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.
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.
Keywords: autism • Asperger's Syndrome • ADHD • learning disabilities • speech-language disorders • parenting • family life• positive psychology • Daniel Gilbert