Autism, Anxiety, and Stillness (A Letter to Jack)

Dear Jack,

I heard your footsteps at midnight last night, fast and frantic. They took you to the sofa in the dark. I found you there and asked if you were okay.

“Did you have a bad dream?”

You didn’t answer.

“It’s okay. It wasn’t real, buddy. “

I tried to lead you back to your room with your bedding and favorite pictures—items that whisper of safety and home. Your yanked your hand back in protest and yelled,

“No fank you! No fank you!”

So I brought your pillow to the living room and wrapped your stiff frame in your blanket. You had to turn it the other way round so the soft side was up. I muttered my apologies. I know that’s how you like it. It was just dark, and I was half-awake.

Then, you just sat there, still and stoic, leaning into the arm of the sofa. I couldn’t see your eyes, but you did not object when I went back to bed.

Your mother was breathing softly next to me. I lay there wondering about your anxiety, and why you feel the world has turned against you this year. It’s not just bad dreams. It’s everything. The Oregon countryside used to give you delight. The lakes and riverside trails would brighten your eyes. Swimming and exploring brought your laughter and joy. You were an outside boy.

This year, though, the open air has morphed into your enemy. We can’t figure out why. You have become the keeper of the sliding glass door; it must stay shut. Always. You never spin in your outdoor swing anymore, and you don’t want to join us in the back yard even for evening campfires. The only way we can bring you to the lake or to the park is if we bring your traveling tabernacle: a little blue tent and a timer. You will sit in there and stare at the countdown clock as it ticks back down to home.

Then there’s your OT appointments. Miss Molly was one of your very favorite people in the world. But now you don’t even want to go. You love these people, son. You love these places. I promise, you do.

In the darkness, you interrupted my thoughts with a frantic cry, “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!”

I rushed back out to the living room. Then, you gave one of those perfectly-timed, fully-formed movie quotes that continue to astonish us:

“I am completely terrified.”

It’s a line from Happy Feet, apparently, where a penguin is alone on a floating chunk of ice in the ocean. Your voice was flat with those borrowed words, but I could feel the emotion in the tight grip of your fingers. You wouldn’t let me leave.

And then I remember that other line you’ve been quoting so often from The Good Dinosaur: “I ain’t a coward!”

No. You’re not a coward. What causes your nerves to awaken like this, son? What is it that stiffens your limbs and sends your heart pounding?

Maybe that’s a silly question, though. The fact is, for the past two months, I’ve been stiff and skittish, just like you. It’s this book I’m writing, I think. It’s hard for me to dig up our story—yours and mine—without also digging up the bitter water I drank for so long. That water made me unsure of myself. Of everything, really. It made me run away from things that did me good.

We all do that sometimes when we are scared and hurting. We lose track of the things that refresh us and bring us joy. We think, “I’ve changed. I don’t like these things anymore.” but we haven’t really changed. Our hearts have just forgotten, that’s all, and they need to be reminded.

You and I have both come so far the last few years, and this is what troubles me. It feels like we’ve regressed again. It feels like the anxiety is pulling us both backward, and it’s hard to find our deep gladness. I can see what is troubling me, but what about you? What makes you afraid? What makes you forget?

Sometimes, when you panic at bedtime, you scream for the “Jesus Storybook Bible.” Your favorite is the “Captain of the Storm” story, where people in the boat are so scared until Jesus speaks to the wind and the waves. Then, the peace returns.

You love that story, I think, because it is your heart’s prayer: you want our impossibly loud and blinking world to calm down. You want to breath easy again and rediscover stillness. Know this, my son: it is my prayer, too. I’m in that boat with you. So let’s hold to one another tightly. Let’s look up together and listen again for the whispers of Home.

This is a profound and beautiful book. You should totally get it. The audiobook is excellent, too.

Image credit: my daughter, Jenna