Flying down the freeway one afternoon, my mind jumping from one task to the next, I glanced over at my 10-year-old son. I was startled by what I saw. His eyes were closed and his hands were open on his knees, palms up. His shoulders were relaxed and a little smile inched up into his cheeks. He quietly and evenly breathed in, and then he quietly and evenly breathed out.
This is not the norm with my son, because my son is autistic. He is often plagued by anxiety and a high-alert approach to life. After a minute or two, I couldn’t resist interrupting his meditative posture to ask what he was doing. Calmly and matter-of-fact, he told me that he was relaxing his body and telling his “worry alarm” that for the moment, everything was okay. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about that moment with my son. He’s my oldest of four boys and he’s not the only one in our home with some extra needs. He has a few brothers with medical and learning differences that require a lot of appointments, Googling, therapies, and attention. I spend most of my days concerned about a new symptom or slower-than-I’d-like progress. I am always scrambling to fill the many current needs and to anticipate what could possibly come up next. Raising children with special needs has created an inner vigilance that, when unchecked, morphs into a frantic fear of worst-case scenarios. It seems my son is not the only one with an overdeveloped fight or flight reflex.
If all goes well, someday my children will assume responsibility for their needs and I will be out of a job. There is a part of me that understands that this is the goal. If I can give them what they need to have a fighting chance for a healthy, productive, and fulfilling future, then every single second of my inner vigilance was worth it. But there is also a part of me that wonders if I succeed, what will fill the empty space that for so long was filled with concerns for my children? I suspect the answer lies somewhere in the example of my son’s quiet meditation and understanding my own worry alarm. It’s not that every moment is OK. In fact, there are a lot of moments that are the opposite of OK. But every single day there are moments that deserve to be recognized for what they are—good, great, and even perfect. As I watch my sons learn to accept the hands they’ve been dealt, by sitting in peace and acceptance with anxiety, I’m struck by what good teachers they are.
While I never would have chosen for my sons to struggle as they do, and I never would have chosen to spend my season of motherhood constantly fighting against worry, the complex truth is, I would have chosen this story. Because it’s the only one that exists with all of us: me, my husband, and my boys, and every great and terrible and OK moment we have together. There will always be a worry alarm, but you can turn it off any time. Deep breath in. Deep breath out. Hands open.
There will always be a worry alarm, but you can turn it off any time.
Sarah Torna Roberts