For our Ask the Expert blog series, Pathways Institute asked parents for their stories, with the idea that it would be helpful for parents to hear from other parents about their struggles and transformations. We asked: What has this journey of parenting kids with learning differences meant to you? How has it transformed you? This is the response from one of our parents. She requested to remain anonymous out of respect for her children.
Letting Go and Being Okay
I grew up in an alcoholic family system where there was one crisis after another. In-between there was a fair amount of numbness and once in a while good times. I spent time in therapy, at first trying to get control of my own self-destructiveness, then surrendering to the reality of needing help. I learned to be able to deeply think, wonder and take the time that I needed to understand myself. I was challenged to understand that drama, and emotional upset were different from being present and being in real contact with myself. I learned to meditate and continue to do so daily - I highly recommend it.
When I turned 30, I was no longer terrified of intimacy. I got married and by 32 had a daughter and a son. I couldn’t have asked for more, I was truly happy and felt on the right path for life.
Then, when my son was young, he was diagnosed with dyslexia. I was told he should go to a school that specialized teaching dyslexic boys. This was hard to hear but thankfully the school was in the same town we lived! I told myself, “this dyslexia thing is just a little hiccup. Things will be fine.” I thought my son would beat this thing called dyslexia and perhaps be the next Steve Jobs, Charles Schwab or Sir Richard Branson.
During my son’s first year in the special school, my mother was diagnosed stage 3 breast cancer while caring for my father who was in the late stages of ALS. I believed I would be fine and I could handle all of it. But I just couldn’t. My family was fractured and I felt completely out of control about everything and kept wanting to scream: “WHY ISN’T ANYONE LISTENING TO ME AND LETTING ME BE IN CONTROL?” Somehow, in the middle of all it all and in a moment of grace, I was reminded of Al Anon, something I had done before, and I went to a meeting.
It took a while for me to get clear-headed in Al Anon and watch my self-righteousness cool down, soften and slowly peel away by listening to the wisdom, generosity of spirit and great humor of the group members. I started to realize I needed to surrender the “people, places, and things” I couldn’t control, and a shift happened: things greatly improved for me with my siblings and parents.
But as things got better with my family, I realized I was not done with my work in Al Anon. I was still in a battle of wills: my will versus reality regarding my son and dyslexia. I realized I needed to stay in Al Anon years after the family crisis had abated because I was treating dyslexia like alcoholism and my son as if he were an alcoholic. I was trying be in control an uncontrollable situation.
My son was making progress in school but it was slow and no one was telling me he was going to be the next Steve Jobs. The experts were saying that he was struggling to accept his learning difference, which is why he is so angry and anxious all the time. He needed therapy, additional tutoring and massive amounts of patience from his parents. I wasn’t very good at patience; I would get upset, angry and anxious. I would try to force solutions.
There were times when my son behaved like a PTSD survivor. He would be given an assignment in math and by the time he got home he couldn’t remember how to do the problems. He would descend into anger, escalate, perseverate and explode in rage, because his brain was having a brown-out and sometimes a full black-out. I would panic and think, “I have to do more of this and more of that, find people who can help him.” I would email the teacher, upsetting my son and creating serious problems in my relationship with him.
Gratefully, in Al Anon I learned to not talk to the dyslexic kid when the dyslexic kid is doing homework. I learned to breathe, walk away, and stay calmly, “I’m sorry homework is so hard for you.” I have learned to calm down because there is nothing I can “do” and more importantly I now have faith that my son is okay and going to be okay even in the middle of his struggle. Our son has the help he needs, is allowed to appropriately express his feelings and thoughts about how hard having dyslexia is at times, and is loved no matter what. I have begun to understand that I can never protect both my child from the suffering and struggles that come with life, including this one.
I am also now learning that I need to come to terms with being OKAY even if others in my life are struggling or suffering. Being okay doesn’t mean I am uncaring about another’s struggles , in fact there are times that I am involved in trying sort out my son’s learning problems and participate in the process supporting or finding a solution. It just means that I don’t have to join the suffering.
The 11th step in Al Anon is, "Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out." Meditation has given me an important coping and resiliency tool, and where I have learned about and practice detachment. Detachment isn’t disconnection or disinterest. Detachment is the ability to say to myself, “Let go. There is nothing to carry, nothing to become distraught about.”
I use to think that I wasn’t allowed or entitled to experience real joy, freedom or happiness if others and in particular if my son was struggling. What kind of parent would have a good day while their kid was struggling with reading? I would sink into GUILT. But I now realize not only am I allowed to be free of guilt and experience the good stuff in life, my son who struggles with learning needs to see that I am okay. In fact he deserve to see that I am not taking on his learning struggles psychologically and emotionally. He needs to experience me creating positive interactions with him. Otherwise, if I’m an anxious mess, a negative downward cycle begins to corrode our relationship - we are on a sinking ship together. When I keep a sense of humor and my deep sense of gratitude, and keep moving forward, it gives him the feeling that he’s just a teenager and I’m just his mom, and everything will be okay. It gives him hope, and the balance we both need.