As I had mentioned, D. was in a performance of The Miracle Worker this past weekend. Everyone did a fine job and it was a good production. This is the second time I have watched one (or more) of my children in this particular play. The first time was over ten years ago when my oldest children were still in grade school. What interested me most about this whole thing was my personal emotional reaction to the play separated by the years and the children I have at home.
I have to say, I appreciated this play to a degree that I didn't expect this time around, mainly due to the character, Annie Sullivan. I cannot tell you how strongly I identify with Annie. In fact, often throughout the play, I would be watching what was going on on stage, and just feel tired. It wasn't so much as watching something unfamiliar, but more like watching my day to day life.
I know I do not parent a child who cannot hear or see, but I do parent a child who is so locked up inside herself as to be a vaguely functional non-person. She move and eats and talks at us, but these often seem like automatic responses, something done on instinct as opposed to a desire to express herself. Any real expression is still at that level of Helen prior to meeting Annie. It is pre-verbal and guttural and distressing.
It was interesting that J. came home with the exact same reaction. (And D. said at one point, as he was watching a rehearsal, that he leaned over to a friend and said, "Oh my gosh, that's my mother!") You see, trying to reach the real child buried deep, deep inside a very locked-down and scared and non-verbal place is hard. And tiring. Sometimes hopeful, but more often hopeless. Like Annie teaching Helen, a task that no one had really tried before or really knew what to do. Like Annie making it up and trusting her gut most of the time, this is what we feel as though we do with R. No one really knows how to reach an older child, with intellectual delays who was so neglected and traumatized as an early child that she hid for safety and is still hiding. We make it up as we go along and hope for the best.
At one point in the play, Annie tries to get the Kellers to see that it isn't Helen's obvious disabilities (lack of sight and hearing) that are her biggest problem. In fact, Annie hardly sees those issues as problems, but something to learn how to manage. I remember the first time I saw the play, thinking that that line sounded good, but those were still pretty big deals. Big deals on the level of wondering how anyone actually moved forward and had a life. I'm sure that most of the audience then and this past weekend felt the same way. This time around though, I practically wanted to cheer for Annie when she said this, because she was so right. While it would be a pretty steep learning curve at first to learn what we would need to know to parent a child lacking sight and hearing, I realized (and J. had the same epiphany), that once you've learned those skills, Annie was right. The obvious disabilities wouldn't really be a big deal. This is because Annie goes on to tell the Kellers that what was really hard was trying to reach the real child inside of Helen. How do you free her to communicate to participate and be present in her own life. This is what is hard.
Unimaginably hard on some days. Some days, such as this morning, are taken up with just trying to keep my daughter here, as opposed to the disassociated safe place deep inside her head. This morning was bad. Actually the day continues to be bad, with her either disassociated or grunting at me. I don't know what sent her psyche scurrying to the impenetrable fortress she has built for herself inside her head, but that is where she is. She had even done some really good schoolwork for me this morning. And then she was gone.
Like Annie, I'm incredibly stubborn. I will not let this child stay there in that safe but ultimately horrible place for her. I will fight for her continuously to be a real child. A child who can express emotions. A child who can learn. I cannot just sit here and let her remain the lump that she would prefer to be. The trouble is, there is no blueprint for this. I'm making it up as I go along, based solely on the combination of gut instinct and inordinate amounts of reading about the brain and trauma.
And I have no idea if we will ever get there. I want to jump to the last scene in the play, where Helen, feeling the water coming out of the pump finally puts together the word Annie has been trying to teach her with the actual object. The moment in the play where Helen understands that she has been given the gift of language and expression. If we ever reach that point, it will most likely not be a momentous single flash of understanding, but the long, slow crawl up and out of the abyss.