a dark place…
It was fairly obvious that I’d made a mistake. My question had struck a nerve and there was no undoing it.
In the fall of 2012, I moved from Houston to Austin to be closer to my children. Eighteen months post divorce, it finally donned on me that all of my residual anger needed to take a backseat to the parenting that lay in front of me. Personally, it was a moment of growth which remains one of the most important decisions I’ve ever made; professionally, the move was tough but smooth, thanks to an extraordinarily understanding doctor in Houston. A month or so before leaving, a very young and completely adorable nearly two-year-old boy came to our office for testing. Among other challenges, he was diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome, was non-verbal, and to that point had not attempted to walk. It was already clear in his young life that he would require a lot of assistance. We bonded almost instantly. In the weeks that followed, he came in twice per week for Vision Therapy and as my time in that office was running out, his care was phased over to another therapist. Not long after, I moved to Austin, essentially saying goodbye to patients and co-workers. About a year and a half later, somewhat serendipitously, this young man and his family moved to Austin. His mom had changed jobs and as they reestablished themselves in their new city, they were looking to continue his care. So, they looked me up. They came in for an exam, hugs were exchanged, my bond with my little friend picked up right where it left off.
If you’ve ever been around, or even worked with a non-verbal child, you’ll most likely agree with the notion that their lack of verbal expression in no way correlates with any lack communication ability. Some have learned American Sign Language, some speak with the facial expressions, some have body language that gives them away, and some just do…and expect you to follow. In my time as a therapist I’ve been able to pick up these nuances, and with this young man, we communicate very well during his sessions, many times without saying a word. As we’ve grown together, I’ve also come to be pretty close with his family. His dad, who’s just a year younger than me, has shared many things about the progress they’ve made with his son. We’ve had many heart to heart conversations, and were in the middle of such a conversation when the question came out of my mouth.
“How did you feel when you discovered your son was diagnosed with Down Syndrome?”
For the next 60 seconds, we sat in awkward silence. His dad trying to collect himself, and me, trying to figure out how to kick myself in rear end without causing a scene. Did I seriously just say that?
“I went to a very dark place” he finally responded.
His dad went on to explain their discovery of the Down’s diagnosis in utero, approximately one month prior to birth. He explained his initial devastation and denial, understanding that he may never be able to play ball with his son, or even have a conversation that involve multi-syllable words. He ran through the gamut of “what ifs?”, but not like the rest of us. His involved much simpler things like his baby’s ability to talk, walk, and maybe even feed themselves one day. He also openly admits to feeling detached from his life for a few weeks as he worked on coming to grips with what lay ahead. All the while, fighting back tears, which surely come from a place of raw and gripping emotion when he lets them. He went on to tell me that when his son was born, he had trouble holding him, and desiring to be near him – all the while, knowing he loved that baby more than anything. He describes just sitting in a chair in their family home and staring into space for days on end, almost numb to the world. His wife, who had just given birth and was also an emotional swamp, called her husband’s best friend and begged for help, probably out of pure desperation. Apparently, his best friend took a cab straight from the airport the house, and took this dad for a walk. My patient’s dad gave me a synopsis of their conversation:
“He told me to get my sh*t together. We have been friends since we were children and he’s like a brother to me. I had never heard him raise his voice, much less use profanity. It was pretty shocking. That’s all it took”
Slowly but surely, this dad reports pulling out of the tailspin. He went on to describe adjusting his expectations through some personal therapy and growth; a process for which he has my complete admiration. He has become one of the best fathers I’ve ever met. These days, they are just father and son. Two wonderful people with their own language, their own desires, and their own sense of humor about one another. It’s pretty cool to be a part of their lives.
And I learned a valuable lesson, too. Sometimes, we should pretend we have a filter, even if one is no where to be found. 😉