“NO!” Mikey screamed. “Leave me alone, Mommy! Don’t talk to me!” He ran to the couch, throwing down his Iron Man mask and hurling pillows at me. I knew the next round of trick-or-treaters would knock any second and if he kept screaming like this, they would think someone was being murdered inside.
Not Halloween-murdered. Real murdered.
“Mikey, I’m just saying that I love you and it’s ok—“
“NO DON’T SAY THAT!!” ]
He was too far gone for rational talk. When the anxiety and fear and frustration got too bad for Mikey, I couldn’t get through to him at all. He went deep into an anxiety-cloud where any move I made, anything I said or did, just made it worse.
The doorbell rang.
“NOOOOO!” he shrieked.
“Just stay here,” I said. “Please don’t scream.”
He threw another pillow.
I ran up front to hand out candy.
Our street was teeming with kids. It was like Halloween in the movies. Everybody was out. Everything was decorated. Everywhere you looked were pumpkins and glow sticks and every possible costume.
We had just come from a neighborhood potluck at the park. We had a haunted house for the older kids, a graveyard dig for the younger ones, and easily 50 families milling around.
My two-year-old, Sam, was perfectly happy at the park, going ladder to slide, ladder to slide.
Mikey, my five-year-old, stuck to my side like glue, begging for the trick-or-treating to start.
And when it finally did, he was thrilled, heading out with my husband and Sam and some neighbors, while I stayed home to hand out candy.
Within five minutes my husband called.
“This is not good,” he said, in a low voice. “He got scared of a talking decoration at the first house and he won’t move now. I’m trying everything but he’s freaking out and just keeps saying he wants to go home.”
I wasn’t expecting this. Mikey had been talking about trick-or-treating for weeks.
My heart sank hard.
“I guess bring him home and I’ll try to calm him down and maybe he’ll go again in while?” I said.
And so Mikey ended up here on the couch, throwing pillows and yelling nasty things at me. This always happened when he was this upset: his anger and rage poured straight at Mommy.
I knew deep down that he was upset with himself more than anything.
I kept trying, little by little, to calm him down, but as he yelled and raged, I was also trying to contain my own hurricane inside.
I said the only thing flying through my head that was true, and also helpful: “Mikey, I’m sorry that your heart hurts right now.”
I want to say F*ck autism! F*ck anxiety and panic attacks! F*ck these things that rob you of the basic joys of childhood! F*ck this disorder that takes holiday fun away from you!
The hurricane inside me was kicking up one failed holiday memory after another. Fireworks on the fourth were an epic non-starter. Thanksgiving dinner was a yearly joke: I always ended up back in the kitchen in the middle of the meal microwaving nuggets for one son, and cutting PBJ into little bites for the other, just so they would eat something.
Even last Christmas, Mikey was so filled with anxiety over the thought of Santa Claus that he was wide awake from 1 a.m. on, yelling and screaming, “No presents! No Santa! No presents! No Santa!”
For two parents who love Christmas, who had saved for months and stayed up until midnight assembling and arranging and getting all the toys just right—we were annihilated.
Even Christmas, autism? Even Christmas you’re going to take away?
What does Mikey get, then? What of childhood’s joys are left to him?
Mikey warmed back up, slowly, and started answering the door with me to see the other kid’s costumes.
I finally convinced him to give it one more try and come back out with me.
He barely got to the bottom of our driveway before he was yelling, “No, Mommy!” I literally pulled him by the arm to two houses where I did the trick-or-treating for him, while he struggled against me.
So I gave up.
Autism and Anxiety: 1. Mommy and Daddy: 0.
We walked home.
I put a bunch of the candy we were giving out into his basket.
It’s not his fault. If he could overcome this fear, he would, in a heartbeat.
As I tucked him into bed, the street was still buzzing like a hive.
“You were an amazing Iron Man,” I say to Mikey. “I think everybody thought you were the real Iron Man! I bet they couldn’t believe it!”
He gave me a half-smile. He’s old enough now to know my BS.
“I love you, Mommy,” he said, tired from the rough night.
I don’t know if he’ll start to enjoy holidays, or when. I don’t know if Sam will grow into these same fears Mikey has now, or if holidays will be easier for him.
I tossed and turned all night, worried that Mikey would feel terrible at school the next day, with all the kids talking about Halloween.
But here’s the thing about autism that is exactly like the rest of life: the good comes on the heels of the bad, always, in that unending circle. When I picked Mikey up the next day he was happy as a clam.
Homework, dinner, bath, bed—he handled all of our daily trigger issues with no complaints. It was the most peaceful night we’ve had in ages.
So we’ll count this as our holiday: the calm after the storm. And Iron Man and I will try again next year.