Let’s play a game, shall we?
Can you guess who I am?
Okay, okay. I’ll give you some clues. You know, to help you out a little.
You can’t taste me, or touch me, or hear me.
But if you could taste me, it would be bitter, like a dry aspirin stuck in the back of your throat.
If you could hear me, I would sound like the muted, eerie rustle of one thousand blackbirds taking flight against the night sky.
I am a heart beating wild, and palms slick with sweat, and quick, ragged breath.
If I were an animal, I would be a snake.
Who am I?
I am the future.
Well, not the future, exactly, but the fear of the future.
See, what I do is I take you by both hands, and I pull and I pull until you can only think about the what if?
You know about the what if, right?
What if I get into a car accident and my kids have to grow up without a mother?
What if I forgot to turn off the stove and the house burns down?
What if he never graduates high school or gets a job or lives on his own?
I don’t want you to feel the sun on your face, or smell delicious chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven. I don’t want you to live in the moment.
I want you to worry. I want you to think about what might be, rather than what is.
So, any guesses?
Why, I am anxiety, of course.
I am anxiety, and I live within a boy named Jack.
Oh sure, this boy also has autism. But me, well, I just came along for the ride—Robin to the spectrum’s Batman, if you will.
Unlike autism, I have no redeeming qualities. Autism is a complicated mind that sees the world differently and tells it exactly like it is and blah blah blah, all that jazz, but not me. I bring nothing to the table, so to speak.
Oh, sure, you could argue I am a measure of safety, and I plant ideas in your brain that keep you out of harms way. I mean, I’m probably the reason you buckle your seatbelt before you drive down the street every day, or you make sure you turn the burners off the stove.
But like salt in a homemade soup, too much of me is a bad thing.
Take this boy Jack, for example.
In no particular order, these are just a few things I have made him afraid of over the past decade: the wind, the color orange, the fire alarm, dogs, crunchy food, wet food, elevators, escalators, doors that open automatically, Brazilian spiders, pigeons, and leaves.
When he was six, I stole his smile and shoved in my pocket, where no one could find it. And next to his smile, I crammed his ability to sleep, and his joy.
I made him hover in doorways, and talk to himself.
Jack’s mother and his father, well, they were frantic. They didn’t know what had become of their little blue-eyed boy. When he wasn’t screaming, he looked like a ghost.
This father, he called his sister who lived in hot faraway Texas. He took the phone into the other room and he told her the one thing he couldn’t bring himself to say to anyone else.
It’s like I’m losing him all over again.
Except this time, he wasn’t losing his son to the silly old spectrum disorder or autism.
He was losing his son to me.
I am anxiety. I am very, very cunning and smart.
Oh, sure, the mother and the father tried everything. They read the books and decided to use something called joint compression and when that didn’t work they bought a million white brushes and the used the soft bristles to brush his limbs.
I laughed in the face of those little white brushes. Honestly, it was like child’s play to me.
No matter how much they tickled his arms and his legs, no matter how many times they massaged his shoulders, he still couldn’t sleep or smile or laugh.
One doctor said maybe medicine was the answer. But the mother and the father said, No! Just like that. No! They said no to medicine for their 6-year old boy.
Medicine was not the answer.
Medicine could not be the answer.
I mean, who medicates a first grader?
One night, this boy Jack and his family had decided to go out for dinner. How nice! Dinner!
But at the last minute I decided Jack didn’t need to go to dinner. Turns out, he wasn’t hungry after all! What he really needed to do was stand in the parking lot and scream. The mother organized the rest of her kids and the father said he would stand outside and try to coax his boy to eat dinner. Just as she turned to go inside, she looked back at the father and he looked back at her and they felt frustrated and made and sad for each other.
This is what I do, dear friends. I divide. I divide families and marriages and happiness. This is how I conquer, and I win.
On this night, it was snowing very, very lightly in the parking lot. I wasn’t cold though. I stood there, right between the father and this boy. We each held one of his hands in our own.
The father was exasperated. All he wanted to do was walk into the restaurant with his son at his side, and eat dinner like every other normal regular ordinary happy family.
Oh, but I had other plans.
I wanted this boy to stand in the parking lot and fret about the color of the menu.
I want him to worry.
I wanted him to feel unsure, and unsafe.
I wanted him to think the restaurant was scary.
The longer we stood there, the stronger my hold on him. My grip was tight. Victory was in my sight.
But this father was stubborn. He was determined. He was not giving his son up without a fight.
After a few minutes in the cold, he told the boy to look up at the sky, and count the snowflakes.
Come on, buddy. Count with me.
And so they did. They counted one, two, three snowflakes in the light of the parking lot. Then they counted more and more, until the boy Jack’s breathing got slower and his heart was calmer.
I did not like the counting. It distracted me, and I accidentally loosened my hold on the boy. I felt his fingers slip through mine.
Eventually, after about nine billion snowflakes, the boy Jack agreed to walk into the restaurant, and order some dinner. Chicken fingers with a mug of hot chocolate, if you must know.
The very next day, the father drove to the pharmacy, and picked up a vial of small white pills.
This was a very difficult decision for him. He felt like he had failed, somehow. Maybe they should use the brushes again, or maybe he just needed to count more snowflakes.
But also in his heart, he knew.
See, that’s how an autism father’s heart works. It is at once divided, and conflicted—yet at the same time, sure and straightforward.
That evening, right before bed, he called to his son. He handed him a green cup with dinosaurs.
Jack, buddy. Come here. I need you to swallow this pill. Look, I have some water for you.
After one, two, three nights, I emptied my pockets and I gave back his smile.
I returned his blissful slumber.
I restored his joy.
And this is how, with a quiet surrender and grace, one father saved his boy.
The right thing to do is never, ever the easy thing to do.