Defeat is the Enemy

my-heart-broke-for-the-thousandth-time-watching-him-rage-against-this-world-and-the-pressures-we-put-on-him-to-conform-2By @FASD_Mum

He was on the floor, screaming, his voice hoarse from crying.  He did not want to go to school. He tried to tell us this in every way he could.  It started as soon as he woke up, “Mum, my nose is still running. [It wasn’t.] I have a cold.  [He did, last week.]  I can’t go to school.”  Later on he changed his approach, said his tummy ached.  Then he switched tack and told us he doesn’t like school, it’s “boring.”  “I want to stay home with you.”  As his more peaceful entreaties failed to sway us, as we brought out the school uniform and steamrolled past his comments trying to get him dressed, his panic began to escalate and became palpable.  It stopped being words, started being actions.  Running up to his room, hiding under covers.  Going into his calm space, pulling the curtains, asking us to leave him alone.  We asked him how much time he needed, gave him a few more minutes as we have been advised – so that he had some say in how the morning should go.  But the clock was moving, and we had another child to get to school.  Work to do.  We really needed him to go to school.  He fed off our growing tension, things got worse. Five minutes later, when we went back, he was still not ready.  We ramped up even though we knew we shouldn’t.  He really didn’t want to go.  We really needed him to go.  Things started flying.  Chaos, again.  Fetal Alcohol Syndrome does not make for gentle mornings in our household these days.

Before this morning was done, he became fully dysregulated.  His brain was overwhelmed, locked in fight and flight mode.  We were beyond getting out of this calmly.  He was screaming, crying, kicking, pleading, begging, entreating me directly, “Mummy!”

My heart broke for the thousandth time watching him rage against this world and the pressures we put on him to conform, hating ourselves for trying to bend his will to a system that is not designed for someone like him.

And then, there it was.  The moment of defeat.  He had surrendered.  I could see it in his eyes.  He disappeared a little more inside himself.  He lost his battle, again.  He headed off to school reluctantly with my husband, shoulders drooped.  Shattered.

We all are shattered. This morning was like most mornings these days.

I ache inside for what he loses every time this happens.

I don’t think that his teachers understand what it costs him just to walk through the school doors, through the halls, to sit expectantly at the desk knowing they aren’t really talking to him, aren’t really expecting him to light up with the answers.  Every single time he goes into school is an act of courage.  Lately it also is increasingly an act of defeat.

We have finally understood the need for change.  We have heard him.  We do listen.  We are making moves to get him to a special needs school now – especially since it has been made clear to us that the changes in mainstream education leave no place for someone like him.  We see that he is being set up to fail.  But bureaucracies move slowly.  We are not at all certain we will be able to get him into the school we want him to attend.

We are in a no-man’s land.  We have told him we will look for a new school and that it will take time.  But he really is struggling, and he needs something to change now, today, this minute.  For someone with FASD “taking time” is a hard concept on a good day.  And these are not good days.

He has regressed – playing games, watching shows that he used to like several years ago. His little being is so tensed up with anxiety that he has no resilience, no give-and-take.  He is always 30 seconds away from exploding.  His senses are super heightened.  I ate a raspberry the other day, and he instantly asked “What’s that smell?” and pushed me away because it was unexpected.  These are days when we have to tiptoe gently since a meal can be rejected due to a wrong spoon, a slightly different type of sausage, fish fingers that are not Birds’ Eye batter-dipped, or if someone “breathed” on a spoonful of food.  These are days when tooth-brushing is like a physical attack, when the way a hair band grips can lead to a massive meltdown, when a bit of water on a paddle ball racket has people ducking for cover amid instant mayhem.

It is heart-wrenching.  And exhausting.  We are living on edge as this school situation sorts itself out.  We are not the only ones.  There are many, many people whose kids are being forced to fit into classrooms that are not bending enough for their needs, classrooms that are constricting creativity to be able to meet the demands of the new guidelines regarding GCSEs.  There are too many kids with FASD who go into schools that fail to recognize this as a disability and don’t make the necessary “reasonable adjustments” to allow that child a chance to succeed before he or she fails or acts out or crumbles under the pressure.

I dread the defeat I see more and more often in his eyes.

No, worse than that, I fear it.  That defeat is the enemy.

