Learning to Embrace Vulnerability

Last week, I got on stage at The Moth’s storySLAM event and shared a very personal story about struggles that I faced during veterinary school. During my second year, I was dealing with some serious mental health issues and had to take a short break from school to address them. It was a difficult story even to write, and when I heard my name called to get on stage, I felt my heart jump into my throat. Am I really going to get on stage in front of ~300 strangers and share one of my most intimate experiences? I did, and it was more rewarding than I ever imagined.

For those that are unfamiliar with The Moth’s storySLAMs, anyone wanting to tell a story puts their name in a bag, and 10 names are randomly selected to get on stage. Each story is scored, and at the end of the night, the person with the highest score wins. At the end of the night last Tuesday, I was tied with another storyteller for the high score, and based on the scoring rules, I won!

Since that night, I’ve been thinking about this experience quite a bit and wondering: what made getting on stage and sharing this very personal experience so personally rewarding? and why did others enjoy this story enough for me to get a high score and win the event? Most of the winning stories at the Moth’s events that I have previously attended were funny. This made complete sense to me because people love to laugh and laughter has been shown to provide numerous health benefits. My story did have glints of humor to break up the seriousness, but it would certainly not be classified as a funny story.

Then, on the way home from work yesterday, I caught a short segment of an interview on the radio with Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. I was instantly fascinated with her and her work. First, she considers herself a “researcher-storyteller”. Holy cow, that’s me! Or, at least it’s how I would consider myself. More like a “pathologist-storyteller”, but still, close enough. She has spent 16 years as a vulnerability researcher, and her work focuses on studying vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame. I have personally spent the last 14 years studying these things about myself through therapy and introspection. She is an author, speaker, and gave a very well-received TED talk about the power of vulnerability in 2010 . I listened to this 20 minute talk and took notes… four pages of notes! She did an amazing job describing her work in an interesting and relatable way.

So, what does Dr. Brown’s research have to do with my Moth story? The answer is vulnerability and courage.

After telling my story, we had an intermission. On my way to the bathroom (my legs were still shaking from the adrenaline) a large muscular man with a shaved head and killer beard stopped me. He said, “Lora, right?”

I nodded.

“Great story. That was really brave.”

I thanked him, but silently wondered, “Brave, really?”

As I listed to Brené Brown’s TED talk, I realized that what I did was indeed courageous, and that was exactly why the audience connected with my story and precisely what made me feel so good about sharing it. When I got up on that stage and bared my soul, I put myself in an extremely vulnerable position. According to Dr. Brown, vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage. Back in May, I told a very different, but equally personal story about coming to terms with losing my mother as a 7-year-old child. I shared this in front of hundreds during the live storytelling event “Listen to Your Mother”. This was a similarly vulnerable yet rewarding experience. For years, I felt embarrassed of these experiences and struggled to share these feelings with even those that were closest to me, let alone an audience full of strangers. Opening yourself up to vulnerability is terrifying. Experiencing emotional pain and grief is unpleasant. In the past, like so many others, I preferred to numb my pain/grief/vulnerability in the form of binge eating, drugs, and alcohol. It’s easier to not feel those things, but here lies the problem (as so beautifully described by Dr. Brown): you can’t selectively numb the bad stuff (ie: pain, grief, vulnerability) and still fully experience the good stuff (ie: love, joy, happiness). And when we inadvertently numb the good stuff, we feel unfulfilled and miserable.

I have spent most my life being ashamed of my weaknesses and feeling unworthy of love. In many instances, I chose to isolate myself rather than leave myself vulnerable; I chose to numb myself rather than feel emotional pain. It took nearly 37 years, but I finally see the benefits of fully embracing my imperfections and vulnerability, and they are huge. Embracing these things opens the door to loving myself, something I’ve struggled with for as long as I can remember. 

Is it easy to get on stage and share a very personal story with hundreds of strangers? No, definitely not. But honestly, I love doing it. It’s hard to explain how incredibly rewarding it is to share something that was previously a source of profound shame and see it met with love and compassion. This happened both of the times that I shared a highly personal story in front of an audience. 

I have personally found that the more vulnerable I allow myself to be, the happier I am and the better I feel about myself. I was thrilled to find that there is actual research in this area, and I look forward to learning more about it. One of Dr. Brown’s books, Daring Greatly, is currently downloaded on my Kindle waiting to be read. In the meantime, I will continue this path of vulnerability and see where it takes me.

