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It's hard to tell when special-needs parents are 'drowning'
Bloom Blog

It's hard to tell when special-needs parents are 'drowning'

By Tina Szymczak

In 2010, our darkest times as a family, I began to use the analogy of a swimming pool to describe the difficult parts of our adoption and disability journey. I hope the analogy will strike a chord with other people who struggle to care for another family member, young or old.

When my husband and I decided to pursue adoption, we never expected it to be easy. However, there was no way to know how very hard it would be, until we’d experienced it ourselves. Throughout the adoption process we were told again and again that to bring an older child into our home from the foster care system would be a huge leap of faith.

I now picture the adoption process as a huge leap into a swimming pool. In the adoption classes everyone stands around the pool. During the home study process and disclosure you get your feet wet. If you want to adopt after that, you better be willing to jump into that pool with your child, whether you know how to swim or not.

When we were given information about our son we did what we thought was due diligence. We asked all the right questions. We jumped in the pool knowing that our son couldn’t swim, but convinced he would learn, with us there with him. We were naïve and thought that if we needed services we’d just advocate for and get them (try not to laugh at me—I’d been working in early intervention for years and should have known better).

After a while we grew tired of holding our son up. We had to face the reality that he wasn’t learning to swim, no matter what we did. We called in more experts. They blew us out of the water when they told us he’d never learn. We grieved and reeled from this new information, but refused to give up.

We called for back-up, but what we got was a bunch of people standing around the pool. They wouldn’t get in with us. Some would sit on the edge and get their feet wet and give us helpful suggestions. That would buoy us for a little while. Most refused to sit. They’d stand in the distance and judge us and occasionally ask us if we were ready to give up and give him back.

People would come and go. Occasionally we were left with no one. A few times some amazing soul would come along and, when no one was looking, jump in the pool and hold up part of my son. Then their boss would come along, or it’d be the end of their work day, and they’d have to get out.

Our son’s diagnoses kept piling up—first Tourette syndrome, ADHD and obsessive compulsive disorder. Then later, autism and sensory-processing disorder. Then the biggest one: bipolar disorder.

After many years our son got bigger and he grew frustrated by his lack of progress.

We no longer cared if he ever swam on his own. We just wanted him to enjoy being in the water again. We knew we needed help to find other ways to accommodate him in the pool.

We looked around. We yelled for help. People came back to the side of the pool, shaking their heads and questioning how we’d ever managed to keep him afloat for so long. We politely but firmly asked for help. They asked if we wanted to give him up, send him back. They wanted us to admit defeat and get out of the pool, leaving him there. That was the only way the system could help us, they said.

We refused. We began splashing and making all kinds of noise. We blew whistles and got the attention of the people in charge. All the while though, I was beginning to drown. All those years of holding my son up had taken their toll: my body was failing.

Some wonderful people jumped in and lovingly took our son, but I was drowning. I couldn’t even begin to tell others what was happening. I later wondered how so many good, well-intentioned people never recognized what was happening to me.

Then I read an article called Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning.

“The Instinctive Drowning Response—so named by Francesco A. Pia, Ph.D., is what people do to avoid actual or perceived suffocation in the water. And it does not look like most people expect. There is very little splashing, no waving, and no yelling or calls for help of any kind.”

Drowning, from the surface, is quiet and undramatic.

Isn't it like that for us as parents? People look at us and see the “together” image we’re trying so hard to portray. We hide our weakness and fear—often times because we know people won’t take us seriously or our child won’t receive something—an intervention or placement—they need. Even as we’re unravelling, sobbing or screaming on the inside, we dress nice, fix our hair, arrive early and sometimes even bring cookies.

We keep on top of referrals that need to be made, reports that need to be sent and IEPs that need to be revised. We deal with meltdowns, illness and messes at home. We cry at night when our children are in bed because during the day we need to hold it together. If we don’t do it, no one will. We find the strength to call for help for our children. But we can’t do the same for ourselves.

We drown silently.

It wasn't until my son went into a therapeutic residential placement that I finally had time to take a step back and sort out what was my need and what his was. I realized that I needed to go back to therapy and I needed to reconnect with my friends that I'd let fall by the wayside. I also needed to take care of myself. I had cancelled and rescheduled appointments for dental, eye care and physicals so many times I'd lost track. Probably the biggest thing I did to stop drowning was to lay it on the table for my spouse so we could figure out who would be responsible for what. He turned out to be a great supporter and partner.

I don’t want to imply that our whole journey has been horrible (I’d jump in the pool again for our son, without hesitation). There have been many more loving, touching, heart-warming times. But I’m writing about the periods that are very difficult. As my friend and fellow parent wrote: “Yes there’s an idealistic tropical paradise pool and there is also a shark scenario, but reality is somewhere inbetween.”

As I assist other families and work in our community to change services, I’ve tried to pinpoint common “drowning” signs in families like ours.

If the parent is avoiding social events, holing up in their house or crying all the time, then you need to gently step in. Listen to them. Be non-judgmental and ask questions, so we know you're listening and interested.

It can be hard to know how people are doing if they don’t share their struggles, but you can always do the following:

Make meals or give gift cards to order food. Don't ask if you can do it. Just do it.

Offer to take the other children when parents have to take their child with a disability to appointments.

See if your employer will let you donate vacation or sick days to your coworker. We tend to use up a lot of days for sick kids, or when our kids are kicked out of school.

Come over and do a couple of loads of laundry.

Drop a card or quick note to let us know you’re thinking of us.

Let us vent about our kid or a particular situation that’s developed. Don't judge us.

Remind us that no one expects us to do it all alone

In addition to teaching people what to look for in parents who are barely treading water, perhaps we could adapt the pool and hire trained lifeguards to get in with us.

You can follow Tina Szymczak at Spirited Blessings.