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The Marathon

I stretch luxuriously on my couch, book finished, contemplating my next snack as I lumber to my feet. I do a mental check of my children, know my youngest is wrapped in a cocoon of blankets on the couch in the other room also reading a good book, and hear the happy “eeees” of my eldest as he revels upstairs in the computer games he loves. All is well in the McCafferty household.

All is well, and on a weekend I’ve managed to spend an entire hour reading a book. Definitely time to celebrate with food.

There was a time in the not-so-recent past (hell, two months ago) that getting an hour of free time with my kids around would have been a pipe dream not to be realized. My eldest son has severe autism and moderate OCD, and for a good portion of the last two-and-a-half years either my husband or myself actually had to be in the same room with him at all times to make sure his compulsions didn’t end up with him hurting himself, or more likely, inadvertently destroying something we really didn’t want to replace.

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He’s always shown signs of OCD in addition to the “normal” perseveration that autism brings, but when he turned eleven, and puberty came to call, his symptoms worsened. So began a more than two year attempt (including a stellar BCBA and a number of medications) to help him quell the obsessions that made him so unhappy, and quite honestly, wreaked havoc on our lives.

In December (right before the holidays, the Christmas miracle!) we hit the jackpot with not only the right med but the right dose. The OCD is still there, but it no longer takes over his life, robbing him of the things he enjoys. It was truly the first time his father and I felt we could breathe in a very long time. Our son changed into a much happier person, once again the loving, affectionate bright-eyed boy we knew.

And if truth be told, I realized that during this latest long “siege,” I’ve changed too.

Justin was diagnosed with PDD at seventeen months, which was incredibly early thirteen years ago. Honestly, I think I knew he was autistic at six months- the spinning of everything he could get his hands on, his aversion to even leaving the house (or being out of my arms), his reflux, his inability to sleep, and his general discontent with the world were clues to me that something was different about my boy’s development. I brought up my concerns to our pediatrician who took a wait-and-see attitude, given both his young age and my husband’s own not-so-typical development. In my mother’s heart I think I knew however, and sadly, what I mostly remember from his six-month-mile-marker to his seventeenth month was a feeling of overwhelming dread.

At sixteen months, at a sick visit, our pediatrician shoved a bunch of articles with the word “autism” in the titles into my shaking hand with an admonition to see a developmental pediatrician, and practically pushed us out the door. I can remember driving to the pharmacy to fill the prescription for yet another round of reflux, can recall my trembling hands as we sat in the parking lot, my son making his discontent known, then calling my husband and my mother. I physically had to tell them, couldn’t even wait until I turned in the scrip and drove the few short blocks to my home.

The truth was, underneath the despair, the “how can this happen” to the boy we’d endured multiple IVF cycles and several miscarriages for, was a thin sliver of hope.

Now his spinning, his insomnia, his out-of-sync behavior had a name. Now I could do something. Maybe I could help him to enjoy the world just a little.

And over time, with a gazillion hours of therapy and a lot of love, he did.

During the last thirteen years we’ve encountered many different challenges with Justin. The first time he slept through the night he was almost a year old. The projectile vomiting from his reflux followed us well into his third year despite medications, a diet change, and visits to a gastroenterologist. Potty training was a two part battle that was truly only conquered over a year after we started. On and off over the years our boy has been aggressive, sometimes without any discernible reason why. The OCD has been a constant challenge, as is going anywhere for more than an hour or two without our son wanting to return to the sanctuary of our home.

My husband and I addressed these issues one by one as they occurred, and I’m happy to say my now teenager is one of the happiest people I know. He loves school, loves his horseback riding lessons, loves his pretzels, loves his life. He still pinches us on occasion. The underlying OCD I believe will be his constant companion until death. We still struggle to get him to stay more than two hours anywhere other than Disney or Great Adventure (he has great taste.) In short however, we’ve been able to get him to change many of his behaviors, which has benefitted not only him, but our family too.

But the truth is, as I look back on that tired, devastated mom in the parking lot of a pharmacy thirteen years ago, I wish I could tell her to change her behavior too.

Back in the day, when Justin’s suffering was most acute, I took everything to heart. I made his chicken nuggets from scratch because he didn’t like any of the four gluten-free options I’d offered him. I did at least six hours of therapy a day with him for a year-and-a-half because Virginia’s model of Early Intervention was pathetic, and autism therapies were not covered under our insurance at that time. I often cried when he cried (which was pretty much all the time). I made everything “life or death,” forsaking fun, not taking care of myself, always stalked by worry.

I looked at his autism like it was a sprint, when in reality it is a marathon.

There wasn’t one day or one particular event where I knew that my son would retain the severity of his autism for life. It was a gradual “knowing” for me, one without the sharp despair of articles thrust into my hands, or even the relief the diagnosis given by our kindly developmental pediatrician brought us. At some point, I just knew. And I also knew I couldn’t continue at this crazy pace anymore, that an hour less of therapy every day would not make the difference for this boy as to whether or not he went to college, got married, or lived an independent life. These milestones were not to be his. I could not change this.

I could only change myself.

And I did. I began exercising again, eating healthier, taking breaks. I got a babysitter once a week and just plopped in our local Barnes and Noble and read non-autism related books. I stopped most of my internet searches. I began seeing friends again, and even attempting a few play dates here and there. I realized that autism is cyclical- that there will always be “something,” just that that “something” will change over time. I began to breathe again.

I began to live.

When there are “lulls” like we’re in now I enjoy every moment, try new things with Justin, get out of my house more. I know difficult times are likely to return- I don’t delude myself about that.

If I could go back to that parking lot or counsel any parents new to the diagnosis, I’d tell us all this. There were many dark years, yes. But even during the most difficult times there was progress to cling to, a smile to cherish, my boy’s indomitable love for us on display. With years of hard work, persistence, patience, and love, things did get markedly better for our family.

And I can’t promise you this, but they may get better for you too.

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