I want him always to rail against this world, to stand up for himself and his beliefs, to think that when he tells people what he needs in a moment they will listen to him.  I hate, hate, hate that despite the fact he has told us in a million ways that school is overwhelming to him, that he is not happy there, that he cannot access what is being taught in the way it is being taught, we still must force him out that door.  It makes me question my parenting.  It makes me feel selfish.  It makes me feel like I am not doing my Momma Bear job of protecting my cub in a mean and sharp-edged world.

So, we bend in other places.  I find another spoon, quietly put aside the fish fingers that are not batter-dipped, dig through the refrigerator for something else he might or might not eat.  Lately, nearly every day  after school he is so beside himself with pent-up anxiety he has a meltdown-that-comes-down-on-us-all-like-a-ton-of-bricks, even though we have come to expect it.  Afterwards, I sit with him for hours in the dark.  I just sit there next to him, hoping my presence calms him, proves to him that I am on his side. Together, we wait for that moment that always comes at the end of these long days, with a little sigh somewhere just before sleep, “Mummy, I love you.”  “I love you too pal.  I love you too.”  Sleep tight.  Sweet dreams.  You’re a good kid.

We know that secondary disabilities are a huge threat to the well-being of people with FASD – too many tender lives are shortened needlessly as a result of addictions, dangerous behaviours, suicides – by-products of the toxic frustration that builds in kids with limited coping mechanisms who feel misunderstood, outcast and who seek temporary fixes to feel better.  We hear that policy makers in London are concerned about our kids’ mental health.  The young royals try to raise these issues through charity work.  And yet, no one focuses on the significant proportion of the population with brain injury due to FASD, whose mental health is at stake and worsening as a result of inaction and lack of support from The System.

The government’s sweeping changes to education policy is making it worse, not better, directly impacting the daily lives of kids like our son.  Scenes like the one I have described are happening in front halls and/or in schools across the country as the children signal that they are unable to cope in an environment that is too rigid.

What exactly, I would like to know, are we expected to say to our kids, you know, the ones who try their hardest but who just aren’t going to get those grades? The ones that are in the grey area – getting by, barely, but at such a great cost to their self-esteem – the ones none of you really think are going to cut it in the new system…?  The ones who know it too, who rail against going out the door to school for very legitimate reasons.  The ones who have no choice when the entire adult world comes down hard on them to just go to school, no matter what?  The ones who get detentions for not doing homework they didn’t understand, who crack jokes rather than show that the teacher’s instructions passed them by?  The kids who are bullied or the ones who lash out?  The ones who didn’t have support and, yes, failed that test again?  What do we say to stop that mind-numbing defeat from taking over their whole being?

We tell them we love them.  We seek every possible way forward, banging on every door that we know.  We reach out to other parents. We seek experts who can advise us.  We ignore those who say we have to live with things the way they are.  We don’t give up, and we don’t let that defeat seep into our kids’ inner core.  We hold onto them.  We cherish them.  We tell them at the end of each and every long day, we love them.  We are there for them.  Together we will find a better way.  And somehow, deep inside, we have to believe it. It’s hard.  Oh, yes.  It’s hard.  But we have to keep that spark alive.

Wrestling with “Death” is Tough for a Kid with FASD…and His Parents

we-love-a-child-with-fasd-5By FASD_Mum

I spent yesterday willing our dog to live, convinced it was succumbing to the heart problems that are common to his breed.  I dearly love the dog, don’t get me wrong, but first and foremost in my mind was how inconceivably impossible it would be to explain to our 12-year old with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome if something were to happen to his Christmas dog.

This dog has been perfect for our family from day one.  Our son wanted a dog desperately.  He wrote to Father Christmas specifically for one that wouldn’t “bark, whine, or whinge.”  Father Christmas had sent him a letter explaining that dogs are special gifts, and involved special procedures.  Like a scene out of “Miracle on 34th Street,” this Christmas magic seemed predestined – there we were meeting Noel (amazingly, that was his name), a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel that had been rescued from doggie-death-row in Ireland.  Miracle of miracles, this dog was silent (just like our son had been when we adopted him).  He was calm, unflappable, and oh so friendly.  He was instantly one of us.

