Fire-fighting and the Magic Button

“I’d like this year to have less fire-fighting,” I tell my counsellor. “I want things to be a bit calmer.”

She looks at me. “Is that realistic, given Lily’s difficulties?”

The impact of her words hits my chest like a punch. As ridiculous as it might seem to an outsider, I hadn’t actually considered that. I’d merely assumed that I was doing something wrong and that the stresses and emotional turmoil we endured over the last year could hopefully begin to fade away if I just tried harder, worked on myself, operated from a place of stronger mental health. Maybe meditating, drinking green smoothies, reading the right book; somehow there had to be a way of finding normality, of making everything okay. The Magic Button, in other words.

When you have a child with difficulties such as autism and ADHD, people look to you for the Magic Button. Teachers, grandparents, even going way back to kindergarten and crèche workers will all at some point sit you down and inform you that your child isn’t responding to them the way he/she should be, and is misbehaving (“making poor choices” in modern day teacher-speak) and so could you please give them the Magic Button? You know, the one key phrase or action that means your child will suddenly switch off their challenging behaviour and behave perfectly for them.

Over and over you explain that there’s no quick fix, no instant solution, no Magic Button. That you really have nothing to offer other than the general advice to try and keep a sense of humour, patience, very clear instructions etc, and that some days none of it will work. That Lily is genuinely not capable of holding it together 100% of the time, that 80% is pretty good and she just can’t manage that final 20%. They won’t accept that though. If she’s capable of “making the right choices” 80% of the time, surely she can do this 100% of the time? She just needs to make better choices, that’s all. So if you can give them the Magic Button, they can get her to 100%, tick all the boxes and go home happy.

“There is no Magic Button,” you find yourself explaining yet again. My God, you wish there was.

I hadn’t realised that I’d got into that same mindset myself. Expecting myself, or an as yet unknown professional to suddenly come up with the Magic Button that would “fix” Lily’s behaviour. If I found the right supplement, or therapist, or managed to explain things to her in the right way, it would all click into place and life would begin to flow more smoothly. It’s very hard to accept that this isn’t an option. Weirdly, it’s hard to accept that maybe I’m not actually doing anything wrong.

Of course, it’s impossible to tell how capable Lily really is. It seems that she can be intelligent and relatively capable when she wants to be, but demand avoidance and Oppositional Defiance Disorder combined with ADHD mean that it’s virtually impossible to motivate her when she’s not interested. Given that she still refuses to do any studying, despite her GCSEs rapidly approaching this year, it’s evident that her grades could be improved if she put even a tiny amount of effort in. But she won’t. And there’s the issue – do I accept that refusal as part of her condition, or do I continually fight against it? Similarly, should she accept that part of her make-up that leads her into stubborn refusals and defiance, or should she work to change it? Can it be changed, or even improved a little? I don’t have any answers, see-sawing between feeling sure that Lily needs pushing to do better, or wondering whether in fact she’s more disabled than anyone gives her credit for.

“It’s like trying to push a double decker bus up a hill,” I explained to the counsellor, describing how it felt to battle to support Lily every day. “Exhausting, demoralising and you can’t make any progress upwards, all you’re doing most of the time is trying to stop her from sliding back down the hill into the swamp.” The swamp – my fear for Lily, borne out by too many of the ASD/ADHD families we’ve met – of a child/teenager/adult who never comes out of their bedroom and spends their entire life playing computer games, rather than existing out in the real world in any meaningful way. So what? some people might say, the kind of just let them do what they want and keep them happy philosophy that I’ve learned doesn’t work with Lily. A life spent playing computer games in the bedroom is a life only half-lived – and when you know your child has more to offer than that, it’s heartbreaking to see their gifts go to waste. Lily could achieve a lot with her music, if she could manage to stay on track and put some effort in, particularly if this was backed up with the right educational support. And there goes the next major issue, the total lack of provision for autistic kids, which warrants an entire post in itself. Every single day brings the same battles over the basics; getting up on time, cleaning teeth, studying, bathing, chores, homework, getting off the computer, bedtime… “What happens if you just don’t?” one mother asked me. Then she won’t do them. She simply doesn’t get out of bed, misses school, smells bad and the mouldy dishes pile up in her bedroom while she builds her Minecraft empire late into the night. There’s choosing your battles and there’s what if all of it’s a battle? Because if you ease off, even a fraction, the bus starts to roll downhill, likely flattening you in the process. And then there’s the phone calls from school…

That week, the same quote keeps appearing in different guises. You can’t calm the storm, you can only calm yourself. You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to ride them. A sense of acceptance is beginning to form, the tiniest seed of realisation that needs to be nurtured; I need to detach. I can’t stop the storm, but I don’t need to hurl myself into the raging waters. If life is never going to be smooth or easy – if the firefighting is going to be endless – then I need to take a step back and find my anchors, develop the self care practices that are going to keep me calmer and help me cope better. I’m never going to be able to stop the stress from arriving, but perhaps I can try to create the space in my life to help me deal with it. A combination of detaching emotionally so that I’m not getting hurt on a personal level by whatever’s happening, while also vastly improving my own self care and support systems so as to be able to stand stronger and not crumble each time the storm hits. The image I have is of being able to watch the storm through a window, rather than battling to survive the elements in a tiny boat as I’m battered by wave after angry wave. That’s the idea, yet turning it into a reality remains an unknown quantity. Still, it feels that I’m sitting with the right questions at least, even if I don’t yet have the answers, nor the Magic Button. Perhaps the Magic Button was always the individual’s coping mechanisms, and not about the SEN child at all.