“He will cover you with his feathers. He will shelter you with his wings. His faithful promises are your armor and protection.” – Psalm 91:4 NLT
I’d planned to write about Jesse this week. I'd planned a piece about theoretical fear.
Jesse is my youngest child, and has autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and ADHD.
As He is wont to do, God changed the plan.
On a Tuesday night, I took out Jesse’s evening medication. It was 10:30, later than any eight-year-old should go to bed, but the boys had come home from football practice late. We were all bone weary, struggling with patience and composure. The school nurse had called that morning, telling me Jesse was back in her office with another vague stomachache. She’d asked me if Jesse was anxious. I'm guessing she asked Jesse, too.
That night in Jesse’s room, I pulled buspirone from a bottle.
He looked at my outstretched hand with a tiny oval pill and asked, “Mom, am I anxious?”
To which I wanted to say, “Uh, kid? If I said the word ‘understatement,’ would you get it?”
“Yes, Jesse, you are.”
He didn’t seem to understand.
“Okay, you know how you feel before you take a big test, or hear a sound in the middle of the night? Well, it’s like feeling that all the time. And for a reason that doesn’t make sense.”
“Oh…” Jesse said, hesitant.
“How about this,” I answered. “You know how you tell me, ‘Mom, I’m worried.’? It’s that. It’s that feeling, that scared feeling that something bad will happen all the time. And it’s a feeling that’s hard to turn off, even when someone tells you everything is going to be okay.” I knew intimately the nausea and clenched teeth of irrational, unremitting fear.
Two days later, our family saw fear in action. God changed my plan.
By Thursday night, football season had ended. Glory be. The kids could return to a “normal” schedule. They could go to bed earlier, focus more on their schoolwork, and eat dinner at the kitchen table instead of in the backseat. “Finally!” I thought. “A return to routine!” Our odometer, filthy car, and empty bank account all attest to the toll this season took on our family.
But I’d neglected an important reality. For boys on the autism spectrum, the grind of an intensive football season had become their routine.
An about-face after 12 weeks of doing things a certain way can make it downright combustible for kids with ASD.
And the first night after the season ended—after we’d had an actual sit-down dinner, just the 5 of us – Noah exploded.
They’d waited all day to catch the Thursday night football game, but Noah had attacked his brother for some minor infraction. In a second, Noah was on top of Jesse in a full-on assault.
“That’s it!” I howled. “Bedtime!”
I shuttled them all to bed, and Noah ignited like a Roman candle. He screamed at his bedroom door, red-faced and hoarse, yelling that he’d waited all week for the game and that because of his "@&*%)# brother!!" he was missing it. I could hear him spinning out of control, and knew he’d fallen into the black void somewhere between an autistic meltdown and a panic attack. I opened his door, where he was circling the room. His face was wet with tears, his hair plastered to his head with sweat. He fell onto the bed, convulsing and pulling at his hair. I fought my own mounting anxiety and sat next to him, speaking in soft, low tones. Noah screamed at me to get out – stopping short of physically pushing me off his bed. His breathing was fast, his eyes wild.
As Noah struggled, I watched his face, realizing how much it has changed in just a year, having lost the little boy-ness that I used to recognize in him. Now, he has been replaced with an older, reticent, more handsome version of himself. And I love the young man he is becoming, but I hate the heartache that goes with it. The seizing fear of his mind is now that of a young man, and not a child. So much more is at stake.
I had a momentary thought: “I’ve failed.”
My teenage boy couldn’t calm himself. All the sensory toys and counseling and prayer in the world hadn’t saved him from himself. I – tasked with helping him differentiate between truth and falsehood, the rational from the irrational – hadn’t taught him how not to be afraid. Grace and Jesse came in by turns, and I hissed at them to leave, not knowing what would make things worse.
Irony: [ahy-ruh-nee, noun] 4. (dramatic irony) A mother on the verge of a panic attack because she hasn’t shown her son how to diffuse his own panic attack.
“Please, God,” I prayed. “Please help us.”
I saw God’s wing over him, then. I felt the great Caretaker with us, knowing Noah’s pain. Knowing mine. And I pulled Noah down on the bed next to me.
I stroked Noah’s hair, and pulled him toward me, fighting his twisting body. I wrapped my arm tightly around him, knowing he loved the heavy pressure, feeling myself the tenderness toward Noah that is but a shadow of what God has for us – his wayward, flailing children.
I repeated to Noah the verse from Psalm 91:4, and turned on his white noise machine. I whispered to him his value and his goodness, I reminded him of all he’d accomplished and how tired his mind and body were.
I told him that God had not given us a spirit of fear. I spoke God’s promises to us both.
Slowly, Noah unfurled the coil of his body.
“Stay here,” he told me.
In a few minutes, Noah’s lids closed in sleep. And Noah and I, professional panic-ers both found refuge under the shelter of God’s wing.