Der Process

I’ve written before about my scrapes with the Transportation Security Administration.

I travel with Martin, a lot. When we fly, I carry his myriad pills and drops and liquids and compounded formulations in a heavy-duty black shoulder bag. (It’s repurposed. Once upon a time the bag held my breast pump.) Many of the supplements that aid Martin’s recovery are homeopathic and otherwise imprinted or finely calculated. I will not allow the supplements to pass through the security x-ray, because it can scramble their delicate properties.

Because of Martin’s special diet, I also have to carry food in my knapsack. In the past, my go-to has been nut butter with rice crackers. Now I like coconut butter with crackers. The TSA doesn’t like either.

The scene changes each time we pass security.

Regarding food, I’ve been told, at various times:

(1) nut butter is no problem and can come on the plane;

(2) nut butter is a problem unless it is in a sealed, unopened container;

(3) nut butter cannot be in a sealed, unopened container because all those containers are too big;

(4) nut butter is exempt from security if I’m carrying a doctor’s prescription for Martin’s restricted diet (I always am);

(5) our doctor’s prescription for Martin’s restricted diet makes no difference to what we can carry on the plane; and

(6) we can bring nut butter on the plane only if I leave the security line, take all of my belongings and Martin to the food court, request to-go containers from some restaurant, divide the nut butter into three-ounce portions among those allegedly available to-go containers, and return to security with the newly packaged servings. On the day that this food-court option was given, the TSA agent insisted that the repackaging could be accomplished in the ten minutes before our flight was to board. It became one of many flights on which Martin ended up without nut butter.

I never know which story we’ll get about the nut butter, or coconut butter, when we reach the front of the security line. And yet, traveling with Martin’s food is a piece of cake—sorry—compared to carrying supplements that should not be scanned.

We’ve been in Texas, on Thanksgiving vacation. Last week, when Martin and I flew from New York to Texas, we encountered a sympathetic TSA agent. I unloaded everything from the black bag into a gray security bin. The agent took the bin immediately, asked what it contained (“My son’s medications”), used one swab to check all bottles quickly, and called Martin a beautiful boy. I repacked the black bag, and we were on our way in less than five minutes.

This morning, preparing for our flight home from Texas, I requested a hand-search of the supplements. I unloaded the several dozen bottles from the black bag into a gray security bin. No one came to take the bin. A TSA agent had me stand in front of the metal detector holding it, as passenger after passenger walked by, each (it seemed) examining the contents of my bin as s/he entered the metal detector. I heard, “Hand-check on one!” called several times, but the agent in charge of hand-checking decided to restock the gray bins of three lines before showing up, so I stood in front of the metal detector a full five minutes with my bin. At length a female TSA agent approached and offered to set my bin aside while we waited for the elusive agent in charge of hand checking. Then I stood, bin-less, another two or three minutes until I was invited to pass, not through the metal detector, but through a full-body scanner, the next line over.

Adrian traveled with me and Martin today, thank goodness. While I stood there waiting, Adrian accompanied Martin through the regular metal detector (long-time readers of this blog know my misgivings about the metal detector) and collected my laptop, knapsack, boots, and jacket from the conveyor belt. On the other side of the full-body scanner, I was informed that, because I had requested a hand-search of Martin’s supplements, I would be subject to a full-body pat-down. I’ve received the pat-down treatment maybe twice before; its necessity appears randomized. A male agent ushered me into a glass-wall-demarcated waiting area and told me to await a female agent. I stood, on display in my glass-walled enclosure, until yet another agent moved me to a chair. Some twelve minutes had elapsed since I took off my boots for security.

The female agent materialized, donned latex gloves, and told me to stand with arms outstretched while she ran her hands over my body. Meanwhile, a male agent began swabbing each individual bottle of Martin’s supplements. He swished the swab cloths through a machine, which at one point sounded an alarm. He relayed the alarm news to the TSA supervisor, who alit from his perch behind us and asked which bottles were in the alarm group. Apparently 18 bottles were in the alarm group. The TSA supervisor instructed the agents to open each of those 18 bottles and retest with a sample stick.

Next the supervisor asked, “Are these all your belongings?”, indicating the black bag and assorted supplements.

I should have said yes. Instead, I answered honestly: My husband had the rest of my belongings.

And where was my husband?

