Hands Are Not For Hitting

When Caleb was between 2 and 3, he started hitting my husband and me. At first, it was intermittent and not really bothersome. Then came the smacking, the punching, and the pulling on hair. We tried so many interventions: token economy, time out, books about hitting, talking about hitting. reminding him that hands are not for hitting when we think he is about to hit.

This is where my post is going to take a turn you probably didn’t expect.

My son hitting me made me realize that I was not over the physical and emotional abuse that I survived from the time I was born until I was 18. In retrospect, the emotional abuse remained a part of my life until just a few months ago when I told my family I don’t want them in my life.

I am a survivor of childhood emotional and physical abuse.

As a youth, I attended Al-Anon meetings and therapy, and there I learned about the probability of me turning out like my mother or father. My father was an alcoholic and drug abuser (everything from pot to methadone), so I had a high probability of becoming an substance abuser; but I was also likely to become a physical and emotional abuser as well. The idea of becoming my father is probably the greatest fear I have had my entire life.

When I was 21, I adopted a cat. I thought that the first step toward trusting myself as a parent was taking care of a pet. I adopted an adorable orange tabby named Murray. He was 4 at the time, and all I was told was that he was given up because his owners had a baby. But, that wasn’t the whole story. I would be holding Murray, petting his head, and we would be purring up a storm when suddenly he would scratch the heck out of my face, arms, and chest. He would freak out on me and, because I had tiny knives cutting me, I pushed him away from me. This happened again and again for a month. Finally, after recognizing that this wasn’t working, I came to the difficult conclusion that I would have to have Murray declawed. After his procedure, Murray would attack me, but I knew it wasn’t going to hurt; I was able to just soothe him and not react as he went ballistic. It was the right choice, because after a couple more months, Murray completely stopped having freak outs. He became my best friend for 16 years until he passed away on December 30th, 2017.

After I was comfortable being a mother to Murray, I adopted another cat. I knew that Murray was lonely, so I got Mina from the local rescue shelter. She was beautiful and tiny and didn’t know how to make a crying sound until she was 3. Murray and Mina loved each other, however I pretty much just put up with Mina. She was a bit evil; she would wake me up in the middle of the night by climbing onto my nightstand and turning off my cpap machine. However, I never hurt her either.

A month before my husband and I got married, we decided to get a dog. Because we knew we wanted to have children (and because that was the kind of dog my husband had growing up), we chose to get a Golden Retriever. We found this amazing breeder in Essexville – the dogs were gorgeous and the family had 4 children who would also handle the dogs. These dogs were all so well behaved and loving. That is where we chose the Light Pink Girl (the color of her collar), Penny.

Again, with Penny, there was no hitting. We would dominate her if she got too rowdy, but really, again, it all seemed so fine.

Fast forward to me, 36, with two dogs and two cats, and I was having to suppress this almost natural reaction to hit my child back. I was horrified with myself. When Caleb stop hitting, I thought I was okay. But I wasn’t.

It wasn’t until January of this year that I vowed to never lay my hands on anyone again. This was harder than I thought. I realized I still had issues. Okay, fine: I had more issues than a newsstand.

Caleb and I started going to therapy at the same time, but we each see different therapists. And I can tell you, Caleb and I are both in a really transformative part of our lives. Caleb is suddenly a brand new person who actually cares about pleasing others, especially his mom and dad. He is smart, driven, creative and happy. He has basically the entire basement and he calls it his “safe space.”

Caleb and I also grew really close this summer. That is when I started thinking about my childhood. I don’t understand why I love my child in a way that my mother and father didn’t love me.

My therapist has diagnosed my father as a sociopath. He was evil. But my mom knew what was happening at home. In a conversation with her over the summer, she posed me this question: Should I have broken up the family and left your dad? That implies that the family was not broken with me being abused.

After my father died, relative after relative came up to me and told me how sorry they were that my dad hurt me. They saw it happening and did nothing, and now that he was dead, they felt freer to talk about it? That is the thing – my abuse was not private. I was often hit in grocery stores. I was hit at family events. I was hit in plain sight of my mother and sister. I even told my school psychologist that I was afraid to go home; I was 7-years-old and nothing happened.  Nobody protected me.

I am learning how to let go of the past. It isn’t easy. Like I said, I’m still trying to make sense of a situation that will never make sense. There will never be any logic as to why I was hurt.

