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Finding The Path Of Healing

18 Apr

I am participating in the Health Activist Writers Month Challenge, in which I publish a post every day for the month of April, based on health-related prompts.

April 18 – Open a book: Choose a book and open it to a random page and point to a phrase. Use that phrase to get you writing today. Free write for 15-20 minutes without stopping.

My random phrase comes from a book called Watermelon, written my Marian Keyes – one of my favourite chick-lit authors. The sentence I pointed to with my eyes closed was strangely appropriate. “I was no longer carrying my humiliation like a weapon.”

I am a natural-born late bloomer. I have done many things in life after most people: I was 24 before I selected a career, my first child was born when I was 33, and I finally got married at the ripe old age of 41.

Now that I am old and wise, it doesn’t bother me that I tend to lag behind other people in some respects, but when I was in high school it was a great source of embarrassment for me. Socially speaking, I was streets behind most of my classmates. I was not exactly ostracized by my peers, but I was definitely not one of the “cool kids” either.

I got invited to parties from time to time, but I always felt so awkward when I got there. While my peers were laughing and chatting effortlessly, or retreating to private corners to snog their boyfriends, I was sitting by myself trying, and failing, to look as if I belonged. I could only really enjoy social gatherings if my best friend was there too. My best friend was the one who stopped me from drowning completely, and bless her heart, she is still my best friend today.

I had a couple of half-hearted boyfriends as a teenager, but compared to my classmates, I was geeky and socially inept. At an age where people are desperate to fit in and be accepted by their peers, it was painful. I was an unhappy teenager, although I never really admitted that to anyone.

When I graduated from high school, I went to a university 1400km away from my hometown. I figured that being among people I didn’t know would allow me to turn myself into the person I thought I wanted to be. I had always felt slightly inadequate and I didn’t like myself very much, and I wanted more than anything to reinvent myself.

Even though I made friends at university and had some kind of reasonable social life, the truth was that I was lonely. Never really a party girl, I tried to shoehorn myself into a party lifestyle because that’s what college students did, and I wanted so badly to fit in. And so I found myself immersed in a social group who were a laugh to be around, but I yearned meaningful contact. In those days before the Internet made the world a smaller place, I was not able to confide in my best friend. When waves of depression hit me, I had to get through them alone, with no-one to talk to.

And so, when a man started paying attention to me in my second year, I was flattered enough to fall for him. I do not want to share the details, but I will say that the whole thing was an absolute disaster from beginning to end. I was immersed in a situation that I had no ability to deal with.

The effect on my life was catastrophic. It was as if my future had been mapped out for me, and then a tsunami had come along and wiped everything away, changing the landscape of my life.

I floundered in the wake of this personal disaster. I completely lost all sense of who I was and what I wanted. I vacillated between depression and anger, and I blamed myself for having allowed my life to veer so far off the course I had planned. I drifted for a while, literally and metaphorically, and eventually washed up in a career, albeit one far away from what I had originally wanted.

One day, after having carried around the baggage of my past experiences for twenty years, I looked around me at all I have today. I have a solid job and my dream to be a paid writer is starting, in small but definite increments, to come true. I can run half-marathons in spite of not having a “typical” runner’s body. I managed to move halfway across the world and establish myself in a place I had never been to. I have a husband and two miraculous children. Although I make my mistakes, I think I’m doing well as the parent of a child with autism.

That tsunami that had swept so much away also created a new landscape with new paths for me to follow and new goals to shoot for.

This realization, when it hit me, was like a breath of fresh air. Although some scarred remained, I was no longer carrying the humiliation like a weapon.

For the first time, I felt that I owed it to myself to try to heal.

(Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kudumomo/3140538425/. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.)

Butterfly

5 Apr

I am participating in the Health Activist Writers Month Challenge, in which I publish a post every day for the month of April, based on health-related prompts.

April 5 – Ekphrasis Post: Go to flickr.com/explore and write a post inspired by the image. Can you link it to your health focus?

When my son was first diagnosed with autism, we enrolled him in a local daycare centre on the advice of his speech therapist. He needed the social aspect of it, she said. He needed the group lunchtimes, the circle times, and all of the other elements of being part of a group of children. We were nervous about letting our sensitive, vulnerable son out of our immediate orbit, particularly since the daycare had never had a child with autism before.

To their eternal credit and our eternal gratitude, the daycare welcomed George with open arms. The director of the centre arranged for all of her staff to be trained in how to work with special needs kids, and George was very happy there.

During the summer months, the kids would be taken to play outside at the end of the day while they were waiting for their parents to pick them up. I would get off the bus from work, pick up my boy, and walk home with him. One day, I picked up his backpack from the darkened daycare classroom as usual, and went out to the playground. I always tried to arrive undetected so I could watch George at play for a few minutes. In typical autistic fashion, he always did his own thing. He played among the other kids, but not with them.

On this particular day, I got to the playground just in time to see a few of the other kids preparing to have a race from one tree to another. George stood apart from the kids, watching them shyly. When the daycare teacher said, “GO!” the kids scampered away from the start line while George stood by on his own.

My heart constricted with unbearable sadness. The whole thing seemed to underscore the isolation of autism, and I felt a sense of unjustness that my child was standing there on his own. With his lanky frame and long legs, he is a natural runner. He might have won that impromptu little race.

Damn autism, I thought. I knew these other kids well enough to know that prior to lining up for the race, they would have tried to encourage George to participate. But being locked in his own world, he would not have known how to. Outwardly, he seemed perfectly happy, but I couldn’t help wondering about that. What was going through his mind as he watched those other kids at play together? Did he feel any sense of isolation? Did he wish he knew how to join in?

I started thinking about sports teams and group activities. Was George ever going to be able to be part of a soccer team or a high school band? Would he travel in a pack of teenage friends or would he sit by himself in the high school cafeteria? Would he be excluded from birthday parties? Or would some group of well-meaning kids include him in their group and look out for him?

How was my child, with his autism and his social communication deficits, going to survive in a social world?

This is a concern that is with me more or less all the time, despite assurances from his teacher that he is starting to tentatively reach out socially at school, that he is getting better and better at participating in social activities, and that he is, in fact, an extremely well-liked member of the student body.

A few days ago I saw something that made my heart soar. Me and my husband were out for a walk with the kids, and we saw the teenage boys down the road shooting hoops in their driveway. Before we could stop him, George ran up to the boys and held out his hands for the ball. The boys good-naturedly obliged, and like a true natural basketball player, George bounced the ball on his knee and then threw it towards the hoop as if he did this every day.

The hoop was too high for George to have any success, and the boys offered to lower it for him. We told them not to worry and we went on our way, but not before the boys had invited George to play basketball with them any time he wanted.

When things like this happen, my vision of the future shifts, as if I’m looking at my son’s life through a kaleidoscope. I start to see possibilities that were previously hidden to me, possibilities that simply may not have been there before George grew and developed into them. Instead of seeing the kid who stood on his own while everyone else had a race, I now see the boy who, just for a few moments, joined other boys in a basketball game.

If I had, just a year ago, seen the picture that inspired this post, I would have thought, “George is probably never going to do that. He’s probably never going to romp around with friends or be invited to take part in impromptu soccer games.”

Now I look at that picture and realize that I am seeing the emergence of George as a social being. Maybe he’ll always be shy, and it is very likely that he will always need to be surrounded by people who will look out for him.

But his personality, his character, the very essence of who he is – that is emerging bright and beautiful, like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon.