Sunday, July 02, 2006

Life's a Bowl of _____, Part Two

Lately I've been thinking a great deal about happiness and satisfaction. My fleeting glimpses of the former and my occasional brief encounters with the latter have left me wondering about these elusive states.

Elsewhere I've come out against the neverending imperative to turn all lemons into lemonade, to find silver linings in every dark cloud, to render all problems into euphemistic "challenges" — a tendency that flavors so many of the special-needs parenting books. Yeah, yeah, I'll dream new dreams, but just give me five minutes to realize that I even had a whole batch of dreams that I'm giving up. I guess I'm just too cranky to make everything into all happy, all of the time. (Maybe I need some of the 5HTP that This Mom is taking because she has been delightfully happy lately! Where can I get that, Kyra?)

But however cranky one might be, one does wish to have some modicum of happiness in this short go-of-it that we have on the planet. I just wonder how one gets there.

Thus you would probably not be surprised to learn that I've been reading Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness, the cover of which features a spilled bowl of cherries. Gilbert is a Harvard psych professor renowned on campus for his happiness course, which this volume is said to distill. The book is a compendium of counter-intuitive findings about happiness and satisfaction from the annals of research pyschologists spun together with Gilbert's own quirky brand of humor.

Here's an example of a counter-intuitive finding:

In one experiment two groups of students participated in a photography workshop. At the end of the class, each student had made two prints. One group was told that they could keep one print, but that they had to leave the other with photography instructor, as examples for his class portfolio. They had to choose then, forever, which print they would keep and which they'd leave for the teacher's use. The second group was told that they'd get to keep one picture, and had to leave one behind, but unlike group one, they were reassured that if they changed their minds about the photo they'd chosen that they could always call the photo instructor and swap the pictures any time.

Several days later the members of each group were asked to evaluate their level of satisfaction with the pictures they'd chosen to keep, and interestingly enough, the group that did not have the option of changing their pictures were significantly more satisfied with their choices. Really significantly more satisfied.

You can wind up a lot more satisfied — a lot more happy — with something that you can't change. You come up with reasons to be happy about your choice. You affirm what you've got.

While we tend to think that having options offer happiness, we seem to be wrong.

More freedom, more choices — at least in such matters as which photos one keeps — simply doesn't translate into greater happiness or contentment.

Whether this can be generalized to autism parenting, I wasn't sure. So I began thinking about this satisfaction factor and what I've observed in my eight-plus years of parenting a "challenging" child.

One of the things that has most puzzled me in my own journey with Sweet M is how anxious, and irritable, and distraught I'd become whenever I've contemplated some sort of "cure" for her. Early on in this blog I called these unhappy moments of minor madness cure quest.

Debilitating bouts of cure quest could be brought on any number of stimuli: by new research on vaccines and mercury and suggestions of chelation as a cure; by a nutritionist advocating gluten-free, casein-free diets for kids in the spectrum; by solicitous psychologists advocating auditory integration training for M's auditory processing challenges or parent-child interaction therapy for her putative oppositional defiance disorder.

What was especially troubling was the sense of urgency they'd convey. If you don't do this now your child might be lost. You may never forgive yourself if you don't try ___________ (fill in the blank.) There's a limited window when you can start this intervention — you've got no time to waste. Every second counts . . .

I remember one psychologist telling me that he shuddered to think what our daughter's life would be if we did not continue in a course of therapy that required us to sit by passively while he taunted M with withheld "reinforcers" in order to "expand her frustration tolerance" and increase her "compliance." Fortunately he did not win my compliance, and we walked away from that "treatment." (I shudder to think what our lives would be if we'd agreed to participate in breaking her spirit in that way.)

But like the parents that Cammie McGovern describes in her New York Times Op-Ed several weeks ago, I'd feel a sense of urgency and desperation, coupled with a nagging list of "what-if's." What if . . .
  • putting Sweet M on a GFCF diet would stabilize her moods and help her concentrate and I didn't do it
  • giving her digestive enzymes would help her with her moods and concentration and I didn't do it
  • following traditional medical advice and treating her moods with psychotropic medications had horrible side effects that weren't apparent for years
  • ABA would give her more freedom within certain boundaries than my own self-described hippie style parenting offered and I resisted because of my own resistance to anything Skinnerian
  • what if parent-child interaction therapy helped her extend her frustration tolerance and I refused to do it because I objected to what I saw as a sadomasochistic dynamic.
The list of "what-if's" was long and troubling, and I was often anxious and depressed.

And really, come to think of it, who wouldn't be?

While nothing can excuse the murder of a child — any child — I think I understand the despair and despondency at the heart of Dr. Karen McCarron's murder of her daughter Katie. Cure quest — and Dr. McCarron seemed to have had a serious case of it — can be debilitating and deadly.

I thought back on the times when I felt that there might be a "cure" for what "ails" Sweet M. I'd read Catherine Maurice's Let Me Hear Your Voice, and her children seemed so much more impaired that Sweet M — if her children could "recover" from that level of impairment, then I should have high hopes for Sweet M, I thought. I'd read Patricia's Stacey's The Boy Who Loved Windows and I'd think that I ought to have mortgaged our futures so as to spend every waking hour engaged in floortime.

