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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.)

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Why Autism?

19 Jul

“Why do you think he has autism?”

This question is posed to me quite a lot by friends and strangers alike, people who for the most part intend no malice, but are genuinely curious about the origins of George’s autism.

That they are asking the question at all is something that I see as a positive sign. It tells me that increasingly, people are wanting to be educated about autism instead of blindly believing every tidbit of information – right or wrong – that is thrown their way.

Over the years, I have done research on a variety of theories.

Was it vaccines? No, I don’t believe it was. Deep down, I knew from the time George was a tiny baby that he was not on the trajectory of “typical” development. I don’t buy into the dietary theory either, for the same reason. George was exclusively breast-fed for four months, and by then I was seeing some little signs that something was not quite right.

No, whatever happened within George’s brain to result in his autism, it was a done deal by the time he came out of the womb.

Even with that knowledge, the title of Primary Cause is wide open. I have read a couple of recent studies suggesting that environmental factors in utero could have more of an effect than previously believed. As if moms of children with autism didn’t have enough guilt on their shoulders already. But that is neither here nor there.

When I was expecting George, I did everything that was considered by pregnancy gurus to be “right”. I ate lots of leafy greens and took my prenatal vitamins every day. I ate lean protein and avoided foods with a high fat content. Accustomed to eggs “over easy”, I ensured that my eggs were fully cooked, and I did not touch deli meat or anything else that could be a potential listeria risk. I did not touch a drop of alcohol, I stayed away from places where I might be exposed to second-hand smoke, and my body pretty much bullied me (through the magic of the laughably known “morning sickness”) into kicking caffeine to the kerb. I went to all of my OB/GYN appointments and followed the advice of my doctor. I did not take so much as a headache pill through my entire pregnancy. The only tablets going into my mouth were vitamins and Tums.

I don’t think I could have created a better environment for my baby if you had paid me a million bucks. Of course, there is the possibility that fifty years from now, someone will prove that some obscure enzyme in, say, oranges, has been linked to autism. But I think it is safe to say that the prenatal environment is an unlikely candidate for the cause of George’s autism.

Leaving aside other environmental factors like air pollution, there are two other possibilities: genetics, or the circumstances surrounding the birth itself. Or maybe a combination of the two.

When I was a child, I was developmentally delayed. I didn’t talk until I was five, and I had some motor skill delays. My body was physically capable of doing anything my peers could do, but the communication between my brain and my muscles was out of synch. It was clear – especially in the early years – that I had some kind of learning disability, although I was never formally diagnosed with anything. As I navigated my way through childhood and adolescence, I was able to compensate for my learning difficulties by simply thinking in a different way and leveraging areas that I was strong in. But as my academic performance got better and better, my social awkwardness and anxiety among people became more and more apparent.

To this day, I suffer from social anxiety, although in general, I have found ways to adapt and mask it so that people don’t really notice. I’m not so much a stickler for routine, but once plans are made I get very uncomfortable – almost panicky and kind of, well, spectrummy – if they are changed. Although I am now fully verbal – sometimes, downright talkative – there are times, usually when I’m stressed – when I lose the ability to communicate through speech. It’s as if the words get lost somewhere between my brain and my mouth.

Am I on the autism spectrum? I don’t know. I have never been for screening, and frankly, I don’t really see the point. But if I were to learn that I have Aspergers, I would not a bit surprised. When I look at the way George has evolved through his early childhood, and the way he is at this point in his life, I do see a lot of parallels with my own early years. So, genetics? It’s a strong possibility.

The other possibility is that something happened to George’s brain while he was being born. For the most part, my labour was pretty standard. Everything happened more or less when the Medicals said it would. When I was in the thick of contractions, I heard someone use the word “textbook”. When the time came to push, though, the going suddenly got a lot tougher. Even though the baby was perfectly positioned for birth, no matter how hard I pushed, nothing budged. The Medicals kept telling me to push harder, push harder, but I just couldn’t do it. After what felt like an eternity but was probably only a couple of minutes, the Medicals gave me an episiotomy (if you don’t know what that is, look it up, because I ain’t describing it here). Once that was done, I gave one more almighty push, and an eternal second later, I was rewarded by the sound of a baby crying.

Here’s the thing, though. While I was pushing to no avail, the baby’s heartbeat – usually in a range of 130-150 beats per minute – dipped to below 40 beats per minute. Only for a couple of seconds, mind. Like a momentary blip in the radar. But could those couple of seconds have been enough to alter the wiring in my baby’s brain?

In the end, I suppose it doesn’t really matter. George has autism, and knowing the cause with crystal clarity would not change that.

No matter what the cause, George has autism, and I love every inch of him for who he is.

(Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/macbeck/4146730230/)