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To Counteract Symbols of Hate

In 4th grade, a classmate drew a symbol on my brown paper book cover with his yellow no. 2 pencil: a cross with right angled arms extending clockwise.

“What’s that?” I asked him.

“A good luck symbol. Cool, huh?”

I shrugged.

But it was kind of cool looking, and I loved to doodle. By the end of the school day, I had decorated my entire book cover in these symbols.

At home later that night, my dad stormed into my bedroom with the decorated book in his white knuckled grip. He was angry and uncharacteristically serious. “Who drew this?” he roared.

“I did…” I responded. I was confused. I didn’t understand why I was in trouble.

“Do you know what this means!?” He asked, still visibly angry.

“Good luck,” I yelled back on the verge of tears, “A boy drew this one and told me it meant good luck. I drew the rest of them. I didn’t know I was doing anything wrong.”

He took a deep breath and looked down at the book. He responded calmly, but sternly.

“No. Not good luck. This is a symbol of hate against Jews. It’s a swastika, the symbol that was used by Nazis. These are the people that put Papa Al’s family in a concentration camp and killed millions of Jews just like us. Don’t EVER draw this again, and if you see it, tell me right away.”

I started crying.

“It’s ok. It’s not your fault,” he said hugging me, “Just please don’t draw it again.”

After my dad left the room, I ripped the book cover off and tore it into pieces so tiny that you could no longer make out the symbols.  I was hurt and embarrassed. I didn’t want to go back to school the next day, and I didn’t want to be Jewish anymore. I was the only Jew in the class, and despite his claims of ignorance, the boy who drew the swastika on my book must have at least known that it had a negative connotation towards Jews. This was not the first or last time I was singled out and harassed as one of the few Jews growing up in a primarily Christian suburb.

I had forgotten about the swastika incident until the events in Charlottesville this Saturday brought back this memory vividly. Except these swastika-touting individuals were grown men, not misinformed 8-year-olds. When they chanted “Jews will not replace us” and “White lives matter” they fully embraced the hate, bigotry, and antisemitism that this symbol represents. Their intolerance towards people of color, Jews, and anyone that isn’t like them was so strong that they rallied in the streets wielding torches, shields, and helmets. Clearly, peaceful protest was not the intension here. It was a revolting display of hate and xenophobia that unsurprisingly turned violent.

I am no longer that shy 8-year-old who is embarrassed to be different or ashamed to be Jewish. I am the middle-aged mother of two young boys who is enraged by the leaders of our country.  Because it’s not surprising to me that this sort of hate and bigotry exists in America.  But it is disheartening that our president took two whole days to denounce white supremacy and neo-Nazis hate groups, and only after immense public pressure. This is the rhetoric that emboldens bigots to openly spread their disgusting views and act on their intolerance.

I’m enraged, sad, and I feel helpless, as I’m sure my dad did when he found my school book covered in swastikas. Hate is such an immense, ambiguous entity, and, as a whole, it feels impossible to fight it. So, I’m going to do the only things that I can do: I will keep calling my congressmen to stand against injustice; I will support and fight for public leaders that will defend equality of all people; I will continue to teach my boys tolerance, love, inclusion, and practice these in my daily life as an example to them; I will openly share my views with anyone that will listen.

No one person can take on hate all at once, but if we each do what we can to counteract it, little by little, it will start to disappear like the swastikas I ripped up on my book cover. I have no doubt that the good in this world outweighs the bad that we saw displayed in Charlottesville this Saturday. Keep fighting. In the end, love will prevail.

Choosing to Say Goodbye to the Cats that Saved Me

This morning, I said goodbye to my cats for the last time. I knew this day would come, but it all transpired much more quickly than I imagined. Chris and I have been considering this many times over the last year, but this time, it was really happening. I went into the bathroom one last time, scratched my two sweet baby kitties under their chins, and left the house sobbing.

The moment of realization occurred over the weekend when I unsuccessfully attempted to give Baby Jaye a steroid pill. When I had entered the bathroom, the shower walls were splattered with blood reminiscent of a scene from Psycho. Jaye’s allergies were flaring up and she was scratching herself to pieces. She had always been pretty easy with pills, but this time she fought hard. She spit out the pill and on second attempt, she fought even harder. As I attempted to shove the pill in her mouth, Nikko ran over to rescue her kitty sister, and started biting my arm. I let go of Jaye, looked around, fell to my knees and started crying. “What are we even doing right now?” I yelled out loud to myself. In addition to the blood covering the walls, piles of vomit, hairballs, and scabs littered the floor next to an upside-down step stool filled with cat urine that was dripping onto the floor. The cats had been living in our 2nd floor bathroom almost exclusively for the last year, and this was the typical situation when I went in to take care of them.

