When I was pregnant with my oldest son, Joey, I worried about a million things; car seats and strollers, sudden infant death syndrome and folic acid. I worried he might be born a hermaphrodite, or with cleft a palate, or a pointy head.
(I worried about the pointy-head thing because my brother had a pointy head when he was a baby. He outgrew it though.)
Autism, however, never once crossed my mind.
When I had a houseful of infants and toddlers and preschoolers, I worried about them choking on hotdogs or falling down the stairs, running into the street or poking something into an electrical socket. I worried about diaper rashes and the stomach bug and ear infections.
And after I read an article online—one that so aptly described my chillingly silent 1-year old it took my breath away—I started to worry about a little something called autism spectrum disorder.
I no longer have plump infants or unsteady toddlers or inquisitive preschoolers. Instead, I have tall, gangly kids in elementary and middle school; a 12-year old and an 11-year old and a 9-year old and an 8-year old and a 6-year old, and my worries have changed and grown right along with them. Now I think about underage drinking, unsafe sex, and drugs.
Oh, and autism. Always, always autism.
Some things in life seem to be universal, crossing over the boundaries of race and gender and ethnicity and class. You know, like head lice.
I had lice when I was a kid. Twice, in fact. And let me tell you, having lice is not twice as nice the second time around.
And we have autism. By we, I mean my 11-year old son, Jack, but some days I live and breathe and see and smell and hear autism so very deeply in my body and mind, it’s as if I have it myself.
I have never been offered a drug, if you can believe it. Not in college, not on the bus, not in the back of the locker room after field hockey practice. In fact, I know very little about addiction in general.
But it’s no secret that heroin is sweeping our nation, and like most parents, I read the news articles and Facebook posts with a combination of horror and curiosity and fear.
When I think about my early days as a young mother, I remember how lost I felt. And looking back, I realize what I really wanted was someone to forgive me for the unnamable disquiet of blame and hurt I carried every day.
I wanted someone to notice that I was doing the best I could, that my days were so long and hard and boring and overwhelming.
I was lonely. Not lonely as in no-one-is-around-me-I-am-alone kind of lonely, more like no-one-not-friends-or-people-I-work-with-or-my-own-mother-understands kind of lonely. I felt isolated in my pursuit to understand this boy and his diagnosis. It was just he and I, trapped in a silent, hushed bubble of denial and shame and worry.
I was terrified when we learned he has autism and I’m still terrified that he has autism, but the thought of drugs and addiction and heroin scares me more. Because let’s face it, he won’t go to jail because of autism. He won’t steal to get more of it or make long, painful track marks up his arm with it. He won’t die from it.
I look at my oldest son, and I worry that his easy nature and kind temperament will prevent him from saying no if someone asks him.
I’m scared Rose will fall into a group of daring girls who are eager to try the latest offering. I think about my middle son and his anxiety, and feel a rising panic that one day, he’ll choose to self-medicate himself for relief.
I’m afraid my youngest, Henry, will feel pressure to outdo everyone, to bend all of the rules until they break.
And Jack? Well, I don’t even know where to begin. His propensity for impulsiveness, his naiveté, the way his mind may never comprehend the idea of dependency or addiction or substance abuse.
I am afraid that I am hiding behind an unrealistic cloak of family dinners and church sacraments and chore charts, when really there is something else I should be doing in order to keep my kids safe.
Will there be one single moment that forever swerves their course? Or will every parenting mistake I’ve ever made—every low moment and small failure—mix and swirl together like the explosive ingredients of a Molotov cocktail?
You know, like the all times I turn a blind eye to Jack sneaking an extra cookie from the snack cabinet because I am too tired to fight about it.
When I ignore Henry to check e-mail, or tell them they can’t play travel soccer because it’s too demanding and I don’t feel like driving them all over the state every weekend, or let Joey watch a PG-13 movie even though he’s only twelve.
Or like one night last week, after a long, hot summer day of negotiations and bickering and boredom, I accused 9-year old Charlie of not brushing his teeth when I asked him to and he turned to where I was standing on the stairs and he had tears pooling in his huge brown eyes and he cried out, “Why do you hate me?”
Hatred. Fear. Insecurity. Addiction.
I don’t know a lot about heroin, but I do know this: every addict was at one time an infant, a toddler, a preschooler, a child climbing the bus with a backpack full of crayons for the first day of second grade.
He or she maybe went to the beach, and sat for family portraits at JC Penney’s, and threw icy cold snowballs in the winter. They lost mittens, and looked for the full moon at night, and found pennies on the floor of the grocery store.
They were—they are—just like you and me.
But at some point, their own course swerved and their direction changed. The memory of warm, sandy beaches is blurred by heroin’s dangerous high; the family bonds captured in pictures broken and splintered and shattered into pieces.
It’s true, I don’t know much about addiction, but I do believe behind every addict there is a weary mother, a frustrated father, a family in turmoil. There is isolation and shame and regret. I imagine there is also a sharp, burning longing for mercy.
You are doing the best you can.
You are not alone.
I don’t think I could have prevented Jack’s autism, even if I wanted. But maybe I can prevent my kids from turning to drugs. I just have no idea how.
Sure, I could open Google and search terms like the warning signs of heroin and how do you keep your kids off drugs, but that’s just statistics. That’s just words on a screen or a piece of paper. It doesn’t answer my questions.
I want a different kind of research. I want a glimpse of the baby, the toddler, the child, the man or woman behind the addiction, the same way I long to show the world the blue-eyed infant and the wandering boy and the tall, gangly middle-schooler behind the autism diagnosis.
I want to talk about the un-talkable. I want to talk about what it was like before heroin came in like a thief in the night.
Did he have a lot of friends? No friends? A few friends, or mean friends?
Was she a Daddy’s girl, or the apple of his mother’s eye?
Was she bullied, or a bully herself?
Did she watch a lot of television? Did he play soccer, or football, or sing in the chorus?
Were there red flags; subtle warning signs that something was amiss?
Did he get hurt playing football and start taking pain medication and then turn to something stronger?
I may not know a lot about addiction; I don’t know what the battle inside the heroin bubble looks or feels like, and I don’t know how to prevent it in my own family or anyone else’s.
I can only hope that no matter what the battle–autism or addiction or a head full of creepy-crawly lice–we each remember the lyrics to our own fight song, and in our lowest moments we whisper them and shout them and think them and know them:
We are forgiven.
We are doing the best we can.
We are not alone.