Why did I write that book?

The truth is going to sound wacky, pompous and neurotic.

But I’ll lead with the truth and then list some more palatable stuff.

The truth is that I was in the park with our son, Joey, who lives with autism.  His slightly older, neurotypical (aka “normal” or at least NOT living with autism) brother had just driven away to start college.  I was praying, which was easy as it was a gorgeous day.  Obviously, my heart was full – memories of the kids over the years, hopes for what would come – so I was pouring that kind of stuff out to God.

Not audibly, mind you.  The other parents were not telling their kids, “Honey, come over here, away from that strange man.”

And just as surely as I was speaking to God, God spoke back, not in a audible voice (I’m only neurotic, not psychotic yet), but in a thought that flooded my mind and overflowed into my heart: You can write a book that helps other family caregivers.

I knew right away that I would be writing in the midst of care giving, not from past experience.  The book would never be The Five Essential Habits of Excellent Caregivers or something like that.  Rather,

  • I wrote it so that people confined by the demands of care giving would find companionship, at least in the stories I tell but hopefully beyond them in the divine, “patient gardener” who has helped me beyond what I could ask or imagine;
  • I wrote it so that stressed out people could laugh.  You have to find the humor, dark though it might be, to keep going as a caregiver.
  • I wrote it to process my own inner stuff.  As I said, I wrote it while care giving, not after.  And so it was a combination of meditation and therapy for me as much as for any potential reader.
  • I wrote it because I enjoy writing.  It is a gift I have to share and, frankly, I communicate better through writing than any other means.  Well, except yelling or crying and stuff like that.

Ortt book and icon

 

A long time friend shared this lovely pic of the book on a desk where he studies and prays.  I pray and hope that this little book serves God by helping family caregivers in the depths of their hearts.

 

Empty cart, not yet empty nest

shopping-cartI couldn’t resist having fun with the sign on this shopping cart.  I Instagramed (is that the verb?) it, with a caption about how I wasn’t getting any children anyway since I was fasting for Ash Wednesday.

Humor is an important ally to the caregiver.  It is a tension cutter.  Much of our humor is dark, but then so are the situations that generate it.

In recent months it’s been harder for Melissa and me to laugh at some of the quirks of Joey’s autism.  His video watching becomes intrusive noise; I don’t think he’s turned up the volume but our annoyed ears seem to think he has.

The chores of his daily routines – chores we do for him, let me be clear, not chores he does – are not a terrible effort yet they are numbing.  Not demanding physically, but draining psychically.

His non-cooperative behaviors get under our skin more.

We have more wistful conversations about being empty nest, about having the house and the time to ourselves for the first time in forever.  And so we wait for Joey’s group home placement, still loving him and wanting all to be well in his life yet feeling the limits of our own aging and of the two decades dominated by autism.

And that’s followed by a mist of fear that we’ll be staring at each other across a great emptiness wondering, OK, now what do we do?

Speaking of aging, I guess that entitles me to repeat stuff I’ve probably said before but can’t remember if I did.  So, let me say (again) that one way to describe raising a child with autism is to ask parents of typical kids to remember the sleepless nights and all the stuff that went with a new baby – the stuff that in hindsight becomes a source of humorous memories.  Now imagine that much of that stuff never developed into self sufficient adulthood and you kept doing it for five years, then ten, then twenty.  Not so funny anymore.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return, is what we say on Ash Wednesday.  Indeed, care giving exposes every pathetic evidence of sin and fatal separation from God – every bit of selfishness, the limits of love, the capacity for self pity and resentment, the instinct to blame… all of the ungodly feelings, thoughts and emotions in service of the world, the flesh and the devil.

If we are fortunate, it becomes the great weakness that throws us upon the grace of a loving God, who gives us power to live in ways we never imagined,

Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:8-10)

MORE read, discuss and do?

We recently shared an article on practical preparations for being a caregiver to an aging loved one.

What if very early diagnosis says that your newborn is living with autism?

New research suggests that autism can be detected in the first year of life by brain scan, rather than waiting on traditional behavior observations in the second year.  (Here’s a news summary of the scientific article).(Here’s a news summary of the scientific article).

A suggestion: if this pans out, absorb the early shock and then start setting up your support systems.  It is an early and useful opportunity to get your care giving resources and your life in position before the major behavioral issues emerge – while your child is still dependent like a typical baby.

Worth reading, discussing and doing

Forbes Magazine has a #LifeHacks piece called 4 Critical Things To Do Before Becoming A Caregiver.  It is concise – almost a simple checklist of ways to prepare “General, Legal, Medical and Financial” documents and plans before becoming a care giver to a family member.

Ideally, discussion and preparation should go on while the family is in good health.  Spouses should talk about plans as they age; extended families should talk things out with parents, grandparents or other aging loved ones.  Families like ours, engaged in long term care of a special needs child, need to get ahead of these matters as well.

