It’s Not the Poison. It’s the Fear.

stop sign

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last Spring, we entered a different phase, and my son began with the sneaking.  At eight years old, he’s tall enough and smart enough that “child-proofing” is no longer effective. At first, it was just sweets.  He’d unlock the door to the unfinished side of the basement and go into the cellar.  He’d gobble up peanut butter, jelly, marshmallow fluff, and packets of sugar or baking chocolate.  Then he’d trail his sticky fingers everywhere, and our house quickly became a big gooey mess.

There was a small part of me that wished he could just sneak food that was less messy…

We spoke to the cognitive behavioral therapist, and he suggested putting up Stop signs as reminders.  Michael continued to delve into things regardless of the signs, and added Nutella and ice cream to the list.  One day, when he was angry, he ran around the house with a pen.  He crossed out the word “Stop” and instead wrote, “Go!”

My husband and I laughed hysterically, and we took down the signs.  Obviously, he knew he wasn’t supposed to be taking food without our permission and was doing it anyway.  We tried to move things further out of reach without actually padlocking our food supply.

Our house is actually fairly well child proofed because our oldest son was a difficult toddler who mouthed EVERYTHING until he was four.  Things had to be kept out of reach (and/or locked up) as he was infamous for putting non-food items in his mouth.  Thankfully, his gross motor skills weren’t that great, and he was too clumsy for most climbing endeavors.  However, we had to be very careful for many years.  He still forgets and chews cups and pencils on occasion, although we try to give him gum for sensory input.  Our two younger children did not require the same vigilant level of child proofing because they rarely put non-food items in their mouths, even as toddlers.

Father’s Day, 2012

Our upstairs bathroom was a mess that day, with various bottles all over the counter.  I assumed my husband had been looking for something in the cabinet, moved things around, and didn’t get a chance to move things back into their rightful place.  With three kids, it’s not unusual for our house to get messy (or for us to begin a task that doesn’t get finished).

It wasn’t until that afternoon when I decided to clean up the bathroom.  I began to place the bottles back into the cabinet, only to realize the giant bottle of children’s Tylenol was empty.  I knew immediately… what I didn’t know was how much had been in the bottle… or how much was toxic.

My husband and son came upstairs, and we asked Michael if he’d drank the medicine.  We couldn’t find any evidence of a spill.  He stood there silently, probably trying to figure out the right answer.  I asked him if he’d “tasted it”.  He said yes that he wanted to taste it because of the cherries on the bottle.  My husband asked how much, and he said he had “three sips”.  Sips?  Gulps?  Who knows?

Neither my husband or I could remember how much was in the damn bottle, so we called the pediatrician.  The whites of his eyes were white, his demeanor was alert, not drowsy, and his urine appeared normal.  We were hopeful, but the pediatrician said to take him to the pediatric ER, where they could run a blood test to determine how much Tylenol was in his system.

We left a message on my in-law’s voicemail and put all three kids in the van.  On the way there, we asked who gives medicine.  Our (then) five-year-old son John answered, “Mommy and Daddy”.  We asked why.  Again, John answered, “Because Mommy and Daddy know the right amount.”  Our eight-year-old, Michael, was unable to answer our questions.

My in-laws meet us at the hospital, and stay with our younger children in the waiting room.  After a brief period, they take John and Rose back to their house.  The doctors ask Michael a lot of questions, but he seems to think he’s there to watch television.  Internally, I think about Child Protective Services, and wonder what day we’ll be getting the visit.  The doctors are watching all three of us pretty closely.

They tell us that Tylenol toxicity usually takes twenty-four hours to see the effects, and run blood work.  Our son struggles through the blood work, and we explain that it’s necessary to take his blood because he drank the medicine.  (We tell him this over and over again, in the hopes that he never does this again.)  His Tylenol levels end up being “within normal limits”, which means my husband was right that there hadn’t been very much in the bottle… not that either of us knows how much is toxic to the liver of a seventy-pound child.

Our son is discharged shortly afterwards, and we head to my in-laws house for a barbecue.  Sadly, Father’s Day is not much of a holiday for my husband.  It’s impossible to fully shake off the feeling of panic and unease.

I go to the store the next day and buy a couple of locking toolboxes.  I clean out our medicine cabinets, throwing out what’s expired and locking up the rest.  However, now all I can think about is poison.  Everywhere I look, all I see is poison.  Rubbing alcohol.  Shoe polish.  Paint in the basement.  Laundry detergent.  Soap.  Shampoo.  Mosquito repellant.  Suntan lotion.  Hair dye… The list goes is.  And that’s just my house.  What if my son goes somewhere else, and they don’t watch him closely enough?  What if he stumbles into paint thinner in someone’s garage?  What if?  What if?

Even with all of the medicines locked away, I’m a mess, paralyzed with fear.  What do you do when the whole world is full of poison?

I tell a few close friends, most of who become very quiet afterwards.  No one knows what to say.  Godspeed?  Sorry about the autistic kid?  There’s really nothing to say beyond the obvious.  Lock it all up.  One friend, who doesn’t have children, curses profusely, and I appreciate the show of solidarity.  When I was standing there with the empty bottle in my hand, I was thinking the exact same thing.

I know there are families worse off than us.  I know it’s not productive to go into woe-is-me mode, but emotions are pesky.  And all I feel is dread, like the other shoe is going to drop at any moment.  I wonder, yet again, if I did something while pregnant that caused my son’s autism.  I muddle through the next couple of days, showering irregularly and rarely bothering to change out of my pajamas.

Finally, it dawns on me.  It’s not about the poison.  It’s about my own fear.  And my fear isn’t even about the poison.  I’m afraid of the future; I’m afraid of the great unknown.  I have no idea what he’s going to be like as an adult.  Will he live with us?  Will he be able to live on his own?  Will he be able to drive a car or hold down a job?