Over there. I indicated where Adrian had taken Martin to sit on a bench.

The supervisor demanded Adrian’s return. Adrian complied, carrying his briefcase and my knapsack.

The supervisor ordered a hand search of my knapsack, which had already cleared the x-ray machine. Then, for reasons unclear to me, he told the agents to seize Adrian’s briefcase and search that, too. Adrian surrendered the briefcase and returned to the bench to occupy Martin. By now 20 minutes had elapsed since I removed my boots.

The female agent sat me in the chair again, to run her hands over the soles of my feet. With the pat-down thus concluded, she began opening bottles of supplements to sample.

“You can’t do that,” the male agent admonished. “Make her open each bottle.”

He meant me. I rose from my chair and picked up a bottle.

“You can’t do that,” the male agent admonished again, this time directed at me. “She has to hold the bottle while you open it.”

I gave the bottle to the female agent, who grasped it in a latexed hand while I unscrewed the top. Then she dangled a paper sample stick over the top of the bottle, dropped the paper stick into a magic container, and asked me to recap the bottle.

Then she picked up the next bottle. The next of 18 alarm-group bottles.

The male agent opened a small cooler containing Martin’s refrigerated supplements and an ice pack. He told the female agent she should sample the refrigerated items, too.

Bottle open, paper stick, magic container, bottle closed. Bottle open, paper stick, magic container, bottle closed. Bottle open, paper stick, magic container, bottle closed.

Beside us, the male agent emptied Adrian’s briefcase. Bond indentures, credit agreements, and a Longhorns t-shirt spread across the table. More than 30 minutes had elapsed since I removed my boots.

The female agent glanced at the supervisor, now atop his podium again, and whispered, “I’m sorry about all this.”

I have a son with autism who takes a million pills and drops a day. Everyone here is staring at us. I am all for airline security, but why do some TSA agents have to make this an extended production while others let us through with hardly a pause?

I said, “These are my son’s medications. I really don’t like them handled.”

She shook her head. “I know. I’m sorry.”

Bottle open, paper stick, magic container, bottle closed.

The male agent announced that he couldn’t fit Adrian’s laptop back in the briefcase. Adrian left Martin sitting on the bench and came to gather his documents and other belongings.

Bottle open, paper stick, magic container, bottle closed. Finally the agent finished, leaving me with an empty black bag and a table covered with bottles. I started returning everything to the bag, embarrassed by a few tears of frustration.

Some 40 minutes after removing my boots, I carried the black bag and my knapsack to the bench where Adrian had the boots waiting for me.

“Is it always this bad?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “Sometimes it’s better.”

We started walking toward our gate.

“And sometimes they do all that while I also have to keep track of Martin. And then it’s even worse.”


When people ask me what treatment “helps Martin most,” I shrug and say, “Dunno. Some combination of what we’re doing, I guess.”

We’ve dragged ourselves through a rough couple months lately. Symptomatic, crabby, stagnated months. Regression. Over the last eight days Martin has improved, and I am praying the road is becoming firm again.

I ask myself, and others have asked me, what provoked this latest months-long slog. My first thought is, “Dunno,” followed by, “Viruses seem to be an issue. Also chronic internal inflammation. Unavoidable radio waves. Adrenal stress. Something environmental? The construction happening directly north, east, and south of our apartment right now? Our own bathroom renovations? Parasites, maybe. Or electromagnetic fields. Or an issue at school,” followed by, “Oh, hell. I dunno.”

Nevertheless, I have two recent incidents that either (1) put the lie to unmitigated “I dunnos,” or (2) demonstrate that I retain an active imagination.

Incident One: Evil Metal Detector?

Two weeks ago we traveled to Chicago for doctor appointments. Over the course of the three-day trip Martin’s symptoms ameliorated, somewhat, and by the time we arrived at O’Hare for an evening flight home, he was able to hold my hand and wait in the security line—without dancing, skipping, wresting his little wrist from my grip, wandering away, or staging a meltdown. He was doing well.

When we arrived at the front of the line, I asked the TSA agent on duty whether I could request that my son be hand-searched, or at least scanned with a security wand, instead of walking through the metal detector. He has a neurological condition, I explained, and I prefer not to expose him to the magnetic field.