Unfortunately, care giving falls into many lives without time to prepare, as the result of a catastrophic illness or accident.  This article will still serve as a valuable resource, even under difficult “catch up” conditions.

While the article does mention getting “Names and phone numbers of religious organization and points of contact,” we would amplify this to include discussion and documentation of funeral/burial wishes, whether religious or not.  Don’t underestimate the wear and tear on care givers and other survivors;

  • the unexpected cost of a funeral, often setting up stress between unexpected price and available budget, leading to guilt and family squabbling;
  • the bombardment of questions – “What music at the service?  Burial or cremation? Who is going to speak?” – that comes in right when survivors just want to be still, remember and grieve;
  • the challenge of providing an event for a large number of people, many of them strangers to the survivors, on short notice;
  • oh, so much more.

It is a great gift to the family to have talked out and written down the loved one’s wishes in advance.  Most funeral homes and many churches have worksheets that ask all of the relevant questions, and having these available at the time of death takes a great deal of strain off of those dealing with loss.

Inside out

I have to laugh at our family on this quiet Saturday morning.

We’ve had a couple of ER trips over the last two weeks, all of which we handled just fine.

Major crises become run of the mill in care giving families.

But little crap can set us off like 4th of July fireworks.

Joey’s birthday is coming up; Melissa got him to articulate a list of desired videos (video = present on Joey’s planet.)

So the other night, a healthy, happy Joey was musing about “Soon there will be presents” and then decided to offer a bit of theater expressing his desire for their arrival.  He went to the front door and knocked from the inside, a perfect tap tap tap simulating the arrival of a package via UPS or FedEx.

The knock awakened the aging dog and set her to barking up a storm.

This in turn rubbed Melissa’s and my last nerves raw and we broke all of the rules about calmly explaining things to a person with autism.  We went into full “Knock it off” mode.

This made Joey laugh – he finds anger amusing to a point and them absorbs and gives it back .  So he started knocking again and the dog started barking again and and and and and and and…

Here’s a video about knocking. I think the only pipe I’ll be hitting is the one with the crack in it.

…when such a thing happens…

Everyone reading this book – indeed, every human being – needs to know that when such a thing happens, we are not alone.  Victor Lee Austin, Losing Susan, Brazos Press 2016.

If you are a family care giver, or if you know one, Victor’s book (and it really turns out to be his late wife Susan’s book just as much) can be at once a splash of cold water that wakes you up and a strong arm around you for comfort.

20170206_141154He tells the story of his wife’s long terminal illness and his efforts to care for her with great love and humility in a pure sense of that word, by simply being objective and not forcing any judgments.  Some questions are left hanging, and this book gets across how normal and necessary that is.  No tidy answers to the big questions, but great insight into family care giving and a gift of compassionate companionship for those who are caregivers.

Just as many combat veterans need others who’ve been in battle to process what’s happened in their lives, care givers will find in Victor and Losing Susan a level of understanding and acceptance that helps process uncomfortable emotions and experiences.

Reading this is a reminder that care giving thrusts orderly souls like Victor’s into chaos, free spirits into stifling routines, thoughtful people into impulsive action, rational people into irrational situations, spontaneous people into detailed planning, extroverts into isolation and introverts into a land of disintegrating boundaries.  And what’s worse is that this all involves the loss of the person most a part of us and most able to buffer us in life’s hardships.

As I read this book, I was struck by how much I would like to see couples read it while preparing for marriage.  God forbid that they should have to walk the same course as Victor and Susan, but they will walk some part of it.  This book, by telling a family story rather than framing a lecture, brings out the deep reality of

In the Name of God, I take you to be my wife (to be my husband), to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.  (Book of Common Prayer, 1979)

That kind of promise will take us into situations for which we are radically unprepared and, in all honesty, incompetent.  As Victor describes so well,

I never had any confidence about how much I should push or encourage her and how much I should step back and just let her be.

I’ve talked to a lot of people who have to care for others whom they love, and we always recognize this point of commonality.

This common lack is why care giving can’t be pulled off all on one’s own.  We need companions and, if we can recognize it, we need God’s grace.  Losing Susan is a voice for both.

The Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal, (not) at your service

I am reblogging this one. My wife spotted it as one of those “Facebook Memories” from 2013. In this piece, I note my own need for boundaries. I neglected this and in 2015 was laid out by anxiety and depression. 2016 was a year of healing and growth for me. Please, if you detect your own stress points as a caregiver, seek help. Pain is an important warning. God bless you.

Sometimes Care Giving Stinks

“…avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you)…” Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

I (Tim) made a mind-bogglingly stupid move this week. I was out grabbing lunch, when I noticed someone I knew at one of the tables. He was engaged in a conversation and didn’t see me. And I used that as an opportunity to scuttle to another part of the place where a wall would be between us. If I couldn’t see him, he couldn’t see me.

