Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Calm After the Storm

Sometimes the signs are so subtle, they would be easy to miss. Nonetheless, we celebrate every step of progress we see Alex make, knowing that he is, indeed, getting better. This week some seemingly small incidents reminded us just how far he has come, especially in learning how to remain calm in any situation.

On Thursday morning, Alex awakened shaking. Shaking is not uncommon for Alex and has various triggers. For example, the lithium he takes to stabilize his mood can cause occasional tremors in his hands. Also, he has hypothyroidism that makes him more sensitive to being cold, and he sometimes shakes when he feels cold. In addition, when he’s excited or ecstatic about something, he will shudder with joy, as though he cannot contain the happiness inside him. On that morning, however, the shaking was not caused by any of those reasons. After looking at the expression on his face, I could tell that he was having a panic attack, and excess adrenaline was causing his entire body to shake. Often panic attacks will send him into the fight of the “fight or flight” mode, and we knew we had to approach him gently so that he would not become aggressive.

As we tried to soothe him, he told us that he was upset because he had made a mistake. Knowing we shouldn’t push him too hard or argue with him, we told him we understood, and we respected his decision to stay home from his computer class. Since he loves going to computer class, we knew he must have really not felt well in that he was deciding not to go. We asked him if he wanted us to stay with him until he felt better or if he’d rather be alone, and he told us he just wanted to be left alone. His ability to make rational decisions and remain reasonably calm without escalating to yelling, throwing things, or becoming aggressive demonstrated a significant and welcome change in his handling of anxiety. After reassuring him that we were there if he needed us, we honored his request to be left alone. Fortunately, he also understood my need to check on him regularly and never became upset when I asked him if he was feeling better.

A little later, I asked him whether or not he felt well enough to go to music therapy that afternoon. Although he was less anxious, he was still a bit jittery. However, he decided that he wanted to go to music therapy and began getting ready to go. I asked him whether he needed a dose or even a half dose of Valium, which his doctor has prescribed for panic attacks, to make him feel calmer, but he was confident that he didn’t need the medication to cope with his anxiety. When we arrived at his music therapist’s office, I told him that Alex had been anxious that morning but insisted that he wanted to come to music. His therapist told him that he admired his dedication and reassured Alex that if he wasn’t feeling well, they could cut the session short so that he could go home and relax. Sitting in the waiting room, I wondered if Alex would make it through the entire session, but he did, emerging smiling at the end. His therapist told me that Alex had done a great job and seemed to be calm. In fact, I sensed that the session had made him even calmer, perhaps doing a better job than the medication might have. Clearly, Alex knew what he needed to make himself feel better, and he was able to communicate those needs to us instead of resorting to negative behaviors, which is a tremendous blessing.

Later that evening, we were able to go out to a nice restaurant as a family to celebrate our wedding anniversary, and Alex showed no signs of the anxiety that had bothered him in the morning. He thoroughly enjoyed his dinner, especially since it was his favorite food––shrimp––and used nice table manners. In addition, he practiced social skills by engaging in conversation, asking appropriate questions, and never interrupting. Even when another waitress came over to engage him in conversation (We learned that she had worked with adults with disabilities.), he answered her questions nicely. Clearly, all of the skills that Alex's therapists and we have been teaching him are making an impact.

Yesterday, we again saw how well Alex has learned to cope in situations that previously might have upset him. We took him to his cousin’s graduation party, where there were lots of people gathered under a tent in mid-90 degree heat. My mom noticed that Alex was shaking, but when I asked him whether he was nervous or excited (knowing that he certainly wasn’t cold), he shuddered and told me that he was excited, meaning that he was happy to be there. Even as a storm loomed closer with thunder and lightening, which used to terrify Alex, he remained calm and pleasant.

With the storm approaching, we decided to take him to a nearby restaurant for dinner. Just as we walked in the door, rain began pouring down, and winds began whipping around. Suddenly, the electricity in the restaurant went out before they could take our order. Even though we were basically stuck there since we didn’t want to go out in the storm, Alex didn’t get upset about the power outage or the storm. In fact, he seemed to see the whole situation as an adventure, commenting, “It’s very rare for the power to go out. The odds are about one in one hundred.” He maintained that calm, waiting patiently for the storm to pass and the power to return, and then happily enjoyed his dinner once the electricity returned and allowed his food to be prepared. Based on past experiences where changes of plans could send Alex into a panic, Ed and I kept watching him to make sure he wasn’t getting agitated, and we were amazed and pleased by how well he handled the situation. Once again, he showed us how much better he is now.

While many people would take for granted a young adult’s ability to cope with a panic attack, a strong storm, or a power outage, let alone to make pleasant conversation, we know how significant these milestones are for Alex, and we thank God for making him better. Learning to handle social situations and to deal with anxiety has not come easily for him, yet he has worked hard so that he can enjoy typical situations, such as going out to a restaurant, or even how to cope in rare circumstances, such as when the electricity suddenly goes out. Essentially, he is showing that he can deal with the storms of life­­––whether internal or external––so that he can enjoy all that life has to offer.

“Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and He brought them out of their distress. He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed. They were glad when it grew calm, and He guided them to their desired haven.” Psalm 107:28-30


K. C. Wells said...

What a proud time for Alex!! ❤️

Pam Byrne said...

Thanks, K.C.! Hope you and your family are doing well.