Thursday, February 4, 2010

someone else's pain

One thing I never considered, when thinking about aging, was how someone else's pain could completely minimize mine. A full disclosure moment: I can be remarkably self-centered. I don't mean in a look-how-fabulous-I-am sort of way—it's more of an I'm-so-emotional-therefore-I'm-suffering-more-than-the average-person stance and because of that, at times it can be hard to feel what others are going through. Or, perhaps because of all the drama and pain I've experienced, I've shut those valves tightly and don't let myself feel. Mostly likely, it's a combination of both. I keep to myself, I reign it all in insanely tightly, I don't open up often and then, out of the blue, I snap and get carried away in hurricanes of crying spells, so intense I can only sit on the floor and sob until there's nothing left.

One of those out of left field breakdowns hit me last night and I realized, after the fact, the it wasn't my pain that set it off, it was the agony, the frustration, the searing knowledge that my child was suffering and I can't help.

And I don't know what to do.

Jack is a remarkable kid. Funny. Smart. Insanely creative. He's also driven. Dictatorial. Singe-minded. I've been told he'll make a fabulous head of a company one day and should always be the boss. Anyone who knows him well gets that about him. He's musical, artistic, has a designer's eye. He's athletic without trying. He's cool without effort. He's so beautiful he takes my breath away. He's also insanely sensitive which he keeps well hidden—no one has any idea how strongly he feels, how emotionally deep he runs.

He's had stuff for much of his life. Not major stuff, but enough that sets him apart. Seizures when he was little, more emergency room visits before he could really talk than anyone should have to go through. Hospital stays. Crazy tests. He's been diagnosed with sensory integration, which explained why he didn't feel pain like other kids, how he could take off his shoes at the end of the day, toes bleeding and not notice they were uncomfortable. Why, and this is my theory, he'd be able to swim in freezing cold water, until the point of hypothermia, come out of the surf and pass out in the sand. Now, when he says the water's too cold, I silently cry with relief, knowing this beach trip I won't be shaking him to keep him from slipping into unconsciousness.

But, the thing that seems to have created problems that he's grappling with now, is speech. He started speech therapy when he was just about 3 and for years, it was really hard to understand him. I'd have to ask him to use another word, to show me what he wanted, to repeat what he was saying, and I got him far better than anyone else. And that lack of being understood, that inability to communicate (and this is my theory again), shut him down from building relationships. While he speaks beautifully now, his last sounds clicked last year, he's so used to not being "heard" he doesn't try. He doesn't know how to. He desperately wants people to listen—he has so much to contribute—but the tools aren't there for him to engage. He talks out into open air, almost as if he's a radio broadcast waiting for people to tune in. And when they don't, which is most of the time, he's sure they hate him and then get gets pissed. Acts act. Dissolves into angry tears.

Last night, for the first time, instead of lashing out in frustration, he just sat and sobbed in my lap. Curled in a ball, consumed by body wracking sobs that felt like they'd never end. Holding him tight, tears poured out of me, I hurt so much for this other being. Writing this now, tears are spilling over, again, at how much this child was feeling, suffering, hurting. And how helpless I was, and am, and will be.

I remember when Iz was little and I was a completely overwhelmed new mother, thinking nothing in life could ever be this challenging, a parent of an older kid told me I was in the easy part. That it only gets harder. Navigating the emotional pitfalls, relationship issues, cliques and groups, hormone shifts, made babyhood look like vacation. I thought, at the time, they'd just forgotten what it was like to live with a toddler.

Now I know those were words of wisdom.

I would do anything to help Jack cope, to get things to a more satisfying place. I wish I had answers, could provide comfort, or guarantees that things will get better.

Instead, all I can do is watch, listen, hold tight, reassure, search for support, hope with all my heart, pray (and that's something I never do), meet with teachers, set up playdates, provide a safe place.

And talk. Ask. If anyone out there has ideas, guidance, experience, please let me know.

I need your help. Because I don't know how to help right now and this pain is unbearable.


Mary Cohen said...


This is all so hard. The only advice I can give is to do exactly what you're doing -- holding him through those emotional storms. A good friend once told me that it's important not to identify too much with your kids when they struggle, because it's so easy to project your own stuff onto them when they are in a hard place. It's very hard to do, but this does seem to give kids the opportunity to work out the emotions in their own way, without having to deal with your emotions on top of theirs. So, I try to be available to listen and hold and acknowledge how hard the situation is. I try not to get involved in fixing it or giving advice, until Emma's ready to ask for help. It's not perfect, but it does seem to give her time to work out her own solutions and learn that she has to advocate for herself when mom and dad aren't around.

