I was finally able to get Eadaoin out of her tower yesterday. It wasn’t easy. Normally, had I been talking to a fragile adult, I would not have so direct, but this is my daughter; she’s spiraling down. Her in-home therapist is going to come today, and I wanted to find out if I could crack her magical thinking veneer. Could I penetrate her delusions?
She was sitting at the dining room table with Milly. Milly is 10 years-old. A lot of people assume that because she’s an Aspie she’ll miss the more nuanced emotional cues. Sometimes she does, but, more often than not, she surprises me. Milly was playing a game on the iPad which was providing a distraction for Eadaoin who was watching the screen. Eadaoin herself mentioned something about her own state of mind, and that was my opening. I don’t recall how the conversation began, but I wanted to present her with a hypothesis.
An aside: There is a temptation to pathologize behaviors particularly when one already has two children with significant diagnoses. Another child starts engaging in self-harming behaviors. They begin acting differently. One wants to scream, “Not another one!” But, when I was doing my own work way back when, my therapist came up with a hypothesis around my parents’ behavior so that I could stop spinning my wheels and begin to move forward. Rather than get stuck in the shock and awe that their behavior and mistreatment would produce in me followed up by the question, “What kind of person would do that?”, he taught me to filter their behavior through a singular hypothesis simply because it was more empowering in the moment, I think. It promoted clearer thinking as well as removed the labels and fears that the DSM Axis II diagnoses would cultivate. So, the hypothesis that I was to try out where my parents were concerned, specifically my mother, was: “Everything that they do, be it good or bad, kind or cruel, is only done to meet their needs.” When I applied this hypothesis to every interaction I had with my mother, it was proven to be true. It could finally become a theory, and it has never proven to be false. With that in mind, I could make better choices when it came to interacting with her. The boundaries were easier for me to enforce because I knew that I was dealing with someone who could only make choices around her own needs–never anyone else’s. The interactions became about boundaries and my own well-being and less about the pathologies at play. Using a hypothesis approach can sometimes take the fear and anxiety out of dealing with someone else who has a mental health diagnosis. It is very hard to think clearly if you’re anxious or fearful, and it’s hard to honor the dignity of the person in front of you if you can’t see their humanity through your own fear.
I came up with a very basic hypothesis around Eadaoin’s behavior. Sure, she might be moving further along the bipolar spectrum and exhibiting more of those traits, hence, my internal scream, “Not another one!” But, I needed to make a connection with her. She likes fairy tales so I could engage her using that language. I don’t think an evil witch or nasty stepmother locked Eadaoin away. I think she did it all by herself. Why? Because reality was too painful. I think that what we see in her now is actually avoidance behavior gone horribly off the rails.
Eadaoin’s original diagnosis in the sixth grade was a generalized anxiety disorder and an add-on PTSD diagnosis. Eadaoin was born a very sensitive child. She has always been shy and quiet. Social anxiety has afflicted her since birth, and little things that might not leave a mark on a less sensitive child seem to deeply affect her. For example, we were at a petting zoo when Eadaoin was quite little, and she really wanted to feed the baby goats. I walked her toddler self into the pen with a handful of feed, and the goats mobbed us. They knocked her to the ground, bleating and nuzzling Eadaoin, looking for the food. She didn’t make a sound. Once I was able to remove all the goats, I found her on the ground frozen and pale. Her eyes were wide, her body stiff. She was terrified. After that event, she was terrified of dogs and any animal that could jump on her. Somehow this fear transferred to chickens as well, and she would scream if she was ever face to face with any kind of live poultry. Her fear was something like a phobia. She is still fearful of chickens and dogs at 15 all due to one quick interaction with baby goats.
A few years later, the house next door to us was struck by lightning during a spring thunderstorm and burned to the ground. We were evacuated from our home during the night, and our house sustained damage as well. It was a very dramatic event. The media had shown up. I was on the news in my pajamas. Months and months of loud noises in our home after that due to repairs. Eadaoin became hypervigilant about storms. She began to compulsively check the weather nightly looking at the forecast for predictions of midnight storms. She would sleep on the couch. She would hyperventilate and weep during daytime storms. This went on for a few years until, finally, I saw that it wasn’t getting better. We sought help.
Today, she is fine during storms. The help she received around her PTSD responses around thunder and weather related to storms was effective. Her social anxiety is better. She is still anxious, but she doesn’t opt out of social events. She pushes through the initial surge of anxiety, rides the wave, and settles down eventually enjoying her friends. So, I know that she does possess resiliency. I just don’t think that she knows that she does. I think that she’s forgotten her own strength, and it’s my job to remind her.
So, I presented my hypothesis to Eadaoin yesterday: “I think you’ve constructed a fantasy world wherein you are the princess/victim. You have a magical connection to the animals in your life because they are the only ones who understand you. Your sisters are like the wicked stepsisters because they are the source of so much upheaval in your emotional life, and I am something like the Queen because I make you do things that you don’t want to do. So, you sit up in your tower waiting for someone to come along and rescue you from a life that you perceive to be one of drudgery and despair. You sing, play, and entertain yourself. You create fantasies and hope that when you come down from your tower something will be different. It’s not different. It’s stressful. It’s really stressful. So, you continue to stay in your tower, removed from your life as a non-participant.”
