A few months ago, I shared a column which I had been given in a workshop for parents of special needs kids. It was entitled: Welcome to Holland! I connected with the author of this piece and really felt like she understood exactly how I had felt so many times since our son’s diagnosis.
Apparently several readers also connected in their own way, relating it to their own life situations, as many of you stopped me in passing, thanking me for writing about our lives on the spectrum and how different things I’ve shared along the way, including the Holland piece, have meant so much to them.
As a writer, there isn’t much that could bust my buttons quicker than to tell me something I’ve written has touched your heart, or helped you cope with a situation, or even better, taught you something you didn’t already know or helped you understand something better. That is my whole intent with The Spectrum Scene, to spread awareness of the reality of life on the spectrum, share pieces of our lives to help you better understand autism and the affect it has on our son, and ultimately, to help him and others like him gain acceptance. With awareness comes understanding, with understanding comes acceptance.
Along the way, I’ve met some pretty amazing parents of some pretty amazing kids. One of them recently shared a column her friend had written, entitled: It’s Not Holland.
“Its Not Holland” -by my friend’s uber-awesome friend Rhy
Why having a child with a disability is not like being sent to Holland.
This parable bothers me. It bothers me a lot. While it is certainly uplifting, it makes me uncomfortable, because it denies a central and in my mind, undeniable fact about the experiences parents of children with life altering difficulties face: It is much harder and more difficult to parent a child with a disability than it is to parent a neurotypical child with no health challenges.
In my mind, a more accurate analogy would be this:
Imagine planning a trip to Paris for you and your partner. You get your guidebooks, your luggage, your wardrobe and your plane tickets. You research everything about Paris so you’ll be ready when you arrive. You make reservations. You talk with friends and family about their wonderful trips to Paris and how much fun they had. The two of you talk everyday about how much you want to go to Paris and how amazing it’s going to be when you get there.
You get on the plane and take off. Suddenly, without explanation, the plane is diverted. Then at 5000 ft you and your partner are yanked out of your seats, strapped into parachutes you only vaguely understand, and tossed out the door.
Somehow you manage to make it to the ground.
At first, you just sit, clinging to one another, checking to see if you have any broken bones. Once you’re done thanking god that you’re still alive, you dust yourselves off and look at the terrain. You look at each other and reassure one another that you’re going to get out of this place.
Your first few days in the desert are exhausting. Just getting your basic needs met feels overwhelming. You feel alone, terrified and honestly- You’re not sure if you’re going to make it. Sometimes you fight, not because either of you is doing anything wrong- but because you’re both tired and frustrated, there is sand everywhere, not enough water and there is no one else to yell at.
After many days of struggle, you finally make it to a village. The first thing you find out when you arrive is that this settlement is made up of people who also got dumped out of a plane. This is what they tell you:
We are on the moon!
No, this is Arizona.
No, we’re in the Australian Outback!
It’s the airlines fault.
No. It’s the flight attendant who pushed us out.
Oh! Another passenger pushed me out. How did that crazy person get past TSA?
There is no hope of rescue.
Wait! There is a rescue effort underway.
There is an 80% chance you and your treasured partner are going to crumble under the strain of this experience.
No, you won’t, this experience will make you stronger!
The desert is a gift!
No, it’s not. It’s a war and war is hell!
Trying to make sense of this, you look around and say, “How did this happen? What made our plane go off track, when all the other planes made it to their destination just fine? If only we’d flown on a different airline. Who is right? Are we going to end up divorced or not? Is there a rescue party coming? Why are all of you talking at once?
Everyone in the crowd starts to shout LOUDER. Their voices jumbling into a unintelligible cacophony . Then, it dawns on you that maybe there are no right answers, because no one really knows. This is more terrifying than any answer you could have heard.
So despite being overwhelmed, despite struggling for the basic necessities and despite not knowing how you got there, you get on with the business of living your life. It’s hard. It makes you angry, not at anyone in particular, just angry because it wasn’t supposed to be this way. There are moments when the absurdity of it all makes you laugh. You and your partner discover that there are gorgeous sunsets in the desert and here, the stars shine with crystalline clarity. You smile a little more often and you realize that going to get water every day is doable once you know where the water hole is. You’re scared sometimes, yes, but not as often as when you first landed. There are days when you wake up and wonder how you are ever going to make it through. At times, you’re lonely for all the friends you had who went to Paris. Sometimes you don’t recognize this person you’re becoming or the person your partner has transformed into.
The desert is your new normal and once it becomes familiar, it’s more understandable. You know which plants are poisonous, how to get sand out of your sleeping bag and how to be patient when your partner is screaming “ALL I EVER WANTED WAS A CROISSANT!” The path to the water hole is well worn. You learn how to handle your own meltdowns and you figure out that there are some wonderful people here in the village. Your skin gets toughened by the sun, and you realize you don’t need Starbucks to get through the day.
Sometimes at the end of the day, as you gaze up at the endless sky, you wonder, “What would Paris have been like?” But then you realize that the desert has become your home- and you wouldn’t give it up for the world.
I’m glad I read “Welcome to Holland” first, but I’m also glad that we were nearly a year into things before I read it. I think it sets up some unrealistic expectations. While, yes, Holland is lovely, as can The Spectrum Scene be, but it’s not like that right away. In the beginning, it’s hard. And when I say hard, I mean really, really, really hard. Even when you think you know going into a diagnostic clinic that this is the diagnosis you’re going to get, it still knocks the wind out of you. Even when you know that you know that you know this diagnosis is the best possible outcome of the day, and your spouse is the most supportive person you could possibly imagine, it’s still hard. It’s not Holland right away, but thankfully, with a lot of prayer, faith, and perseverance, you can make it to Holland. And yes, Holland is quite lovely. And it’s okay that we’ll never, ever leave.