When “Sick” Isn’t Straightforward
A few days ago I stumbled across this piece by Eilene Zimmerman about how she nursed her college freshman daughter through a bad illness. Although I know better than to read the comments, I clicked to read them with some trepidation—after a lovely story about a mother and daughter finding their footing again after a fraught separation post-high-school, surely someone would be there to ruin it and accuse her of babying her grown child. But on the whole, the author was congratulated for following her gut and being loving.
I understand that the early years of kids-who-are-technically-no-longer-kids-but-hey-they’re-still-teens bring a kind of push-pull dynamic to even the most normal and stable of relationships. And although Zimmerman’s tale was lovely—and I hope I would behave with as much grace as she did in a similar situation, and that my child would be as grateful for it—when I finished reading I was mostly filled with a sense of dread. As I sat in a doctor’s office with my son this morning, my first thought after “Here we go again,” was “ugh, that article.”
I’ll try to explain: There was a time when we didn’t know if one or both kids would be capable of living away from home for college on the traditional timetable. At this point we’re just about a year from high school graduation for my oldest, and her brother will follow the next year, and it looks like both of them are leaning towards not venturing too far away, but yes, going to college and not living at home. Due to their various special needs, there’s all kinds of additional worries we’re wrestling, but most of the time I’m able to convince myself that it’ll all work out just fine. This morning, though, my son came downstairs for breakfast and he just looked… off.
“You okay?” I asked, narrowing my eyes at him. I tried to remember how many days ago his allergies started acting up. “Are you still feeling congested?”
“Yeah. But I’m fine,” he said, pouring himself some milk and grabbing a banana. He sat down at his spot at the table. “I’m just tired, I think.” He peeled the banana and took a bite. “Also,” he added, “my ear feels a little weird. Probably nothing.”
I felt his head. I asked him if he wanted to stay home. He didn’t want to miss school, so I made him a deal: I would send him to school and call the doctor for an appointment, then come pick him up. He agreed. I refrained from shaking him and saying, “You are sick! You are very, very sick!” Even though I knew that was true, because the most fascinating (to me) facet of my son’s autism is that he almost never seems to realize he’s unwell until he’s right on death’s doorstep. He’s 15, and saying “my ear feels a little weird” is actually a huge triumph in our world. When he was a toddler, I would figure out he was sick either because he was burning up with fever or vomiting, and either way, he would insist he was fine.
A few hours later, his long, hairy legs dangling off the edge of the exam table in a room with Disney decals on the walls, he answered the pediatrician’s questions as best he could, identifying his right ear as the one that was affected. I can only guess what the ped sees on a daily basis, but the first remark upon peering through the otoscope was “Ohhhh, gross!” So, yes, infection in the right ear: confirmed. Then a quick check of the left ear… which was also infected. Because of course it was. “But it’s not as bad as the right!” Consolation, I guess.
So we fetched antibiotics and snacks and I convinced him to come home and rest a while. And I can’t help wondering what this scenario would look like if he was operating without someone who’s known him all his life to say, “Hey, dude, you’re sick.” If he was away at college, would he take himself to the health center if his ear “felt a little weird?” Would he even text me to mention it? I don’t know.
On the other side of the spectrum (pun intended), we have my other child, whose every ache and pain is imminent death. A cold is debilitating. She suffers from migraines, which can be legitimately debilitating, but even then, she doesn’t always possess the common sense to tend to her needs in a reasonable way mid-headache. I mean, I suppose simply going to sleep on the floor of the classroom rather than telling anyone you’re getting a migraine could be a reasonable choice in some situations… but… ummmm… yeah. Sussing out which of her issues require immediate medical attention and which do not is a not-so-fun game of roulette, complicated by the number of times we’ve either overestimated or underestimated the severity of her ailments.
If she was away at college and had a medical issue, would she take herself to the health center? Or would she just lie down somewhere? Or would she always be there, for every ache and pain, until a true crisis might end up overlooked because, hey, you only get to cry wolf so many times before people start to wonder.
I remember going to college and being amused by kids who didn’t know how to do their own laundry or cook. That basically just made for a lot of freshmen wearing a lot of shrunken, pink clothes and spending a lot of time in the dining halls. I don’t remember anyone not being able to figure out what to do when they got sick. And while my teens can both launder and prepare food, I have no idea how to teach them to tend to their physical health without me right there to either point out that they’re sicker than they think or not actually dying. Is this a teachable skill? Can I make them sign an oath that they understand they have to take care of themselves??
Whose idea was it that helpless humans possessing not-yet-fully-formed-frontal-lobes would be able to navigate the world without their parents, anyway? I find it highly suspect.