Wednesday, February 22, 2012


The earth moved for us this week, and not just when the bed broke. Earthquakes have been on everyone's mind. Where were you when you heard? the newspapers asked this week, on the anniversary of the one that struck Christchurch with such forcible brutality last year. Well, I was in bed, in the darkness of a Yorkshire winter. My husband woke me. This was major stuff. At the time we were both so sleep-deprived that when my eldest woke me up with a nightmare I had to restrain myself from bopping him over the head with a hammer (Sometimes it is good NOT to follow parental instinct). I knew it must be something important. "Hmmh?" I said, eyes shut.
"There's been another big quake in Christchurch."
I sat up. "Oh, God." Then "I'm glad you woke me."
We went downstairs and spent an unhappy few hours waiting for news of the family. They were all safe, although safe is a relative term in the aftershock-and-trauma-land that is the aftermath of a major quake. We saw the pictures of the cathedral, of the TV tower. The distance was terribly hard for my husband, he desperately wanted to be with his family. I remembered the September earthquake, which had caused us to talk about moving back to New Zealand. Now I wondered if we were making a terrible mistake and should change our plans.

We decided not to tell our eldest about the second quake. He had been freaked out by the first. How would he react to a second, with fatalities, and how would it make him feel about New Zealand, the country he was going to live in soon? So we never mentioned it, which didn't matter at all until this week: when the first anniversary was commemorated with a minute's silence across the country, including at his school. Oops, mother FAIL. For a child with a death phobia this was major stuff, like filling an arachnaphobic's bed with spiders by mistake.

Quite understandably, he was horrified. But he reacted maturely - bottled it all up at school, and talked about it at home. He asked several times if his family had been hurt, and what would happen if there was a bigger quake that made them die. Reasonable questions in the circumstances. Then he said something unexpected, that made my heart skip a beat "Can you put what I said in the communication book for school?"
I didn't realise he knew he had one of those. "Yes, I can. What do you want me to say in it?"
He thought. "Say to the school that thinking about these things is sad, and things like death and this, make me think about them a lot, because I have Aspergers."
He's right, the death phobia is linked to Aspergers. This is why we had not wanted to frighten him with the earthquake. But we have never spoken to him about the reason why that happens. He knows he has Aspergers, but we have talked to him about it in very general terms, in the sense of anxieties, and needing proper answers to difficult questions, and the sensory stuff. But here he was, putting two and two together and making four. I took a deep breath. "Sure," I said as nonchalently as possible. "Of course I'll put that in your book for you."
I felt as if I had been drowning underwater, and someone had just slipped me some oxygen. My child had internalised what we had taught him, reflected on it, and come up with an accurate explanation of the way he was feeling in terms of a label that allowed him to make sense of what was happening to him, and to ask for support from others - in this case, understanding from the school. The Holy Grail of intervention. Getting a child to understand themselves so that you don't need to be there forever, supporting them. Which means an easier time for them, and more chance to stop and drink tea for you.

It is the second time it has happened. Both have been seismic - in the good sense. A few weeks ago, we went to provincial cricket (it's free. Go if you have no money and enjoy spending a long time in the hot sun whilst your husband peers besottedly at eleven men doing something slowly a couple of miles in the distance). Anyway, to pass the time between one ball and another, he started asking my eldest questions, "how many balls left in this over?," that kind of thing. My son is good at maths, so the questions were easy. But he got flustered, and we couldn't understand why. "Dad," he said agitatedly after a few moments, "Stop asking me this. I don't like it because of my Aspergers, it is surprising me." Well yes, he was right I guess. It was unexpected. Maths is something you do in the classroom, not at a cricket ground. (Frankly, I could do without maths anywhere, but that's another conversation).
I will never have the option of knowing what it would have been like had we chosen to raise my eldest without a label: because we didn't take that path. "Aw, we don't like LABELS," I would say as a younger mum, as if I was talking about Nike and Reebok. But as I tried and failed to cope with my kids without support and knowledge, I realised that diagnoses were a tool, to enable us to access help. For now, at least.

That's the thing, of course. I have no idea how he will feel about all of this as a young adult, or older. I kind of hope that it is irrelevant to him, like the kind of toothpaste he uses as an adult doesn't reflect his wild hatred of anything with mint and the more palatable strawberry cream stuff we have resorted to getting sent over at vast expense from Tescos, England. Perhaps he will resent us terribly and feel we ruined his life, who knows? Ideally, I'd like all this to be an interesting story from his childhood that no longer has any major impact on his day-to-day life. But after today, I feel that I have a narrative that may make some sense for him as an adult, of why we sought help for him as a young kid. Not because he was incapable of understanding himself, but because he was so good at it, and because the label gave him a language with which to tell us that he was struggling, now and then. And that has to be a good thing. Doesn't it?

So our landscape shifted subtly this week, but in a good way. Kia Kahe, Christchurch. Kia Kahe, SN mums. Diagnoses are a bit like an earthquake, they throw you around and leave you gasping where you thought you had certainty. They create chasms in your relationships with others, cracks in the narrative of parenting you told yourself previously. Like a family losing their home, you gasp and clutch around for straws of support. You are utterly dependent on the mercy of strangers for a while. But gradually, you learn to cope, as Christchurch has learnt to cope with the aftermath of the quake. It's not the same world, but it is where you live. You get used to it, not being able to go out in public or not being able to go into the centre of town. One day you hope "normality" will return. You even learn to make jokes about it, and seek out likeminded people to giggle or complain wiuh. Like the lovely coffee morning I went to this week. We were all mums of ASD kids, and there was that to talk about. But we were also almost all British, and there was a wonderful, quintessentially expat moment when one brought out a box of PG Tips, imported from England. We passed it around, and sniffed reverently. Then we laughed at ourselves. "Hey, it's just tea," we said, feeling slightly foolish for how important it felt.
But it also felt bittersweet, a reminder of what we didn't have. The painful quality of nostalgia. Rather like when my husband gets sad, looking at pictures of pre-quake Christchurch. You can't look backwards all the time, to the cathedral you expected to see standing forever, to the easy family you expected to have. And you can't lie to your children. They have to hear about the earthquakes, about the Aspergers. You can only hope that one day this landscape will be normal for them, non-traumatising. Part of who they were as children, without dominating their being or creating a sense of a frightening, dangerous world.

1 comment:

  1. Another thoughtful, thoughtprovoking post. Labels - diagnoses - clearly do have their uses. Hope there aren't too many post-quake nightmares for your boys.