I wake up fine, and I'm fine for about three to four hours.  And then I get tired---so tired that I almost always have to take a nap.  I'm okay for a few more hours after that, but then again, very very tired, tired in what I think of a bone-tired way, tired right down to the roots of me.

As I lay in bed a bit ago, worn out from a trip to the grocery store and some minor laundry, I was cursing myself.  I hate the tiredness.  It makes me feel like a lazy loser.  I get so little done.  I do what for most people would be a normal morning's chores on a light day, and I'm ready to collapse.  As I lay there, reading the blog entry I linked to earlier, though, for just a second I thought "I have a reason for this tiredness.  I don't have to hate myself for it.  I can do what I want to do for Janey.  I can radically accept myself"

It's hard for me to accept myself at all, to say nothing of radically accepting myself, but I think I'm going to need to start trying.  That's partly because I can't seem to think my way out of the physical issues I have, and partly because to be the best mother I can to Janey (and to William and Freddy), I need to.  If I didn't rest during the day while Janey was at school, I couldn't do much for her when she got home.  My health issues are part of me.  They are part of what I need to accept.

I debated whether to write about all of this here.  But I write about Janey, and I want to be similarly open about myself.  It seems fair, if I write honestly about raising Janey, that I write honestly about my own life.

I'll close with a picture of Tony and me, taken in front of the building where we met at work many years ago.  I don't like how I look in pictures, but I'm going to try to start radically accepting myself there too.  It's a work in progress.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The season titles and other communication breakdowns

I'm lucky that in many ways, I'm able to communicate with Janey.  Her understanding of what we say is far better than her speech.  I can tell her something like "go in your room and get a shirt, then get your shoes, and we'll put them on to go for a walk" and she will understand and, if motivated, do what I've asked.  She can ask us for food she wants, for rides, for the bathroom.  She uses gestures to tell us things like "get out of this room so I can watch my show!" or "move your legs so they are in a position that's acceptable to my OCD!"  But sometimes, some concepts and ideas just don't seem possible to explain to her.

A big one that has been a problem for years now happens when Janey wants to watch a video on Amazon Prime TV.  The way their interface is set up, if they have multiple seasons of a TV show, there's a season title block at the start of each season.  This block is the same size as the TV show blocks, and you can highlight it like you do a show.  However, clicking on it doesn't do anything.  It's just something saying "The following episodes are from season two" or whatever.  

Janey is bound and determined to watch the non-existent shows that she thinks are associated with the season titles.  She'll gesture wildly to show me she wants to watch "Season Two".  I've been working hard on teaching her to use the remote to get the shows she wants, and although she's not very into it, she'll try in this case, moving the cursor to the season title and clicking the "A" button.  Of course, nothing happens.  And she starts screaming.

I have explained every way that I can possibly think of to tell her that these aren't show, that they will never be clickable, that they just tell what season we are in.  Frankly, I don't think she'll ever get it.  She doesn't know TV shows come in seasons.  She doesn't get why some blocks would lead to a show and others wouldn't.  She simply thinks for some reason of our own, we aren't letting her watch those shows, and she wants to see them.

This might seem like a little thing, but it's an example of one of the very hardest parts of raising a child like Janey, for her and for us.  We can "assume understanding" as much as we want, we can explain with words and pictures and social stories and charts and examples and all kinds of things, but if it's a concept that is simply beyond her, it doesn't matter.  It's like if understanding string theory somehow came up in daily life for me.  I've tried very hard to read about it, I've watched shows about it and thought about it, but I don't get it and I never will, I daresay.  Thankfully, I don't need to, for regular daily life, but the things Janey doesn't understand do come up all the time.  She asks for chocolate milk when there's none in the house.  She wants to go for a car ride at 3 in the morning or during a snowstorm.  She wants to watch "Hercules" when it's no longer available for streaming or even to buy on Amazon.  She wants to wear her Crocs in the winter.  She wants to not get her hair brushed.  And with all the issues like that, I've done absolutely everything I can to help her understand why she can't, but I truly don't think she is able, cognitively, to grasp the concepts needed.

