Monday, February 2, 2015

Where Does My Help Come From? Living Life with a Challenging Child

It was a normal day in the Ruch family.  I was trying to be productive with three small ones with little to show for my efforts.  I needed to go to the store for some home items, so I packed the 5, 3, and 1 year olds in their carseats, tight as stuffed sausages because of all their winter garb.  We parked at T.J.Maxx, and I got the baby situated with a click, carseat to cart, my oldest daughter and son walking beside me.  I knew I was an idiot to try and go through this store accompanied by curious and creative children yet to be raised, but I had no other option.

About five minutes into our foray, I noticed my 3 year old son getting agitated.  He began to wander a few feet a way from me and refuse to respond to my instructions to stay close. I quickly began to put the things I needed in my cart, aware that the time bomb was ticking.  (I wish we as parents could know how long it will take the burning fuse to lead to the explosion.  I was too generous in my estimate).  My son was picking up speed;  he was dashing down aisles.  I was losing track of him.  The chase was on.

As my child whipped and twisted down aisles with crockery, ceramics, frames, and glass pitchers, I tried in my strained but projecting voice to demand that he stop.  It was only a challenge.  Though I was wheeling a cart and holding on to a five year old, I finally caught up to him, grabbed him around the waist while he kicked and screamed.  To be able to push my cart with my baby, I had to lay him down horizontally in front of her carseat while I speedily pushed toward the door.  I knew if I let go of him, he would run away.

By now, I was creating one of the scenes that give other mothers such pleasure.  Either they feel so good about their own parenting because no child of theirs would ever behave like that, or they feel gratitude to find out that they are not the only loser parents around.  I was sure some shopkeeper would dial DCFS with the way I was handling my son.  But it was the only way to get him out of the store.

I made for the door.  Somehow, while still holding on to the three children, I emptied the items in my cart, leaving them in a free cart, and rushed into the parking lot toward the van.  I managed to get everyone situated and turned for home.  But my son who had started into a full blown meltdown, was only beginning.  He managed to extract himself from his carseat and began running around the van screaming.

Pulling over in a parking lot, I called my husband in tears.  "I can't even get home," I said.  "Please come and help me."

This was the secret life with my son.  Few knew what our daily lives were like--the animalistic screaming and aggression, the forced feeding (the doctors said he had to eat), the sleepless nights, the fits that looked like seizures with writhing on the floor, the compulsive control (we must cross the street a certain way, if not, go back and do it again...if not, possibly a half hour of screaming?).  One day he screamed for 90 minutes.

I faced every day exhausted and with dread.  I cried in the shower and begged my husband not to leave me at home with him.  When I tried to describe him to others, I could tell that they couldn't even grasp the intensity of what I was trying to describe.  He would grow up;  I just needed to figure out how to discipline him. They had just never seen what it was really like inside our doors.  When a friend who had raised four boys (all one year apart) once witnessed a full-blown meltdown, she said she had never experienced anything like it in her life and could only sit and pray for me until it was all over.

How could I explain that absolutely no discipline seemed to accomplish anything?  I had even held him down in timeouts with a baby on my back while he kicked me and hit me the entire time. I had to keep my son separated from his sisters, cloistered in his room listening to audio books all day. I was seriously looking at a future with a family life so much different than what I had dreamed.

This was not the sum total of who he was.  He would often weep in remorse for rash actions he had done.  He was close to us and would let us hold him and even sleep with him when he was totally impossible.  He was clever and funny and had a sensitive heart.  But all of this was obscured by something much greater.

During these years, I prayed desperately for God's intervention.  People laid hands on him and prayed for him.  One day I was taking him to the doctor, and the Lord spoke to my heart before I left, "This doctor will have an answer for you."  When I described my son to the doctor, he cut me off and said, "He has allergies."  I was a little aghast.  Allergies could cause this level of neurological disturbance?  He recommended a book called, Is This Your Child? by Doris Rapp and gave me the name of a clinic we should take him to.

