Two years ago I went through a divorce after 31 years of marriage. It was devastating. My entire life and lifestyle has changed. Where I live, work, play, friends everything. There are times of monumental stress compounded by the stress of raising a child with special needs. But, I have ways of dealing with the stress, yoga, boxing, meditation, even the rare night out with my girlfriends dancing.
Dawn on the other hand has suffered so deeply that I don’t know if she’ll ever fully be the happy-go-lucky child she was before the divorce. During the marriage her father was distant and didn’t spend a lot of quality time at home. Dawn was use to that but she had her father when she needed him. She had school everyday, horseback riding at Wings of Hope in Joshua, baseball with the Miracle League in Arlington, bowling and equestrian for the Special Olympics, she participated in Girl Scouts and went to parties and had elaborate birthday parties. She was active, social and happy.
We had to move from our home after the divorce. We settled in Granbury, a 45-minute drive from where we use to live. Dawn suffered a fall in January 2014 at the John Justin Arena during the opening day of Stock Show while competing in the Chisholm Challenge for Wings of Hope. What I had no way of knowing was that the fall ruptured the semicircular canal in her right ear. She began to complain of dizziness. It got so bad she was forced to quit school, drop out of all her activities and hasn’t seen a movie in a year. She has little contact with her father who has a girlfriend living in what was once the family home. Then, after countless doctors appointments and tests she had surgery in January 2015.
For an average person the stress of your family falling apart, a debilitating injury that leaves you homebound and the loss of all your activities and social life would be devastating. For Dawn it is much harder. Because of her ID/DD she has been unable to grasp the concepts about her mother and father’s divorce. Why can’t we go home? Why has daddy brought “C” there instead of us? C is the first letter of his girlfriends name because she refuses to say her name. She doesn’t see her daddy with any regularity and this hurts her deeply. Her stress level has reached a breaking point.
She has begun to have panic attacks. While in the car, even for local errands, she is hyper-vigilant about other drivers, my speed, the phone, and curves in the road and traffic lights. Last night was the worst. We came upon an accident with half dozen emergency vehicles and other cars pulled to the side of the highway and the median where a car had careened out of control and obviously rolled. Dawn covered her eyes and shouted to be careful. She cried, “I want to go home.”
We were almost home already so when we got home I could see it took no time at all for her calm herself. I talked to her and discovered that the reason she still has me walk her to the restroom, her bedroom etc. is because she panics, she is still afraid she will get dizzy and fall. So I’ve determined that my happy-go-lucky child is now suffering a panic attack disorder. With all the changes she’s had to deal with it’s no wonder. Children and adults with ID/DD are susceptible to developing panic disorders because of their limited capacity to understand and make sense of the world and the actions of those around in them. They don’t process stress the same and they reason much differently depending on their developmental capacity.
Dawn needs her friends, family, care givers, and she needs to be active and social like all people with disabilities. Friends teach her social skills and show the unconditional love that she craves. Activities keep her engaged and don’t allow her time to stress about potential tragedies. Dawn has a village of family, doctors, therapists, care givers and friends. As she recovers from the surgery she will slowly get back to the routine of her new life. She will graduate high school in May and then begin a new school to learn life lessons and work skills that will broaden her chance to meet new friends. We will slowly work her back into those activities she loves like bowling and going to the movies.
Some panic disorders in people with ID/DD require medication but because of side effects and the potential to do more harm than good Dawn and I have decided that it is best for her to learn some coping skills for when she is in a situation that can cause her to feel panic and to slowly begin to rebuild a new life for her, one where she feels safe, loved and happy.
There are lots of triggers for people with ID/DD like medication side effects, environmental changes, a tragedy within the family or with caregivers, even the anxiety level of a parent or caregiver. The key is change. Change is difficult for everyone but when your capacity to understand and grasp concepts is diminished it only magnifies the stress. Dawn is hypersensitive to my needs and my moods. She senses when things are not going well and she sees the stress of our new life whether she fully understands it or not. We talk about all of it even if it’s a concept she doesn’t fully grasp we discuss it as much on her level as possible until she is satisfied. When I began to date Dawn was terrified that I would find someone, like her dad did, and I would abandon her too. We have discussed her fears at great lengths and come up with lots of different ways to remedy her concerns.
When I think I’m stressed I stop, breathe, take a break and realize that my control is limited and what is most important is how my daughter sees me handle the stress of our new life. It helps me to let it go and move on.