With love, Mary

Elizabeth said...

I arrived here from Twitter and was moved by your post. I'm wondering how old your son is. I managed to raise to adulthood what the parenting books of my time (and perhaps still) called willful, spirited. One of the things that helped me was realizing how many of the stormy moments we went through reflected developmental stages rather than purely personal trauma. Each child has his/her own challenges but these become magnified through growing pains at particular stages of childhood/adolescence. Knowing this didn't lessen my child's pain right away but it helped me sort out was inevitable and what might signal a pattern that called for intervention.

Bill Peschel said...

It sounds like you're doing the right thing. You're there. You're comforting him. It's a storm, and it'll pass.

I know it hurts. When my kids were young, I felt their pain and my pain at being unable to do more to take it away. (For awhile, as a copy editor, I had to pass on editing child abuse stories, because I couldn't take it.)

Helping him cope will take years, but you can do it. Patience.

Lisa said...

I really like Elizabeth's comment that some angst is an outgrowth of developmental stages, not just personal trauma. Jack is the same age as my oldest, and I see the differences in her daily. I think that's an important element to keep in the back of all of our minds about the emotional outbursts and frustrations and changes in a pre-teen's life.

I have so many questions, I'm not sure where to start. You're probably so exhausted from the post that questions aren't what you need. But I'll toss them out for your consideration.

You say Jack's speech is "beautiful" and that his sounds clicked. So do strangers, adults, people at school, other kids, still have trouble understanding him? When you say he talks to the air, and that last night he didn't even try, what is preventing him from expressing himself? Is he concerned with the reaction from others? Or is it a brain issue where he has a thought but can't express it? If so, that seems like intervention is needed to explore.

Does he still receive speech therapy? If he does, it seems this is an issue that could be discussed. Similarly, if he is emotionally distraught about his communication, even if it's "normal" then this is a problem too.

If that's the case I think you do need to intervene. He needs a place to express (or be helped to learn tools to express) his feelings. If he's artistic, a skilled therapist could help use that. The more frustrated he is, the more he will either act out or shut down. Both will be destructive, and both will cause him to be ostracized.

Where are the cases where he is so frustrated? If it's at home, why is that? If it's at school, why is that? Looking more in depth at the triggers might lend insight.

I know we are only seeing a snapshot of your/his world here, and the situation is so much more complex. But getting to the heart of what HE is upset about (like Mary so insightfully noted) and not what you THINK he is upset about (they might not necessarily be the same) might take someone else to help get to (a therapist of some type). Sometimes the emotional connection between parent and child is too strong.

Is there a dedicated time during the day when the two of you, or his dad and he, talk about his day one-on-one to allow him to have an audience? When you said that he talks to the air and often doesn't get a response I wondered if he might do that less if he knew he'd have time just for that (right after school, or before bed, for example).

I've got so many more things I want to ask, but I will leave it at this. We all support you, and the love you have for Jack, and hope somewhere you will be able to help him. I personally think it's time to call in some professionals... I've learned with my own son's physical and developmental issues that having resources (physical therapist, occupational, feeding, speech, etc) for each of the issues is very helpful if you can find the right folks who have experience with these types of situations.

Alexis said...

Parenting is so much harder than I ever could have imagined. I am going through different, but similarly painful issues with one of my kids, and I am also lost. I don't have any advice except to hang in there, which is what I'm doing.

Do you think Jack might like acting classes?

Elissa Stein said...

Many thanks guys for your time and thoughts. I've got a meeting set up with Jack's teacher, speech therapist, and guidance counselor first thing Monday morning. And today I spoke to a therapist who helped when Iz was going through some rough stuff. I know there's something out there that will help, and I'm so glad and relieved to have talked it out and put wheels in motion to find out what it is.

Tonight was the big Valentine's Dance at his school. He'd been dreading it, sure he'd have a miserable time. But, he had a blast, stayed until the bitter end, had a friend with him the entire time and that was after a 3 hour playdate here. I feel like I'm seeing light when yesterday the tunnel was pitch black.