The last email I got from my mother was about her next vacation to New York and working on her sewing hobby. She and her husband are rich, and they don’t help us at all with any of Caleb’s medical bills. My son isn’t even allowed in their home because they don’t want him touching their stuff.

Seriously.

Caleb cannot go into my mother’s home.

I don’t want to go back down that rabbit hole with my mom where we all pretend that everything is okay. It is not okay. I finally have real unconditional love in my life, and it is amazing. I am so thankful for my husband, my son, and my husband’s family.

I’m now 39 and an orphan, which is strangely liberating. I am scared because I have hung on to my mother’s scraps of love for so long; letting go because I deserve better is the only option.

So I broke the pattern.

My mother, who doesn’t like emotions, was raised by my grandmother and grandfather who also didn’t like emotions. My grandpa used alcohol so avoid dealing with anger. Same with my dad’s dad. There was coldness and distance and alcohol abuse.

And I broke that pattern.

Every day I make sure that I tell my husband and son that I love them. And I love them unconditionally. I tell Caleb that he isn’t bad, he just made a mistake. I tell Caleb how excited I am to see him when I pick him up from school. I give him hugs and love on him, but also allow him some private time. I push him academically because I know that he is a smarty-mcSmarty-pants. I say “I,” but I should say “we.” My husband is right by my side, giving him love and stability; my husband is the rock, I am the fire. And together, we work. We make sense to each other and know how to treat each other. We give each other the benefit of the doubt and strive to meet goals together.

I am a better parent than my mom, dad, or sister. In fact, right now, I am kind of crushing it. (I know, have some humility.) We have a new puppy that bites, and I don’t get angry at all. Yes, I still go to therapy and I still need therapy. I am a flawed individual who has overcome a lot to be in the happy, stable place that I am today. I broke the pattern. And that means something.

I Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

A lot of people are curious how I manage to stay sane. To summarize my household, I have a husband who has migraines and ADHD, a son with autism, migraines, ADHD, and sensory processing disorder, I have an older dog, Eli, who is awesome, a puppy who thinks he is a land shark, and me, the eternal migraine sufferer who tries to keep this house running.

When I think about it, it seems like a lot of stuff to handle, but honestly, somehow we make it all work. I think the biggest issue my husband and I worry about is Caleb’s health – intellectually, emotionally, and physically. It is all about prioritization.

For instance, our leather couch is missing leather from a part of the left side armrest from when Eli was a puppy and chewed everything. He chewed up our new bedstand (which is wooden), all my flowers and flower pots, toys, clothes, and about a million binkies which always showed up in his poop. *gag* At first I would get upset because I had never experienced another animal destroying my property like that. But the problem was, if I let the destruction upset me, I would be upset for the rest of the day. Pretty soon I was always upset. It got to be ridiculous. I couldn’t enjoy my day or my dog (Eli is mine. All mine.) because I was upset.

Finally, I decided to stop being upset. It was really that easy for me – a switch I turned off. I was no longer gonna sweat the small stuff. But, how do we figure out what is small and what isn’t? How do we track and give feedback to ourselves?

For me, the big stuff was a matter of whether or not this had a real impact upon the health and safety of my family. That was the big question, the deep core issue. If the answer was “no,” I would find a way to ignore it, redirect it, or fix it but not get emotional about it.

Some examples of the small stuff:
*getting peed or barfed on
*superficial destruction of furniture or household items
*Keeping a perfectly clean home
*Making the bed, ever.

Examples of big stuff:
*Hitting or any sort of violence
*Threats of violence
*Angry words
*Caleb going to bed before 9pm
*Caleb takes his anti-migraine medication
*Caleb stays buckled in his car seat until I tell him he can get out of his seat.

I don’t expect anyone else to do what our family chooses to do. My mother and her husband are very protective of their home so Caleb is not allowed over. I mean, yes, I find it hurtful, but I have to let it go and realize that maybe to them, the furniture is the big stuff. I have to respect that.

We all have our “big stuff.” For me, it is really important to have a loving home that is cozy, inviting, and not dirty. It is important that we never use our bodies or words for violence. In fact, I tell Caleb and my husband multiple times a day that I love them unconditionally. I stress to Caleb that there is nothing he can do to make me stop loving him. I mean, if he hits me, I give him a time out; the punishment isn’t because I am mad at him but rather because he needs to learn that violence is never okay. And the “no violence” rule goes for everyone in the house, including the dogs.

