To be clear, I did not go to medical school. I am not a doctor. I’ve never even played one on television.
I am not educated in the world of neuroscience, or brain development, or psychology.
My name is Carrie.
I am a forty-five-almost-forty-six year old housewife with five kids. My husband Joe is a dentist.
Our second son has autism. He is sixteen. His name is Jack.
Actually, his name is John. But we call him Jack. That way, when we go through airport security or have an appointment with a specialist, he can shriek and insist his name is not John, it’s Jack. We’re fun like that.
Yes, Jack has autism. He also has anxiety. Anxiety is autism’s co-pilot. It is the Robin to the spectrum’s Batman, and together, they take turns ravaging my son’s spirit.
I picture his anxiety a few different ways—a snake winding around his heart, a wolf with yellow eyes and long, pointed fangs.
Research tells us that anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.
Unfortunately, research is black and white words on a paper. It doesn’t capture the details. There is no color.
Yet anxiety is nothing but color—a wild blue, an angry red, a mournful yellow.
It is a trip the beach, ruined because the seagulls might bite.
It is a soul-crushing fear of the wind chill factor.
It is early morning wakening, and late-night restlessness.
Is a no before yes, refusal instead of curiosity.
This is anxiety.
My son has no friends.
I don’t mean that in the casual, he has like no friends! kind of way.
I mean has no friends. Not a single person to call, or confide in, or meet for tacos at Chipotle.
He tells me his teachers are his friends. They may see it differently, of course.
Who cares, right?
I do. I care.
It’s not like I have a million friends. I don’t. But the few I do have are loyal, and generous and honest. They know me better than anyone. I lean on them when I feel lonely, or when I argue with my husband. They don’t always take my side. Which is perfectly good, and right.
We laugh a lot. We have lunch together, and see movies, and talk until our throats are hoarse.
I want this for him. I want companionship, and laughter.
Before COVID, my other kids bounced in and out of the house like ping pong balls. Play dates, sleepovers, pool parties.
Jack is always home. That’s the thing. Autism and anxiety keep him in a gilded cage, like a complicated, exotic bird.
Except instead of a tropical destination with palm trees and a warm breeze, his cage is inside our family room, or sitting at the kitchen counter.
He has no friends. I don’t know what to do about this. I suggest getting together with kids from his school and he shouts no at the top of his voice.
He wants to stay behind the golden bars. He feels safer there. He doesn’t need to worry about judgment or shame.
This is anxiety.
Do you know how hard he works? Can you understand what it’s like to wake up by 5:00 every morning, convinced the air might freeze you, or world will bite you?
This exotic bird of mine perches on the branch of fight or flight—ready to stay or to fly off to the sky if a car backfires or someone drops a dish.
He reminds me that on March 28th, 2013 we went to Target and a blue Prius almost hit us in the parking lot and now he scans the spaces every time we go, watchful and expecting.
Anxiety is an everlasting memory of badness.
Jack’s particular brand of anxiety requires medication. Three different kinds, if I’m being honest.
I want you to know how hard we worked to find other alternatives to pills in a vial. I want you to know this because I feel defensive, and ashamed.
I feel ashamed every time I drive up to the window at Walgreens and sheepishly announce, “Hi! I have a prescription for Jack Cariello? Or maybe it’s under John?”
I feel ashamed when they ask for my license, because one medication in particular requires identification in case I try to sell it or take it or share it or whatever.
When the person in the window asks for my license, what I really want to say is I love him and I tried. But I could not conquer the wolf .
But these pills in orange vials bring my boy some relief. They grant him rest, and respite from the thoughts that circle his electric brain.
This is anxiety.
Raising this son with autism is a little like building a boat while you steer it across the wide, blue sea.
There are no rules.
There are not shortcuts.
Please, I want to say to the wolf, to the snake, to the living thing that controls my son.
Please, let him breathe.
For just a moment, let him feel the sand beneath his feet. Let him see his breath in the winter air, and taste salty tortilla chips within a circle of laughter.
Let him be.