They bonded very quickly but we realized early on that our guy was not going be able to be the main carer for the dog.  We had to make adjustments to expectations as our house has grown more chaotic over recent years with some escalating behaviours.  We no longer leave Noel sleeping in our son’s bedroom because despite how sweet it was to see the two of them sleeping side by side, the mornings were unfair to Noel, when our son would be too hyper before his medication kicked in and the dog would get too wound up.   Sometimes we have concerns that such a small dog might get hurt during a meltdown, so we are always aware of where the dog is, and often shift him to different rooms if things are heating up.  Sometimes the dog also ramps up the moment, as he has certainly learned by now how to bark, and his eagerness for walks makes our front door hallway a scene of mayhem sometimes. (This, because our morning routines are not routine any longer.  We cannot know on a given day if our son will go to school on time, if we can get him to walk or if he needs to be driven, etc.  So the dog never knows if he will get an early walk on a given day and puts in his vote strongly at just the time when we do not need more noise.)   Despite his confusion, the dog is still uncannily good-natured, and remains a favourite at the school gates.  Our son proudly shows him off, telling his friends for the umpteenth time that this is his dog, and his name is Noel.  Noel went missing once – that night was one of the longest around here in a very long time. Though we found out later he had tucked up safely in a shelter all the while, that fear of losing him was etched into our son’s being.

As our son gets older, his anxieties are deepening, or at least he is able to vocalize them now.  He lives in fear of Noel disappearing again.  Every walk, every time the door opens, our guy panics, lunges for Noel’s collar – sometimes tackling him with a full body hug.  We had been to a field in the two days prior to this mystery illness.  Our son has been extremely unsettled lately-partly due to a cold but more so due to increasing challenges at school.  He was panicking as the dog would sniff along the tree line, worried he might disappear into the overgrowth.  Of course, needless to say, as I was dealing with one of my son’s outbursts, the dog did in fact wander into the woods.  Sheer distress overwhelmed our guy.  The dog happily came when we called, tail-a-wagging, but my son was devastated by the experience.  The next day he was almost crying when I let the dog off the lead, begging me not to let him wander away.

So, no, I could not contemplate a world in which this dog would leave us so soon.

Uncharacteristically, the dog didn’t budge from one spot on the couch for more than seven hours.  He was barely able to open his eyes when I called his name, giving a half a wag of that tail that usually never stops.  I could see the worry in our older son’s eyes.  I probably should have called the vet sooner, but I was becoming convinced this was heart failure, though I didn’t voice that, and I doubted there was anything they could do – nothing that we could afford anyway. My dad had heart problems.  Our minds do strange things sometimes.

I admit it, I was worried.  Very worried.  And yes, I literally curled up around him for more than an hour – maybe closer to two – hoping my presence next to him might give him strength, pretending to be part of the pack.  It may sound silly, I am not necessarily one of those people who invokes Mother Earth, but I was running on instinct, and I believe in the power of love.  It was all I could think to do.

As it turns out, antibiotics have more power in this case, as an evening visit to the vet demonstrated.  But that was only after a very long day.  My son had a meltdown after school – his reaction, I think to the dog being unwell.  A good friend had come by to help calm the scene (my husband is traveling, I am flying solo, we all have colds, it has been a hell of a week – and when I say that, I mean it).  My sister-in-law (the other Auntie you don’t hear so much about but who is equally supportive) had come by to give a second opinion on the dog.  She was the nudge I needed – she literally dialed the vet and handed me the phone.  She drove us over, and was another set of ears while my overwhelmed brain was catching only half the words.  It’s not the dog’s heart, which is a huge relief.  There is some sort of lump in his throat, but not something stuck in his throat.  It’s unlikely it’s the c-word, though we won’t know for certain for a while.  He had a raised temperature, so we are thinking it is some sort of infection.  The vet dosed him up with painkillers and antibiotics, and I have literally been slowly spoon-feeding this dog while whispering gentle encouragement.  Not yet, sweet dog, not yet.  We need you.  Our son needs you.  Not this week.  Not while our guy is struggling so hard.  Not now, please, please get better.  Willing this dog to eat.  Willing him to recover.