I came home and set to work on taking everything out of his diet that was a typical allergen.  He still was a mess.  We were down to quinoa and a "smoothie" I made every morning from sunflower seeds that had soaked over night, to which I would add a banana and vanilla.  Then one day, the same doctor called me accidentally when he was trying to reach someone else and happened to ask about my son.  He said, "Why have you not taken him to the clinic?"

I felt this was a nudge from the Lord.  So we began the long journey of allergy testing that builds an antigen that neutralizes the reaction.  It turns out Ellison was allergic to 18 molds.  It wasn't even foods, but environmentals.  And why the agitation in TJ Maxx?  He was allergic to formaldehyde present in most new clothing.  We did a long and extensive clean-up of mold in our home, and he started on daily shots.

The day after his first shot, he was a new person.  I was afraid to believe it.  Any one who knows him now at age 15 would never guess what he was as a child.  He is actually easy-going, affable, flexible, and full of life.  I felt like his true person emerged.  It was not the end of the trials, as he would still have reactions, but they became less and less frequent, and as he grew older, he was able to understand his own reactions and begin to manage them.

Ellison is not the only child I have had that was a challenge.  I have had the the garden variety willfulness, the children who can't stand tags or wearing clothes or baths or transitions. I have had the child that would not stop hanging onto me for four years, whose intensity and neediness exhausted all my energies.  I also have the boy that is the stereotypical storybook redhead--flying into rage at the slightest provocation, yelling things his older five siblings would never have dreamed of yelling.

My children eventually grow up and change, and I change.  I have lived with just enough to have the deepest empathy, however, for those who have special needs kids who don't grow out of their difficulties.  Instead, they just manifest differently at each new stage of life.  These people deserve our mercy, our help, and our solidarity.  It is a lonely life.

I know what it is like to have children that defy the books on parenting.  Certainly, I have been deeply helped by practical suggestions for connecting with and disciplining my children, for help with sleep or eating (all of these are a good place to start, and living on a strict diet has helped our family culture tremendously).  But when you have a challenging child, you feel isolated.  You fear that no one can understand what you live with day to day.  The techniques that work on other kids don't work on this one.  Getting out the door takes so much energy that you just aren't sure you want to go out.  But then, again, you feel trapped at home and it is hard not to blame this child for the absolute disruption of your family life and dreams.

So if I were to write a book on parenting, I would start with the premise that God is raising a parent. We have to be divested of our control issues, our dreams shaped by the culture around us, and our perfectionism.  He will reveal to us what we need to know about each child if we listen and receive his wisdom with the intent of using it (James 1:5-6).

To engage with the real family God has given us, we must relinquish our ideals.  The ideal becomes the enemy of the real.  As a friend with a special needs child said to me the other day, "I've become more thankful for the small things."  What makes a good day is the small things, the sunshine coming in the window, a child sitting still on your lap, a funny conversation with a four year old. And we always pray into the future as God shows us how to pray.

In all of my parenting years (and I have many more to go), I could not have lived without the prophetic words of encouragement that have come to me through Scripture and through others. When I was having a hard time not rejecting one of my own children because I felt he was sucking me dry, the Lord kept saying to me gently, "Receive him."  Many times I have felt like pulling back, and God calls me to press in, to love, to be vulnerable.  I must not escape in my heart, but I must pray.

I pray the promises of God over my children.  I pray that they will love one another.  I pray that all their challenges will lead to greater love for God and greater capacity to serve others.  We cannot lose vision because the present is challenged.

The other day my daughter came in from taking the SAT.  When her siblings, who were all in the basement, heard her voice, they came charging up the stairs and crowded around her, asking, "How did it go?  How did you do?"  I was touched because I realized that even with all the years of sorting conflicts, crying out to God for help, love had prevailed.

My desperate cries in the shower changed.  Now they are a call for the Holy Spirit to fill me for all the day requires.  God cannot do miracles as long as I insist they look a certain way.  He wants to do something that looks a little different.  And I don't want to miss it.

Where does my help come from?  The maker of heaven and earth, (Psalm 121). That is the kind of help I need: creative and ordered.  As long as God is my help, I can face the day or the child that is even now getting ready to press my buttons.