This post really puts the “waaaaaaaa” in Waaaaaaaaaaambulance Wednesday. Because it’s about tantrums. I told myself that at some point, I would dedicate a post to his tantrums. Hey, look at the time! It’s fuss o’clock.
Dar screams a lot. This does not distinguish him from a lot of other 4-year-olds. But when Dar screams, it’s not punctuated by words like “no” or “mom” or “dad” or “I won’t.” After 4 years, “waaaaaaaa” is pretty much his only proactive word.
The thing is, before his brother was born, 22 months ago, he rarely tantrumed. I don’t know if a screaming baby taught him to scream, or if starting school had something to do with it, or what. But it has become more than just the “background noise of our life,” as I wrote last week. It’s more like a dog in the house that won’t stop barking, or a faucet that won’t stop dripping, or a creaking sound that just won’t get fixed. It’s a genuine, palpable irritant that changes the balance of our lives – perhaps I should say prevents balance in our lives.
For years now, our ABA people and his teachers have tried to find out what antecedents have led to the screaming. Within a week, each helpful person saw Dar freak out for absolutely no apparent reason: he’s in the middle of something like the living room, he’s happy, everything in the room is normal – and then, like a geyser, the eruption. On one hand, I was happy to see each therapist see this, because it’s led to fewer questions about root causes. On the other hand, just ’cause we’re all in this rocking boat together doesn’t mean I like this river.
Dar screams and screams and screams. Real tears of frustration stream down his little face. Is he angry that he can’t say something, or is it something else? If you’re frustrated because you can’t communicate, that’s a step toward communication, right? Well, if this is a step, have you ever heard of a step that took two years?
Occasionally, Dar will be more scared than frustrated. Occasionally his lower lip will quaver, he’ll shiver, and curl up in a ball of terror. Then I just hold him. I lie down under him and hold him and tell him that no matter what he does, he can’t stop me loving him. He doesn’t like this treatment, and he’ll sometimes hit me or kick or try to bite me. But I feel better doing that than I would just turning on the TV and waiting the 15 or 20 minutes for him to relax.
Luckily, episodes like that are rare. But hitting and biting have become a lot more common. I don’t know if that was the one thing he picked up at school – probably not. The truth is that it’s mostly self-hitting and self-biting. He hits his own forehead with his right hand almost any time he’s frustrated. That’s hard to see. Sometimes that will bother me enough that I will yank down his arm, or twist it around his back with a “NO,” and of course that leads to more screaming.
You can recite every mantra ever uttered at the Bay Area Zen Center to me, but I would still dare you to display for me your inner Dalai Lama while your child is freaking out for hours in a day. Yes, wifey and I begin by joking, keeping a light tone, even singing. Dar usually screams when I change his diaper, and you couldn’t sound more jovial than I do when I say, “Hey Dar, anytime you feel like taking over this job, I’m good. I mean, truly. I do NOT need to own this. You want it, you got it.”
I believe the worst part of the tantruming is how it leads wifey and I to a real…shortness with each other. We both work, me in evenings sometimes, so when we do have time together, there’s a lot to talk about. It’s a little difficult to say “the plumber called and said it’s going to cost $650” or “if we go to Yosemite over Memorial Day weekend it’ll be packed” while Dar is on freak-out. Just this morning, while I was changing Dar alone, I flashed that the last time I left one of his diapers on the floor, the dog made a meal of it, leaving bits of excrement-stained chemical-rock diaper stuffing all over the rug. Today, while the dog sniffed at me changing Dar I yelled at him “NO! Don’t touch this diaper!” (I later took the diaper outside so that he couldn’t.) But you see, I was much shorter with the dog than I needed to be. And so it goes with wifey and I, way too often. We’ve stopped saying “Why the tone?” because we know why. It sucks that we’ve raised our voices with each other more in the last year than we had ever planned to do in our lifetimes.
Could anyone reading this be wondering if autism has led to increased tension between wifey and me? Well, it’s funny, I always think of a scene from this Australian movie called Lantana that no one has seen, where this couple is trying to dissect what went wrong, and Geoffrey Rush blurts, “We lost a child!” and Barbara Hershey retorts, “That could have brought us closer!” Wifey and I are with Hershey on this. Yes, statistics say that kids with autism lead to parent-trouble. I think that’s true of anything that disrupts the contract that the couple signed around their wedding day – a major career change, an in-law moving in, a paralyzing car accident, a facial disfigurement, a kid in a wheelchair. However, knock on wood, and outside a few tantrumy moments, the experience seems to have brought wifey and I closer. I have heard from Dads on permanent heartbreak because they feel their kids have been taken from them. We have the opposite situation. I love my wife, and if frustration caused me to leave her now, she’d be stuck with these two maniacs (perhaps the younger one will grow out of maniactivity; we’ll see). I couldn’t do that to someone I love, and she tells me she feels the same way about me. If anything I’m more careful driving around on a rainy day like today, to make sure I stay alive for her sake. We are clinging together on a crazy ride that only the other one can understand. That ain’t no time to jump ship.
But omigod, Dar’s tantrums, though. His frustration, though. The other day, he freaked out in Starbucks, flailing near a Dad, to whom I apologized, to which he laughed, “Hey, I’ve been there.” But how much longer? When Dar is 10 and publicly acting like a baboon in a zoo, are they going to be as understanding? Am I? When he’s strong enough to really resist me (and trust me, that’s coming), how Zen will I be as I’m holding him down? Will I be laughing off his bites?
I would never wish this situation on anyone. But here’s what I do wish. When you get to your kid’s next birthday, and you say (to facebook, or yourself), “I can’t believe how quickly it’s gone,” don’t just be incredulous. Be grateful. It doesn’t go that quick for everyone.