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.