Lately my son Jack is very, very angry.
He is not himself, although to be honest, I don’t even know what he looks like as himself, since we constantly ebb and flow through good days and bad—smooth, sunny sailing juxtaposed against rocky waters with a lot of wind.
Who is he? Who is this boy?
Who is this boy who rants and rails at everyone in our house?
Who is this man-child who stands taller than me and yet screeches like a baby if his fork drops on the floor?
We had to adjust the medicine he takes for anxiety. Maybe that’s the problem.
He’s thirteen and going through puberty, so that could be it too.
He also has autism, which means all bets are off when it comes to figuring anything out.
See, I am always trying to understand what is behavior, and what is the spectrum disorder, and what is simply a boy with the emotional maturity of an 8-year old trapped in a teenager’s hormone-riddled body.
He is confused. He is scared. So am I.
I’m sure I told you all about the stimming, and the way he grunts and jumps around the room. He’s loud. His footsteps make great big stomping noises, especially if he’s wearing his sneakers.
There’s new stuff now. Throughout the afternoon and into the evening, he paces the perimeter of the room and traces the walls with his fingertips. He goes around and around until my head spins.
He’s fascinated with the faucet in the kitchen. And by fascinated, I mean turns it on and off about a million times a day, testing the hose and spraying it all over the counters and sometimes the floors. And when he isn’t running the water, he’s filling the sink with ice.
He uses a glass to get the ice from the ice machine in the refrigerator. And I promise you, if I never hear the clink-clink-clink of ice on glass for the rest of the my life, well, it will be too soon.
I told you all about how autism strains my marriage. It is a weight we carry differently—my husband Joe straps it to his back and climbs up long, steep hills like a solitary man on a mission. He brings Jack to church and shows him how to cook bacon in the microwave and explains why you should always change the oil in your car.
I carry it beneath my beating heart, in a sacred space few people ever see.
The problem is, a man on a hill and a woman’s beating heart rarely agree in the heat of the moment, like when Jack is hiding underneath the hibachi table screaming swear words at our local Japanese restaurant on his brother’s birthday.
In those moments, when practicality meets emotion—well, it feels as though we are spiraling towards a hot, explosive fire. We are failing.
Who is this boy?
He is so incredibly, horrifically rude you wouldn’t believe it. He tells me he hates me at least once a day. He shouts in my face to leave him alone, he doesn’t need me, I am the worse mother ever.
When he does this, I try to remind myself it’s not personal. You know, because of the medication and the autism and the hormones and all of that.
It’s not personal.
It’s not personal.
Or is it?
You know what it’s like? It’s like living with an obnoxious roommate who wolfs down all the food during dinner and then tells you that your meatloaf tastes like dirt.
This is an actual quote.
Over and over we tell him he isn’t being nice, that he is very rude. We take things away and we send him to his room until he can use his good words.
He doesn’t care about being nice. He isn’t concerned with being polite. Like a toddler screaming and crying on the floor, he only wants to be heard.
I hear him. Oh, do I hear him.
Since my Jack-a-boo was a baby, he never liked me to touch him. As he got older, he would offer me one arm if I asked for a hug, and every once in a while, out of the blue, he would rest his head on my shoulder. Now he won’t let me come close to him at all.
Where is my boy? Where is the tender 9-year old who stood at the counter every Thursday morning mixing batter for waffles?
Where is the chubby preschooler who wore blue shorts and a striped t-shirt?
Where is the quiet smile, the one-arm hug, the earnest face?
I miss him. I want to hold him in my arms. I want to love him and soothe him and know him, but he’s too far away from me.
I think I told you about the scripting, didn’t I? The way he memorizes long verses from songs and videos? Then he repeats them in his robotic voice, which would be kind of amusing if it weren’t so mean.
We have the worst. Family ever.
For the life of me, I cannot break through the canned phrases to get a glimpse of the child underneath.
Who is this boy? At times, he is a complete stranger to me.
I know that sounds ridiculous. I mean, I know the second his eyes open in the morning and I know when he doesn’t have socks left in his drawer because he starts the washing machine. I know his cuticles are red and raw because he bites them all the time and I know he loves the stuffed crust pepperoni pizza from Pizza Hut.
I know he is in there.
Or is he?
The thing is, I am scared that beyond this wall of stolen words and scripted phrases there is simply silence—a great, wide emptiness devoid of originality, or creativity, or humor.
I so badly long to know him, and yet whenever he wanders through the room to talk to me, my stomach clenches and right away I feel annoyed, because I know he’s just going ask for the bobillonth time what time his bus comes in the morning, or if he can pre-order the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie.
I am not proud of this—the stomach clenching. I know that I sound like a small, selfish shrew, with the ice-clinking and the sneaker-stomping. Don’t worry. You don’t have to hate me. I hate myself enough already.
I want you to know that all day long, I am dancing a delicate dance with an invisible partner. Constantly I have to decide when to wait, and when to beckon—when to lead, and when to follow.
I have no idea what I am doing.
Raising a child with autism, I say the phrase for now a lot. It is a song sung in the dark—a quiet prayer in the midst of the battle.
For now he is far.
For now he is angry.
For now he won’t let me near him.
One day, he’ll come back.
Anyway, I know I’ve already told you of all this. But I wanted to tell you again, because it makes me feel better.