There is an ancient Chinese curse that reads, “May you always live in interesting times.” I’m pretty sure that I got that fortune cookie at some point in my life because it never ceases to be interesting around here.
Eadaoin had a breakdown. I don’t know what else to call it. She has always been an anxious personality. She’s a very sensitive, empathetic kid. She doesn’t do well in loud environments surrounded by yelling or mistreatment. Well, that’s high school. She was diagnosed a few years ago with an anxiety disorder. We tried talk therapy. That didn’t work. Her psychiatrist put her on Zoloft. That helped for a few years. She was able to function better. She started taking a few risks and made some friends in spite of what she experienced as an oppressive environment in middle school. She experienced bullying. She experienced cyber-bullying. Alas, she got up every morning and tried.
Eadaoin has a learning disorder around math. She has been failing math for years. I requested an IEP evaluation when she was in the sixth grade. Two of her teachers backed the evaluation, provided their support and documentation, and were adamant that she be given services. After the district evaluated her, they found that she was only two points away from showing a deficit great enough to warrant an IEP. Two points. State law says that the team deciding upon educational services can still provide an IEP using what’s called an “override” if the student shows a need in spite of not meeting all the legal requirements. Eadaoin had a need. Our district still decided against the IEP. They wouldn’t even grant her a 504 Plan which would give her accommodations like a quiet room to take tests in and necessary breaks. Her anxiety disorder diagnosis was reason enough for the 504 Plan, and a 504 Plan provides documentation and evidence for school performance; it also follows a person into college. An IEP does not. It was, to say the least, a blow for Eadaoin. Her anxiety increased.
She was moved to a remedial math class in the seventh grade.
In the eighth grade, I was told by the special education teachers who got to know her in the seventh grade that she was doing too well in the remedial math class. They moved her to the general education math class where she promptly began to fail. They told her that she was using her anxiety as an excuse to be lazy and avoidant. She started shutting down. She couldn’t learn. They moved her back to remedial math per my instructions and with not a little resentment. We spoke on the phone, and they told me that they were using a constructivist approach. I know about Jean Piaget. I’m aware of constructivism. I told them that if they were following a constructivist approach, then they could only build upon mathematical concepts that my daughter fully understood. If she still didn’t understand place value, then how could they push her into algebraic thinking? She didn’t even understand fourth grade concepts! They weren’t using a constructivist approach at all. They were trying to push her into cramming so that she would pass the standardized tests and represent well. That wasn’t education. That’s educational prostitution (I didn’t say that part, but that’s what it is). Forcing as much information into a kid’s head so that a child will then perform well on a federally mandated exam in order to guarantee that a school receives money turns teachers into educational pimps and children into commodities. Like it or not, this is the state of education in America. Thank you, No Child Left Behind. For whatever reason, one of the special education teachers then began to aim his resentments at Eadaoin. I had to email him two more times and require that he cease and desist which he did, but his mistreatment of Eadaoin caused her to fear school profoundly.
Enter freshman year.
She didn’t make it through her high school orientation. We had to pick her up. She came home and vomited. Every day she has been in the nurse’s office. She barely made it to the nurse’s office last month before vomiting in the trash can. We have picked her up about 40% of the time midway through her school day. She is not able to function. She is having breakdowns in school. She is having severe panic attacks that in an adult would mimic a heart attack. It’s very, very bad.
She has anxiety and mood disorder diagnoses. She is on Lamictal and Zoloft. Her psychiatrist just put her on Klonopin. She said that Eadaoin is well on her way to developing agoraphobia. I’m supposed to throw benzos at her now? What about addressing some of the greater issues? Like the school…
I contacted the school again asking, begging, for help. They reluctantly scheduled an IEP evaluation meeting. One of the women that was in charge of Grace’s IEP was present when I walked in the room. It was at that moment that I knew it was over before it started. This woman looked at me directly and asked, “Are we looking at another diagnosis like Grace’s?” I have written extensively on Grace’s IEP evaluation and the clusterfuck it became. Our school district was in breach of IDEA too many times. They are arrogant in the presence of higher authority figures, and they have no desire to help children. I was told yesterday that another child in my district has childhood-onset schizophrenia, and our district offered no services whatsoever. Just breaks. This is illegal. What would they do for Eadaoin? She really needs day treatment at this point.
I decided to pull her from the district. I will not subject her to this anymore. Grace’s case manager intervened on Eadaoin’s behalf, and Eadaoin is now being served by the same crisis stabilization program that served Grace a year ago. We even have Jane again! She was here yesterday. I am determined to get this turned around for my girl.
