Cancellations, Delay, Need

Last Saturday, Adrian and I had plans with another couple, close friends, a minister and lay person. They have a teenage son, Jacob, whom they adopted years ago, after the boy had suffered neglect and horrible abuse in foster care. Predictably, their son has lasting behavioral and emotional challenges, which our friends have weathered with grace. The day before we were set to go out, I received an email from the minister half of this couple, offering regrets that he needed to stay home because their son was bolting again: running away when he sees the chance.

I wrote him this note, which seems appropriate to share here, with permission:

Friday, when I saw an email from you arrive, I knew before reading what it would say. I’ve written the same email so many times these past six years—“I was really looking forward to our lunch, but Martin’s having a tough day . . . ,” “I can still make dinner, but I have to miss the movie. So much anxiety, he won’t go to sleep unless I’m home . . . .” Your cancellation, not unexpected, got me reflecting on our children, and what they’ve meant to our paths and relationships.

I never expected parenting to be the burden that it has become. Burden, yes. I mean the word without the negative connotation, or at least without only the negative connotation. Burden the way completing an education is a burden, or getting up to go to work is a burden. We carry these burdens in order to build a life. Some are heavier than others. Upon Martin’s diagnosis, parenting became heavy. Too heavy, sometimes.

People tell me that God makes special children for special parents, or that one day I will understand why Adrian and I were “blessed” with a child with autism. No way. I will never believe that a loving God afflicts children in order to test or to uphold their parents. Instead, I think our kids suffer the sins of this world. In Martin’s case, we have corrupted the food supply, toyed with earth’s natural abundance, believed we can overcome sloth with science, and set aside worldly order until we triggered sick kids, lots of them. Jacob’s tormentors—addiction, abandonment, abuse, neglect—are less modern but no less man-made. Autism and PTSD didn’t “just happen”; in both cases, our sons are left to absorb the sins of others.

—Which of course means that we as their protectors and caregivers are left to clean others’ messes. We chose parenting. We did not choose this parenting. But that, I suppose, is the nature of sin: Once we engage (as we must) with the world around us, there lurks evil. The Christian’s job is to fight back, and for whatever reason, you and I have Jacob and Martin as both the incentive for and the locus of our struggle. I wish it weren’t that way. I hate autism. I wish sin would have left my son out of it. Alas. For now, I try to be grateful for the weapons I’ve been given for the battle.

I’m not saying much with this note, and certainly not preaching to the preacher. I just wanted to share these thoughts, and through them to share my unceasing appreciation for your friendship and example.


Sunday’s Weekend Edition had an interview with Arianna Huffington about her new book, The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time, which reminded me of a post I’ve been meaning to write about sleep.

Or as it were, sleeplessness.

Martin’s early autism was marked by profound inability to sleep. He took an hour or more (sometimes up to three hours) to fall asleep and managed only a few hours before waking again for long stretches, like from 1:00-5:00 am, and then, maybe, sleeping another couple hours. When Martin was awake, I was awake: He yelled and cried, climbed out of crib or bed, and usually needed physical restraint to rest, or for any hope of returning to sleep. (A weighted blanket made no difference.) For more than a year, I survived on as little as two hours’ sleep per night, and considered six hours a luxury. When I did sleep, it was often on Martin’s bedroom floor, or contorted around his body in a single bed, or upright in the chair next to him. I drafted a celebratory post when I could finally lie in my bed even though he was awake, and again the night that I lay awake in bed because I finally wasn’t exhausted.

I’ve said this before, and I believe I will say it many times again: Sleeplessness makes autism so much the worse. Autism is emotional turmoil. Adrian and I have had to fight the system to seek recovery for Martin. I endure constant guilt about whether my own actions contributed to Martin’s condition. I’ve given up on having a second child, and at times I questioned whether my only child would ever live independently. All of that notwithstanding, the single greatest challenge of Martin’s autism, for me, has been sleeplessness. I understand why sleep deprivation is considered a form of torture. When you’ve had only 20 hours’ sleep over an entire week, nothing makes sense. During the most challenging, jittery months, I had to avoid sitting down during the day, because I might fall asleep, wherever I was.

Even when Martin became a better sleeper, I regret to report, I continued to squeak by with too little rest, juggling writing, autism recovery, the bad nights Martin still sometimes had, and as close to a healthy a marriage as I could muster.