It's not really autism that is the problem here.  It's Janey's intellectual disability.  Not all kids with autism have an intellectual disability, and sometimes, it seems like it's fashionable to think none do, that it's simply we as parents or teachers or caregivers aren't understanding how to communicate.  I'm sure that's sometimes the case, and maybe often, but sometimes, it isn't.  I feel strongly that to respect Janey is to be realistic. It is not respectful of who she is to deny parts of her disability.  Being intellectually disabled in no way makes her less.  I won't get political, but anyone who uses the old term "retarded" as an insult is not someone I want to deal with, ever.  It's not an insult.  It's not something unspeakable that we have to pretend isn't the case.  It's reality, just like it's reality that there are things I don't have the capacity to understand or do that other people can do.  It's not respectful of me to deny that, and it's not respectful of those who might try to teach me to say they just aren't teaching right.  It's reality.  And it's hard, sometimes, but it's the truth.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

What I can't stand about the mother in "Speechless"

I've only watched the first two episodes of "Speechless", and I don't plan on watching any more. I'm glad that TV is showing someone like the son on the show, in a wheelchair and without verbal speech.  That's not my issue with the show, although I do wish sometimes they'd show someone with trouble communicating that went beyond verbal speech.  The boy on the show has a lot to say and communicates very well, and of course is also funny and sassy and outgoing and so forth.  And there are kids like him---great kids that I've met, very bright kids and adults in wheelchairs that deserve to be seen as the cool people they are.  My issue with the show is the mother.

If you have a child with a disability, there's pretty much only one personality you can ever have if you are being portrayed on TV or in a movie.  You must be a tireless, relentless, fierce, single-minded, aggressive, angry and over the top advocate for your child.  You must be ready to put everything else in your life on a back burner, including your marriage, any other children you might have, your friends, your hobbies---all of it---in order to devote every single second toward the child with a disability.  You are supposed to fight everyone and everything in order to get the best life for your child.  Everything and everybody except your child is a potential roadblock, and you must be ready to mow them down to get what your child needs.  The result will be, of course, that by the end of the movie or run of the TV show, your child will either be "cured" or will be living the best possible life they can---of course doing things that experts said they could never do, of course surprising everyone with how far they have come, of course making you proud and making it clear that the ends justified the means.  The mother on "Speechless" is that kind of mother.

In real life, somehow it must be that mistakes are made here and there when handing out children with disabilities.  Sometimes, instead of the fierce mother they are supposed to get, they get someone like me, someone who avoids confrontation if at all possible, who is not comfortable demanding anything, who regularly takes her eye off the prize and doesn't follow through with every chance to "fix" her child, who is in fact often not even exactly sure what it is she should be fighting for, if she were inclined to fight.

When talking to a friend about my feelings toward "Speechless" and how I didn't find the mold of the fierce mother, she asked me "Well, what is it you think Janey didn't get because you aren't that way?"  That was an excellent question, and the answer was...really nothing.  Of course occasionally I do wish there were programs for Janey that don't exist, but in terms of what she really needs, she has always gotten it.  I am very lucky that way.  I have to thank the Boston public schools for that.  I've had nothing but excellent teachers for her, nothing but caring administrators, aides, therapists, ABA workers, bus drivers...I've been incredibly lucky.  I can't quite say that's been the case with medical issues, but with the schools, I've somehow been able to get by without ever once having a screaming match at a meeting, or even anything close.

Of course, I do know that I've got some advantages.  I speak English, I'm fairly good at understanding the system, I am able to attend meetings without fear of losing a job, I have transportation, I can read---I don't take any of that for granted.  I know and have met mothers that care for their children every bit as much as I do, but because of various issues, can't work within the system as I do.  I think about Tony's mother a lot.  If she had had a child with autism, she wouldn't have known where to start.  She spoke very little English, she didn't drive, she didn't understand the US school system---she would have been lost.

In an ideal world, everyone would have had the great experience I've had with their child's schools.  We don't live in an ideal world.  I know part of why I am able to not be the fierce mother is because of the work of fierce mothers that came before me, that demanded their children get an education at all.  I respect that very much.  However, I think the media has something to answer to in putting out there a stereotype of a fierce mother.  I think it leaves many parents ready for fights that don't have to happen.  It also gives a huge advantage to those with the means and skills and money to hire people to fight for them---lawyers or advocates or the like.  It's why recent investigations in Massachusetts showed a huge gap between what kind of services kids in rich vs. poor school systems get.

My strong feeling is that schools and parents should be a team, working together to give children what they need.  I'm extremely lucky that is what I have experienced.  But if I relied solely on the media to get an idea how I should view the school/home relationship, I'd see it as a battle with the school on one side and me on the other.  And because of this, I think sometimes schools are expecting every mother to be ready to fight that battle.  They might be waiting for demands from parents, and many parents are ready to make those demands.  I feel in many cases, that is how resources are handed out---by seeing who demands them.  That infuriates me.  It makes me sick, really.  What about the parents who don't demand---because that isn't their nature, or because they simply have barriers to understanding what they even COULD demand?  It is horrifying to me to think that their children might not get what they need while the children of those who know how to play the system do.