Another reason that violence is something we won’t tolerate as a family is because I was physically and emotionally abused as a child. I never knew what unconditional love was until I met my husband, and then later, my son. Every dollar, every favor, came with a price; my family tried desperately to control every aspect of my life. I don’t hate my parents or grandparents. In fact, I feel bad for them because I feel like I have learned so much from my husband and child about the person I want to be. I was a lot like my mother, to the point it was a running joke. But, I quickly learned that we were very different; my son comes first in my life, no matter what.

So, yes, I do not talk to my parents or extended family. Actually, the funny part is that the only person in my family that I do talk to is my dad, and he has been dead for 9 years!

My side of the family doesn’t share my values or my priorities. Family get togethers used to include different people yelling at Caleb, freaking out over everything he does. It became overwhelming for everyone involved, including us. My mom and sister and their families live in big, beautiful homes. We are talking crown molding, expensive appliances, more than one bathroom, jacuzzi tubs, etc. We live in a house that is about 1,000 sq ft. Why? Because it is more important for me to be a stay-at-home wife and mother and take care of Caleb than it is for me to work a job and make more money. We live cheaply, eating out maybe once or twice a month. My husband and I get our groceries from Costco and Aldi so that my son can have the gluten-free/casein-free food from Whole Foods.

I guess what I am getting at is that in our family, Caleb comes first. If we have additional kids down the road, they will also be our priority. So, no, I don’t have plates that match, most of our glasses are plastic, and 99% of the stuff we own we got as hand-me-downs. But we have membership to the Hands On Museum (which I really need to write about), we go to the zoo and aquarium, and we buy a ton of books. Yes, I buy used clothing for Caleb, but we also make sure he has a couple Pokemon shirts so that he is happy. (Hint, I have Caleb’s measurements written down. Wherever I go, I take a measuring tape with me, so I measure how long it is, etc. Different brands have different shapes, so this helps a lot when buying used clothing.)

My husband taught me about living on a budget, and now I cringe at the idea of buying name brand anything unless it is for Caleb. I am so thankful that I have people in my life who have helped me becoming a more easy-going person. I probably will never have fine china, but that is okay with me; chances are, I’ll be too busy having fun with my family to notice.

Family Bed

I mentioned recently that at our house, we all sleep in the family bed. Well, not all as the puppy is still being crate trained. It isn’t easy to add a new dynamic into your sleep routine, but I’m actually very happy with our results.

When I was young, I developed insomnia. I was in elementary school, so it is not like my life was so stressful. Sleep seemed like my enemy; I had to beat it into submission. Or, at least I tried. Every night, after staring at the ceiling for what seemed like forever, I would get out of bed and complain I was tired. My father thought I was trying to get away with something; to be fair, I was so nervous when I left my bedroom that I was always smiling. I was sending mixed signals and my father wasn’t invested enough to try and help me.

Basically, I look at what my parents did, and then I do the complete opposite. He is often an equal partner in our lives.

From October 2016 to June 2017, Caleb would wake up in the night and craw into bed with us. Then when my husband’s family took us on a trip to Chicago, Caleb slept with us. After that, he was hooked. And now, so am I.

Caleb also has trouble sleeping, so we have a bedtime routine at 8:00pm. It is common for autistic people to have sleep issues, and I completely understand how frustrating it can be.

After Caleb is cleaned up and into pajamas, we turn off all the lights, put away electronics and watch Gilmore Girls while all 3 of us are cuddling (4 if you include our dog, Eli). There is n pressure on him, so we are able to remove the anxiety about falling asleep.

I would recommend a family bed for anyone with a child on the spectrum or just has sleep issues. It is so important to Caleb; he can’t handle even the threat of sleeping in his own bed. And the sweet sweet cuddles are all worth the kicks to the face you will happily endure.

 

 

Secure Your Own Mask Before Helping Others

Having an autistic child can be exhausting and sometimes even a little soul crushing. Caleb doesn’t have the people-pleasing desires that usually fuels children to behave; while he cares about what we think of him, he usually acts before he thinks. Of course Caleb wants me to like him, so he usually recognizes bad behavior and asks for forgiveness after the fact. It isn’t personal; Caleb has problems with impulse control.