I know that it’s hard sometimes. We were gaining some momentum. Eadaoin’s face lit up when I said that we were going to look elsewhere for her education and mental health supports. She just cried in relief. Someone had her back. Grace hugged her and said that she completely understood. She’d felt the same way in the past, and, if anyone could understand, it’s Grace.
But, yesterday, oh, what a day. Eadaoin had saved all her money for her own pet. She loves birds. She decided on a parakeet. She bought a five month-old parakeet and named her Leif. Leif was a very sweet bird. Eadaoin decided to bring her downstairs yesterday morning. It was the fifth day that she was in our home. She was finally settled in and beginning to reveal her personality. She loved music. Her favorite song was One Republic’s “Counting Stars”. She would chirp, squawk, and dance whenever she heard it. Eadaoin fell in love with Leif right away. As I was cleaning up yesterday, I noticed that Leif was having trouble sitting up straight on the bottom of her cage. She started to fall over a lot. Then, she spread her wings and twitched. It looked like a seizure. My stomach fell out. “Oh god…” I reached in to pick her up. She let me. She was so light and delicate in my hands. Fragile. I ran upstairs to get Eadaoin. I told her that Leif might have had a seizure. She immediately started crying. “Let me have her. Let me have her.” I told her that we needed to put her in her cage just in case she had come around. We needed to assess her. Milly was home and very concerned. I gently placed Leif in her cage. As soon as I let go of her, she flipped onto her back and seized up. It looked like a grand mal. It was shocking. Milly grabbed my arm. “Mama! Mama! What’s wrong? What’s happening to Leif?” She started crying. Eadaoin started weeping, “My baby! My baby! Leif! No! You’ll be okay. You’ll be okay. Mom, she’s okay, right?” I told Eadaoin to pick her up. She looked like she had died. Eadaoin picked her up gently and held her little bird to her chest. “Mom!! Oh my god…I think she’s dead!” I checked on Leif.
She had died.
Eadaoin started screaming. Milly started weeping. I just stood there completely helpless to fix it. She finally had some hope after all these months of struggling. Her first full day home after having panic attacks daily. Vomiting. Living with such anxiety and fear. And, her brand-new baby bird dies of a seizure right in front of her. I just couldn’t make any sense of it. So, I cried with them. We all just sat and cried together over that little budgie. We each held her tiny, feathered body. She was such a beautiful bird. Eadaoin had picked her, in part, for her unusual coloring. I think it was a mutation, and that mutation may have been the cause of her seizures. We’ll never know.
Yesterday at 2 PM we buried Leif in our backyard in a little green box decorated with stylized birds. Milly gave a touching benediction. Whoever says that autists lack empathy don’t know autists very well. She said just the right thing. Eadaoin made a tombstone. It was pink with flowers on it. I told her that it was lovely. She said through her tears, “It has to be pretty just like Leif was.”
It’s events like yesterday’s that leave me unable to ask questions like “Why?” anymore. The timing sucked, but is there ever a good time to lose a beloved pet? Heartbreak is heartbreak no matter when it happens. I try very hard to reframe events in order to put meaning to them. I don’t want any sort of suffering to feel purposeless. I hate feeling helpless. I tried to look for some sort of meaning or purpose in Leif’s death. I couldn’t find it. In the end, I told my daughter that Leif died so quickly that it seemed almost serendipitous that she was home to see it. What would it have been like to come home to find her pet dead on the bottom of her cage? No reason. Never knowing what happened. How horrible. Because we were home, she held her bird while she passed, and that is a privilege of sorts. We know the cause of Leif’s passing, and there is peace there however painful the loss. She also knows for certain that she really wants a bird for a pet. She wasn’t sure if she would when she bought Leif. She is certain now. We were all so blessed by Leif’s presence even if we only knew her for five days. The only drawback to having Leif in our home was her sudden and untimely loss, but that is life, isn’t it?
There are no guarantees about anything. When we get pregnant, we hope for healthy babies, but your child could develop schizophrenia later on. Your child could develop an ASD. There could be a latent mitochondrial disease that shows up later in life. 75% of Westerners will develop a mental health issue at some point in life. There is cancer, heart disease, and a plethora of other issues. You know what? There is one guarantee after all. If you love anyone, you will get hurt. That is a guarantee. C.S. Lewis said it so well in his book The Four Loves:
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
I wouldn’t have it any other way though. I hope my daughters wouldn’t either. To love a bird, a dog, or a person guarantees future pain but also promises joy. I will admit it though. Sometimes…it’s just stinkin’ hard.