A MOTHER'S JOURNEY FROM AUTISM TO HOPE
By Helena Hjalmarsson
Skyhorse Publishing Copyright © 2013 Helena Hjalmarsson
All rights reserved.
Life Before Autism
I grew up outside of a small town in Sweden, surrounded by deep forests and lakes. Tony grew up in New York City, on the Upper West Side, surrounded by tall buildings, asphalt, noise, and people. My father was the principal of a Lutheran high school for adult students, mostly high-school dropouts getting their lives and their educations back on track. Tony's father had been an English professor, writer, and eventually a publisher, struggling with multiple jobs and long work hours to put his four children through the private Waldorf School that Tony's parents felt they ought to go to. Growing up in what at the time was one of the world's most functional socialist countries, my two older brothers and I went to public school. It wouldn't have occurred to my parents to do otherwise. Very little in my life and in my country was private. Everything in Tony's world was. My government erased the difference between rich and poor, lucky and unlucky, healthy and sick. In Tony's, you either made it or you didn't.
My mother was a temperamental choir leader and an opinionated principal's wife, a talented interior decorator and a general busybody. She was funny and charismatic, but plagued by debilitating anxiety and panic. Tony's mother is an artist. She is often quiet and introverted but her paintings are loud, large, and colorful. My parents spent long periods in Africa, both before and after my brothers and I were born, both working in a refugee camp in Sudan and within the context of a Lutheran congregation in Eritrea. I believe that my mother was drawn to Africa after her older sister had been shot there, when my mother was only a teenager. Her sister had been a dedicated missionary assistant within the Lutheran Church, and was shot by mistake by a robber who had intended to shoot the driver next to her.
Arriving in New York City in 1990, I was shocked by the inequality between people and soon found myself volunteering in soup kitchens and offering a room in my apartment to one downtrodden friend or acquaintance after another.
When Tony and I met in the summer of 1993 at a street fair we both worked at, he was fresh out of law school, studying for the bar, with large student loans and with a focused intention of securing his financial future as quickly as possible. Nothing could have been further from my mind. I worked long hours to pull together resources for graduate school, but my intention was to make the world a better place, brick by brick, step by step, person by person.
Soon, Tony flourished in publishing at a time when publishers all around him began to dip deeper and deeper into the recession. I became a privately practicing psychoanalyst. Marriage and having my own children had not been at the forefront of my life plans. Instead, I had a vision of foster kids running all around, with me and my like-minded socialist boyfriend adopting as many children as we could from broken homes. But, despite our different worldviews, Tony and I were drawn to each other. We made each other laugh, which I think is why we made it for as long as we did. And while we are both strong-willed, stubborn, and intense, humor and forgiveness still today help us find the best in each other, and to act as a team when co-parenting our daughters.
Lina was born in Connecticut. Tony had sold his and his father's book publishing company to a publisher in Connecticut, and as part of the agreement, he stayed on and worked with them for a few years. I was working as a psychotherapist in a New York City clinic and finishing up my psychoanalytic training. Westport, Connecticut, was the exact midpoint between our professional destinations.
It was a warm summer midnight in 2003, and Lina was getting ready to enter our world. Within an hour of admitting me to the hospital, Dr. Appelbee, the physician on call, came charging into the room, declaring that we needed to induce labor. One of the nurses, less temperamental than the doctor, explained to Tony and me that our baby's heart rate was dangerously low due to very low levels of amniotic fluids. Tony managed to consult a trustworthy pediatrician in New York to verify that inducing labor was necessary and things started to happen quickly.
I had planned on a natural childbirth, but now agreed to all the measures. After an epidural and a pitocin injection, I pushed Lina out in less than five minutes. There was nothing wrong with her lungs. Whenever the nurses took her into the ward to monitor her early development, her screaming rose above all the other babies. But she breast-fed like a champ whenever she wasn't busy screaming and passed hearing and Apgar tests with flying colors. The first night after Lina's birth the new nurse on call wanted to quiet Lina down with sugared water. I might have accepted an epidural because I was afraid of the pain but I was not about to give sugar water to my beautifully breast-feeding daughter to stop her screaming. I figured Lina had just experienced a tough trip into this new, scary life and needed to express herself. The nurse insisted that she needed to give me a break and I insisted that Tony was here should I need one. I did, reluctantly, agree to a break later that night and a proud Tony ran up and down the hallway singing "Yankee Doodle went to town, riding on a pony" to our tightly swaddled baby while carefully bouncing her. It helped. It was only our second night with our new wonderful girl and we had already figured out two powerful tricks to calm her down—breasts and Yankee Doodle, accompanied with tight wrapping and fast-paced walking, or, even better, running. This was going to be good. We congratulated each other and drove home, me in the backseat, holding the tiny hand of my fast asleep, 6.9-pound beautiful little powerhouse.
"She's pretty oral," I commented a couple of months later to my friend Carleen as we watched Lina attempting to put an entire phone in her mouth.
