I avoided Facebook because birthday well-wishes terrify me. Every year I peruse Facebook, tossing out generous likes, loves, wows, and occasional angries. When I can, I leave positive comments. Sometimes, in a pique of social energy, I share something personal and perch by my post to banter with others until I have depleted my gregariousness. But when my birthday rolls around, anxiety seizes me. The thought of all the kind wishes overwhelms me, sweat beads on my chest, and my arms feel cold. I cannot make myself click the link.
I know this is irrational, the same way a compulsive hand-washer knows they need to put the soap down, but it is phenomenally hard, and I feel as if I am losing my mind.
Today, I revisited my Mom’s written in a wind tunnel birthday greetings and cheery notes from Egor’s side of the family. I forged ahead. Clicking on Facebook was like jumping in a cold swimming pool. “I can get used to this,” I tell myself, “Since I don’t know what to say, I’ll copy and paste thank yous.” In a few seconds, my anxiety ebbs, and I find myself smiling and writing sincere thanks.
Never think you are unappreciated when you do something nice. Every kindness waits to be enjoyed.
When he was five, my son decided that apricots had souls. His spiritual journey began the day Lull Farm had a sale on fresh apricots. Their unblemished perfection reminded me of the two immense apricot trees that grew in my childhood backyard. These fruit powerhouses kept Mom busy making jams, cobblers, yogurts, and every conceivable confection. Even our dogs harvested apricots, navigating the inner branches to reach choice fruit. Summer wasn’t official until I collected the first pit-filled scat from our scrubby lawn.
To make my favorite treat, fruit leather, Mom boiled apricots into a paste in a two-day marathon. The sweet, almost tropical aroma clung to Naugahyde chairs and bead curtains for weeks. Thick, sticky apricot goop got everywhere, and I licked spoons and fingers until my stomach grumbled ominous warnings. My son deserved a taste of that glorious tradition, so I purchased a few quarts of fruit.
At home, I cleared the table to make a dramatic presentation to him. Like my mother before me, I offered an apricot to him and asked him to admire its beauty:
“Feel its soft fuzz? Soft, like velvet. Like a horse’s snout. See its colors? Yellow-orange, orange, and pinkish-red? Smell it, almost like a peach…”
“Now, take a bite,”
Liev blinked, his eyes filled with tears.
He shook his head.
“Why?” I asked.
“It’s too beautiful. I cannot bear to kill it. I feel sorry for it.”
Even though I followed the script that won me over as a child, it did not work for Liev. He is a child who loves the fragile and defenseless — a rescuer of slugs, earthworms, and pill bugs. He understood that fruit is likewise helpless. So, his apricot friend rested on our kitchen table until it shrunk and moldered. “Fruit have souls,” Liev stated as he chose a sunny spot for an apricot grave. He buried it with a song, hoping for a baby tree to grow from its seed.
As he grew older, Liev adopted occasional fruits and vegetables. Anxiety and stress triggered bouts of fruit hoarding. Perhaps he longed to preserve order in the universe by saying, “No, not this one!” After missing three weeks of fourth grade for an infected finger, a family of winter squash moved into his bedroom. Our new guests became bedtime story celebrities, offering sage advice about taking antibiotics and returning to school.
Liev, savior of produce, is also a champion of spiders. His affection sprang from toddlerhood when I taught him that capturing and releasing spiders is better than eating them. Saving spiders became a public affair when Liev turned six. At a nearby Rite-Aid, he chased a swift wolf spider across an expanse of white linoleum near a checkout. Confused patrons and employees scattered as he corralled the wriggling creature on to a sales circular. Shrill squeals erupted from the gathered crowd as the wily spider escaped twice on its journey outside.
So, our home is Halloween-ready year-round. Plump arachnids perch in corners, their children unafraid of newspaper swats. Ghostly wisps of deserted webs remain intact until we are confident the occupants are deceased. If malaria and cholera did not petrify him, Liev would fling doors and windows wide open so spiders could feast on neighborhood mosquitoes and houseflies.
Which brings me to the Cupcake Incident.
Remember Liev’s extended absence? Well, his return day fell on the class Halloween party. An unsuspecting parent hosted the party with a Pinterest inspired activity. She handed out pretzels, chocolate cupcakes, and mournful candy eyes to make “Spider Cupcakes.” Liev was so thrilled to make his a little spider that he stabbed half the pretzel legs deep into the cake and broke the rest. It was his spider! His spider named “Speeder.”
Then his classmates began to eat their spiders. While the details of his outburst are sketchy, it was epic enough for me to pick him up early. Not only did he shout, “No, no, no you’re killing the spiders! You made them! How could you!” but he also and tried to rescue the spider cupcakes by plucking them from his peer’s hands. Paraeducators appealed to his sweet tooth to tame his uproar, “These spiders are for eating Liev, they are delicious! Yum!” Bad idea. Tears arrived in torrents, “I don’t wanna eat my Speeder! No! No! Don’t make me eat him! I LOVE HIM!” Red-faced and tearful, staff escorted him to the nurse’s office, promising that he did not have to eat his cupcake nor watch others eat theirs.
