Last week B. had his first major meltdown in about five months. We had actually started thinking that the phase had perhaps passed. We had almost forgotten that sometimes it doesn’t seem to take much, a setback that most people would consider minor, a problem that most people would easily and quickly be able to solve, but we know better. B.’s not ‘most people’. It had in fact been so long, that we had also almost forgotten that it’s often just a symptom of something much more wicked brewing beneath his complicated surface.
This time it was the inability to get his game apps to work properly on the hand-me-down cell phone I gave him when I got my new one. A cell phone he had SO been looking forward to getting, and started asking me months ago when I was getting my new phone and he could have this one.
It started with screaming, cursing and a lot of noise coming from his room on the top floor, not all of it identifiable, though we’ve gotten pretty good at discerning between the sounds chairs make when they’re thrown across the room, and when a trash can has been hurled at the wall, even two floors lower. At first, I thought it might have just been him in a gaming frenzy; these kids tend to make a lot of noise when they play with each other online and are wearing headphones, unaware how loud they are being.
But then came the familiar stomp-march down the stairs, B. whizzing past my office, slamming doors and running outside to the back of the garden (in his socks, in the rain, over the wet grass), back to his ‘safe place’. The log he sits on that serves as his perch in front of the rabbit hutch where he still sometimes goes when things upset him, or he just needs some peace and quiet. As it was already dark, I couldn’t tell what exactly was flying into the yard from the back, but it sounded like heavy branches and rocks. A few landed on the roof of my office, making loud clattering noises. We have learned not to try to interfere with or stop these rages; it is a necessary part of the process, he needs to get it out of his system, and intervention only makes it worse. We do monitor the situation to make sure he’s not doing anything that would result in an injury to himself; dismembered household items, rearranged furniture, shredded books and papers, and a messy garden we can handle, fix and tidy up.
I heard a pounding noise and strange rattling coming from the kitchen, followed by the obligatory stomping ascent up the two flights of stairs, doors being slammed all the way up. His older brother casually informed me, also used to these episodes, that B. had punched the refrigerator door so hard, he left a dent in it (thus explaining the pounding and rattling sounds). I went up to his room to see if he was okay, as a dent that size in a stainless steel refrigerator must have surely required a good deal of force and I was worried he had injured his hand. No, he hadn’t, I was forced to deduce from the silent yet angry shaking of his head, his giant headphones on, furious eyes focused on the computer screen.
‘Go AWAY,’ he repeated, as he always does when I come to see what happened this time to set him off. I offered a few suggestions, offered to try to help him with the phone, but he just continued to play his game, swatting my arm away more violently each time I tried to comfort him. After all these years, I should know better, but it had been so long since the last meltdown, I seemed to have forgotten what works and what doesn’t.
This of course meant no school the next day. This much I already knew, at 5:30 in the afternoon the day before. Getting him out of bed is a big enough challenge, but getting him to agree to go to school is even harder, on a normal day, let alone during a ‘rough patch’, or period that he’s particularly defiant about everything, and vocal about how much he hates school, hates his teachers, hates the subjects - hates it all. Hates his life. The downward spiral as we call it, where he talks himself into a deeper and darker depression. He comes out of it, and these days, faster than he used to, but still, it’s hard to watch, and even harder to know that you are powerless to help.
Even knowing that the odds of him going to school after an incident like that were slim, I still tried it the next morning. This daily ritual involves first going up to his room at 7:40, then 7:45, then 7:50 (my husband says I’m worse than a snooze button), then taking my shower, stepping out and listening carefully as I do every morning, in the hopes that I will hear him fumbling around up there now, getting dressed and getting his books together, precluding the need for yet another trip up the stairs. Silence. I got dressed, and crept up the stairs. ‘B., you really need to get up now, we’re going to be late.’ Silence. I walked over to his bed, sat down on the edge and rubbed his back the way I do to gently wake him up. ‘B., will you get up now?’ No answer, no movement though I know he’s awake. Glancing at his alarm clock, I see it’s already 8:10; we have to be in the car at 8:25 at the latest. I sigh and say, ‘Should I just call you in sick then?’ The slightest, nearly imperceptible nod of his head, turned away from me towards the wall indicates that yes, I should, because he’s not going to school today.
I trudge back downstairs, half relieved, half frustrated as usual when I have to make these calls. The receptionist at his school practically knows my ring; he definitely knows my voice, that’s how often I call.
‘Hi, it’s B.’s mom. He’s not going to make it today.’
‘So I should mark him down as sick then?’