Now, three or four years after the Great Sleeplessness, I make an effort to get at least seven hours’ sleep every night, and eight full hours as often as possible. I’m doing pretty well. But I know that my health still shows the effects of having gone so long without sufficient rest. Before Martin developed autism, I caught two colds a year, one in the winter and one in the summer, and other than that rarely was sick. Since the Great Sleeplessness, I’ve endured as many as four major illnesses per year, despite eating a cleaner diet than ever. Nowadays when I feel “something coming on,” I can’t assume that if I take it easy for a few days and lay off the gym, I’ll be fine. “Something coming on” now means that I’m going to be effectively non-functioning. That’s what happened a few months ago, in January: On a Saturday afternoon, I felt vaguely unwell. By midday Sunday, I was coughing uncontrollably. I had to cancel a Monday afternoon flight to California and ask my law partner to cover the mediation I had been scheduled to attend; from Monday afternoon, when Samara arrived (thank goodness, she had been scheduled to come and care for Martin while I was in California) until Thursday, when Samara went home, I stayed in bed. After that, I was able to rise and get through the day, but I remained out of sorts, with a persistent dry cough, more than a week later—at which time a chest x-ray showed I didn’t have pneumonia, and the doctor asked me to please, please consider antibiotics. I suppose I’ve become too reluctant to use pharmaceuticals.

When I was 21 and living in India, I caught dysentery and quickly dropped from 110 pounds (those were the days) to 95 pounds (bad idea!). I’m 5’6″, and it took months for my weight to cross back into triple digits. I also started feeling cold, almost all the time. I wore extra sweaters and slept under piles of quilts. As I recollect, the cold feeling, which was ignited by being underweight, stuck with me four or five years before fading. I’m hoping for something similar now. Constant exhaustion weakened my immune system. Four or five years of taking care of myself—fingers crossed!—should just about alleviate the issue. Check back with me in 2018.

For now, I am done with sleeplessness. I hate sleeplessness. I hate sleeplessness all the more for these points:

  1. Chronic fatigue has imposed a heavy burden on my well-being. If this is what happened to my body, what did sleeplessness do to Martin, who was a growing toddler? Moments like these, I am so very thankful to understand that autism is medical, and to have found biomed as a way to restore Martin’s health, and mine.
  1. For children and adults on the spectrum whose symptoms are more severe than Martin’s, or whose health doesn’t improve with interventions, this kind of sleeplessness may persist for years. Years. And the same can be said for their parents/care-givers. Years. Remember the study that found that mothers of children on the spectrum can suffer damage comparable to combat stress? I think I know a big reason why that happens.

Oh, dear. I feel something coming on again, and this time it’s snark:

Tell me again why “autism is an important part of neurodiversity” and we “shouldn’t be trying to cure autism”?

Who Gets to Join This Fancy Club?

Last night I had the pleasure of dining with an old friend from law school. Our discussion turned to Rachel Dolezal, the woman who resigned as president of Spokane’s NAACP chapter after it became known that she was born white, not black. My old friend is now a law professor; her research includes issues of race. She talked about three ways of identifying with a community (in Dolezal’s case, identifying with the African-American community): documentary, like checking the box that says “Asian-Pacific Islander” or “Hispanic” on a form; biologically, like asserting, “My grandparents came from Ukraine, so I am Ukrainian”; and aesthetically, like adopting traditions, tastes, customs, &c. commonly associated with the group. My friend opined that a person who chooses to claim a social identity, even if s/he does so only aesthetically (say, in hairstyle, language patterns, and manner of dress), should not be rejected if s/he also assumes the burdens associated with that identity: If Dolezal claims blackness, and willingly endures the discrimination that black women in the United States face, then her lack of biological identification does not disqualify her from the African-American community.

My friend the professor owns that theory: Any flaws in articulating it are mine alone.

We also spoke about Martin. I am sometimes asked why Martin—remember, that’s not my son’s real name—has a Spanish name. He is pale and blonde like I am and doesn’t otherwise “look” Latino; moreover, although Adrian, my husband, comes from South America and speaks English with an accent, he does not participate in “Latino culture” as we have (or imagine) it in the United States. (Excuse my sweeping generalizations; a blog post admits only so much depth.) My friend noted that Martin already identifies with the Latino community biologically and documentarily (we check both the “white/Caucasian” and “Hispanic” boxes), and to some extent aesthetically, because he is Spanish-English bilingual and has a Spanish name. Someday, my friend observed, Martin will have to decide for himself how much more he will identify aesthetically with United States Latino culture.