And then, alternately, I'd think that perhaps there was nothing really seriously "wrong" with Sweet M at all — perhaps she was simply high-strung and late-talking.

I just didn't know what to think. To tell you the truth, I still don't. I look back on that time and remember only that it was all very confusing, and that most of time I was anything but happy. Much of the time I was in the darkest despair.

But for the moment I've got my bowl of strawberries, hold the lemonade, and I'm not altogether unhappy.



Mamaroo said...

I can relate to this post. It is always when I find myself on another "cure quest" or begin asking myself a bunch of "what if's?" that I get depressed. I am learning to hold onto my "bowl of strawberries" (by the way, that is so awesome how Sweet M cut those for you!). I need to just know that the choices I have made and continue to make are the right ones for our family and for Roo. Although I continue to read and keep an open mind, I have been learning how to not let what I read influence what I believe to be right for us.

kristina said...

Charlie used to eat bowls of blueberries by the dozens, not so much this summer.

If being Charlie's mother has taught me one (or any) thing, it is that I can make choices and that they do have consequences. On my beloved boy.

And am I letting me---my philosophies--my beliefs---my thoughts---get in the way of something for Charlie?

Maybe we can never know.

Usethebrains Godgiveyou said...

I was more driven when I was a curebie. It was hard to see the child for the therapies. I even considered getting a dog "therapy". I was pretty anxious.

But Ben seems to be getting even. It's "velcro boy"'s turn to drive me crazy. Turnabout is fair play, I guess.

I will always wonder if presenting language visually as I did for an hour or two a day (language part of Maurice's book) made any difference.

We don't do any therapies anymore. Medically, I am still weighing the advantages/disadvantages of Ritalin for school only. I have been dysthymic all my life, and antidepressants have opened up a whole new world to me. I have begun to be the person my anxiety would never allow me to be. I have "blossomed". I'm not sure I want to deny that to Ben.

No doubt, our choices are tough, and we alone must take the responsibility. But sometimes it is just so fun to let a kid be a kid.

Mary said...

This is a fantastic post. I was at my very lowest emotional point regarding Bud's autism right after I read The Boy Who Loved Windows. I can't begin to describe how much the book depressed me. I stay away from those books now.

The lemons-to-lemonade metaphor doesn't work for me. I don't need to take something bad and make it good. With Bud, the strawberry analogy works much better. Spending time with Bud is like taking strawberries and making strawberry margaritas - something great becomes something intoxicating.

Tara said...

You have reflected alot of the same feelings I have had at times with Littleman. A new cure or therapy seems to comes along just when I am beginning to get comfortable with his progress. I frankly feel cranky at the thought of needing to research and implement yet another "promising" intervention. My boss calls me on the phone every time one of the miracle cure families makes it to network t.v. As my experience with this disorder grows and my parenting with it, I am more and more comfortable standing in the truth of my choices and not yielding to the temptation to give some new program a try.

neil said...

Woo Hoo, someone else who doesn't listen to all the new "cures" that come along. We treat our girl (she's an M too) like any other child, seems to work for us, though like any other child she still has her moments; that is so normal it sucks.

Okay, I do a food blog, but you might like to read this post,

Frogs' mom said...

I love this post. I've had a little trouble maintaining my optimism this week - not all autism related - but I've been in a position where I have to put on a good face by day and brood by night.

We have one more big autism quest for this summer - but I don't expect a cure anymore, just hope for some improvements that help Aaron do what he wants to do. After that, I think I'll take your advice and take a break to just enjoy the here and now for awhile.

Cami and I picked blackberries today while Aaron was at school. The simple act of accomplishing a task - filling my bucket -brought me more peace and happiness then I've felt all month. Cami discovered strawberry lemonaid this week and she was as happy as could be!

KathyIggy said...

I just found this blog and was excited to see it's about a girl--who appears to have a lot in common with my daughter (whose first initial is also M). Megan is 10 now, but many of your posts (especially the one about the scene in the airport) brought back so many similar incidents.

I agree about the "cure quest." This school year, we are changing direction and going from a mainstream classroom into a self-contained one, in hopes that Meg's comfort level will increase and she'll be able to thrive there. I am hopeful and I am no longer trying to squeeze her into the mainstream box, as her anxiety level has really gone up as the work has gotten more demanding and most other kids have gotten less accepting of Megan.

The strawberries were a great gift; Megan just recently learned to fix peanut buttler and jelly sandwiches herself and has been proudly offering everyone in the house sandwiches for days.

MothersVox said...

Welcome Kathy, Kimberly, Tara, Tank, RB and Mamaroo . . . And hello to regulars Kristina and MOM-NOS!

I'm so glad you've commented here. It was a revelatory month, starting with that bowl of berries, and I'll be starting to blog about it shortly.

Much more unfolding . . .