‘Okay, well tell him I hope he feels better and thanks for calling.’ He always says this, exactly the same way, and I mutter my standard response, ‘Thanks, I will.’
We’re in the process of looking into new schools for him now, because this is just not where he needs to be, even though it does cater to children with both his abilities and challenges. He has a 75% attendance record, meaning he has missed one out of every four days so far this year, and this is unacceptable to the school board. Our primary goal for this school year is now to get him to go to school. Grades, test scores, homework - this has all taken a back seat; the objective is for him to just show up.
I thought back to the last real meltdown, during the summer. Even though he had begged me to make an appointment for him to get his hair cut, and in spite of the usual well-spaced reminders/warnings about it the day before, then again on the morning of the appointment, and about an hour beforehand, the more he thought about it, the more upset he got. He hates having his hair cut. Over the course of the day, the very prospect of it had upset him so much, right before we were to leave, he stormed back to his rabbit hutch, throwing rocks at me as a warning, if I dared come any closer. I went back inside and called and cancelled five minutes before the appointment. Not angry, not surprised, but secretly a little disappointed, having hoped this would be the time he came willingly and without a fight. Luckily the hairdresser knows B. and about his issues, and was very nice about it. Still, I bought her a small gift and brought it by the next day, offering to pay for the unused time slot at her busy salon. I don’t want to take advantage of people’s kindness and good nature - I don’t want or need special treatment, at the most, just a little patience and understanding.
When people ask me about B., and I tell them how he’s doing now, I get such a rainbow of responses. These range from ‘Are you SURE he’s autistic? It’s probably just puberty - all teenagers do that,’ to ‘Oh my GOD, I don’t know how you cope, you poor thing.’ Even my own father, rest his soul, would say ‘In my day, we called that “shy”’. After 14 years, you develop a skill set you sometimes wish you never needed, but are happy you have just the same. Patience is something I never thought I could have, not in this measure, and though it can be in short supply depending on what I’m dealing with at the time, I have found ways to muster it when I need to. And although these efforts aren’t always successful, I’ve also learned when I need to walk away and calm down, as having a meltdown of my own isn’t going to do him any good.
I’ve also gotten used to planning my work days, building in buffers, plenty of time in case there’s a ‘disruption’. For me, being a freelancer has this extra, added bonus; I can be there for him when he needs me, no boss to have to ask for a few hours off, and I can make up for lost time in the evening, or on the weekend. I am also careful not to take on too much work in case I have to spend time with him, or for him. In case I have to drive to school at the drop of a hat because something has set him off and he has walked out in a rage, and is now wandering around the neighborhoods near the school, texting me to come get him. Subconsciously, I feel I always have to be within a 10 km radius of wherever he is, ‘just in case’, particularly when his father is away on business or at a meeting somewhere out of range. Although this hasn’t been necessary recently nearly as frequently as it was a couple of years ago, still, it has become my modus operandi, a subconscious default setting in my brain. It wouldn’t ever occur to me to tell him I might be late, or he might have to wait because I’m busy doing something else. The rare times I have showed up literally one minute late (I’m usually at least 5 minutes early) to pick him up at school, I know when I get home I’ll find a text on my phone that reads, ‘Where are you??’
I remind myself on an almost daily basis to think of the good times, the small victories, the progress we’ve made, and how far he has come in the last couple of years. Sometimes, they’re harder to remember, to conjure up, particularly when he’s going through a bad period. He’s still my sweet little boy (all 6’3” of him), who can still melt me with that gorgeous smile (which, though I don’t see as often as I used to, is still brighter than any ray of sunshine for me). It can bring a tear to my eye to see his long, thin frame bending and kneeling to lie down with each of our dogs separately to give them their 10-minute goodnight hug, his eyes closed, a big smile on his face, this is when he is really at peace, finally blissful. This is when I am reminded of the wonderful, sensitive person who’s in there beneath all the struggles, frustration and anger, the incredibly smart person who will be happy someday, who will have accepted his own shortcomings, but mostly, finally realized how talented and amazing he really is.
I can see the pity on people’s faces and hear it in their voices when they ask about or respond to something I’ve told them about B. Yes, it’s hard, and yes, it’s not what I envisioned when I knew I wanted children. But he’s my B., there’s no one else like him, and I’ll take all the meltdowns and hard times he has to give because I know there are just as many fantastic moments to balance those out, even far outnumber them. These are the moments that melt my heart, bring tears to my eyes, and make me so grateful to have him in my life.