Usually when Caleb has a migraine, his impulse control is pretty much nonexistent. That is when I have those really bad days where you look at the clock and it seems to be running almost backwards. The days when you are white-knuckling it until bedtime.

I have found that on those days, I am also not at my best. I probably have a migraine as well, so dealing with a completely unruly child is stressful. In order to stay sane, I have to take care of me. There are a few things Caleb and I do in order to maintain our mental health.

Feelings Therapy: Caleb and I both go to therapy at the same practice at the same time. Once a week, we both take 55 minutes to work on ourselves. This is so good for us; Caleb is usually in a good mood after talking to his doctor and I usually have had a good cry and feel like a weight has been lifted off of me.

Timeout: Timeout can be a very effective tool when used properly. The most challenging part is finding a place for time out. I know a lot of neurotypical kids who are able to sit in a seat for 5+ minutes; this is not a reasonable expectation for Caleb. We tried just having Caleb stay in his bedroom, but we got into a smearing issue. (For those that don’t know, smearing is, well, here, you can read about it.) *gag* So, we ended up using the treehouse in our living room that has a removable ladder. It is high enough off the ground that Caleb will not jump out. And yes, he even once smeared in there and it took hours of scrubbing to get that sucker clean.

Now, we still use the treehouse, but we don’t take away the ladder. The rule for how long timeout should last is the child’s age plus 1; Caleb is 6 so he has a 7 minute timeout. During timeout, we do not engage with Caleb. In fact, this is when you go into another room, set a time, and spend 7 minutes relaxing, doing something for you. I will take the time to make some coffee or ice my neck. The point is, we need timeouts too. I have even given myself a timeout when I am overwhelmed; I will go into the bedroom and close the door. Caleb can live without being supervised for 5 minutes, and those 5 minutes just might keep me sane.

Exercise: Not only do you feel happier and stronger when you exercise, it also helps melt away the stress. A lot of my exercises are to strengthen my core, which is exactly what Caleb needs, so we exercise together. Another benefit to exercise is that Caleb is tired and calmer afterwards. For core strengthening exercises, I use this website as a reference.

Another good incentive for exercise is Pokemon Go. As a family, we have taken long walks downtown or at one of our many local parks in order to catch Pokemon. In fact, as soon as I am done with this post, we are going to downtown Farmington to Pokehunt. It is surprising how far you will walk without realizing it; walking is good exercise, but strengthening Caleb’s core is our priority.

Friends and Family: You need friends to talk to, and yes, cry with. Friends and family who understand our family dynamics are often very helpful and compassionate. I have recently decided to be completely honest with my friends about my life, instead of feeling like I have to sugarcoat everything to make people comfortable. Yes, the friends and family I depended upon before Caleb are completely different now. My husband’s parents are the most amazing people and I even use his mother as a guide for myself and my behavior. I have learned to lovingly detach from people who don’t want to understand Caleb and our life. Right now, I have 3 really good friends (not including my husband), and getting out of the house and hanging out with them seriously refreshes me. Sometimes I need to get away so that I miss my family and I really want to be with them. Cause, let’s face it, there are many times when all we want is just a moment of peace. We deserve more than a moment; we need hours. In order to have a social life, my husband and I work together so the other may go play. However, we are always back home by 7:30pm because bedtime rituals are super important.

Don’t Sweat the Little Stuff: I haven’t dusted my house in 2 weeks. Maybe 3. I swept a few days ago. Laundry is piling up, I have dishes drying that need to be put away, my bathroom floor is disgusting, and that is all going to have to wait. Having a super clean house is not even close to the most important thing in Caleb’s life. In fact, my husband and son would be perfectly happy living in filth. What matters is that I don’t kill myself trying to take care of everyone; that only leads to me being overwhelmed and cranky. That doesn’t help anybody. So, not stressing myself out makes me a better person.

My main motivation for my positive attitude is not only my health, but also Caleb’s. Caleb gets very upset when I am unhappy with him. Caleb doesn’t think about his actions until after he has already done them; this distinction is important because he really does want to be a good kid and make me happy. I have to remind myself this all the time. All 3 of us deeply love each other, and in order to excel, we need to remember to be kind to ourselves as well as others.