Certain emotions — like fear, anger and sadness — are a little sticky for me. Among the skills that helps one get through life (like being able to jumpstart a car and make good martini) “processing painful emotions” isn’t one I’ve mastered. It’s not that I don’t feel those emotions, but I don’t always seem to experience them full out. I take a kind of walk-it-off approach, like when someone falls in public then jumps up and reassuringly shouts, “I’m OK!” and walks away quickly, even when their leg is bleeding.
As the challenges facing my child and my family queued up — medical, cognitive, financial, psychological, marital, and legal – the plain old fear developed into more of an outright terror. Even then, my Jedi mind tricks got me through. Move along, there’s nothing to see here.
During the first few years as a parent of a child with special needs, I became an expert at keeping painful emotions at bay by staying busy. I was a Superwoman – I worked full-time, had another baby, started my own business, served as PTA President – and I did it all with a smile on my face, a spring in my step, always upbeat, optimistic and positive. Not particularly joyful …just incredibly busy and completely exhausted.
Eventually, as most people skilled in the art of denial come to learn, it becomes more and more difficult to keep up the façade. As special needs single mom M so aptly puts it in her blog, In the Mire, “[m]y theory is that you can’t get through special needs parenting without healthy and normal doses of denial at certain stages, which God then gently pares away when it’s time to move forward.”
Fast forward a few years and gratefully some level of the denial is being pared away, (maybe by God, maybe by lots of meditation, yoga and getting caught up on sleep) and I find myself not running away from my terror. After years of living as though this terror was a bottomless abyss that threatened to swallow me whole if I got too close, I’ve started to visualize it instead as a desert canyon. Sitting at the edge of this canyon, with my feet dangling off the edge, feeling a gentle breeze, I try to conjure up not a sense of fear as I look into its depths, but fascination. I’m trying to be a little bit more courageous to, if not befriend it, then to at least get to know it better. How deep is it? What are its layers made of? Does anything live down there?
As I explore and catalog the inner workings of this canyon, I find that it even has a name: the Terror of Scarcity. In the Terror of Scarcity, there’s never enough and there never will be – enough me, enough of my husband, enough expertise, enough time, enough health insurance, enough research, enough kindness, enough therapies, enough strength, enough resources, and especially, more than anything else, enough years of life in my body – to get my child safely and meaningfully through his life.
That’s a pretty scary place to explore. No wonder I avoided it. But guess what? I didn’t fall off the edge and I didn’t get swallowed whole. I’m still here. As long as I was unable to face the fear, there never was enough. I’m no longer so dysfunctionally optimistic that I can wish away the fear; as hard as it is to do it, I can only stop what I’m doing, look at it and really feel it. I don’t know for sure that getting to know it any better will ever make the fear or scarcity subside, but my instincts tells me it will. The biggest relief is that I don’t have to stay so tightly wound up anymore, so chipper and cheerful, so incredibly busy all the time.
There’s more to explore here, as there is in all rich places. But for right now, I have to go play with my kids.