She stared at me visibly uncomfortable. I explained that, were it me, I would feel weird and vulnerable if someone said something like that me. I wouldn’t want anyone to see into me on that level. She blurted out, “Yeah!” I went on to ask her if I was right. Was I even close to being right? She looked away from me, blushing. I told her that it was normal if she felt something like shame. I wasn’t trying to shame her. I was trying to understand her. With understanding comes illumination. I can’t offer her help if I can’t get into her head space. I need to view the world from her perspective, and, whether she understood or not, I was once her age. I could fantasize like nobody’s business. Even as an adult, there is a temptation to ask Calgon to take me away. I don’t know where Calgon would take me exactly, but it would be far, far, FAR away from here. I’m thinking that Eric Bana could be my cabana boy, and I would never have to cook another meal or clean another toilet ever, ever again. Oh, and all toilet seats would be warm before I sat on them!
But, this is reality, and Eric Bana will sadly not be pre-warming the toilet seat for me. That’s what my husband is for…after he has marinated the atmosphere in his own brand of eau de toilette. Reality stinks sometimes. We can’t just up and leave just because it distresses us, and this is what Eadaoin and I talked about.
“How do you feel when you leave your fantasy life and enter into real life?” I asked.
She didn’t answer. I had to back it up even further.
“Are you able to feel anything at all?” I asked.
“Yes, I feel. It’s just that sometimes it’s too much,” she admitted.
That’s good. That’s something.
“You don’t like therapy. How do you feel in your body when you have to talk to Jane? Do you feel sad or anxious or sick or angry?” I asked.
“I feel anxious. I feel it in my stomach. I feel…I feel like I’m in trouble,” she said.
“To you, therapy feels like you’re in trouble?” I reiterated.
“Yeah. I just want to say what I think she wants me to say so that she’ll go away.”
Gosh, no wonder Eadaoin won’t participate in her process. To her, in her body, going to therapy is equivalent to being in trouble.
Milly had been quiet the entire time looking detached, but, at this point, she nodded her head and said, “I feel that way, too. I don’t like therapy. I always felt like I was in trouble, too.”
I had to stop and think. How have I handled discipline in the house historically if two of my kids felt that therapy was the same thing as being in trouble? Okay, I could see it. Whenever they misbehave, I usually ask them how they feel, what they were thinking, and if they know why they made that choice. That sounds a lot like therapy particularly to a child or teen. Eadaoin went on to say that she doesn’t want to talk about herself. She hates sitting in a room talking to another person about herself unless that person is me. She said that it feels too private. Milly nodded at that as well. Doireann says that same thing. She often says that if I can’t help her solve her problems or if she can’t, then she probably won’t be solving it. She outright refuses to see a therapist. This blows my mind. I have been modeling going to therapy for most of their lives! I don’t have some odd family code around here that we discuss certain things with certain people. I don’t insist on keeping secrets. I’m open. I have boundaries, of course, and I am naturally private, but I’ll engage people and seek treatment for mental health issues. I’m the first to do it and suggest it. Where did they learn this?
I had to let it go. I had to just listen to what was being said in order to understand. That can be so hard as a mother. I want to fix! I want to heal. Sometimes you can’t. I did ask Eadaoin if there are any other feelings that overwhelm her and cause her to feel triggered.
Sadness. She has little to no distress tolerance around sadness. She cannot self-regulate when she begins to feel sad. It engulfs her, and as soon as she’s swallowed up I notice that self-loathing comes out. This is when the self-harm emerges as well as a need to destroy things that she likes. It seems that she feels a sense of unworthiness during those times, and she must destroy the things in her life that represent her worth. She once tried to give me her laptop in one of those states explaining that she didn’t deserve it. She was worthless and didn’t deserve good things. That’s depressive thinking. As Eadaoin described this, Milly nodded again. “I feel like that when I get really sad! That’s exactly how I feel! That’s why I scratch myself!” I just listened, but it was hard. Milly has struggled her entire life with depressive thinking. It’s common for kids on the autism spectrum to have anxiety and depression. To hear them verbalize these feelings was hard to hear. I see so much value in them. I love them. It’s hard to just sit back and be empathetic.
In the end, however, I just nodded. I thanked them both for their willingness to be present and honest. I told Eadaoin that I understood. We had good information now. It’s not easy to open up. In fact, for a lot of adults going to therapy feels like one is in trouble as well because many adults don’t go to therapy until their lives are in serious trouble. Therapists and psychiatrists are not looked upon with love and affection. I don’t know anyone who says with great anticipation, “I’m seeing my therapist today! YAY!!” Usually, it feels like drudgery and hard work. Sometimes you feel really anxious. If you know you have to deal with something very painful, you might even feel profound fear and dread. When I arrived at the point in my therapeutic process wherein I knew I would have to begin talking about my abduction, I would wake up on the therapy days and wonder if I had a virus–“Maybe I’m ill today. Maybe my car won’t start today. Maybe one of the girls will need to go to the ER today. Maybe a tornado will strike the Cities and prevent me from going.” Therapy isn’t any easier for adults. It’s fucking hard. And, you don’t feel great afterwards. You usually feel drained. It doesn’t mean that you didn’t do great work.
When Milly was in play therapy as a tiny girl, we knew she had done deep work if she fell asleep in the car on the way home. Falling asleep directly after therapy was a sign that her brain had made new neural connections. It was a hopeful sign. If she stopped the session midway to go to the bathroom, then we knew we had stumbled onto something really important. Our bodies are always talking to us. As a society we have just learned to ignore them. The anxiety before a therapy session? Normal. That exhausted feeling afterwards? Excellent. It means you just worked your ass off. The need to go home and veg out? Even better. Your brain is growing new neural connections! You’re experiencing neurogenesis! This is profound stuff, and we need to praise ourselves for entering into such a wonderful process and seeing it through to the end.
This is where we are today. I have to continue to grow as a parent and figure out where to go now, and Jane, our in-home therapist, will be here at noon. Yesterday, I told Monday to bring it. I should have been more specific.
Monday, bring donuts and coffee.