Now, this guy is pleasant. Funny, interesting, a good guy. But I didn’t want to interact. Not so much as to go by and say a quick “Hey.”

One of care giving’s side effects is to send my introversion off the charts. When I’m not doing all…

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Beer, bang, blood & BS

O, God, where to start retelling last night?

Got home from work in the late afternoon with two consecutive days off coming up. We had a fun Chinese pick up dinner; Joey downed his own weight in Lo Mein.

Melissa and I were settling in to binge watch something and I was so relaxed that I had a second beer.  Then a third.

Then, a floor shaking bang and noise  like the fusion of snoring, opera and a train going by.  Joey had a seizure.

It must have been abrupt because he usually senses them coming and gets to a couch.  This time he was down on the floor in his closet with his face shoved into the floor.  It was hard to get to him and we needed to make sure we could keep his airway open.

I’d just downed that third beer…

Melissa managed to wedge herself in with him, get a hand under his head and get his nose and mouth out of the carpet so he could breathe.

When she got her hand free, it was covered in blood.

As the seizure subsided, Joey began to rouse himself a bit and we were able to get him out of the closet and inspect his head.  There was running blood all over his left ear and we couldn’t tell if it was coming from an external cut or from inside of his head.

Melissa said, “We need to take him in,” meaning to the ER as it was evening, and she was right.  But I’d had three rapid beers and she was going to have to drive.

So we loaded up, her hair a mess and no makeup (that doesn’t bug me but she hates going out like that), Joey and I in shorts despite the winter temps.

I had the presence of mind to call the ER and let them know we were on the way and what had happened.

OK, OK, I need to back up just a bit so I can tell you about the BS.  As soon as we realized that we had to get to the hospital, Melissa had the insight that Joey gets combative after a seizure.  He just wants to sleep and doesn’t want to be poked, prodded, asked questions… it is like a man-cold on steroids.  He can get violent if pushed, no matter the pushers’ good intentions.

So she showed Joey her bloody hand and said, “Look, Joey, mommy has an owie.  I have to go to the doctor.  Will you help take mommy to the doctor?”

It worked.  She actually turned him into a caregiver, and, although we could see he’d rather do something else (hey, that’s a working definition of care giving, ain’t it?), he wanted to help mommy be OK.

This morning I realize that autism worked in our favor.  His older brother, the engineer, would have asked, “Hey, if mom’s injured, how come she has to drive?”  No such problem with Joey.

At the ER, Melissa quickly informed the staff of the BS story under which we were operating.  It was wonderful – all of them, from the receptionists, to the nurses, to the admitting clerk, to the doctor – adopted the line.  “So, what happened to you,” they asked Melissa, “and where are you hurt?”

Meanwhile, they convinced Joey that getting his blood pressure would be helpful to treating his Mom.

They very dramatically cleaned the blood off her hand so Joey could see mom getting fixed, then told him that some of the blood was on him and they needed to clean him up, too.

Thanks be to God, the bloody wound was an external abrasion.  No stitches, just some topical disinfectant and a day of rest (today) at home.

And, because of Melissa’s impromptu and epic BS, no combat.

No pics to share.  I wasn’t thinking of blog illustrations at the ER.

20170130_104531

So here’s one of last night’s empties and some morning coffee.  In a mug that Joey painted for me.

Trying to cancel a pity party

Care giving pushes a person toward their outer limits.  The repetition of unpleasant tasks and the human desire to receive as much or more than we give can make the caregiver sad, surly, stressed out or all of the above.

Throw in some of life’s normal irritations and it’s time for black confetti, diabolical tunes and spoiled snacks – a pity party.

A wise friend once advised me to get ahead of the onslaught by asking myself, “If I were the devil, what would I do to upset Tim?”  This week, it’s been an overload of all the life crud I’d rather not deal with;

  • Bureaucracy – got a call from the pharmacy that insurance was declining to refill our son’s array of medications, which include anti-seizure and anti-aggression chill pills.  So I had to dig through piles of forms that all look alike, call automated “customer service” numbers, hack my way to a live person who wouldn’t talk to me because of HIPPA (he, they’re my son’s meds, not mine), etc.  Hate doing this on my best day.  Got it fixed but it left me frazzled.
  • Money – I get to pay bills AND do taxes on my upcoming days off.  WooHOOO!  Yay, Me!!!!!
  • Conflict – part of my work has me representing my superiors to two dug in groups that refuse to resolve a conflict and keep trying to manipulate me to to choose between them.  My superiors simply want them to make up or get lost.  I don’t like delivering bad news; I’m a decent care giver because I’m flexible and it is not easy for me to be bossy; I like peace and hate being around people who’ve lost their rationality.  Today I get to call the two faction leaders and tell them, “You’ve exhausted the patience of my superiors.  You’re both gone.”  Even more delicious was the whole night anticipating these calls.

pathetic-7Pity parties make us passive and hapless.  The make us throw up our hands in woe and just let circumstances continue to crush us.  What to do?