The cat-pill-moment was the last of over a dozen moments of realization that we need to put our cats to sleep. We kept putting it off in hopes that a magic solution would appear. Maybe there was an idea we hadn’t considered. We had tried anti-stress collars, pheromone plug-ins, different litter substrates, antidepressants, and more. Could we build a pee-proof room for them in the basement? Perhaps there was a friend that might adopt them that we hadn’t considered? “Do you know anyone that would be interested in adopting two sweet 15-year-old cats? They can’t be around dogs, are scared of young kids, and regularly pee outside of the litter box. They are declawed in the front, so I’m not sure how they’d do outside.” This question was usually met with a blank stare. I get it. It’s a hard sell. But, surely, there had to be someone that was in a better situation to take them than us.

As I looked around what we jokingly referred to as “the cathroom”, I knew it was really time. I texted our nanny, Wendy, that the time had come for the cats. “Don’t worry,” she responded I’ll take care of everything”. And I knew she would because she’s Wendy, and when she is on something, it happens.

Looking back at what these cats have meant to me throughout the years has been heart wrenching. I adopted them from a genetics a lab in 2003. I had just found my first apartment without roommates, and had been desperate to adopt a feline companion. I had just completed first year of vet school and was overcome with stress and anxiety. I thought adopting a cat would help me get through it. And it did.

I had originally planned to only adopt one cat, but decided to take a second when we couldn’t find a home for Jaye. She wasn’t much to look at. She had allergies even back then and had large clumps of fur missing from her face. She had one canine tooth that sometimes stuck out (her snaggle tooth), and was completely black aside from two little white strands on her chest. I knew I wanted Nikko from the moment I saw her. She was a gorgeous: a Siamese point tabby with bright blue eyes. In the colony, she was called Clarice, but all I could think when I heard that name was Silence of the Lambs, so I decided on Nikko, which means ‘cat’ in Japanese. All of the kittens in Jaye’s litter were named after Men in Black characters, a movie I have still never seen. We kept the name Jaye, but somehow a Baby got added to the front, and it stuck.

Jaye was one of the most affectionate lap cats I had ever met. When she got nervous, it manifested as increased affection, so from the moment she was introduced into my apartment, she stuck to me like glue. She would purr so loudly that I had to turn up the volume on the TV. Nikko was skittish at first. For a long time, she would only let me pet her on the window sill in my bedroom. She did enjoy affection, but only in her “safe space”.

After I adopted these kitties, I experienced a few of the hardest years of my life. Emotionally, I was broken. Physically, I was hurting myself. My anxiety and depression peaked with the demands of veterinary school. There were days I couldn’t get out of bed at all, and during those days, my kitties stayed by my side. I was their kitty momma, and I was all they needed. That might have been the thing that kept me going when I had very little desire to be here at all. They saved me then, but I couldn’t save them now. That’s the hardest part.

Before we had kids, these were my only babies. Any little symptom, and they were whisked to the vet school to be checked out within the week. Baby Jaye had every allergy test offered for a cat. She had an ultrasound after a bout of diarrhea. I treated my cats then the way I treat my kids now. When moved back to Pittsburgh, life got complicated. We rescued a pit bull mix that had been abandoned in the next door yard. Dotti was the sweetest pup and loved people, but chased the cats like prey. “Surely, they will be friends in time”, we thought. Sadly, that was not the case. Despite doggie classes and work with a private trainer, every interaction between the cats and dog ended with barking, chasing, and terrified cats urinating on the floor. The trainer feared that due to her lack of socialization early in life, our rescue dog may never be trusted around cats. So, we kept them separated at all times. Not ideal, but we made it work.

