Saturday, January 4, 2014

It doesn't have to be weird

For many (though few would ever admit to it), interacting with someone who has severe disabilities can be awkward. I get it. A conversation with a non-verbal person can feel one-sided and uncomfortable.The fear of saying the wrong thing or not knowing what to say often results in not saying anything at all, leading to a situation where Caroline (and people like her) are often ignored or forgotten.

I'm not here to judge. In fact, I can absolutely relate. Before I had Caroline, I was uncomfortable in those situations as well. Not because people with disabilities made me uncomfortable, but because of my own fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. What I didn't know was how much I would learn about myself, relationships, and love through those interactions. I would like to help take some of that weirdness away by offering a little bit of guidance that will hopefully make your interaction with Caroline a more meaningful one.

Approach spending time with Caroline as you would any other child. Caroline is like most little girls her age; she just can't express herself in the same way. She loves one-on-one interactions so she'll be very grateful that you talking to her. You can talk about yourself or mention her interests to her (she gets super excited to hear that people know about Belle or Yo Gabba Gabba!). And it's totally okay to ask her questions. I used to struggle (feeling silly and even guilty) when asking her questions she couldn't answer, but her bright eyes and smiles showed me that she appreciated my efforts. I understand that it's easy to question the cognitive level of someone who is unable to show their true intellect, but I encourage you to assume complete understanding even if you aren't getting typical feedback. 

She may look away or appear disinterested, but she's still listening. It is difficult for Caroline to focus her eyes on anything for too long. Rett Syndrome prevents her brain from sending the right signals to her body, resulting in the inability to control movement. This is manifested in the constant involuntarily motion involving her hands, as well as the various spastic/jerky movements in the rest of her body. She may close her eyes or look away, but we believe it's easier for her to process information that way. It may also take her around 30 seconds to respond. I should note that 30 seconds of silence and waiting can seem like an eternity when you are talking to someone.

It's okay to kiss and hug her. People often ask me if they can touch her. Yes, absolutely! Caroline is constantly smothered in kisses and hugs. We spend a lot of our time together cuddling. She LOVES it. She's even used to my Latin-style of affection which is loud and intense! If you find that you don't know how to talk to her (which happens to me too sometimes), please feel free to hold her on your lap, or simply smile and make eye contact with her. I spend a lot of time doing just that. I'm always amazed at how much can be communicated without words. 

Please feel free to ask me questions. This goes without saying, but we've very open about Caroline's condition. I believe that talking about "difficult" issues in an honest and respectful way can reduce the stigma, fear, and discomfort around those issues. If Caroline's around, I'm happy to talk about how she communicates, how she uses her adaptive equipment, or how she goes about doing various activities. I'm also willing to talk about the hard stuff as long as it's not right in front of Caroline.

My message here is that any type of interaction is greatly appreciated (with or without the use of words). I believe that you will gain something profound out of it as well. 


Sunday, December 22, 2013

Toy stores and Rett Syndrome don't mix

It’s not easy for me to admit this, but toy stores make me feel sad, anxious, and even resentful at times. For me, walking around a toy store is like getting a tour of various landmarks that scream “this is what Caroline’s life would be like without Rett Syndrome.” 

It’s been almost three years since Caroline lost purposeful use of her hands. I got my first glimpse that something was wrong while watching her play with her toys. That first image of Caroline struggling to pick up one of her stacking cups is permanently ingrained in my memory. By the time we got a diagnosis, Caroline could no longer grasp or hold anything. Her toys quickly became a painful reminder of all that was lost. I was so consumed with feelings of grief and helplessness that I ended up giving a lot of them away.  

When Christmas rolled around that year, Mike got a bunch of toys for Caroline “from Santa.” He didn't focus on the fact that she couldn't manipulate them. He just wanted her to experience Christmas and Santa the way he did as a kid…the way most typical children do. Inspired by his approach, I decided I needed to make a real effort to get over my issues by finding Christmas and birthday presents for Caroline on my own. This is a very basic task for a parent so I should be able to do it, right? Well, it’s been more than two years and I have not made much progress. I still struggle with the concept of toys; the pain associated with them is still there. I noticed that I go through the same thought process every single time I attempt to find a gift for Caroline that doesn’t come in the form of a book, CD, or DVD. But I still push myself to do it even though deep down inside, I don’t really want to. Before I leave the house, I always say something along the lines of “I don’t know what to get for Caroline. This is really depressing.” And Mike always responds with “I know. But, it will be okay. Just get her something that’s age-appropriate.” I tell him I have no idea what kids her age are into so he gives me a few suggestions. And off I go.

Here’s what goes through my head when I visit a toy store.   

This is not my world. 
 
