Author's note: this piece has been in the works for some time. I saved it for now in honor of National Attachment and Trauma Awareness Day. Click on the NATA website to learn more.
Illness is a strange and unsettling thing. Sickness in one's own child is about the worst thing that can happen in the life of a parent. And man, have we had a lot of illness in our household this year!
Did you know, though, that not all illnesses are created equal? If you don't believe me, go tell twenty people you have been diagnosed with, say, schizophrenia. Then tell the twenty people you have, say, cancer. Compare their reactions and I think you will find that what I am about to say to be terribly familiar.
My son, as those who have followed our story know, was diagnosed at age 6 with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). There is also talk of ADHD, SPD, ODD and PTSD, but the alphabet soup means little more than this: due to horrific early childhood trauma, his brain did not develop the way it should. In spite of some improvement, he will likely have to live with the consequences of this for the rest of his life.
This spring, my oldest daughter complained of what we thought were menstrual cramps. Two days later, it appeared to be a stomach bug. By the end of that same day, she was admitted to the hospital, where she was soon diagnosed with acute renal failure. Many tests, nephrology appointments, and gallons of water later, she recovered full kidney function and should, as long as she hydrates and avoids certain medications, be fine for the rest of her life.
They say it takes a village to raise a child, and I'll be the first to say that I have the best village there is. Yet even so, all too often their responses to these crises could not be more different.
The kidney failure was one of the most terrifying things I've ever experienced. The outpouring of love and support, though, was amazing. Prayers, child care, rides, you name it, it happened. I could scarcely keep my phone charged for all the texts, calls, and e-mails I received from concerned family and friends. When I announced that my daughter had made a full recovery, our "village" heaved a collective sigh of relief. People still go out of their way to modify plans, change behaviors, do whatever they can to make sure she stays healthy and well.
Not so my son. I have a few people who check in, one or two who try to help us cope with the burden, shared by our whole family, of living with his trauma. Few, if any, ask about his progress, much less the prognosis. And even among those who do, the response is all too often along the lines of, "sounds like he's all boy," "my kid does that too," or "you need to lighten up." They usually mean well, but they have no idea. And even though I don't want our lives, especially my son's, to be defined by his problems, sometimes the dismissiveness and lack of empathy hurt.
What hurts most of all is this: why does one illness matter more than another? And why do we blame the sufferer for the mental, but not the physical? My daughter possibly could have avoided the worst of her illness by simply drinking water. She let herself get dehydrated at a track meet and it all went downhill from there. My son, on the other hand, had no say in what happened to him early in his life. Because it manifests in his behavior, however, people assume that it is somehow in his control, when in reality, that is only true some of the time.
Anyway. The point isn't to decide who or what is to blame. Into everyone's lives some illness will fall. The point is this: we are fearfully and wonderfully made, and every part of our being is worthy of respect, compassion, and care. After all, I have yet to meet the person who can survive for long, much less truly live, without fully functioning kidneys AND brains.