Typically, there are expectations.  You educate your child to the best of their abilities, and you teach them skills.  They go off to live on their own, and become productive and well-adjusted adults.  Hopefully.

We don’t really have any of those expectations.  Instead, we have what could best be described as this sort of blind hope melded with an incredible amount of fear.  We have no idea what the future holds, and that’s the part that’s terrifying.  The Tylenol was just another reminder that we have this giant unknown looming ahead of us.

And somehow, in order to successfully get from one day to the next, we have to actually set aside that fear.

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22 Responses to It’s Not the Poison. It’s the Fear.

  1. I love this post. I wish you weren’t struggling, but you articulated beautifully why parenting autism is hard. And it is; you should be commended for your courage and honesty talking about it. I wish I had words that could take away the doubt and guilt, but I know that is the uncertainty of being a parent; we are always questioning whether we could have done better. Hugs to you, and I hope for easier days ahead.

    • Thanks Rollergiraffe,

      I was thinking about it, and realizing that other parents must feel this ways sometimes too. Even for parents of typical kids, there are those moments where you realize, it might not matter what you do. There will always be things you can’t really predict or control, and man that’s scary…

      • Yes, the world can be a scary place when you have kids. Just taking your heart out of your chest and letting it run around. My big challenge is trying to just enjoy the moment and not panicking about all the what-ifs, but I guess that’s the balance we have to strive for. Although I would prefer to wrap them up in bubble wrap, wear helmets and keep them in my line of sight 24 hours a day, I know that’s not feasible.

  2. sagescenery says:

    I certainly have no answers…I only know that prayer helps…with the expectations and with the fear…so I’m going to pray for you and your family BIG time!

    • Thanks Sage. This is something I often wonder about, particularly when I hear a good friend talk about his disabled child. He has leukemia as well as spina bifida, and I’m always amazed when I see how faithful his parents remain throughout the process.

      • sagescenery says:

        I know God doesn’t mind questions…we all have them!

        All I know is that when I prayed and prayed for 10 long years to have a child…I kept asking, “Why me?”

        Until I felt God saying, “Ask instead…’Why not me?'”

        Perhaps He knows we have strengths WE didn’t even know we had!

  3. When I was childless, my best friend came to visit me with her then 4 year old son. One morning, she was sleeping in and he had gotten up, I noticed that he had gotten into his vitamins. I had no idea they were toxic nor did I realize the bottle HAD been full so I just figured he would be supercharged the rest of the day. I picked up the bottle and set it back on the dresser and didn’t say a word. When my friend woke up, she was in a panic, screaming to call poison control. He wound up in the hospital overnight and I was there by her side when they were inducing vomiting (it had been too long and the iron/vitamins/etc were already absorbed in the system).

    It can happen to anyone. (hugs that it was you).

    • Thanks Kim. Yeah, I know this stuff happens. My sister was able to open child-proof bottles from the time she was three… So, there was an incident with her feeding me medicine (at about eighteen months). I think it took several years for my mom to fully recover from the stress of that particular incident.

      I figured if the doctors thought we were negligent, we would have heard from CPS. Still terrifying though. I actually wrote this because I was thinking about fear and how scary parenting can be, but also life. The long list of things you can’t plan for or predict…

  4. Oy vey. Big hugs, Lovely. That’s all I can say. That, and I’m glad your son is okay.

  5. It is scary. My eldest just didn’t put scary things in her mouth. She has sensory issues so she didn’t even like stickers on her hand. Then comes the second, who I swear if she’d been first, would have been an only child. I found a bottle of superglue with bite marks in it. Somehow she’d climbed the shelf (at 18 months) and bitten into the bottle. I had earlier pulled something out of her mouth I thought was paper, then I see the bottle and PANIC.

    Turns out superglue is not poisonous. I went back to work shortly after that.

    • I never knew that superglue wasn’t poisonous. We’ve always used paste… mainly because it’s easier and definitely not poisonous. It’s amazing how something like that happens, your blood pressure goes up to about maximum rate… and then it’s back to life. Like nothing happened, yet your blood pressure is still slowly returning to normal.

      Sensory issues are usually just annoying, but they can be the pits too. Socially isolating or just plain dangerous.

  6. speaker7 says:

    Fuck. Being a parent is the scariest thing in the world. I try to control my fear too and sometimes I’m good and sometimes I think about all the worst what-ifs that could befall my child. This post perfectly encapsulates that struggle.

    • Yeah, raising kids is seriously scary stuff; have so much curiosity and so little judgement. I never realized what a blessing it is to have a sensible child until I had kids. My middle child has innate self-preservation, AND he’ll tell us if he sees either of his siblings doing something that’s not good. “Mom, Rosie and I were playing, and she just took off her diaper and pooped on the floor…” Then there’s the mad dash where we swoop in, but I’m just so grateful that he speaks up.

  7. Running from Hell with El says:

    Thank you for sharing this piece of your world. I understand the fear you write about. And all I can hear in my own mind is the phrase, “love conquers all.” I have three little kids of my own and I know the fear and the love that both feeds and quiets that fear. Beautiful post.

  8. When my son was born, i felt fear too. I thought how can someone so beautiful be so vulnerable to a harsh world. And then as the days go by, I need to make myself strong enough to diminish that fear in order to prepare him for life….sigh but you;re right, that emotional turbulence cannot be extinguished. It’s just there.

  9. bigalittleamom says:

    I’m so sorry that you had to go through that. Thanks a lot for sharing. Parenting is scary in itself. Glad your son did not suffer any ill consequences as a result.

  10. Glad that despite the givens, you are staying strong. More power!

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