Then came the human children, and all bets were off, as anyone with kids certainly knows. Baby Jaye was terrified of Miles. When he’d cry, she would jump 3 feet in the air and tear out of the room. Nikko had always been skittish and a bit to herself, but now Jaye, who had previously stuck to me like glue, would hide in the laundry room for days at a time. Things were never the same after Miles was born. And it was around this time that the inappropriate urination began. We tried everything you could imagine, but things in our house slowly began to be destroyed by cat urine: two sofas, two chairs, and the carpet in pretty much every room. Eventually, we decided to keep them in the bathroom to get them used to peeing in a litter box again, but even then, they preferred to pee on the floor tiles in every corner. There were so many moments of frustration. So many arguments with Chris. So many times that I just wanted them to be gone. Miles began succeeding at potty training, but since we needed to keep the cats in the bathroom during the day, we had to keep a toy potty in the living room for him. “How long are we going to keep doing this?” I would ask Chris. “Is he going to be peeing in a tiny singing potty out here for the next 5 years?”

When I reached my moment of realization in the cathroom, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to be with them for the euthanasia. I wish I was stronger, but I just couldn’t emotionally take it. I didn’t know how I could look that vet in the eye. We took the same oath, a lifelong obligation to relieve animal suffering. I felt like I had failed my cats and my profession. I should have been able to figure something out.

Chris and I spent all of last night hanging out with the cats knowing it was the end of our time together. The boys were excited to see the cats out and stayed by their side until bedtime. After they went to sleep, Chris and I watched a tv show; Baby Jaye on our laps, Nikko in the corner (she is too large for the window sill in this house or else I’m sure that’s where she’d be). It felt like old times. We reminisced about the cats. They had been with us for most of our relationship, and saying goodbye felt like closing a chapter of our lives. We stayed up until 2am talking and bawling our eyes out, knowing that this was our last moment with them. I didn’t want to go to sleep. I knew that when I woke up, it would be their last day. The cats were so content when we went to sleep that we couldn’t bear to put them back in the bathroom overnight. If they ruined something with pee on their last night on earth, so be it. For the first time in months, we found that they only peed in the litter box last night.

Sometimes (many times) there is no right choice. Sometimes you need to say goodbye with regrets, when you know you could have done more. My cats saved my life, but I couldn’t save them. They loved me when I didn’t love myself. After years of frustration, being replaced by children, and being banished into the bathroom, those kitties showed us nothing but love on their last day.

I came home after work today to find the bathroom empty in addition to a huge piece of my heart. Baby Jaye and Nikko, thank you for saving me. I’ll never forget what you’ve done for me, and I’ll miss you forever.

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The Beauty of Death

If we’ve met, I’ve probably pictured what you look like on the inside. Hope that doesn’t make you too uncomfortable. It’s just how my mind works. If I’m with someone that is smoking, I’m picturing the black discoloration of their lungs. If I’m with a pregnant woman, I’m picturing a fetus expanding her uterus and displacing her other organs out of the way. If someone I know is sick, I visualize what is happening to their organs to cause them to have symptoms.

I’m a veterinary pathologist. I have a degree in veterinary medicine, am a licensed vet, but further specialized in pathology, the study of disease. My work primarily involves dead animals and performing autopsies on them. As you can imagine, after explaining this, most people think that sounds absolutely disgusting and wonder why I’d ever possibly want such a job. Honestly though, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I love what I do. I feel lucky to be able to study the body so closely. There’s true beauty in my work and beauty in a death. This is what made me fall in love with pathology when I was first introduced in veterinary school.

Consider a beloved pet in your life that has since passed away. She lived, was loved, and all the while her body grew, changed, endured hardships and wounds. Her organs aged and deteriorated. Perhaps an aggressive cancer developed, spread throughout her body, ravaged her organs, and ultimately led to her demise. After this precious being exits this world, all that remains is the vessel that supported her on this journey: her body. And this is where I come into the equation.

I can remove an animals brain, and hold in my hand the organ that was responsible for every thought she ever had. I can examine a heart that beat one billion times, supplying a lifetime’s worth of oxygenated blood to a body. A man can love his best canine friend in a way that nobody else does, but I get to see things even he cannot.

After observing everything possible with on an organ level, I select pieces of organs to inspect on a cellular level. To me, there is nothing more beautiful than visualizing cross sections of tumor cells, kidney tubules that filter the urine, or degenerating heart valves. Some of these findings are normal and expected, others are surprising and significant. There are few better feelings in the world than combining all of this information together to figure out why an animal was sick or died when nobody else could.

People commonly ask, “Doesn’t your job make you sad? All of your patients are dead or sick.” Yes, sometimes, of course! But, I believe that best way to respect and cherish life is to study death. Postmortem examinations can and do save lives. The knowledge that we gather when we study an animal after its death is used to modify treatments and improve future surgical techniques. Animal models of human disease allow us to test and perfect innovative treatments for horrific human diseases such as pancreatic cancer or incurable genetic diseases such as ALS. I’ve actually seen my work save lives, both animal and human.

