Joe had a fantastic summer. At the exact time his child behavioral specialist was confirming he exhibits behaviors “of concern for falling within the autism spectrum disorder,” Joe was making a connection. At the end of second grade, he finally made a friend and he blossomed. There were play dates and sleepovers and beach days and water parks and Joe was just another kid. Most signs of Asperger’s and anxiety took the summer off and ADHD isn’t a huge issue when school is out.
Joe took a summer off from his medication. He needed to gain weight. That medication that helps him focus in class and get through a day at a desk also suppresses his appetite. He was falling behind on the growth charts.
By August, he had gained 8 pounds and put on an inch and a half.
He’d also gained confidence. A lot of confidence.
By August, that old enemy called anxiety began to show its ugly face. The thought of returning to school, the intimidation of crowds of kids, and the reality of unfamiliar faces began to make him nervous. His new teacher graciously suggested he come in to meet her, to help alleviate some anxiety… to see his new room.
His new teacher is wonderful for Joe and to Joe.
School started with no issues. Besides the kid on the bus, who on the first day, asked Joe for his name, then declared to the boys around them, “Joe’s my ass.” Confident Joe got off the school bus wondering why a kid he didn’t know would say that to him. He told me what that kid said with a smirk on his face and confusion in his eyes. I brushed it off and told Joe it sounded like that kid was pretty obnoxious. That he shouldn’t sit near that boy again. That he should let me know if the name calling continued. It didn’t.
For the first few weeks, he came home with big smiles on his face, thrilled to report that he’d been playing soccer at recess. Dave and I were happy. We saw it as Joe finally climbing over a major social hurdle. He had become confident enough to join in on a soccer game and play with group of boys. To finally show those kids he could play too. He was having fun. There was a glimmer of Joe becoming one of the boys. We hoped he was letting go and telling his anxiety to take a hike…maybe outgrowing it and applying some of the coping mechanisms he’s learned in therapy.
Then one day he didn’t play soccer.
He didn’t tell me why he stopped playing. This is typical of Joe – when something happens, when he’s rejected or confused or hurt – he doesn’t talk about it. He doesn’t ask for help. He just pulls away. Sometimes, he might tell us what happened, but it usually takes at least a month… sometimes up to four months.
For the past week, Joe has gotten off the bus looking glum. I know him well enough by now to know that something has happened. I see him pulling inward, know the look of my son shutting down and closing the door on social interaction with kids outside of our house.
But I can’t ask him about it. If I do, he pulls into himself even more and I’m forced to watch him wage a battle with some horrible pain inside. So big and so overwhelming that he won’t speak. Instead, he buries his face in a pillow or turns to look out the nearest window and he fights tears. He refuses to cry. And my heart breaks. I’m helpless. How can I help my son work through something if he can’t talk about it?
So, yesterday morning Dave and I casually suggested that Joe start playing soccer again.
“It’s recess,” we said. “You can play a quick game of soccer if you’re bored with the same old stuff.”
“Mix it up,” we encouraged.
You see, he’s been a kick. One where he’s hyper-focusing on practicing handstands at recess. In reality it’s his avoidance of the group. It’s Joe protecting himself from the crowd by throwing his all into an endless stream of handstands that cannot be interrupted. It’s Joe’s safe zone. After a while, it’s awkward. And we had no idea why he was suddenly regressing after such a strong start to the year.
So, after we innocently suggested he give soccer a shot for the afternoon, he said, “I’d “rather not.”
“Why not?” we said, remaining upbeat. “You’re good at soccer!”
“Well, they were fighting over which team I should be on,” he said. “I didn’t like the fighting.”
Dave and I shared a glance over Joe’s head.
Pain and frustration for Joe bubbled to the surface again.
“I’m fine with playing by myself,” he said.
Later, as the bus pulled away, I began to cry. All of the hurts of his school experience came rushing back. The birthday party invites that never seem to come. His birthday party invites that are rebuffed and the little girl in last year’s class who said, “I’m not your friend, why would I go to your party?” What that little girl didn’t know was that Joe invited the whole class because he didn’t want anyone to feel left out. His act of thoughtfulness was met with complete rejection.
The girl who would sweep his things off the lunch table last year…the kid who punched him in the stomach in first grade…the kid who punched him in the stomach in preschool…
I sat at the table rehashing four years of painful moments and I shook my fist at the sky.
I wrote a Facebook post damning the situation. I damned ADHD and Asperger’s and anxiety. I damned an 8 year old soccer boss, not knowing that somewhere, there was parent at my son’s school who might actually consider his or her child the recess soccer boss. My fist shaking, painful moment – one where I directed my anger at a hypothetical child – a faceless, nameless child who my imagination had painted as the Don Corleone of schoolyard soccer – rubbed someone the wrong way. Someone, Hell…maybe a group of someone’s assumed I was talking about their kid. Someone believed I specifically pointed my finger at a particular child, rather than God and behavioral disorders and the (normal) dynamics of the playground hierarchy.
Late in the afternoon, as I regrouped and readied myself to smile when Joe got off the bus, I learned that there might actually be a real “Soccer Boss.” That my comment was seen and assumptions were made.
And for that, I am sorry. I am sorry that someone who doesn’t know me or my son well enough to know his struggle, assumed I was actually pointing a finger at his or her child.
I took the kids to the movies at 4:40 yesterday. Dave was in New York. We came home, and I tried to ignore the drama unfolding because I’d shared a painful moment. I fed the kids, I put them to bed and then I cried. I cried for Joe. I cried because I felt guilty for complaining. I felt horrible that someone thought I was attacking their child. I tried to tell Dave about it over the phone. Dave who was in Manhattan and trying to understand me through my sobs.
Yesterday was a bad day. Next time I need to shake my fist at something, I’ll make sure I don’t assign that something an identity.