The agent seemed bemused by my request but responded helpfully. Because they aren’t allowed to touch children under age 12, she said, my request would require calling a supervisor from another part of the airport. Fifteen or 20 minutes might elapse before he arrived. Should she summon him?

I hesitated. We had half an hour until boarding time, but who knows what “15 or 20 minutes” really means, and I still had to clear security myself (Martin’s drops and pills being hand-searched while I argue/bargain with agents, flashing prescriptions for special foods and liquids in larger-than-three-ounce containers), then move Martin a quarter-mile to the gate.

“It’s okay,” I said. “He can pass the metal detector.”

But it was not okay. Immediately after walking though the metal detector, Martin became unmanageable. He refused to sit while I completed the security check, ran away from the security area despite admonishments, and whined nonstop. When we tried walking to the gate, he could not hold my hand or focus enough to progress more than 20 feet without crying. The flight was delayed (and why would it not be, at a moment like that?), so I took Martin to the Admirals’ Club family lounge, where he spent 90 minutes alternately running circles around the room and collapsing on the floor. After half an hour I retreated into my own world, drinking wine and texting friends for support. Quality parenting, I know. I should mention that the family lounge has glass walls, so dozens of business travelers in the next room witnessed our mother-and-son performance, albeit without sound.

Why did Martin’s behavior change so radically when he passed through the metal detector? Did the magnetic field affect him, or was the decline coincidental, triggered instead to the onset of travel exhaustion or some other factor? The Health Physics Society’s webpage on security-screening safety concludes, “[B]ecause of its nonionizing properties, the magnetic field generated in a metal detector will not cause harm to persons even with routine and/or repeated scanning.” A post on the BabyCenter website states, “Anything that generates or uses electricity, such as power lines or household appliances, produces an electromagnetic field. At the low levels a metal detector emits, this exposure is considered safe for everyone, including pregnant women.”

I will never know for sure whether the metal detector provoked Martin’s symptoms that evening. But something happened around the time he passed through. That much I witnessed.

Incident Two: Precarious Home Library?

Some weeks ago a nice fellow from Healthy Dwellings came over and completed a “healthy home evaluation” for our apartment. He spent several hours taking meter readings, testing water, checking air quality, and so forth. The resulting report showed that we’re doing pretty well, in most aspects.

One exception was radio frequency (RF), those electromagnetic waves that send data wirelessly. Ideally, RF levels should hover below 10 mW/m2. The lowest reading in our home—in Martin’s bedroom, thank goodness for small favors—was 137 mW/m2. In our living room, the level was 540 mW/m2, and in the library, the level topped out at a whopping 3,600 mW/m2. Our home library is an alcove set within the rafters (we live on the top floor) with a large skylight absorbing all that New York City has to offer (windows are the most common entry point for external RF waves). Our home library, because it is farthest away from any other apartment, is also where we keep Martin’s drum set.

As averred, Martin’s behavior improved last week. One particularly unsymptomatic afternoon Samara (babysitter) picked Martin up from school and brought him home, where I was cooking. When they arrived I completed several HANDLE exercises with Martin, watched him play with Thomas trains, and discussed with Samara how calm Martin appeared, steady on his feet and content to play alone. Samara agreed.

Martin then declared his intent to play drums and headed upstairs to the library alcove. Samara followed him. I returned to the kitchen. By virtue of an open floor plan, the library is visible from our kitchen. That helps me keep an eye on Martin and, in this instance, let me observe that, within five minutes of his going upstairs, Martin transformed into a different kid: running back and forth, flailing his limbs, unfocused. I called for Martin and Samara to come back downstairs.

It was another metal-detector moment. What caused Martin’s behavior to change from “with it” to “restless and in his own world”? Part of me wants to blame the library and its RF hurricane—because RF levels, at least to some degree, are fixable. Part of me thinks that I’m blaming the RF levels because I just discovered they are high in the library, and I’m prone to grabbing hold of any factor I can blame when Martin tanks. All of me admits, “I dunno.”


These incidents raise a few possibilities.

First, I may actually have pinpointed some factors that affect Martin more than others. Brain-scrambling magnetic fields and RF waves!

Second, I may have seen connections that, in reality, don’t exist, and I may therefore explore yet more dead-end routes, like refusing to let Martin through metal detectors or blocking RF waves.

Third, the truth lies in some combination.

Doesn’t it always?