What I’ve shared here took place two months ago. I’m sharing it, now, in honor of Autism Awareness, in the hopes that some parent who feels like they are in the pit of despair with their own child, will know that they are not alone.
“Mommy, look at my invention! Isn’t it cool?”
It’s a hanger, with a piece of twine attached to it. He’s decided that he can use it to pick up his sleeping mask so that he doesn’t have to pick it up with his fingers.
“Isn’t that a good invention, mama?”, he asks again, looking for my approval.
I give it, readily. “Yes, Honey, it is! That’s some great inventor-type thinking right there. I like the way you are thinking of inventions!”
He is so pleased. “I’m going to get a piece of paper to write about it and that will be my invention for Invention Convention at school.”
The teacher in me responds before the mama in me has a chance to sensor my mouth. “I’m thinking that’s a really good start. Let’s see if we can add some more things to make it a bit bigger for your school project.”
He goes from 0 to 60 in the time it takes me to blink. The self-loathing, it starts pouring out like lava. “I’m a FAILURE! I’m stupid and an idiot!”
And then, a phrase we’d never yet heard, “I want to get a gun and shoot myself with it, I’m so dumb!”
I’m incredulous! I look at my husband and we have an silent conversation with our eyes. No. NO! He couldn’t have.
But he did.
All of this vitriol comes forth in the heat of the moment. I’m trying to remember that he’s frustrated. That we are all capable of saying vile things when we are feeling so dark and jaded and hurt.
But we’ve been walking this tightrope of thought patterns with him for the last few weeks. Ever since the Invention Convention paperwork came home. According to the paperwork provided, “Each 3rd grader must choose one of three projects to complete by March 6th. 1. Write a paper on a famous inventor. 2. Conduct a Rube Goldberg project with a small group. 3. Invent a never-before-invention, independently.”
My own 3rd grade teaching experience prepared me for the complexity of steps involved in this process. I knew, without a doubt, that he needed to choose the easiest option. But no. Our child, with his quirky, wonderful mind challenged to the max, already, during each mainstreamed day at school, has fixated on the most difficult option.
Only, this child? He works off of a script. We’ve only just begun the exciting and tenuous process of creating thoughts off of a script. And my mind screams, “NOOOO!!!! Not that choice! Anything but that choice!” But my mouth makes no sound.
So we go through the paper together, looking at the objects he can gather and the different examples of ways he can put them together to create an invention. It becomes agonizingly clear, after the first solitary minute, that he is completely overwhelmed. I pull back and attempt to lay this complicated project out in even more minute steps, deconstructing each one into its most simplistic form. He will have none of it.
And the self-loathing begins. The tears stream. The hurts starts pouring out. He lays out his own perceived stupidity one offense at a time. “I’m stupid! I’m just a stupid kid! I can’t do ANYthing!”
And then, to me, he says, “You just think my ideas are stupid. You hate my ideas!” Each statement, NOT a fact, sinks the knife deeper into my heart.
And then, it comes. The one phrase no parents enjoys hearing and everyone parent abhors, “I HATE YOU!” Butcher knives couldn’t leave deeper cuts. It is clear, now, that this 9 year old boy, who we’ve worked so hard to give the tools for life and communication to, he is stretched as taught as he can be. He is beyond his ability to comprehend the possibilities. I can do nothing to assuage this tension inside of him. I know that.
I try anyway. I softly begin to list the many many ways he was created that are amazing. How smart he is, how kind, how gentle, how funny, how adventurous… He wants to hear none of it. His mind has locked me out. No key on earth will allow me entry.
So I retreat. Into my own bedroom to cry. Away from him. Away from the pain that each word inflicts.
Just as on that first day, many weeks ago, we have this conversation all over again. And I try to block out what these kinds of conversations are going to mean from a mental health perspective. Can I just pretend that all kids think these thoughts of themselves and their parents. That all 9 year old boys go into rages that last an hour or more and fits that involve banging their heads against the wall or rapping their knuckles against their own heads as they rail against their perceived stupidity? Can I?
But in this Saturday moment, I try desperately to work out in my mind how best to proceed. In this very moment, what do we do? Should I try to console him? Should Daddy step in and tow the hard line of unacceptable talk?
No. He wants none of it. By turns, he melts into me and expresses deep sorrow and rails against me even as one single syllable leaves my lips. “You HATE me mama!”
“No, sweetboy, I do not.”, I assure him vehemently.
“Yes, you hate what I make. You said my invention was horrible!”