Liev’s upset vanished in a quiet setting with quiet words:
“Liev, the other children don’t see the spiders as real. I know spiders are special to you, and you do not need to eat yours. You can take him home and keep him for as long as you like.”
Some compassion and a way to control a situation that caused big emotions was what he needed. After school, when we walked to the car, he wiped away still-falling tears and said, “Mama, it’s okay for the other kids to eat their spiders, but we should keep this one forever.” To this day, the spider lives tucked away atop the kitchen cabinets—a testament to the durability of grocery store baked goods and one boy’s love.
At twelve, Liev shrugs when I remind him of the Cupcake Incident:
“My brain understood that Speeder was not real, but the thought that he could get hurt was huge. I still worry about hurting helpless creatures. I even feel sorry if I smoosh a banana. It’s an OCD thing. Some people wash their hands. I want to rescue things.”
The voice of OCD csounds like the voice of your conscience urging you to do the right thing. Liev and I bear the crush of this righteousness upon our brows; a forever voice in our ears that calls to us to be virtuous, to do no harm, and to protect the weak. While care and responsibility are traits precious to the human condition, balancing scrupulosity is hard work. Liev is off to a wonderful start!
My mother, who loves burgeoning stuff, feeds a heightening bedside nest of fliers, letters, and newspapers. In the garage, boxes dating to the early 1970s crowd to the ceiling. Time travel through receipts, magazines, and greeting cards would be a breeze.
Mom had only one household rule regarding clutter: keep a clear path to your door in case of fire. That was it. I could keep my room in a book-ridden, toy-stacked, plate-layered maelstrom of disarray as long as a firefighter could drag me out through my bedroom door. More than one third grade boy marveled at the delightful chaos of my room.
Surprisingly, I evolved into a neatnik of unbelievable proportions. I overhauled and organized the house so every pen, pencil, and paperclip had an assigned and official place. Other kids might have thrown parties when their parents went out of town. I re-painted the bathroom and chipped up the kitchen tiles. Once, I even tore out the faded paneling in our kitchen to replace it with textured drywall. I still remember my parents muted “that’s nice” response, as if they feared praise might encourage me to re-carpet the house while they slept.
Mom bore my frenzies with patience and good cheer. She knew order and uniformity soothed me; perhaps in the same way collecting and stacking soothed her.
Some take the condition of your home to be a metaphor for your inner life. An unruly home symbolizes tangled thinking, or laziness bordering on neglect. The spare and overly organized dwelling suggests a tenant so tightly puckered that they might squeeze the breath out of you if you sat next to them.
These notions emphasize differences between people and do not reflect the important matter. The important matter is not how you keep your house but how you keep your family. My own messy mother accepted me each time she put the scissors in their special bin. She encouraged independence through home improvement projects and gave me my own kingdom to alphabetize and straighten.
I, worshiper of straight clean lines and neat labeled boxes, luckily have a similar son. If one day he should metamorphosize into a keeper of things, I hope to teach him to manage his collections with curious bins and spruce labels. Fill life with acceptance and support regardless of where your loved one falls on the spectrum of glorious messes and immaculate houses.
Due to serious illness in our family, my ability to respond to comments is diminished. Thank you for reading.
It’s three am. My son hollers from across the house, “Rest with meeeeee!”
He’s had another nightmare.
Liev’s sleeping mind conjures strange and spectacular horrors. In his dreams, bathtub drains have teeth and eat little boy fingers. Lurid moons peep through his curtains with “frowns and smiles so tight it hurts to look at them.” Limbs detach themselves and ambulate to our basement for exercise.
Tonight, the kitchen trash became sentient. Liev’s dream-self heard its irritable rustling a half a house away. I rest with him and doze off until Papa wakes me at 7:00.
Most nights are like this.
Prior to last spring, Liev slept well, waking only when routines went awry. That May, his brain began cranking out bizarre dreams regularly.
Part of me wanted to high-five him–weird dreams are a rite of passage in our family. The other part offered its tenderest sympathies.
My childhood nightmare factory produced horrors similar to Liev’s. In fact, my dreams resemble his so closely I suspect a genetic component.
My most frightening dream involved murderous dishtowels with superhuman strength. A pack of them stalked me in our living room, intent on smothering me. When a ratty plaid terry towel flipped over the couch and found me cowering, I woke up screaming.
No alien or zombie-filled movie will ever equal the terror of the evil dishtowels. Perhaps Liev and I fear the mundane turned sinister because we crave predictability. The unexpected petrifies.
As we weather Liev’s nightmare surge, I’d like to share how our family manages to sleep well despite frequent wakings.
Accept sleep disruption. Nightmares peak for all children five to eight years old. Children like Liev who have autism and/or Tourette’s syndrome are more anxious and creative, causing intense dreams. Dreams are to my six-year-old what diapers are to a baby, a natural part of his development.
