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 We’ve all seen the articles.  They are all over women’s magazines, wellness websites, those flyers in doctor’s offices.  Stress is harmful to your health.  But hey, here’s some ways to reduce your stress!  I’m looking at one now, filled with gems like deep breathing, practicing yoga, taking a bath, reducing your caffeine intake, learning to say no, and, of course, practicing mindfulness.  Okay.  Yeah.  After I’m done laughing, I feel like crying, the kind of crying that comes from being completely unseen by those who are not familiar with the world of severe special needs.

Let’s go over a day with Janey.  We’ll start with the morning routine.  We wake her up (that is, assuming she’s ever slept, which is a big if).  We determine if the bed needs a complete change, and if she needs a shower due to…you know.  We determine her mood—is she screaming and biting herself?  Or manically laughing?  All this affects how long it will take to get her dressed and ready.  Because—we have to be out there soon waiting for a school bus that might or might not show up within a range of time that is up to an hour either way.  But I’m sure a little caffeine reduction and some good old deep breathing is what the situation calls for.

Then—the “easy” part of the day.  Janey is at school.  Now, we only have to hurry and do all the things that are impossible to do while caring for her—bills, housework, shopping, and oftentimes, sleeping.  In there someplace, we need to do long term planning.  Janey is 17.  There’s a lot to be done before she turns 18, and we need to get on that—NOW.  By the time we can draw a breath, the bus is heading home.  We haven’t gotten in a bath, or any mindfulness—shoot!  We have gotten in a lot of mind-full-of-stress-ness, though—the worry that never quite leaves us every time Janey isn’t within our sight. We love and trust her teachers and aides and therapists, but we don’t know how her day is going.  Is she having a tough day?  Has someone else having a bad day of their own yelled at her?  Is she confused, scared, bored, overwhelmed?  Is she safe?  The stress of having a child who doesn’t communicate much at all with us—that base level of stress, even on the easiest day, is never, ever gone.

And now, Janey is home.  We are happy to see her.  We hope she is happy to see us.  Some days, she gets off the bus with smiles.  Other days, with screams.  We check if her notebook is written in.  Did she have a tough day?  Did she sleep all day at school after a sleepless night?  Did she have a lot of “energy” (read that as manic energy, pacing and repeating phrases and laughing randomly)?  We hang on every word written, desperate for a glimpse of her life away from us.  

The afternoon and evening.  Janey, even in the best of moods, makes constant demands—“Want to go for a car ride?  Want a shower time?  Want tuna  Want salami?  Want cheese?  Want Buzz Lightyear?” and the non-specific but highly insistent “I NEED HELP!”  Sometimes, we try the stress reduction technique of learning to say no.  Any no, even after minutes and hours and days of yesses, is met with a scream, some arm biting, stomping.  As we deep breath our heads off, Janey repeats the demand that caused the no, every minute for hours.  The things she asks for, I know, are things to relieve her own stress, stress which I am quite sure is as pervasive and severe as ours.  The warm water of the shower, the music and movement in the car, the videos repeated over and over—she needs stress relief too, and she doesn’t know, isn’t able to know, how that stress relief works on us—how stressful it is to be her parent, to want to do anything on earth to help her, even as we are falling apart.

Then—bedtime.  Or not.  These days, a night where Janey falls asleep at a reasonable hour and stays asleep all night happens probably 1 out of 3 nights.  The other nights—another 1 out of 3 feature short sleep, with her falling asleep easily but waking at 1 or 2 am to never go back to sleep, or her finally falling asleep at midnight or 1.  The remaining third—no sleep nights.  No sleep at all.  None.  That was last night.  And when Janey doesn’t sleep, ain’t nobody sleeping.  She constantly wakes us, either by asking for the same things as daytime—“Salami!  Shower!” or by screaming, or by turning on the TV or one of the devices she has, loud and endless…”It’s fun to act like animals!  Fancy Nancy! Little Einsteins! Forky! Three Little Kittens!” … the tunes that play on constant repeat, in my mind even when they are not actually being blasted.

And then it’s morning, and it all starts again.

Janey is the love of our lives.  She is amazing, fascinating, beautiful.  And it is not her fault, in any way at all, that the stress of caring for her is…there is so much I want to say here and I won’t. And I won’t do what I am hugely prone to do, what I am sure many of you are prone to do, to minimize, to worry that speaking the truth of the stress is somehow wrong, to pretend that I’m fine.  I wouldn’t do that because I know I’m not alone here, that others are living this life, and that one of the hugest stressors is feeling alone in your struggles.  You aren’t.  I’m not.  And with that, I’m having another cup of coffee—today, as every day, is not the day to reduce my caffeine.

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