When asked about my career, there was a time in my life that I would either pretend to be a small animal vet or make up another more pleasant-sounding job. But no longer. I will continue to proudly state that I’m a veterinary pathologist, and I do, indeed, cut up dead animals for a living. I will continue picturing what people look like on the inside. And I will continue saving lives, one dead animal at a time.

This is me performing a cow autopsy with one of my pathology mentors (Dr. Perry Habecker) during my residency training.

37 Years is not Enough

On Nov 12, 1987, I skipped home from my bus stop after an exciting day of 2nd grade and slammed the door on my way in.

“Mommy? Moooomy! Where are you?”

There was a man on the phone in the kitchen. I ran right past him on my way up the stairs to find my mom. “Probably just a repair man,” I thought.

“Lora?” He yelled back. “I’ve got to go. She’s home.” It was my Papa Al. This was strange. Why would he be here? “Lora, sweetie, your mom was in an accident. She’s in the hospital right now.”

“Can we go see her?” I asked. “I need to tell her what I did at school today. I always tell her what I did after school.”

“No, I’m sorry sweetie. We can’t go see her right now.”

I never saw my mom again. She had been in a head on collision in her car hours earlier and died at the hospital. She was 37 years old.

The next day I sat in the front row at her funeral. I remember the rabbi talking about how young she was. I remember staring at a plain wooden box. I remember hearing that my mommy was in that box. I remember my Grandma Ida squeezing my hand so hard that it hurt. I remember hearing my dad cry so loudly that it echoed through the room. I had never heard him cry before. I didn’t like it. They lowered that box into the ground and everyone shoveled some dirt on top of it. A man asked me if I wanted to shovel a little dirt. No, I did not.

Over the next several days, we had numerous people come to our house. In the morning, men from synagogue came over to pray with my dad, grandpas, and uncles. They told me we were Sitting Shiva. All of the mirrors in the house were covered with sheets, and we wore torn shirts. I wanted things to be back the way they were. My Grandma Ida stayed with us for a little while. She held my hand and told me that she loved me. I remember her lying in bed with me one night quietly crying. I hated seeing her sad like that.

A few days later, my cousin Jeff, in an attempt to cheer me up, told me that maybe my mom would come back some day. Wait, what? He had heard a story about a time that someone had been buried when they weren’t really dead.

“Whoa! She’ll be trapped in that box in the ground!” I shouted.

“Don’t worry about that,” he said, sensing my apprehension. “There are always security guards walking around cemeteries. They’ll hear her. They’ll get her out”.

Now, as crazy as that sounds, keep in mind Jeff was 10, so he knew pretty much everything. He had the best ideas… like setting an alarm at midnight during sleepovers so we could raid the kitchen and pig out on junk food, or using discreet hand signals to coordinate trips to the bathroom during boring parts of Shabbat services. We’d meet up and explore the labyrinth of musty halls in the synagogue basement.

So, maybe he was right. Maybe my mom could come back. And besides, this possibility was the only thing that made the giant knot in my stomach go away. So, I believed it. I held onto it.

For the next year, I imagined my mom walking through the door. Her clothes were dirty, her hair was a mess, she seemed frazzled, but as soon as she saw me, she ran over and scooped me up in her arms. “I’ve missed you, my sweet girl”, she said. Sometimes I just sat there staring at the door and waiting. There had been countless days of school since she left me that I needed to tell her about.

About a year after my mom’s death, Jeff was over playing, and the doorbell rang. I rushed over to answer it. Sigh, just a package. “I thought it might have been my mom”, I explained. “Do you still think she might come back? Remember, you said that sometimes people come back?”

“What? Oh, Lora… I… shouldn’t have said that. Aunt Bernie’s not going to come back. I mean, someone told me a story once, but that…it wasn’t real.”

“But you said it could happen. It still could happen… right?”

“I was wrong. I’m sorry”

I ran into the bathroom and slammed the door. I started crying, like, really bawling. It was the first time I had cried about my mom since I lost her. It was the first time I realized that she was really gone. The tears kept coming and just wouldn’t stop. I was 8 years old and finally understood.

Today is my 37th birthday. I’ve been wondering about this day for nearly 3 decades. What would my life be like at 37? Would I have my own children? Would I still think about my mom every day?