“Sweetboy, did I say your invention was horrible?”, I ask him. I’m essentially begging him to help me understand when or how he heard me say those words.
“No, you said it was too small.”
I understand now. I crushed his spirit.
I’m still learning.
“I did.”, I say. “And I’m so sorry. It was your invention. We love that you were thinking like an inventor.”
And at that, somehow, the rage is reignited within him. He stiffens and begins railing all over again. The entire process, we go through it again. Less than minutes after it began to finally subside.
Twenty minutes seem like an entire month. I am inconsolable inside. He is inconsolable outside. Sweetman takes over. He tries to intervene. Sweetboy has decided that I am the enemy.
“You HATE what I make! You ruined the whole thing, MAMA!” he spits out at me.
Daddy takes this boy, that seems to me to have just been born yesterday, upstairs. “Yeah, I really am a bad kid! I’m the worst kid ever. How can I make inventions? By my stupidness?”
At this, I must run into the bathroom as I choke back sobs.
“I’m the worst kid! That’s what my self thinks.”, more slapping of his palm against the side of his head. They are upstairs now. I hear too much.
Some minutes pass. They walk back downstairs.
He immediately comes over to me. “Maybe I should go away. My self is horrible. No really, my self is horrible. I’m the worst! Maybe you should just kill me or something.”
“We love you. We think you are amazing. You have such a good heart. We are so very sorry you’re feeling this way, but please know that we think we are the luckiest parents in the world to have you in our family.”, Daddy tells him. And many more loving, positive words of affirmation.
He refuses to accept a word of it. He threatens to chop my coffee cup in half. We remind him that breaking things isn’t going to make him feel better. His eyes light on his earphones. He takes them and, before we can react, pitches them angrily across the room. They break. Of course, they break. He is now sliding back down into the pit of despair.
“See what I did? I’m just a stupid, stupid kid.”
And I begin to tear up. Again. This cycle – it slices through all of our hearts. No one is immune.
Little sister asks him if he’s okay. He screams at her, “Be quiet, sis! It’s NOT your business! Just leave me alone.”
Now, she too, is crying.
This vicious cycle takes well over one hour to struggle toward closure. I know this to be true because we were locked out of Sweetgirl’s iPad this morning. We weren’t able to try the code again for “60 minutes” far more than an hour ago, according to the clock.
I’ve retreated to the kitchen this time. I press the little round home button, focusing intently on something, anything, other than the agony going on around me right now. It says the code is incorrect. We are locked out for another 60 minutes. Just like with him. Locked out. Unable to enter the right code to open him up.
I begin pleading, “Please Lord, calm these hearts. Especially his. Oh, Lord, let his little heart feel full of the love we have for him and not the hate he is developing for himself.”
He begins to calm. A bit. And all at once he starts crying and asks, “Am I evil? I was so evil to myself!”
We rush to assure him that he is not evil. That we all feel mad at ourselves sometimes. I wrap him in a hug so tight that I fear suffocating him. But I want to shield him. From himself, yes, but from the fiery darts he’s trying so hard to stab himself with. I just want, so desperately, for him to feel the love I have for him. We all have for him. “Please, let my love overtake his dark, Lord!”, I silently, fervently, pray now.
No words. Not now. Now isn’t the time for words. I mouth to daddy with no small emotion, “NO WORDS!!!”.
His body, still so much like a child’s, though so tall for nine years old, starts to relax. I kiss the top of his head and murmur over and over and over, “I love you. I love you so much.”
He continues to soften. I can feel it. I can’t let him go.
He breaks away and looks up with tear-stained eyes and asks for some lunch. We all begin to pad around the kitchen together, circling the island as if stopping for too long will break the peace that has finally, finally began its descent. We ask him softly, “White bread or wheat, American cheese or Muenster?”, as if these small decisions will hasten the peace that is finally breaking through the turmoil we’ve all been in.
All is calm now. We’re sitting at the table with our lunches before us, pretending nothing major just happened. It’s just another Saturday.
We’re all feeling fragile. We eat, not really focusing on any food going in, or taste going down.
I frantically begin trying to remember, while they are still fresh, all of his words, so that I can recall them when the therapist asks. Each phrase I remember is another slice with the knife. I bleed for him. I pray, sometimes, that he will know the extent to which his father and I bleed for him. And then, I almost instantly regret that prayer. And instead, I pray that he never has to know.
I get up now, to go check on the progress of the iPad. We’re still locked out.
Please God, Let it not be true with him.