I always start by telling myself the same thing…maybe if I walk around long enough, I’ll somehow magically find a toy Caroline may be able to enjoy. But as I look around, I notice things I've somehow trained my eyes to ignore at all other times…images of children doing typical kid things. All around the store, I see pictures of little girls playing, running, drawing, holding hands, and doing things I daydreamed about when I was pregnant. I can barely look at these images without getting knot on my throat. If I dwell on my feelings too much, my eyes start to well up. How is it that I manage to live in a bubble all year around? The last thing I want to do is get emotional in public so I pull myself together, and do my best to act like the other parents in the store. When I’m around typical families, I don't feel like a "real" parent. I feel like I'm faking my way, pretending to understand a world I know very little about.  

Caroline is not a baby and yet here I am in the baby section. 
Inevitably, I find myself in the Baby section. That aisle has a tendency to create a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. It reminds me of our life before Rett—a time before wheelchairs, braces, sensory issues, complex communication needs, therapies, IEPs, seizures, and parents outliving their children. I always seem to gravitate towards the baby section in hopes of finding something Caroline may enjoy that’s not too “baby-like.” The truth is that there’s no such a thing. I often feel like I’m being punched in the stomach whenever someone compares or associates Caroline to a baby. It undermines her. So why am I in the Baby section looking for a toy that doesn't exist? 

Caroline is missing out on so much. Life can be so unfair sometimes. 
Still empty-handed, I drag myself to the section with age-appropriate toys for Caroline. I start to wonder what four-year-olds are into. Barbies? Dolls? Kitchen sets? Why are there toy brooms in the “girl” section only? Sigh, I don't want to reinforce gender roles. Wait a minute, why am I even worrying about things that have no bearing on Caroline's reality? I find myself standing in the middle of the aisle, feeling clueless around all these toys and activities. I catch myself observing other kids and their parents for clues. Gosh, their lives are so different than ours. These parents have no idea how lucky they are. They have the luxury of hearing their kids’ interesting and complex thoughts. Their kids are able to express their individuality. Why was Caroline given such a difficult life? She’s so full of innocence and love. She doesn't deserve this. But life doesn't come with any guarantees. Crappy things happen all the time, whether you think you deserve them or not.

But Caroline is still a kid--she should experience these “typical” childhood things! 
Usually, after 30-45 minutes or so, I realize I need to do what I came here to do. So what am I going to get for Caroline? She’s into princesses right now. Will she enjoy dressing up like one? She also seems fascinated when she watches me put makeup on. Maybe she would like pretend makeup? Or is she too young for that? What message am I sending? Ugh, I need to just chill out and stop over-thinking everything. Besides, Rett Syndrome is horrible, and I have no idea what the future holds. I should get something fun. I should just spoil her. Still, as I place toys in the shopping cart, I can’t help but resent the fact that she can’t use any of these things on her own. But this is not about me. Caroline shouldn't miss out on silly or fun things because of her condition. I guess we'll have to "play her toys" for her. It will be wonderful, fulfilling, and sweet…I hope.

When I get home, I show Mike what I got. He knows how difficult this is for me, and expresses support and appreciation. I don't know how he always manages to find toys with so much more ease than me. And he seems genuinely excited to share them with Caroline, which in turn makes me less sad about the whole thing. 

When it comes to doing things that feel awkward and unnatural because of Caroline’s disability, I wish I could learn to put my sorrow aside and focus on the beauty. I just don't know how to fill that hole sometimes.  


My heart

Caroline's Christmas presents






Saturday, November 2, 2013

My "new normal" is not what I expected

When Caroline was diagnosed, I understood that everything in my life would be very different from that point on. I made a few assumptions...but life is always full of surprises.

I thought the gut wrenching grief that invaded my being would eventually be replaced by a feeling of acceptance, which I mistakenly equated to a return to some kind of normalcy. That initial debilitating grief did eventually subside. But I've learned that feelings of sorrow are constant, even when I forget they are there. I now know that my heart will continue to hurt for Caroline for as long as I live.

I remember wondering if I would ever feel joy again. What I didn't expect was to experience happiness on an entirely differently level. These moments are brief but they are powerful. Something as simple as Caroline giving me a sweet smile, or sharing a good laugh with a someone I care about, is enough to remind me that life is beautiful no matter how dark and challenging it may seem at times. I've finally learned to live in the moment and just focus on today. I've learned to be fully present with people. And gestures of friendship and support from those around me are instrumental in getting me through each day. The good, which is plentiful, certainly outweighs the sad.

I feared my heart would harden, and I worried relationships would change. Relationships did change. I developed stronger and more authentic connections with people in my life. My heart didn't go numb, it actually grew bigger. Caroline taught me the meaning of profound and unconditional love, which in turn, has made me more in tune with the love I feel for people around me. But Rett Syndrome has also exhausted my ability to put up with judgment and insensitivity.The few people who pitied us, or were uncomfortable with Caroline, self-selected themselves out. No hard feelings.Things have a way of working themselves out.

I thought I would be left with just one identity--special needs mom. To clarify, of all the different hats I wear on a daily basis, being Caroline's mom brings me the most pride and fulfillment. But for many months after Caroline's diagnosis, I could not see myself succeeding or finding satisfaction in any other role. I realized now that I am not defined by Caroline's diagnosis. I can still be "me." I'm still a partner to Mike beyond our parenting roles. I can still pursue my career, which is incredibly fulfilling to me. I can continue to nurture relationships with family and friends. And I can be silly and light. Aside from grounding me, these different aspects of my identity help me become a better mother to Caroline.

