I Cried On the First Day of School

20130904-100632.jpgThe first day of school.

Means a lot of different things to different people.

Some moms count down the days till school starts like their kids count the days till Christmas. Eager anticipation. Emancipation. Space to breathe. First day of school is better than Christmas because it lasts more than 24 hours–it lasts 9 months.

Some moms are sad and even cry on the first day of school. They are among the relatively few who truly enjoy motherhood, it’s challenges and rewards and love spending their days raising the next generation.

I cried today after I dropped my little Dolphin off at school. Not for the same reasons as the motherhood-loving moms. I’ve found myself in a bit of a different category of moms. A category I didn’t really know existed, or at least a category I never thought I’d find myself in: moms of kids with special needs.

I cringe inside just typing those words. “Special needs.” What a strange response to twelve innocuous letters. They never seemed to bother me before…before the end of first grade.

We’ve discovered, somewhat painfully and traumatically, over the past year or so, that my Dolphin isn’t quite like other kids. He has a condition known as Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). When I tell people this, I’m usually greeted with the blank gaze of un-recognition. Basically, it’s a nervous system glitch that affects 1 in 20 children (and adults–turns out my own nervous system is a bit glitchy, too). The nervous system is responsible for receiving and interpreting the signals from the world and turning them into appropriate behavioral responses in an orderly fashion to help us navigate life–everything from mundane, boring tasks like brushing your hair or teeth to jumping out of the way of an oncoming bus.

Kids and adults with SPD have a bit of a train wreck/traffic jam/war zone inside their bodies when it comes to properly interpreting outside signals. This package comes complete with all the veritable horn honking, explosions and chaos associated with such a catastrophe. And this is daily life. Things like the sound of a hair dryer are painful to your entire body, not just your ears. A tag on your shirt rubbing on your skin feeling like you’re being flayed. Tastes and textures of normal foods making you gag like you were being fed creeping crawling insects. It’s a bit different for every person.

We knew something was absolutely amiss with the Dolphin toward the end of 1st grade when he would collapse like an overcooked spaghetti noodle in school and be completely non-responsive. He wouldn’t talk. He couldn’t protect his face if you dropped his hand on it. He wouldn’t cringe at a painful sternal rub. Just lie there limply, tears coming from the corners of his eyes.

Tests, waiting lists, insurance, doctors visits, books, crying, worrying. Now I know a bit more about what we are actually dealing with. At least the beginning stages of it. And now we are working to figure out ways to deal with it and help my Dolphin function in daily life. Because he was not functioning. Everyday is a challenge, unsure, unpredictable, dramatic, chaotic…so much work.

So, what was the first day of school really like in our house?

Started off with a cheerful little 7-year-old getting up, dressed in his new Lego Star Wars shirt (just like we talked about the night before), coming and snuggling with me and our cat Elvis, eating his breakfast, then growing increasingly agitated. Frustrated with his brother. Anxiety about leaving the house (this is one of our biggest challenges). Increasing agitation. Getting rough with brother. Putting noise canceling ear muffs/headphones on his ears.  Going limp when putting on his shoes didn’t go smoothly. Collapsing in the dirt while walking up the hill to school. Refusing to walk. Me giving this gigantic heavy 62 pound kid a piggy bag up the hill (a very steep hill) to the school yard, still wearing ear muffs. Getting him into his classroom. He recognizes his friends. He sits at his desk and shoos me away.

What does the first day of school mean to me?

It means struggle. It means battles. Nine months of battles every school day. It means weeping and wailing. It means pain. It means huge mental exertion to coerce this child to be okay with going to school. It means rigorous rounds of him wheedling and renegotiating and pleading complete with a side of defiance and opposition. All this in thrown at me first thing in the morning–my brain does so poorly with these noises and demands so early in the day.

It means keeping a vigilant eye so that little brother doesn’t take the brunt of the Dolphin’s anxieties and frustrations.

It means hoping that he will be able to make it through the day without me getting a phone call from the nurse letting me know that he collapsed in class and is now non-responsive in the nurse’s station. It means me hoping that things aren’t so hard and painful for him that he learns to hate learning.

So yes. I cried on the first day of school. But they weren’t tears of joy. They weren’t tears of missing my child. They were tears of heartache. And of exhaustion. And of helplessness and not knowing.

Bring on the second grade.

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