Coming Out of the Basement
by Meredith Dangel, guest writer
Glancing around at the four white, windowless walls, the bookshelf with its waxy faux plant, and the empty conference table about to be surrounded with women, I had one thought.
We're in the basement. We're in the freakin' basement.
Maybe not the most holy thought, but that was it nonetheless. A support group for autism moms was in the basement, the place Hollywood assigns to all addictionanonymous meetings. Alcoholics Anonymous? Just watch enough movies or Law and Order. Overeaters Anonymous? Mike and Molly. Narcotics Anonymous?Breaking Bad's Jesse Pinkman.
My next thought was, What does this mean and why are we hiding?
Evaluations and training sessions occur on the ground level of this building. Windows pour light on the problem-solving and troubleshooting. But the outpouring of emotions, fears, and questions? No, we hide those. Bury that crap. No one wants your mess.
No one really says that. Believe me, there are incredible people working in this place. But the rhetoric of space is real, and God help me, it reinforces what I feel inside: Your mess is shameful.
I used to talk and write about my struggles more openly, but I’ve learned to be more discerning. While vulnerability is crucial to authentic relationships, we have to know the right people, the right space, and the right time. I can’t spew my feelings on anyone and everyone and self-righteously expect them all to know the right thing to say. Some responsibility falls on me too, and this is hard emotional work. Ask any specials needs parent and they’ll tell you - sometimes it’s easier to bury it. What else can we do?
Go to a support group in the basement?
Maybe I'm just not the support group type. Clearly, they wouldn't exist if people didn't benefit. For me, though, I don't find a lot of relief in talking with other autism moms. I either feel guilty because my son is way more "high functioning" than theirs, I feel like we have little to learn from each other because our children are so different, or I feel like we’re having a pity party.
Let me be clear. I have enjoyed and learned from many situations, like conferences or meetings with a singular agenda item, where every person in the room is an autism parent. But those meetings occur as need-to-do items on my agenda and have yet to produce lasting friendships, only acquaintances. So, where does that leave me?
I can stay in my own basement, the one inside my head where only God knows my shame.
Or… is there an alternative?
I’ve learned through trial and error who can be trusted, who will understand, and who will try to understand. Often, these are my older friends in a different season of life with a different, more complete worldview. These relationships don’t lead to competition or tension because we simply have nothing with which to compete. They’ve been where I am, and many of them are moms as well. These are the women who don’t just ask, “How is Henry?” but also have the wisdom to ask, “How are you?”
The other friends I can trust are the ones who ask questions. While at a neighborhood Super Bowl party, my friend and I noticed Henry spinning. I mentioned to her that he doesn’t spin as often anymore, but sometimes he needs vestibular input. Instead of nodding politely, turning to her husband, or staring at the floor, she asked me to tell her about that.
She is rare. When we find these people, we must treasure them. I don’t mean spew on them every day. I mean cultivate that relationship. Invest in them. Ask them questions
about their kids, if they have them, and about their lives. These are the ones who won’t judge, won’t gossip when we send the text, “If I hear ‘Mom’ one more time today, I’m gonna lose my mind!” And we won’t judge them either, because we know how it feels. We’ll know one crazy mom moment doesn’t make a crazy mom. We’ll know one crazy kid moment doesn’t make a crazy kid.
Our family is almost four years post-diagnosis, and it has taken me the better part of that time to discern everything I just shared. My personality certainly affected that, and I hope it doesn’t take everyone that long, but it might. Finding our people isn’t easy, nor is it always a lifetime experience; our people may change. Still, once we throw open the door of the basement and climb the stairs, we give ourselves the freedom and the permission to have the relationships we deserve.
Meredith is a blessed wife to Keith, her college sweetheart, and mom to Henry, a smart, tender, quick-witted, train-loving, autistic 6-year-old with an infectious smile. She writes about her joy and struggles as a special needs mom, delighting in the daily, the different, and the divine, at www.MeredithMDangel.com
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