John’s aggressive nature towards me had become my normal. I imagine that almost all relationships have moments where one of the partners comes off as aggressive or insensitive. My relationship with John was made almost purely of these moments however. At least once a day there would be a conversation that resulted in John chasing me, screaming at me, calling me a name, swearing or having some other version of what (looking back) I now see as an adult temper tantrum.
My children were almost always witnesses to these events, and while Quinn was still too young to really pick up on what was going on, James didn’t seem to miss any of it. After time he stopped plugging his ears when John yelled at me and it became his normal too. I wasn’t happy… but I wasn’t necessarily afraid at this point either. The children kept me grounded and they filled me with more love than I ever thought possible. They were the light that kept the darkness from creeping into the corners of my heart.
Being a parent was the most rewarding …. and stressful… thing I had done in my life to this point. As James got older his behaviors at school started becoming more and more aggressive. As I mentioned in a previous post, I tried switching daycare centers multiple times thinking the setting was the problem, until I eventually came to terms with the fact that James had high functioning autism.
John, still a non believer in medical doctors, fought me every step of the way when it came to getting intervention for James. He said he felt as if James was fine. Kids are just rough sometimes. I’m not sure if he truly believed that or if he was just too lazy to put the same level of hard work into his child that I did on a daily basis…. Because it WAS hard work. It was EXHAUSTING work that would have been a little easier if I had a partner to share the physical and emotional load with. But I didn’t. So I cried in private and I powered on.
After moving James to his third daycare, I applied for a community service that worked with young children, to come into his daycare setting to try and help him control the violent fits he was having at school. Teachers and students were getting hit, kicked and bit. James would throw things and he even attacked parents who were dropping off their kids. Students bled. Teachers got black eyes. His fits were intense. He had almost no frustration tolerance unless I was by his side. When he was with me, no one would ever know that there was anything different about him. Leaving him to go to work every day felt like I was abandoning him in a situation he was trying to tell me he couldn’t handle. Every day I left him, a piece of me chipped away like peeling paint.
I continued to handle all of the things that popped up each day on my own. I worked towards getting him services and getting him enrolled in a special education preschool for a few hours a week. I called doctors and read books. Everything I read said early intervention was the key. I found an occupational therapist 45 minutes away from our house that would combine OT lessons with self regulation lessons and social skills groups, so that became part of our weekly routine. John continued to tell me he disagreed and he didn’t want James to continue with the OT services, but since I was the one taking him, and it didn’t inconvenience him, he didn’t take any steps to stop me.
I would get daily phone calls from the daycare center while I was at work. Sometimes I was able to calm James down over the phone. Most days I would be asked to come pick him up. He was suspended multiple times. At least once a week I would enter my principal’s office, fighting tears, and ask if I could leave to pick up my son and have him stay in my classroom while I taught. My principal would always say yes, and once James was in my care he was a model child. He even participated in the phonics lessons I was giving to my fourth graders. Once again I managed all of this alone.
This entire time John was fighting with me about James’ diagnosis. He was fighting me about getting support for James. Heck…. he would fight with me if I said the sky was blue. (And if you recall, I had an infant I was responsible for providing sole care to as well.) I was getting it from every angle and I had no support system. I had no shoulder to cry on. I was an island. Isolated and alone. Watching one of the people I loved more than anything in this world struggle immensely every time he left my care, while knowing that if people could just get to know him when he was with me, they would see how sweet and special and amazing he really was.
Eventually James was expelled from the daycare center, leaving me with the burden of figuring out what to do with him when I had to go to work. And yes…. I was expected to figure this out alone as well. I ended up hiring a nanny… who was one of the best things that ever happened to my family… but getting to that point meant countless interviews and lots of research….. alone.
Over the years I had attributed all of James’ behaviors to his diagnosis of autism… until I didn’t anymore. There are many, many children who are diagnosed with autism. I have taught many in my classroom. They do not all have aggressive behaviors. But I do know that most children behave in the way that was modeled for them. And John modeled aggression on a daily basis. Anger pumped through his veins. He modeled a low frustration tolerance. He modeled rigidity. He modeled a lack of compassion and empathy. James was becoming a reflection of his father.
I am grateful that I was able to recognize the mirror image that was developing in front of my eyes early enough to do something about it before it was too late. I deeply wish that I had not accepted my life as “normal” for these early years of James’ life. I sometimes wonder… if I had left John sooner… would James have struggled for as long as he did in school? Would he have been able to make friends sooner? Learn to regulate his emotions earlier? Did my inability to recognize my own worth and value inadvertently harm my child?
But I have learned that living in the past and focusing on the “what ifs” won’t do any of us any good. Instead I am choosing to focus on the fact that my son has a real chance now. A chance to be his own person. Not a reflection of his abusive father. I found enough strength inside my shattered shell to crawl out from the wreckage and to model for my children courage…. strength… and a love that is so strong… so unbreakable and never ending… that it carried me through the battlefield and to the other side.