Walls and Doors

A few weeks ago, we attended the yearly fundraising event for my son’s school. The event was an opportunity to interact with other parents, teachers, faculty, and board members and to collectively celebrate that a place exists for kids like my son.

This year, the guest speaker was a Hollywood movie producer who attended the same school when he was my son’s age. The producer accepted the school’s Achievement Award and gave an emotional speech about how much the school helped him learn and grow and how it changed how he felt about himself and his outlook on the future.

Earlier in the day, he spent time with the kids, including my son. The kids worked together to create movie pitches and presented them to the producer. My son came home beaming, feeling proud of himself for his accomplishment, and also because the producer gave my son the inside scoop that there would be another Captain America movie.

We didn’t learn all the details until we spoke with one of my son’s teachers at the fundraising event. He often has a hard time remembering and sharing details, but his teacher was so proud of him, and we were equally proud and grateful that the producer had spent time with the children.

In his speech, the producer talked about his experience with the kids. He said it reminded him of what it was like to find a place like this school after struggling for so long in other schools. He looked at the faces of the kids and wanted to inspire them and show them that, even though they have challenges, with a loving family and by the right support, anything was possible.

When he said that, I felt a light come on.

I think a lot about my son’s future. I wonder what he will be capable of, and what options will be available to him. Often, those thoughts are about the things he won’t be able to do because I see how much he struggles today. But I think a part of that is because we traveled so much in the unknown, without the type of support that schools like this provide. Based on our experience, the unknown is dark and scary, and we spent so many years navigating potential futures in that dark, feeling around for a way out.

When it’s that dark, everything feels like a wall.

But that moment in the producer’s speech when the light came on made me think about how much our life has changed in the last few years. Our new home in our new town, my son’s new friends, and my son’s new school have all changed his life. They’ve changed our life. The school, in particular, has given him a sense of belonging in a safe space and the tools he needs to learn. He is surrounded by other kids like him. He is being taught in a way that works for him. And now, he’s seeing examples of what other kids like him have done.

The school has provided light in the dark, and, for the first time, we can see a little further ahead.

It’s because of that light that, for the first time, we can see that we’re not just surrounded by walls. We can see doors, too.

You’ve Got A Friend

A few weeks ago, we had one of my son’s friends from his new school and his family over for dinner.

My son goes to a school for unique learners. He started there last year, and we uprooted from the city to move closer to the school. It was a big risk at the time, but it paid off.

It’s the first time we felt like he was in a place that understood him and was putting in the work to teach him. It’s the first time since our epilepsy journey started that he has been able to attend a full school day. My son is happy, learning, and surrounded by kids who are just like him; each one of those students has unique challenges and reasons for being there.

My son and his friend often FaceTime after school and play Minecraft. I’ll hear them talking and laughing from the basement, and I’ll exchange greetings with his friend when he hears me checking in. When his friend was out of school for a few days, my son would check in with him to see how he was doing. When his friend came over for dinner, the first thing he said when he got out of the car was that he needed to check on my son to make sure he was okay because my son had a rare daytime seizure the previous day.

The boys played for hours. They played video games and had Nerf battles in the basement. We heard the same joking and laughing in person that we did when they were chatting on FaceTime. It was a wonderful sound to hear in person.

While the boys played in the basement, the adults stayed upstairs and talked, mixing time between crafting and food preparation. We had a lot in common. Both families were dealing with a severe medical condition, as well as the complexities that come with it. Both boys struggled in school, and both families struggled to find a place that would work for them. There were doctors’ appointments and extended absences from school that made it hard for them to build and maintain friendships. But both families found a place where we felt the boys could learn and grow and where they found each other and other friends just like them. Both families also have one more year before we go back to the negotiating table in order to continue at the school that has given our kids a chance to be seen and to learn.

Listening to them share their story also made me furious. Not just because families of children with special needs shouldn’t have to fight so hard or be abused by the system, but also because the way their family was treated was amplified because of their race. The things they were told about their son were shameful and terrible, even more so because the comments came from people who called themselves educators.

This is the reality for kids who don’t fit into the box. The system, every system, is designed for the majority. It’s more efficient when all the pieces look the same and can be treated the same way. When an “other” shows up, it slows down the machine. The system will try to make the “other” confirm if it can or discard it in order to return to “normal.”

In some cases, when the “other” proves resistant to being discarded and fights back, the system makes conditions intolerable until the “other” has no choice but to leave. We’ve experienced this ourselves, and we’ve seen it play out too many times with the people around us, especially those on a similar path. It plays out the same way in the bureaucracy of the local school system as it does on the national stage.

Navigating this world is hard and exhausting. It often feels lonely and isolating. It’s been a while since we talked to someone who understood our experience that deeply. It was cathartic to look across the table and see someone who knew what it was like. As terrible as the experiences have been, it was comforting not to feel alone.

Playing in the basement, it was also apparent that the boys didn’t feel alone, either.

I Am You / Dispatches From Epilepsy

I am you.

I am you if you are a parent of a child with epilepsy.

I am you if the future you had planned looks very different from where you are today.

I am you if you haven’t had an uninterrupted night of sleep in years.

I am you if there is nothing more important to you than your family.

I am you if you weren’t prepared for the detour that life took you on.

I am you.

But I am also not you.

I am not you because your experiences are your own.

I am not you because there are things that you deal with every day that I cannot imagine.

I am not you because you, and only you, are you.

My wife and I recently watched Dispatches From Elsewhere. In it, the show suggests that we are just like everyone else and that the pain we are feeling is not unique. It’s easy to feel isolated and alone, and that no one understands the pain and challenges that we’re facing every day. But there is also something so comforting about the idea that I am like you, and that others have been where I am.

Your pain, whatever it is, is 0% unique, as hard as that might be to believe. You are special. But not because you are unique. You’re special because you are exactly like everyone else…perfect.

It’s something I’ve seen since I started blogging and connecting with many of the wonderful people in the epilepsy community. So many of you have reached out from different parts of your journey…ahead of me, following me, or right where I am. We’ve talked about how many experiences we have in common. And that has given me hope. It has made me feel connected and very much not alone.

The show also explores change, both within ourselves and in the world around us. I have often felt stuck, trapped by circumstances, and not knowing what to do next. And, looking at the world around me, I have never felt so insignificant and unable to influence a world that is so desperately in need of change. It’s overwhelming to think of myself as a small drop of water in a huge ocean. But the message is that, while we are so convinced of our separateness, we are all drawn from the same source. We are all in this together. And together, that is how we can make change.

Change comes when we find one another. For once we find each other, the energy of our collective spirits can take flight, and the world around us begins to change.

It is true if we limit ourselves to our tiny mind instruments that you are you. But perhaps, if we let our subtler tools take the lead we may glimpse the truth, even if only for a moment.

There is no you. There is no me. There is only we.

I think we need this message now, more than ever.