To the Parents of a Child With Special Needs
Dear parent of a child with special needs,
I want you to know your son or daughter saved my life. In my darkest days your child’s courage, smile, progress and joy gave me hope. Your family’s appreciation made me believe even for just a moment I was worth something. You see, I know you go through a lot as a parent of a child with special needs. I struggle too, just not in the same way.
My illnesses are largely invisible. I walk down the street and the most noticeable thing about me might be my red hair. You’d be surprised to know my mental illnesses and learning disabilities have held a part of me captive for at least my entire adult life, and probably longer. Throughout the years I’ve learned to manage everything. Some years, months, weeks and days have been better than others. I have been hospitalized inpatient, partial patient, every type of patient; I’ve been medicated to the brink of sedation, talk-therapied and dieted. But my health and learning challenges have always been my burden to bare and never share. The weight of them is heavy and I carry that weight alone, in my mind, to protect others. Because I know the way you see me is totally incongruous with the way I see myself. And I want you to see me that way, but at the same time I don’t.
When I was at my worst, your child was the only thing that got me up in the morning, kept me engaged and out of my tortured head and gave me the will to keep going when the going got tough, because your child needed me. And maybe when I was so sick I couldn’t help myself, I could help your child and your family and that was enough. You saw me as strong, knowledgeable, caring, empathetic, kind and capable. You saw me as able.
I want you to know I understand better than most how your son’s body feels when his meds are constantly being managed, how limiting it is to remove whole food groups from your daughter’s diet and how hard it is for your son to come back to school after being in the hospital. I’m not judging your choices. I understand them because I’ve been there. I was there. Had I not been working with your child during that time I would’ve never had the will to do more, to dream bigger, for your child and for myself.
More often than not, I still don’t do it just for me. My wellness always comes first, but it’s so much easier to attain by helping your child. I have built my career in special education and speech-language pathology with your child in mind, knowing that when for whatever reason I just can’t, thinking of your child will make me say I can. Her first steps, his giggle, the wonder in her eyes, his first independent word, her first day without an accident, his first time sleeping all night and her lack of self-injurious behavior keep me going.
On particularly hard days I open a photo album full of pictures of all “my kids.” I look at their smiling faces and remember that your child is why I work so hard to make it, to be as well as I can be. It’s an indescribable privilege to be a part of your lives during what is often a very vulnerable time. I feel honored you’ve given me such a gift. You should know how precious that gift really is.