I'd love to see a TV show where special educators and parents work together, where the incredible dedication and hard work and love of both are shown.  I'd like to see a mother I could relate to in the media, a mother who isn't fierce but still fiercely loves their child.  I'd like to see some teachers and therapists like the ones I've known, like the ones I met with today at Janey's school, who care about my child deeply, who provide her with the best education they can (and provide me with the respite school gives me).  I'd like to see a child on TV with Janey's kind of speechlessness.  Until then, I'll avoid one-dimensional portrayals of special needs mothers.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Thinking about Rosemary Kennedy

I just finished reading "Rosemary--The Hidden Kennedy Daughter" by Kate Clifford Larson.  It's a very well written and fascinating account of the life of Rosemary, the eldest daughter in the family that included JFK and Teddy Kennedy.  My mind is swirling with thoughts about the book and her life.

There were really two lives of Rosemary.  One is before she had a lobotomy, one is after.  Before, she was what I'd call mildly intellectually disabled.  Certainly she could do many things Janey can't---read at a 4th grade level, write letters, talk quite well---she functioned well enough to be presented to the Queen of England without anyone realizing she had a disability.  But then, as she entered her early 20s, mental illness started to complicate her life.  She became angry and aggressive, and it became harder and harder to accommodate her needs.  Tragically, her father decided to have her undergo a lobotomy, which went horribly wrong.  After that, Rosemary was severely physically and mentally affected. She did recover slightly in some ways, and occasionally did speak in sentences, and although she lived out her life in a house on the grounds of a nursing home, cared for by devoted nuns, starting about 20 years after the procedure, she did quite often visit her family and was part of their lives, until she died in her late 80s.

Several things struck me very much about her story.  One of them is how even having all the money and power in the world wasn't able to substantially change her functioning.  Sometimes I think "if only I had the money to get Janey the very most cutting edge care, all the devices and lessons and private schools and aides I could imagine..."  But in reality, I truly feel that most of us, Janey and Rosemary included, learn what they are able to learn and do what they are able to do if they are loved and given the chance.  You can make sure they learn what they are able to learn, but you can't really change what that level of ability is.  When I look at other kids I've met at Janey's schools, I see that.  Some make tremendous progress.  Some don't.  They are given the same kind of teaching, the same kind of opportunities, but in many ways, we are all going to be who we are going to be.  And that's not a bad thing, necessarily.  It leads me to what Rosemary didn't seem to get from her parents---acceptance.

Rosemary was moved from school to school, from program to program, in hopes of making her "normal".  When I look at what she was in her early life, I have to admit I think I'd be thrilled if Janey was able to do the things she could do.  But I don't think it ever was considered to just work with what she had, to say "let's find a way to give her a good life with the abilities she has right now"  I wonder if that had a part in her lashing out eventually.  I think about what it must feel like to be constantly pushed to do or learn things that are beyond one's ability.  If someone decided to spend all their time trying to teach me calculus, or even legible handwriting, or gymnastics, or hairdressing, or a number of things I can't do and I honestly don't think I'm capable of doing, I can't even imagine how upset I'd feel after just even a few hours.  If this went on for years, I think I'd be very, very ready to lash out in any way necessary to get it all to stop.  I don't blame her parents.  In many ways, they were ahead of their time.  They wanted to give Rosemary the best life they could, and in their time, that would be by making her not disabled, and like so many desperate parents, they did everything they could to try to do that.

There's a fine line, of course, between teaching someone what they CAN learn and not pushing them to do what they CAN'T learn.  I know it's sometimes impossible to know where that line is.  But I think our kids let us know.  Janey learns eagerly, when she is able to.  I have to trust her enough to believe that she isn't trying NOT to learn.  I have to believe that the fact she can't read or usually talk in full sentences or be completely toilet trained after many, many years of working on those things means that to some extent, there is a reason she can't learn those things.  It's not giving up to admit that, I don't think, any more than it's not me giving up that leads me to say I'll never be a mathematician or a gymnast or a hairdresser.  It's a matter of deciding whether to go with strengths or not.

In the end, although Rosemary's life story is very sad in a lot of ways, I was hugely touched by something her sister Eunice, founder of Special Olympics, said in a speech in 2007 "Tonight, I want to say what I have never said before: more than any one single individual, Rosemary made the difference"  She was referring there to her influence on her brother's presidency, but in many ways, the fact that she was part of a hugely influential family who devoted much time and energy and money to helping the disabled means that she made a difference for probably millions of lives.  She mattered, as does Janey, as do all our daughters and sons with disabilities.