As it turns out, I have two precious boys that are my whole world, and I do, indeed, still think about my mom every day. My oldest son just started preschool last fall. When he comes home, I ask him what he did, just like my mom used to do, and he eagerly responds. I listen intently, and my heart is full because I know somewhere out there, my own momma is listening too.

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This is me sharing “37 Years is not Enough” at this year’s Listen to Your Mother Pittsburgh on May 12

On My Mom’s 67th Birthday

Today would have been my mom’s 67th birthday. I spend an unhealthy amount of time wondering what would be if she was still alive. Sometimes, I wonder in what ways my life would be different.

Would I still have been a veterinarian?

She worked so diligently to set up regular play dates for me. Grandma Ida insisted that I needed to be social. After she died, the play dates went away. They had to. My dad’s single father lifestyle didn’t allow for things like that. I wanted friends so badly, but I was so shy. I had my brother, my cousins, and a couple neighbor friends, but I mostly felt alone. So, I talked to my cat. All the time. Pumpkin was my BFF and therapist. I’d tell her all about my day and feelings while scratching her neck and stoking her back. She’d purr loudly and writhe around in ecstasy, fur flying all over the place, as my nose got progressively clogged, my eyes itched and watered. My allergies flared, but still I endured the discomfort to hang with my Pumpkin, affectionately known as “Kitty”. I told her I was going to be a vet when I grow up. Maybe if I had more people friends, I would have chosen a different profession.

Speaking of professions, would I have even pursued college or a career at all?

One of my biggest struggles since having my own children is managing a work and home life balance. I love my work and have always followed my passions; first with pursuing a career in veterinary medicine and then specializing in pathology. Of course, she would have supported my passions, but maybe she would have also given me guidance about a passion that I had no idea was inside of me: motherhood. I didn’t know how much I wanted to be a mother until I became one, and my career path was already set. I had no idea that these little people would become my everything, my world. But I’ll bet you knew, my sweet mama. I’ll bet you would have told me. Perhaps I would have changed my priorities earlier in preparation for this part of my life.

Would I have married my husband?

Chances are I would not have. There is no doubt that my mom would have loved Chris. He is a sweet and caring husband, a great father, so intelligent and hardworking. But it’s naïve to think that the stars would have aligned for us to meet given how different my life would have been. I suspect I would have a husband and children, but not the ones that I have in this universe.

Sometimes, I do wonder how my life would be different if my mom was still here, but honestly, I don’t like to think of my life without my career, Chris, or my boys. These experiences and people in the life I’ve lived without my mom make me the person that I am. So, instead, I prefer to imagine my life the same way it is right now, just with her in it. I picture her having a close relationship with Chris and me. I envision the joy in her eyes when she walks into our house and her grandsons run over to give her a hug. I see her pulling them onto her lap to read them The Very Hungry Caterpillar for the 3rd time in a row. I hear her voice on the other end of the phone comforting me when I’m upset. I feel her long thin fingers wrapped around mine as we walk along the North Shore trail hand-in-hand. This may not be how it truly would be, but you, my momma, are the one thing I miss in life the most.

Happy 67th birthday, Mommy. I love you now, always, and forever.

Mom

Lucky Friday the 13th: Getting an Autism Diagnosis for my Son

“It looks like the next available date for an evaluation would be…. Friday, November 13th at 8am”.

“Friday the 13th? Really? What’s the next one after that?” I inquired. I was always a little superstitious, and everyone knows that Friday the 13th is unlucky.

“Nothing until December.”

I sighed. “OK, then. Friday the 13th it is.”

It was May 5th, 2015. I had 6 whole months to forget about this ominous evaluation. In the meantime, I would just continue to assume that my speech-delayed and “spirited” (aka- insanely difficult) 2 and 1/2 year old was just hitting milestones at his own pace. This is what everyone including our own pediatrician had been telling us all along. Until this last 30 month check-up when the doctor started asking us very pointed questions.

“Is he affectionate with you?”

“Yes, absolutely.”

“Does he respond to his name?”

“Not really. Well, sometimes. He gets fixated on what he’s into a lot of the time.”

“Does he make eye contact with you?”

Chris and I looked at each other.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “I never really paid attention to that. Not all the time.”

“Miles,” I called in an attempt to have him look over at me. No response. He continued to blissfully play with a sippy cup he had snatched out of the diaper bag.