"That's an understatement," Carleen said.
Lina's love for exploring the world through her mouth made her a passionate breast-feeder. So passionate, in fact, that we eventually consulted a breast-feeding specialist, trying to bring down an overproduction of milk that made Lina choke, spit, cry, and scream every time she tried to feed. This same overproduction also caused my baby serious and ongoing diarrhea of the kind that made it almost impossible to prevent infected diaper rashes, which at one point, according to our stern, Harvard-educated pediatrician, only could be remedied by giving Lina antibiotics.
Before we got a handle on this dilemma, bright green liquid baby poop became a central part of our days and nights. One evening, a few months after Lina's birth, Tony and I were going to bring her with us to one of our friend's parties. Tony, dressed up in a brand new, white linen shirt, opened up Lina's diaper for the last time before we were about to jump in the car. Poop cascaded through the air and covered the entire front of Tony's shirt.
"That's it, I'm not going anywhere," he announced, trying to wipe off the green fluids from his shirt. I couldn't suppress my laughter, unaware of how one day in the not so distant future, Lina's extraordinary condition would make maintaining and developing friendships almost impossible.
Breast-feeding got back on track. Feeding repeatedly on one side before switching to the other, and letting Lina lie on top of me so as to help her not to choke on the milk, which, by the way, is called the Australian Method, brought feedings back to the blissful, connected, and restful times they had been the first month of Lina's life.
Physical closeness for Lina was essential. She slept by my side in our bed at night. During the day we wore her in a baby sling. Many mornings and late afternoons were spent walking on the nearby beach, with Lina peacefully curled up in a sling and with the sound of the gentle waves rocking her to sleep. She was always peaceful near the water. No matter how convincing her red-faced, tight-fisted, screaming agony seemed in her car seat on the short drive down to the beach, as soon as we opened the doors to let the air and the wind and the sound of the water register, she always shifted, becoming the most easygoing little baby-Buddha anyone had ever seen. So we spent increasing time down there, at the beach. Water was clearly her element. Whether at the beach or in a little plastic bassinet that served as her bathtub the first six months of her life, Lina was always in a good mood.
During most of Lina's waking hours, I worked actively to elicit smiles and sounds from her. Every day I invented new games to catch her attention. Being that Lina was my first, I had no sense of this being an unusually intense motherly approach. Sometimes, relatives and friends might try to point something out about the universe outside of Lina, but such comments only registered in the periphery. Instinctively, I must have known that Lina needed every extra hour of active engagement. But it was not a conscious choice. Not something I hesitated to do or resolved to commit to. Never something someone recommended. It was the way I was a mother to Lina. I thought it was similar to the way everyone mothered their babies and children. Only later, as I participated in a group of Swedish mothers, did I realize that I was pretty much the only one doing this. If I modified my involvement with Lina, played a little less with her, let her be by herself for a few minutes, she either fell apart, screamed, or seemed ... absent. One day I decided to put Lina in the stroller instead of the sling and go for a long walk to a nearby park. We were about an hour away from home when Lina suddenly turned from cheerful to screaming. It was the kind of howling that instantly became the center of attention for everyone in the park, including a tall, slim man with his long hair in a ponytail, who stood on top of a little hill, worshipping the sun. With a poorly diffused edge, he demanded to know if I had fed my screaming girl and if she was cold. With equal irritation, I responded that I had indeed fed her and being that it was the middle of a warm summer day, I wasn't too concerned about my daughter being cold. The man forgot the sun, pointed his long, skinny finger at me, and shouted, "IT IS YOU! IT IS YOU! THAT'S THE PROBLEM! SHE IS SCREAMING BECAUSE OF YOUUU!!"
We eventually got home. And as soon as we did, Lina calmed down. In fact, most of the time, as long as I stayed right beside her, shared my substantial milk supply (it would have been enough to feed at least ten other babies) without reserve, and had her in a sling for a couple of hours each day, she was happy and developed beautifully. The sling was useful not only to me but also to Tony.
Lina and I were rarely apart. Keeping up a part-time psychoanalytic practice did require that I spend a couple of half days in the city. Sweetly and generously, Tony drove us all into the city those days and delivered Lina to me in between my sessions so that we could be together and Lina could breast-feed. Frequently, we all stayed over in a hotel and loved being in the city again. In the hotel room, Lina discovered the bathtub for the first time, since the apartment that we rented in Westport only had a shower. She would splash around in the bathtub smiling broadly, needing a lot of cajoling to let herself be picked up and wrapped in the plush hotel bath towels. And I loved not having to worry about cleaning and cooking, and using up as many towels as we wanted. And Tony, most of all, loved spending time back on the streets of New York City. When Lina was six months old, this arrangement turned into permanent living, and we moved back to the Upper West Side where both of us had lived for most of our adult lives. Tony was able to spend increasing time working from home, and I started to see my clients from home. It was such a relief to be back in the city. We had beautiful Central Park two blocks away from us, as well as Riverside Park, with its lovely Boat Basin, trails along the water, and multiple playgrounds, a block west of our bright, charming, high-ceilinged apartment. And Lina continued developing beautifully, babbling and playing, laughing and giggling, and being so connected and aware of everything and everyone around her.