For some reason our son’s English class is studying the Titanic.  For a kid who has a morbid and not particularly healthy fascination of floods, storms, disasters – this story has captured his imagination in a way few subjects at school do.  He is watching and re-watching clips on YouTube, he plays the song over and over again – having learned about its composition.  He asks Siri how old Leonardo DiCaprio was in a given year.  And he ponders mortality.  In the darkened bedroom the other night, when I thought he was asleep, I heard, “I would so totally die if I was on the Titanic.  How old are you when you die?  I miss Grad [his grandfather who died several years ago].  How old was Grad when he died?  What year was he born?  What year was Bebe [his vivacious grandmother] born?  What year were you born?  What year was Daddy born?  What year was I born?  What about my brother?  Why do we die?”  Trying to overcome his inability to wrap his head around time and math, he was struggling with some of those existential questions we all wonder about, but in his own unique way due to his FASD.  His fears were magnified by the fact he could not quite grasp these concepts.  He was in a loop, going over and over and over in his mind, trying to understand when and why we all will die.

When my sister-in-law and I headed off to the vet with the dog, our friend took our son to her house for a sleep over.  We are so lucky to have such a support system, this impromptu change of bedtime plans on a school night could easily have sent our guy into orbit, but he was great (though I predict I will pay for this today after school).  Our friend and her young daughter who is one of our son’s few true friends are lifelines.

So, thankfully, our guy did not see the dog’s massive drooling, his inability to eat food.  Our son did not hear about the lump.  He didn’t see the food scattered all over the floor because our dog cannot eat properly yet.  Hopefully by the time he comes home from school, the dog will have recovered to such a point that we won’t trigger the very worst of the fears.  And thankfully the dog does seem better today, he has more of his sparkle back.  He has eaten more, though he has not left my side.

Our son is a stress sponge.  Even if he cannot name it, or even fully understand it, it was not a coincidence that all of those things from his bedroom were thrown down the stairs yesterday.  It was not unrelated.  Sometimes my head cannot handle it all, especially when I am feeling under the weather myself.  My cold has deepened, and yes the drool had me gagging over the toilet, such a glamorous life sometimes!  How do we – do I – juggle all of this:  sick kids, sick dog, a house that is a disorganized mess and getting worse (knowing how badly this affects our son), stresses over work, stresses over the level of stress, trying to switch our son to a special needs school, so much paperwork, so much to remember, new appointment letters coming through the door at rapid rates, phone calls we have not yet returned, requests for media interviews as we become more vocal about all of this, so much of life’s minutia that we seem to miss as we deal with Big Issues Every Single Day…???

The pressures are immense when trying to help our son navigate this world.  Some things we can smooth over for him.  Some things we can adjust and adapt to the way his brain works.  Some things we can redirect or hide away.  But there are other things we simply cannot change no matter how much we would like to ‘fix’ them.

For me, I am a better person for learning these hard lessons.  I know that.  I own it.  My ego has taken more than a few hits in the years of parenting this child (both kids, really, but this blog is about FASD).  I am humbled time and time again to learn that while there are many things I can do to help, I cannot alter the fact that our son will experience this world in a much harsher and harder way that I would ever have wished for him.   The adults with FASD from whom we learn so much always say that he will have to live his life.  A hard thought, but they urge us to remember that these early years and the values we live and teach will always be inside him helping him to find his way.  I know that.  I do.  I know that.

But, damn.  As I laid there on that couch yesterday, wrapped around this tiny, sick, furry, fluff ball pretending to be mamma wolf or something, I wasn’t ready yet to have to tell our guy, during one of his worst months ever, that I couldn’t fix his Christmas dog.  Not yet.  Fingers crossed, not yet.


P.S. – Here is a clip of our son and his Christmas dog from a year ago…to show just how strong the bond is between them….I  know it will make you smile.  

Anxiety & FASD

we-love-a-child-with-fasd-2

By @FASD_Dad

Anxiety. We all get anxious about things. We’re late for an appointment. Can we afford to get a repair on the car done?  Does that girl I like like me too?  (Turns out she does and in a long and roundabout way that led to this blog.)

That anxiety is real, but compared to the anxiety our son feels, every day, all the time, about everything, our anxiety is trivial.

Our son is a boiling kettle of anxiety, says the counsellor who is helping us learn how to better care for him. That’s his normal state. That’s why, when something goes wrong or doesn’t go as he expects, he blows into a full scale meltdown almost immediately. A meltdown where things get thrown. Where kicks and punches are thrown. Where his little frame is rigid with tension because he simply cannot bear the pressure in his brain. Where his senses no longer work to help him interpret the world around him, but are screaming at him to fight! Fight! FIGHT!