  • Stop bundling the problems as one big mess.  Mentally separate them.  Take them one at a time.  They are not related.  They are not God’s wrath coming upon you.  And they will go away the sooner you stop pity partying and take them on one by one.  Don’t look at them all at once or the whole universe will look like your problem.  Give each one its time and place, curse it if you must, and then get down to dealing with it.
  • Delegate.  Can someone else help?  I just realized that someone else is going to see the feuding hard heads face to face before I do.  So, I will still make the bad news phone calls, but my colleague can deliver the formal letter from our superiors.  One less bit of stress and wasted time.  Don’t play the hero; accept offers of help or better yet, stop waiting for an offer and ask for it.
  • Practice spirituality.  Stuff that’s hard can be turned to your advantage.  As a follower of Jesus, I’m aware of the words  In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’  (Acts 20:35).  Yes, care giving is about giving more than you get back.  In our animal flesh, that’s a big negative, but in the mystery of the Spirit it’s a way to find blessing, that is, deep and abiding happiness.  So wrestle with the invisible possibilities instead of just slogging through the pathetic feelings.
  • Take your times of rest and recovery.  Sometimes this means just turning away from the problems when you’ve done what you can do.  Other times it means to celebrate because you’ve knocked something off the list.  Rewarding yourself for a victory will help you go out and win other battles.

I’m sure there’s more stuff to list but you know what?  I’m tired of thinking about it and I’m going to drink coffee and get those stupid phone calls out of the way.

Hope your weekend is good.  If you have a pity party planned, cancel it.

We’ll leave the light off for ya

People with autism connect with the world through repetitive behaviors.  I mean, we all do, right?  None of us want to live in a town where red light means stop on Tuesday and go on Wednesday.  I think.

But people with autism take repetition to the nth degree.  One of the the behaviors that led to our son Joey’s diagnosis was a daily pattern of running around the house, clockwise, pausing to touch certain objects in sequence along the way.  That’s a game a neurotypical kid might create, of course, but then a typical kid would lose interest and create a different game without having to be coaxed out of it by a therapeutic intervention.

20170121_085218One of Joey’s current repetitive behaviors is turning off our house’s outside lights.  It’s almost like he’s adopted a daily chore, which would be nice, except we can’t figure out the timing.  It’s irregular and sometimes inconvenient.  Why he’s even aware of those lights is a mystery, since they don’t glow into the window or anything.  But he’s taken to turning them off, sometimes while waiting for his morning bus, sometimes when he gets up to get a drink at night, sometimes in a cantankerous little gesture just after we’ve turned them on.

Joey’s repetitive behaviors create repetitive behaviors in his caregivers.  Now my wife and I have to check the light switch every time we go by at night.

Today is Saturday, and the whole family engages in a big repetitive behavior based on Joey’s imposed pattern of glazed doughnut with chocolate milk.  It means I have to get up earlier than I want, including on bitter winter days; the dog expects a car ride to the market; Melissa has to go on seizure watch while I’m out, during which the cat nags her for a brushing.  This pattern, almost down to a minute by minute precision, has been in place for years.  All because Joey is happy with his doughnut and “off” – possibly to the point of a seizure – for the rest of the day if it doesn’t show up.

When I got back from the market, I knew that Joey was awake.  How?  Not because there was a light on in his bedroom window, but because the lights in the driveway were off.

These repetitive behaviors can infest the care giving family in a couple of ways.  Obviously, they can become a grind.  Or, they can become cute and sentimental, preserving the feeling of caring for a child long past childhood.  This can create a void when the person with autism moves out, as Joey might at any time.

Then you have husband, wife, cat and dog all staring at one another wondering what to do.  Care giving can create some patterns of relationship, but it can also make those a facade ready to collapse when the person receiving care leaves the pattern.

Care giving is a consuming, sacrificial act of love.  But we have to be careful not to dramatize it or sentimentalize it, because it can take over too much of reality like some kind of idol.

One of the ways I resist that is to have my own @^%*#@$ repetitive patterns that aren’t tied to care giving.  I read during my lunch hour at work, for example.  This week, I got something worth sharing.  Hope it helps where you are:

We fill in the center with something or someone and ask it to be the fulfillment of all our desires.  We attempt to quench our thirst for the infinite with something finite.  When this happens, we terribly distort whatever it is we are asking to be our god.  No one, and nothing, can bear that responsibility and so we begin to squeeze the life out of our loves.  And we die, too, because we need the nourishment only God can give.  A lesser god means a lesser self.  (John Welch, O. Carm., The Carmelite Way)