Monday, October 3, 2016

"Participate effectively and maintain a safe environment"

I took Janey to a parade yesterday, along with my friend Maryellen.  I don't think Janey has been to a parade since she was three or so.  Overall, she loved it.  Parades pretty much have Janey's favorite features---music, dancing, being outdoors and able to move around and be loud if desired, all that.

For me, a few parts of the day were bittersweet.  A dance troupe played a huge part in the parade, a troupe from a big local dance studio.  I'm not a dance person, but I am pretty sure if Janey had followed a more typical course in life, she'd have been involved in dance.  She's amazing, in that she instantly copied every dance style she saw during the parade and did her own dance at the side of the street.  She got many smiles and waves with her high enthusiasm and her moves.  It was something watching her, doing something I couldn't do for the life of me.  As I watched the literally hundreds of young girl dancers go by, I kept thinking "Why isn't there a place for Janey among them?"  I found a list of dance programs in the Boston area for kids with autism.  I'm glad there are some, but like I've found so often, they aren't for Janey.  Here's what one of them said is a requirement for participating--- "Students must be able to participate effectively in lessons or classes and maintain an environment that is safe for themselves and others."  Yeah.  Janey isn't going to participate "effectively".  She would probably not "maintain" the environment they are looking for.  She would love the class, she would probably learn, but as several of the five for so programs explicitly said, they are looking for "high functioning autism" kids.  And sometimes, I get mad about that.  They have every right to accept who they want to, but damn it, I wish there were programs that said something like "We will work with children at any level of functioning, if they have a love of dance"

I felt encouraged by much of Janey's behavior during the parade.  She's still been in a bit of a manic phase, and the weekend was trying at points, with her often going over the top from excitement to anger and screaming.  But a few years ago, I would not even have attempted something like this parade, even with the wonderful help of Maryellen.  As we walked toward the parade route, Janey ran ahead of me a bit, and I felt so happy she is able to do that now, and I know she will stop when I shout out to her to do so.  She's able to have that little bit of independence, which is a very nice thing for a 12 year old.  She stayed with us at the parade without having to have her hand held, and she seemed to understand that she needed to not go into the street where the parade people were.

There was one moment, though, when I was quickly reminded that I need to always be on guard with Janey.  Maryellen had an umbrella, as it was drizzling.  Janey wanted to hold it, and we think to twirl it on the ground.  Before either of us completely realized what was happening, she moved close to a couple small children and started wildly flinging the umbrella around.  It could have very easily poked and hurt the kids.  We grabbed it, apologized and folded it up.  But she is so fast that it's scary.  Sometimes I'm almost lulled into relaxing for a minute when we are out and about, and I just can't.

Janey watching the parade is in many ways a metaphor for what increasingly frustrates me about life for a child like her.  She can watch, she can enjoy, but she can't really participate.  She dances on the sidelines.  And even on the sidelines, I can for a few minutes just feel like she's any other parade watcher, but if I let my guard down, things can suddenly turn.  I can't ever relax.

Because I am always arguing back and forth with myself, I'm of course thinking "She doesn't know she isn't participating.  She is happy dancing on the side."  And that's true.  Fine.  But imagine Janey belonged to almost any other distinctive group of kids.  And imagine that the group she belonged to was a group simply not welcome, not included, in basically everything.  In the past, we might have said "That's just the way it is.  It's too hard to include that kind of kid.  They don't need to be included to be happy."  Well, sometimes I have a radical idea that Janey SHOULD be able to be included in ANYTHING that other kids are included in.  Or at the very least, if there is an activity that is said to be for kids with special needs, or even specifically autism, that it should include ALL kids with autism.  Sure, it would take some doing.  But why not?  Why can't it be that way?

I do live in the real world.  I think often of Janey's old school, which tried harder than anyplace to live that dream of including all kids, and in the end, wasn't able to do that for Janey.  And thinking about that, even after several years, can make me cry.  I don't have solutions, or answers, really.  I accept, at many levels, that in the real world the challenges of Janey's behavior do leave her out of the mainstream.  But sometimes, I dream of a world where she's truly and totally included.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

A Little Beyond Happy

Janey's wonderful weekend last weekend has been followed by what often follows some of her very best times---a bit of what I can for the lack of a better term "mania".  I know it's not classic mania, probably, and I know that is a loaded term and that it has a clinical meaning and that using it says something specific....but that is a shorthand term I've come to use in my mind for how Janey has been this week.