So what causes this terrible anxiety? Well, in common with many kids with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, pretty much anything. Our son has such a hard time understanding the world around him, his social relationships, the tasks he has to manage at school, that everything causes him to worry.

In the last few days it has manifested itself in different ways.

Does the dinner he loved yesterday taste very slightly different today? Or is it a little too hot? Or a little too cold? That’s a massive sensory problem which can mean dinner is thrown across the room. Or it could just mean a refusal to eat a meal and a retreat into his safe space to watch videos.

Are we going to a new gymnastics club? Somewhere unknown? That’s a huge source of anxiety which means it is really, really hard to get out of the door. We have to find exactly the right bandana to make it ok. Is the new gymnastics club different? Do they do the exercises slightly differently to the previous club? That means they’re doing it wrong, so he can’t join in, he has to sit and watch. And, because the hall is smaller and the noise too intense, the sensory input becomes too much and his anxiety levels start to go through the roof. So we have to leave. And now we need to find another gymnastics club because his original one was all girls and him, and that’s worked for several years but now he wants to be with boys, doing boys gymnastics.

Are we off for a walk with the dog? Well, the dog mustn’t be let off the lead because if he’s off the lead he might run away.  If he is out of sight for a second he might have run away, and the panic in our son’s voice is palpable. The dog, you see, ran away once. He got far enough away that he was taken to the pound, and we didn’t get him back for 24 hours. And so, for our son, the anxiety of losing his beloved pet is ever present. Something else to add to the list of things that add to his anxiety.

There’s swimming at school. But the message didn’t get to us, so he has to do hockey instead of swimming. That’s not right because the timetable says swimming.  Right there, that’s enough to spin him out of control and into meltdown. But at school, barely, he holds himself together, and then at home as he lets the pressure valve go.  With us he knows it is safe to let go, the meltdown starts and goes on and on. And a week later, the worry about whether we know it’s swimming and does he have his swimming kit in the bag comes bursting out as we try to get him out the door to school. Yes, we know, it’s here. Is it here? Yes, the kit is here. I have swimming today, do I have swimming?

The pressure his anxiety puts on him is horrible.

So what’s the effect of this? Of living on the edge all day every day? Of worrying about everything around you in such an intense way.

We’re constantly worried about him and his mental health. We are constantly concerned that our son will crack under this pressure, lose what ability he has to cope with life.

What is the long term effect of living with this level of anxiety on the rest of the family? For our family it puts us all on edge. Our elder non-FASD son is a calm boy, but when his mum and I argue, as we sometimes do under the pressure of dealing with yet another meltdown, he cracks and shouts at us to be calm. His worries are just below the surface too.

For us, it means living with uncertainty all the time. Wondering when the happy, smiling little boy in front of us will suddenly flip into a raging little bundle of doubts and fears, unable to process his anxieties and lashing out at those around him.

So we’re trying to give him tools to regulate himself. A mood chart, from a calm, blue sea to a raging storm so he can learn to express how he feels, something he really cannot do very well at the moment. We try to use it with him when he’s happy as well as when his mood is deteriorating, helping him to learn a vocabulary to tell us about himself.

We’re trying to be better about regulating the environment around him. Making sure each day that he knows what will be happening, what we’re doing, what he will do. No surprises is the rule. Over the summer we had stopped using the family white board to write was coming up – and he just asked us to start that again. A small sign of growing self-awareness – he needs to know the routine of the day.

When his mood cracks and the signs of meltdown are obvious we’re improvising on tools the therapists gave us. We use sensory stimulus to distract him from meltdown. Pretending with a variety of pressures that he is in a sandwich, he is cheese that melts; or a piece of hard pasta that gets wiggly when it’s cooked; an ice cube that melts, or an egg that cracks. At the moment this technique has a sometimes remarkable effect. Twice in one day it altered a mood that was darkening, and forestalled the descent into full sensory dysregulation.  We have learned some tips to try to head off the meltdowns.

We have to help stop the kettle boiling over, and find a way to take the pressure off so it isn’t ready to blow at any second. It’s tough. But for his sake, we need to find a way.