Soon after we were back in the city, I met a mother who became one of my closest friends. Her daughter was the same age as Lina and soon turned into my daughter's most important friend. Ellen. Little precocious, lovely, brown-eyed Ellen. A teacher from the start, just like her mother. Ellen had her hands full with Lina, who always did what she believed made sense and what she wanted to do rather than following somebody else's rules, who was probably the most self-directed little friend Ellen would ever come across. Lina and Ellen became inseparable. We started them at the same preschool, and parents of other children in their class frequently expressed insecurity about their own children's level of interactivity compared to the evolved and interactive play they witnessed between Ellen and Lina. Ellen's mother, my dear friend Anki, and her husband Anders moved from the Lower East Side into our building. All of a sudden we had a community! Biweekly dinners, shared Christmases and vacations, endless playdates, coffee breaks, and dropping each other's children off in our respective apartments all became part of our lives. Celebrating life became our daily mission and no one was more skilled at creating festivities and celebration than Anki. Everyone around her felt happy. I have, in most instances, had a kind of clarity about whom I wanted very close to me. A kind of inborn bullshit detector that helps me trust what I see beyond people's verbal presentation of themselves. Listening to Anki, I did see some fear, some internalized social pressure, someone who has frequently been cornered into the role of a mediator. But I also saw so much love and light and goodwill that laughing and smiling and kidding around naturally became part of what I did in Anki's company. I used to joke that if we both hadn't been married, and I had been a man, or, alternatively, a lesbian, I would have proposed to Anki. She was so easy to be around. With the growing tension in Tony's and my relationship, spending time with Anki felt like a relief, a kind of protection from being sucked into what was beginning to feel like a dark hole. Tony and I found it increasingly difficult to laugh at our disagreements and help each other through difficult times. But when Anki and I had rough times with the kids, we supported each other and when that didn't help we just laughed it off.
And when our daughter Elsa came into the world, Tony and I went off to Cornell Medical Center in a cab across Central Park, while Anki, with her big belly ready to give birth any moment herself, slept faithfully next to Lina. She comforted my daughter when she woke up in the middle of the night crying for me and gently stroked her back until she fell back to sleep. There was no one I would rather have there with Lina that night than this friend. I felt so lucky. When Anki's little warrior, Alfred, with lung capacity similar to Lina's, was born, I rocked Ellen to sleep in my arms and woke her up to a pancake breakfast with her best friend Lina. I have a picture of the two of them, sitting side by side in the bright red double stroller we had just bought, sleepy-eyed and serious, waiting for pancakes to be ready and for Ellen's new brother to arrive home from the hospital.
Lina was thriving and seemed to adjust generously to Elsa. Our little two-year-old sat around with Elsa proudly in her lap and handed Elsa all of her own most precious possessions—her favorite dolls, the plastic pieces of food that she loved to play with, big chunks of Play-Doh, the plastic cube that produced Mozart and Vivaldi music as well as the sounds of individual instruments when you pressed on the different sides. She even let her little sister sniffle on the most valued possession, her blankie. Lina showed an unusually generous, non-possessive personality that protected her from being caught in ways that many people are caught, in defensiveness, fear, and inability to let go.
Elsa, in turn, was the easiest baby I had ever met. From the morning of her birth, in hot August of 2005, Elsa has seemed to accept everything in her life almost effortlessly. I can't bank on that, I remind myself, and only barely manage to avoid psychoanalyzing Elsa as the already parentified child, needing so much less attention and holding than her sister; in comparison seeming almost unnaturally self-sufficient, as if she already subconsciously knew that there was only room for one high maintenance child in the family. She wasn't, of course. Not at that time. Because at that point life didn't seem any more challenging for us than for any other family with a couple of small children. It was busy but we had a rich, fun-filled life with two gorgeous, interesting little girls making it even more wonderful.
With much support, encouragement, and inspiration from her older sister, Elsa grew up to be an imaginative toddler. She often stunned us with stories that were rich and innovative, intelligent and emphatic. Today, it is hard to remember that Lina, at two and a half, could have been Elsa's most mutual and interactive playmate. As a toddler, Lina was that imaginative and verbally expressive child. She happily played with Ellen and Elsa and anyone else, big or small, who came through our doors for a visit. Watching old videos, I see her standing by the toy stove in our 81st Street apartment, located just off Broadway. Ellen is on the other side of the stove. Both girls are cooking busily. Elsa sits in a rhythmically moving child seat, watching it all. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Finding Lina by Helena Hjalmarsson. Copyright © 2013 Helena Hjalmarsson. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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