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The Possibilities Illuminated in the Dark

What is it about worry and the middle of the night?

I am a fairly frequent visitor to what a friend calls 3 a.m. meetings. I don’t recommend them and you should consider yourself lucky if you are not familiar with them. A troublesome thought will come to me, usually around 3 in the morning, and all of a sudden I am awake for hours, as that single concern expands to all sorts of dark places.

More often than not, my son, who has autism, is a focus of these early morning ruminations. These days, as my son gets ready to turn 15, my “inner worrier” tends to focus on his future: What will my son do after high school? Where will he live? Will he have people in his life who “get” him, and love him?

These are essential questions, no doubt about it. But I have learned that there can be a hopeless quality to these middle-of-the-night worries. Questions and doubts can seem insurmountable, and I tend to focus on all the things that could go wrong. I lose myself…and my son…in the dark.

Worry can be depleting, even crippling, for parents, especially when it causes us to lose trust in ourselves, and our children. But worry is a part and parcel of being a parent. And, when I look back, I have to admit that my worries, when I have viewed them in a more constructive way, have spurred me on to do the right thing for my son, our family, and myself.

Take the issue of finding the right school for our child. Like many parents, my husband and I agonized about where my son should attend kindergarten. There were so many variables to consider, and so much that we didn’t, and really couldn’t, know about our son’s needs. We decided on a school based on the best information we had at the time.

But into his first year, we started having misgivings. We didn’t see much progress in our son’s ability to read, or to do math. We were told by the staff to have lower expectations of our son, that he didn’t have the ability to “generalize” information.

My middle-of-the-night worry sessions about my son’s school grew more frequent. I didn’t have the facts to argue with school personnel, but there was something that didn’t feel right to me.

This worry ultimately led my husband and me to confer with an educator and a psychologist whom we trusted. Their expertise confirmed our fears: my son’s first school provided babysitting, but not much else. We learned that our son was more than capable of learning reading and math, but that his school didn’t provide him with the structure he needed.

It appeared that the thing that I dreaded the most had actually happened: We had made a mistake about our son’s placement. But while this seemed horrible at the time, I realize six years later what a gift this experience really was for us.

I realize that, had it not been for the wrong placement, the worries surrounding my son’s first school, and the actions that we took, my son might not have ended up at his current school, a place at which he has thrived. Our mistake was unfortunate, but in the end it helped us to better articulate what our son needed in a school.

So when I find myself in the dark place of those early morning "meetings," I try to remember how facing my worries, and looking at my missteps ultimately helped me to find the things that I was able to do on behalf of my son. Being in a dark place helped me define the light.

A friend recently caused me to look twice at the beauty of darkness in the form of maple trees in late fall. She pointed out how luminous the yellow and red leaves look when they are set against the dark trunk.

I see this as a wonderful metaphor for surviving and thriving. The big worries that arise in the dark can make me feel frightened and unsure. Paradoxically, when I actually face the darkness, and take action to address aspects of my worries, I can usually find something that is helpful.

So now, when worry comes, I try to locate the part of my worry that I can actually do something about. By doing so, I transform the worry into active problem solving. Now, instead of rambling through distressing thoughts, I try to focus in on something specific that might help me see the problem differently. Perhaps I need to consult with someone. Maybe I need to read more about the issue, or speak with parents who are a few steps ahead of me in their child’s development. When I have taken whatever action I can, I try to sit with it, remembering that raising a child with autism is like peeling an onion, and that each new step can teach me something new about my son.

Being in the dark place, at these 3 a.m. meetings, can be agonizing. But there is reason to be hopeful even when it seems darkest. We need to hold onto a certain level of trust in ourselves, and in the ability of our children to grow. And we need each other…other parents who understand, professionals who can make the connections, friends who care…to help us reach new perspectives. At some level I know that, even though the worries and missteps will keep coming, I can ultimately depend on my ability to see the possibilities illuminated in the dark.