I thought I could remain part of the "general parenting world" (for lack of a better word). Instead, I find myself sitting on the sidelines. My only experience as a mother is with a physically disabled child. When the issue of (typical) parenting comes up in conversation, I often feel like a stranger trying to fit in, trying to understand social norms that no longer make sense to me. Priorities and visions for the future are fundamentally different. These paths are certainly not created equal. And I often get harsh reminders that our life is considered far from ideal when I stumble into conversations reminding me that Caroline represents every parent's worst fear. I completely understand those concerns because I was once there too. But it still hurts to hear those things. My protectiveness towards Caroline overpowers my ability to think rationally in those moments.

I've found that I cope better when I tune out society's messages about what happiness and success should look like. For whatever reason, Caroline's diagnosis has brought everything into focus. It's made me more aware, more awake. I like who I've become. I just wish it hadn't come at such a high cost to my Caroline. She suffers and struggles in ways that are unimaginable to most of us. And that's just not fair.




Thursday, September 26, 2013

Some dreams are still possible

Almost two years ago, I wrote a post on this blog titled "what would Caroline say?"
I read it again this past week with an overwhelming sense of wonder and gratitude. In the post, I described my dream to communicate with Caroline. I also talked about our wish for Caroline to have access to an eye-gaze computer.

Rett Syndrome can really do a number on hopes and dreams. Looking into the future can make me spiral down into a rabbit hole of fear and dread. I had to accept what was robbed, but I also allowed myself to remain cautiously optimistic about certain things. For some reason, I've always felt communication was within our reach. That dream is now closer than we ever imagined it would be at this point.

Before I continue, I'd like to share my personal opinion about skills and Rett Syndrome. I feel like parents are often inadvertently blamed or praised when it comes to their disabled children's skills. To me, Rett Syndrome is the ONLY culprit for missed milestones. Conversely, its occasional mercy allows for some skills to flourish. And each and every single one of our girls has unique strengths. I believe our girls' particular skills are a reflection of how the disorder has decided to manifest itself. I think therapies are incredibly important and necessary (and can often maintain or improve skills), but they can only do so much to fundamentally change what Caroline can and cannot do. Some girls walk, some girls have better use of their hands, and some girls can communicate with a little more ease.

Rett has left Caroline severely physically disabled, but it has also cut her a break by allowing her to express certain needs. I still feel like Caroline and I are separated by a wall that prevents me from hearing what she's telling me, but her eye-gaze computer has started to crack open a door. Caroline can now tell us when she's thirsty, hungry, sad, happy, etc. She tells us if she likes something, and she certainly lets us know if she doesn't. She is able to call for specific people. She even picks who gets to feed her. Most importantly (for her!), she has mastered the use of several different symbols to express her most frequent and urgent need: "Want. Yo Gabba Gabba. Please. Play. Yo Gabba Gabba. Want. Please."

I savor every word she says. And I hope we can eventually kick that door wide open.

I will work on taking video of her using her computer. In the meantime, here are some pictures.

Caroline's main page (each symbol opens up options for more words)

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Running away from Rett Syndrome...until it catches up with me again

Focus on the positive. Focus on the positive. 
Be grateful for what you have (which is a lot).
We are going to be happy despite Rett Syndrome. 

This mantra runs like broken record inside my head.
I took it so far that it ended up blowing up in my face.

I learned to cope with my sadness by tucking it away where nobody could see it, especially me. I also got good at distracting myself from it. Keeping busy is key (and also easy given our schedules). Happy moments with Caroline are always the best distraction. I also have my job, which helps me escape back to a life where I am still "the old me." But the truth is that no matter what's going on, the sorrow is always there. And the difficult feelings bubble up to the surface when I'm alone with my thoughts. So I escaped them again by filling every possible quiet moment (in the car, when I run, when I clean, when I get ready, etc.) with audiobooks, podcasts, music, or comedy.

I did such a good job during the day that something had to give. My sadness, my fears, my anxiety, my anger--all these feelings started keeping me up at night, where there was no escape. The result? I ended up with a horrible long bout of insomnia that I'm still treating with medicine.

I don't think I will ever be able (or want) to change my naturally energetic and happy disposition, but I'm more open about sharing my most difficult feelings. I can say "this sucks" and not worry about people interpreting that as a complaint about Caroline. I'm no longer constantly trying to escape my sorrow. I finally accept that what I really feel is a combination of happiness and sadness, sometimes all at once. And I now know that I can acknowledge these feelings and still remain positive.

I'm starting to feel less alone these days.

Nothing melts away sadness better than seeing this little lady happy

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Yes, she is in there

Some may think my relationship with Caroline is one-sided.

Here's a little glimpse of the way Caroline connects with us. Her eyes and facial expressions say so much.


Saturday, August 17, 2013