“I don’t want to scare you,” the pediatrician went on to say, “and often any mention of ‘the A word’ to parents tends to do that, but I think you might want to consider having Miles evaluated for autism spectrum disorder”.

Chris and I looked at each other again. We didn’t say a word.

“The wait time for an evaluation is long,” he continued, “so you might want to call to make an appointment sooner rather than later.”

We had driven to the appointment separately and didn’t have a chance to talk about this until later that evening. We were both pretty shocked by the suggestion.

“I think we misled him when we said he didn’t made eye contact,” Chris explained. “He totally makes eye contact. I’ve been paying attention to it today.”

“And he’s SO affectionate,” I added. “Kids with autism aren’t supposed to be affectionate, are they?”

Still, we were nervous. Miles was clearly different from other kids his age. He wasn’t talking yet aside from a few words, and was frustrated by his inability to communicate with us. Mealtimes were a nightmare. He was a great eater when he first started with solid foods, but had been ever so gradually dropping item from his diet. There were frequent meltdowns at mealtime. They were incited not only from foods he didn’t want, but also foods he did want that weren’t prepared the right way. The wrong spoon or bowl could easily lead to 20 minutes long freak out. I felt like I was walking on eggshells in the kitchen with him.

We decided it made sense to make the appointment. We didn’t think Miles had autism, but it couldn’t hurt to rule it out, could it?

Miles started private speech therapy soon after we made the appointment. He began to make progress with his speech. “I… want… water,” he would slowly repeat after us.

“Great job!” We’d praise.

See, it was all about his speech delay. Miles did NOT have autism. I would keep the evaluation scheduled knowing full well that the psychologist would confirm what I already knew. He was fine.

But still, I spent all of my time after the boys were asleep researching symptoms of autism. Obsessing, really. It was so confusing. Miles did display many symptoms listed as signs of autism, but not all of them. And what 2-year-old didn’t have difficulty adapting to a change in schedule or have a narrow interest in topics? Aren’t all little boys fixated by Thomas and his friends?

As Friday, November 13th approached, I began to have a gut feeling that we’d be be receiving news we didn’t want to hear. Sure enough, after observing our happy beautiful oldest son for about a half hour, the psychologist confidently confirmed that he did exhibit symptoms consistent with mild to moderate autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

I tried my darnedest to fight back the tears as the psychologist inundated us with packets of papers with instructions on the next steps. It was overwhelming. It was terrifying. We had officially entered the unknown.

“I heard of kids being diagnosed with autism when they are young, but by the time they are in school they drop the diagnosis. Do you think this could happen for Miles?” Chris asked.

“I feel very confident about his diagnosis, but if you want to get him re-tested in the future, there’s certainly no harm in that.”

Everyone was silent on the car ride home until I finally broke down into tears. What did this mean for my baby boy and his future? How would this affect our family?

I had a flashback to a conversation that I had with my boss when I was about 6 months pregnant with Miles. The topic of autism and vaccination came up. My boss said that one of his greatest fears when he decided to have kids was having a child with autism. “And it’s so common these days,” he said shaking his head. “Thankfully, my kids were OK.” Now, here I was on Friday the 13th receiving news that my boss’s greatest fear had become a reality for me. My son had autism.

I looked back at my beautiful baby boy quietly staring out the window. His ever-rosy cheeks matched his perfect pink lips, and he pushed away a blond curl the fell in front of his eyes. This child has been the light of my life from the very moment he was plopped down on my belly in the delivery room. We instantly connected. I immediately knew I would do anything to protect him always and forever. No diagnosis could ever change that. Nothing could ever change that.

Miles newborn
Sweet Miles at 5 days old. Love at first sight.

Looking back on it 1 and 1/2 years later, getting a diagnosis has been the best possible thing for our family. It has allowed us to receive a multitude of state-funded services we could have never otherwise have afforded. Miles is now equipped with a team of therapists and parents that are more aware of the challenges he faces on a daily basis. Putting a name to his struggles has actually been a blessing. Watching him learn and grow has filled our hearts with joy. I can honestly say without a doubt that if I could take away my son’s autism, I wouldn’t do it. It makes him who he is, and my God do I love who he is. He is the most loving and hilarious little creature the world has ever known. His smile lights up the room, and his sweetness permeates my soul. Friday, November 13th, 2015 was certainly a difficult day for our family, but it was anything but unlucky.

Miles at 3
The endearing Miles at 3-years-old, a couple month after receiving his ASD diagnosis