It's been milder than in the past, as her unhappy periods tend to now be also.  In the past, she often would sleep extremely little during these periods, going to bed very late and waking very early.  We haven't seen that---she seems to be in a teenager style sleep mode a little young, and it's hard to wake her up for school although she goes to bed quite early.  But it's there, and it can be quite something to deal with.

So what does she do when she's "manic" (and I will just call it manic without quotations from here on in!)?  She repeats phrases, over and over and over, far beyond the typical delayed echolalia.  Last night, it was "Okay, all right, I've learned my lesson already!".  Over and over, in the exact same tone, probably 500 times.  I think it might be a phrase from a movie she's watching on Netflix a lot, "Home", or it might be from an episode of a new Scooby Do series on there also, just based on tone of voice.  She eats, huge amounts.  After school yesterday she ate a whole container of feta cheese, a full jar of salsa, a good amount of frozen yogurt and some cookies, and then ate a ton of dinner---homemade chicken nuggets, and still was asking for food at bedtime.  And she laughs---a laugh that is sort of like a laugh track, unvarying and not terribly related to anything going on.  The laugh can turn into almost a shriek, especially out in public.  Sometimes it sounds close to a scream, and it takes looking at her for a minute to figure out it isn't.

One of the toughest things she does when manic is be a little free with her teeth.  It's not biting, but it's pushing her teeth into me, in a way that's hard to explain.  It can hurt, and it's scarily close to a bite.  Last night she also started hugging me in a way that turned into elbowing me.  I don't think she realizes she is doing these things, and telling her to stop and backing away doesn't seem to change much.  She goes right back to doing it as soon as she can, laughing at whatever I say in trying to stop her.  

Usually these manic periods don't last long.  I'm glad they don't, although with their lessened intensity, they are easier to take than they used to be.  But they still make me kind of sad for Janey.  It's like even feeling happy and good turns into something else for her.  It feels like playing a happy song and having it get stuck, repeating the same happy laughter-filled phrase until it loses all meaning and is like a trap.  And the mania seems to often be followed by a plunge into screaming and sadness, from one kind of intensity to another.  I am crossing my fingers and hoping very much that this time, that cycle is broken and she can go back to the amazing relaxed happiness of last week.  Please.

Monday, September 26, 2016

The best weekend ever

The title says it all.  This past weekend with Janey was the best one we've ever had with her.

Janey, all weekend long, was happy.  Not manic happy, but very, very happy in a contented, sweet way.  There was not a single moment of tears or screaming.  She was smiling pretty much all the time.  It was amazing, truly amazing.  I would have given anything to be able to see this weekend during some of our darkest times.

We were able to do things that we are never able to do.  We took Janey to a new food place, Wahlburgers, and got takeout, which took a little while, and then ate it outside in the city.  I felt like I was living someone else's life.  We went to Savers, and Tony was prepared to take Janey out, for a ride or walk or whatever to keep her happy.  Instead, she was happy AT the Savers.  For 90 minutes.  Happy looking around, laughing, talking....amazing.  We sat back on Sunday night and watched two hours of old Family Feud episodes.  Janey watched with us, or played with her iPad, all in perfect contentment.  She slept well, she ate well....she was beyond a delight.

And of course, I want to figure it out.  What was different?  How can I capture what happened and repeat it?

I have a few theories.  I think she's very, very happy at school this year, and that translates to happy at home.  I wonder if she has pain of some sort a lot of the time, and it was gone for the weekend.  It was the first cool weekend of fall, and perhaps she loves fall and hates the heat, like me.  Tony and I had little else going on, and gave her a lot of attention.  We were both happy, after a long week, and she picks up on emotions tremendously.  Who knows?  I almost hate to write about the weekend, for fear of the jinx, but I had to.

There were lots of times when I thought it would never be like this.  There were weeks and months and even years where it was so hard I honestly sometimes felt I couldn't go on.  And however hard it was for me, I know it was so much harder for Janey.  No-one should ever be unhappy as much as she was.  I have so much joy when I see her happy.  It makes me realize that is all that matters with her.  The autism makes no difference.  The intellectual disability makes no difference.  It's her happiness that makes the difference.

I will try not to over-analyze.  I just wanted to record this weekend before it slipped into the vast territory of past time.  I wanted to have a record of how it can be.  And I wanted to thank Janey, and tell her I hope with all my heart that happiness like she has had lately can be the default state for the rest of her life.