My body is littered with Declan shaped bite marks.
For the last year or so, Declan has done such a good job regulating his emotions that sometimes I forget there was a time when he didn’t. Some days I take for granted the transitions that used to take painstaking effort—I forget the fits, which are practically nonexistent, lately, until the sunlight catches my skin just right and I can see faded teeth marks. These days the only relics of those meltdowns are the forgotten, faded bite marks that used to wind regular patterns up my arms and legs.
I don’t know why Declan used to bite me—and, to be clear, it was specifically me. He had fits with other people, but not in the same way. It was rare that Matt walked away having been bit, and at least once a week I bandaged up bloody spots where his teeth broke my skin. It was part ritual, part overwhelming anger, and part desperation. His whole body would shake as he bucked against me. Often he’d try to headbutt the floor or a window or some other unforgiving surface, and when I intervened I’d take the brunt of his force instead.
There was little that could be done once a fit started, but I learned to predict them—to identify and avoid the triggers—and soon our days amounted to meticulously managing the world so as to not upset the precarious balance we’d struck. It was hard work, and not just for me—it was exhausting for Declan, too. It was exhausting, I am sure, to be overwhelmed by noises nobody else could hear, circumstances nobody else was bothered by, and to not be able to communicate any of it.
But I know that boy like the back of my hand, and I figured it out, slowly, without words.
The grocery store was out—the scanners set him off. Once the radio station was tuned, it stayed on that channel. Period. We took the same route to daycare (and then school) every day except Friday, which is our designated donut day. If he had to go to work with me, we stopped to hug his favorite fire hydrant and entered through his favorite door. His shoes had to be laid out on the bench. He couldn’t handle the transition of taking off his pajamas in the morning, so he slept in his underwear.
I could go on, but I won’t—you get the picture. There were a million rules that seemed meaningless to us at the time but weren’t. They were important to him. And if we had to break the rules, we had to break them, but it came at the price of a meltdown. Not a temper tantrum, a meltdown.
By Christmas of 2016, I was pretty good at managing Declan’s days. I tried to include enough “rule breaking” to stretch the limits of his comfort zone, but not so much that he became dysfunctional. I started seeing the world the way Declan might; I paid attention to things like the noise of fluorescent lights, or the way pots and pans banged together when I did the dishes, or the abruptness of people’s voices when they gave praise. Despite this learned perspective, though, I dropped the ball shortly before Christmas of that year.
I had a day off of work and, in a fit of bravery, I decided to take Declan up to the science museum about an hour away. Usually I’d need Matt to accompany me on such trips. Declan was strong enough and heavy enough at that point that if he really got out of control, I couldn’t physically carry him to the car. I wanted a day with my son, though—just me and him—so we went. It was the best day. Nothing went wrong. He had a blast. Sometimes I wonder about the kind of moments I’ll remember at the end of my life, and that day is one of them.
So when Declan wanted to go back the next day with his cousin, both Matt and I were eager to take him. I knew he had OT that afternoon. I knew that his cousin had slept over the night before. I knew it would be too much for Declan. But we’d had a perfect day only 24 hours before; what should have been too much for him that day wasn’t, so I kept my mouth shut and trekked on down the road.
By the time we got to OT, Declan was a mess. He didn’t want to say goodbye to his cousin. He couldn’t understand why he had OT—OT days were Thursdays after school, and he hadn’t gone to school. I let him bring the iPad into the waiting room, something I almost never allowed, because it was the only way to get him out of the car without forcibly removing him.
As our appointment time neared, I informed Declan it was time to put the iPad away. That little screen, it turns out, was the only thing keeping our proverbial ship afloat, and its removal triggered an unspeakably large meltdown.
A meltdown at home or in the car is hard. A meltdown in front of four other moms (and one dad) in a quiet waiting room is the actual worst and if I had enemies, I wouldn’t wish it upon them.
First came the headbutt, which was how I knew it would be bad, and then the biting. When Declan couldn’t reach my arms, he bit the only thing he could reach, which happened to be my chest, and which hurt exactly as much as you think it might.
So, to recap—the scene was complete with a screaming, headbutting child, four other moms (and one dad), all of whom I about flashed as my four year old bit my chest so hard that I bled through my shirt. If this ever makes it into a sitcom I want royalties.
Because there is a God and he is merciful, Declan’s therapist called us back at that moment.
He eventually calmed down. We got him home and I washed the tears and snot out of his hair, which he hadn’t let us cut in almost a year. He fell asleep to the glow of his solar system night light, which had been lighting his dreams for two years, at that point. We said the same prayer we always said—three times, the way we always did.
And then he opened his eyes in a way he never had and uttered a phrase he almost never said. “I love you, Mama.”
And “I love you, Mama,” has been part of our bedtime routine ever since.