I enjoyed this conversation so much. It was personal, thought-provoking, and invigorating. Even better still, we were discussing Martin, and his future, and the topic was entirely unrelated to autism. I don’t know whether my friend is aware that Martin has autism. Martin was there, present, at my friend’s apartment. As we talked, Martin was playing, awkwardly but more or less appropriately, with my friend’s four-year-old daughter. Adrian and I are not public about Martin’s diagnosis, and I’ve never had occasion to tell this friend. Maybe she knows via the friends-in-common grapevine. Maybe not. Autism isn’t really the elephant in the room when I have Martin with me, not anymore. These days it’s sort of the toy elephant in the room. I can shove it in a pocket or tuck it behind a knickknack and hope no one notices.

That being said, as I sat with my friend and (especially) thereafter, my mind drew connections to autism. Martin has autism. I am part of the autism community. My family is part of the autism community. In terms of biological identification, we did not choose membership. Martin developed autism. It happened. Our entry tickets appeared. In terms of documentary identification, I suppose we do choose to join, out of necessity. If we want special education and other services, we have to check that (sometimes metaphorical) “autism” box.

Yes, I also check the metaphorical box to pre-board airplanes. Guilty.

Which leaves aesthetic identification. As an aesthetic matter, do I identify as a member of the autism community? Yes and no. No, insofar as we are not public about Martin’s diagnosis, insofar as we share on a mostly need-to-know basis. Our primary motivation for keeping Martin’s autism private is that he is getting better, and that one day he will recover, and then we don’t want him seen as “the kid who had autism.” In that regard, we refuse to assume one burden of the autism identity: We try to insulate Martin from the negative stereotypes associated with spectrum disorders.

Yes, however, insofar as autism has worked infiltrated the way I navigate the world, and any insult to the autism community feels like an insult to me personally, and by derivation to Martin. Remember when an ignoramus in an elevator called my friend Natasha’s pre-verbal son a thing? The offense hit me exactly as if he had called my son a thing. Two weeks ago, in a Brooklyn market, a minister—a minister by profession and not, I daresay, by vocation—yelled at my friend Stacey’s sensory-seeking son and then told Stacey to “get [her] son under control before he hurt[] someone.” Though I heard the story only afterward, from Stacey, I felt myself there present, as if the alleged minister had yelled at Martin and said those awful words to me. I identify with every report of a spectrum kid getting bullied, family who can’t afford biomed, or student whose school district denies appropriate special-education services. Regardless of whether we speak out or advocate, I am part of the autism community psychically.

I wonder what will happen when, for the most part, we lose Martin’s biological identification with autism, when he recovers? (I say “for the most part” because I envision him always having some level of immune sensitivity that requires special care.) I remember the episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, when Larry David’s Los Angeles character, who’s always believed himself the son of Jewish parents, discovers he’s adopted and was born to Protestants. Immediately he begins doing stereotypical things like wearing a fanny pack, hunting, slamming beers. When we lose Martin’s biological connection to autism, will my aesthetic identification fade too? Will I ask, “Is autism bullying a problem?” or, “They have adequate social services for persons on the spectrum, don’t they?”

I won’t. I think once a person has experienced what it means to reside with autism, that feeling never goes away. Maybe it’s comparable to PTSD; I once saw a report indicating that mothers of adolescents and adults with autism experience chronic stress similar to combat soldiers. Martin is young still, his autism has never been “severe,” and shortly after we started biomed, he started sleeping regularly (other than stress, lack of sleep was the big threat to my own health), so maybe in my case the PTSD comparison is too dramatic.

Does Rachel Dolezel have a place in the black community? Not for me to say, because it’s not my community.

My old friend from law school has me thinking this: I’m really not interested in policing the membership of the autism community, either. If a person who is biologically and documentarily unconnected to autism wants to assume the burdens of autism, wants to internalize every insult the way I do now, then I welcome that person on board. We biomed parents are striving to reduce the biological autism community. Growing the aesthetic autism community can only help those who remain biologically connected to autism to fare better in this world.