Adjust the sleep environment. Most autistic children do not have the skills to unwind alone after a frightening dream, requiring someone to stay with them until they fall asleep. Any way you can secure sleep is excellent, even if it seems peculiar.
A happy accident worked wonderfully for us: Liev kept rolling off his twin bed so we gave him the queen guest bed. He now boasts two beds for nightmare recovery. A parent keeps him company as needed, either on the spare twin or next to him, according to need. I don’t worry about where I sleep, so long as I do sleep and so does everyone else. Each parent has a thousand waking, calm moments to teach a child independence. Let sleep be their respite.
Redirect fear. We do not discuss nightmares in the bedroom. I give Liev a courtesy sentence to relate his nightmare, but I don’t let him elaborate. I distract with a snack, brisk walk, or story if he can’t stop talking. Children with OCD or autism easily get worrisome thoughts stuck, so I act quickly to prevent Liev from reliving his fear and losing an entire night’s sleep.
Use tools. Some parents make “nightmare spray” or “monster traps” for their children. Others train their child to change the ending of their dreams. While Liev invents multiple nightmare fighting tools, he eventually asks, “What if it doesn’t work?” This frightening realization can swallow a child whole. I advocate honesty and composure. We tell Liev, “You will wake up and someone will be with you.” Sometimes we need to say this a few times, but it ends the conversation. Knowing he is safe and loved is the most powerful tool of all.
Liev’s sleeping mind is as extraordinary as his waking one. One day, I will look back at the night he dreamed his eyes got stuck in one socket. I will recall our trips to the mirror, deep breathing, and reading fairytales until he fell asleep. I will cherish the moments we shared together when I was an all-powerful mother and conqueror of nightmares.
Our household has the flu because our son never forgets a prohibited act.
Two weeks ago, we discussed his impending annual physical. Since his pediatrician’s waiting room is divided into “sick” and “well” areas, he became preoccupied with the specifics of each designation.
He quizzed me about the admittance criteria for each half of the office.
T: “Mama, if you have diarrhea, what side of the office do you go to?”
M: “The sick side.”
T: “What if you have only a little bit of diarrhea?”
M: “Then you don’t go to the doctor.”
T: “What percent diarrhea do you have to have to go to the doctor?”
M: “Uhh, 60%.”
T: “How much diarrhea is 60%? Do you measure by time on the potty or cupfuls?”
And so on.
Levels and percentages help Liev process his anxiety over doctor visits. A grid, a map of steps and predictions make the experience palatable. I answered question after question as he scribbled data and drew boxes.
Nevertheless, after thirty minutes of diarrhea, influenza, and strep throat percentages, I interrupted:
“Look, Liev, going to the doctor’s office is safe. The children on the well side are safe; the children on the sick side are safe. Unless you lick the stair railings, doorknobs and light switches, you won’t get sick. It will be okay.”
This silenced him. His marker hung in midair as he collected his thoughts. “Okay, Mama. Let’s do GUM (gross motor)!”
Liev’s physical was the first appointment of the day. We arrived ten minutes early and since the office was not open yet, we loitered near the stairwell. Liev jabbered about his schedule breathlessly, trouncing up and down the stairs. A moment of silence descended upon us. My gaze drifted lovingly to him, admiring his composure as he waited.
Suddenly, as if gripped by a paroxysm, he mashed his nose to the stair railing and gave it a long, slurpy lick. I gasped. Without looking at me, he took three sideways hops and repeated the action on the other rail.
Flabbergasted, I scrambled for the proper reaction.
I know my son. He remembered last week’s conversation and could not help himself.
Lectures and anger do not work—in fact, they will guarantee that he will need a muzzle for future doctor’s office visits. Anxiety and negative reinforcement escalate compulsions. I ignored the behavior and asked him to calculate his “wellness level percentage.” Invigorated, he quoted wellness levels for several minutes.
At 8:20, a nurse let us in the lobby. Liev’s eyes darted to the nearest light switch. Envisioning the nurse’s horror over an attack of switch slurping, I touched his shoulder. It broke the compulsive spell. He hopped to the sign in sheet and fondled the poinsettia topped pens instead.
The preposterousness of Liev’s’ behavior shocks and scandalizes, yet it possesses a certain purity. Negative thoughts preoccupy many of us. Some brains are wired more anxiously, more obsessively, more prone to giddy loops of negative “what-ifs.” No parent stuffed me full of anxiety; I popped out of the womb with an enduring cry of fretfulness.
Persistent negative thoughts entice me into spells of self-absorption. Ironically, I fight fire with fire, redirecting my hyper-focus to things I love–art, writing, organizing. The same applies to my son.
We share the dizzy downhill ride of bad thoughts without brakes. Liev shows me that I have built-in brakes I never considered and brakes I have learned to apply over the years.
Be grateful for the privilege of control. Point those who struggle in other, happier directions so they can twist the worry back on itself. Even a gentle touch can alter one’s course.