Too many people, too much noise, too many colors, too hot, too windy, feet hurt, weird smells, aaaggghhh! Kind of annoying to even read that, huh?
Recently, my husband and I braved our own social anxiety to take our kids to the most crowded, overwhelming Easter Egg hunt ever. There were people everywhere, parents shoving kids aside to grab a dozen eggs, and children in every direction getting separated from their families. It was hell. And the poor kids had nothing to show for it because we couldn’t push past the throng of overbearing helicopter moms for my own kids to grab a damn egg. This was strike one.
After the failure of an egg hunt, we decided to make the most of it and stay where we were, which was a popular local boardwalk. Lots of rides, lots of memories. Our kids had never been, so we decided it was time. And let me tell you, my expectations were put to shame.
If you know me IRL or have followed me before, you’ll know that my son has sensory processing disorder. Long explanation short, it’s basically where all of the senses that we usually handle normally, they get all jumbled up in my kids head. His brain just looks at all this information like I look at algebra. Not a pretty picture. So, knowing how sensitive my buddy can be, I honestly didn’t expect much. But I underestimated him.
My boy got on every ride he saw, laughed his face off and didn’t fuss one bit when he had to wait in lines. He ate lunch in a strange place, outside, surrounded by strangers, weird smells and weird, loud noises. He was polite, happy and falling in love with the excitement of the boardwalk. And it broke my heart.
Because it was a glimpse of what he could be if we’d never heard the words “autism” and “sensory processing disorder” coming from a doctors mouth. I started imagining how life would be if this was his normal. And I started getting optimistic that this was proof that he’s changed and grown up so much. It was just so nice to see him so happy instead of struggling through every second of the day.
But when we woke up the next day, all hell broke loose. He was angry and lashing out from the second he woke up to the second he finally passed out that night. There were meltdowns galore, tears from everyone and a lot of apologies. I tried to keep my cool because I knew what was going on. All of those overwhelming things he had braved through the day before were all just fuel being added to a bonfire. Every strange noise, every time he almost tripped on the uneven sidewalk, every time a kid rushed past him and bumped him, it all fueled him up, hidden deep inside where he had been storing it all day. The next day, through no fault of his own, it exploded.
This is what I call the sensory hangover. His raging fire burned bright the day after our fun, into the next day, then the next, and the next, etc, etc… As I’m typing this, we are about two weeks out from that day and we still haven’t gotten him back to that great, grown up boy who was doing so well. I’ve found myself explaining his behavior so many times I’m running out of words. It doesn’t matter how many times I say it isn’t his fault. All strangers do is stare, shake their heads, and think I’m being a lazy parent. As if I don’t feel like the worst already.
But here’s what I’ve come to realize… When a child goes through all of this, and then wakes up the next day to this agonizing hangover, the kid isn’t the only one suffering. Meltdowns are hard. They drain the life out of the child suffering and every caregiver they come across. It’s heartbreaking to see a little kid have such a hard time. It’s hard enough seeing a strangers kid freaking out in public, but imagine that being your normal at home. After dealing with the meltdowns over and over, day after day, it wears me down until I’m the one lashing out. I’m snapping at my husband, yelling at the kids, and flinching over the slightest touch. It took me until today to realize that I was now the one in sensory overload. Anxiety does not mesh well with angry kids. And hurting children don’t thrive with an overwhelmed mom.
The thing is, try as I might, this is just what happens when we do something big. The meltdowns are inevitable, his and mine. I have a lot to learn about handling my sons struggles, and I have a long way to go in forgiving myself when I can’t handle it all either. So I might have to avoid a playdate if it comes after something big. I might try to keep the kids in when everyone tells me to take them out. And I may seem like I’m making excuses for bad behavior once in a while. But just know that I (along with so many other special needs parents) are just doing what we need to do to survive the aftermath of a good day. Here’s to hoping that the good days increase and the hangovers get shorter. The sensory kind, and the wine induced kind. Cheers!