"My Body Won't Let Me"
A few weeks ago, during my younger son’s afternoon nap, my sister invited us to join her and her children at the park.
Cooper was sitting on the couch, wrapped in his comforter, surrounded by his pacifiers, watching “Trolls” on TV. Using my most careful declarative language, I offered,
“Your cousins are at the park.”
“I want to go!” he responded, and excitedly threw off his comforter and removed the pacifier from his mouth.
We jumped in the van, despite the laughably short distance from our house, because in our experience, this approach helped decrease the transition friction and the demand of walking or biking on the way to the park. My husband stayed behind while the baby slept.
When we arrived, Cooper delighted in locating his cousins up in a tree, their faces partially obscured by the lush green leaves of a late Michigan spring. He immediately wanted to join them and looked at me to help him accomplish the goal.
Even though he was excited, I could already see his brow furrowing and subtle signs of his anxiety building. He had never climbed a tree that tall, or much beyond a single branch of our low-set lilac bush in the backyard, because of his gross motor planning challenges.
These motor challenges took me a while to notice, due to his brilliant compensation for -- and deliberate masking of -- his developmental differences. For example, on the playground of his old daycare in Maryland, he had learned a single way to move his body up and down the jungle gym by watching other children – in addition to grit, perseverance, and the desire to appear “typical” – and then repeated that exact way up and down the gym, every time. He never wavered from this pattern of foot and hand placements over the course of the two years that he was at the daycare.
Once Cooper approached the tree, his cousins climbed down to make space for him. I crouched on the ground and hoisted his six-year-old body up to my shoulder level, so he could place his feet into the crook of the tree. The motion upwards made his anxiety surge and although I placed his foot carefully, with ample room for a solid footing, he was too scared to lift his other foot to the neighboring branch. He clung to me, unwilling to release his hands from my shoulders to grab the branch. I started to feel unsteady in my footing, and so I lowered him to the ground. He began repeating,
“Mama, I want to climb, Mama, Mama!”
I could sense his body tensing and his language getting more restrictive, the repeated, anxious “Mama” was always an indication that he was headed toward dysregulation. I lifted his body again, trying to avoid my own building anxiety. I placed his feet in the crook of the tree, but he clung to me and said,
“I want to climb the tree,” as if I was preventing him. We lowered to the ground and I offered,
“I wonder if we should take a break.”
“No!” he shouted, frustrated at the suggestion. “Lift me! Lift me!” he demanded.
As I lifted him, I could feel his body tensing,
“Mama, I can’t, Mama lift me, Mama I want to climb, Mama I can’t.”
He was stuck cognitively, as half his body lurched for the tree, and the other half clung to me, trapped between his nervous system’s need for safety and the part of him that was just a six-year-old wanting to climb a tree with his cousins. I held him halfway in the tree, halfway out, as he started to cry, and then yell. I brought him to the ground, and my sister gently ushered her children to another part of the park.
“I want to climb the tree, Mama, lift me, lift me!”
I lifted him, hoping that he would relax without the audience, but as I lifted him, his body fought against me, and he lurched away and kicked. I brought him to the ground again and he started screaming,
“My body won’t let me!” over and over. “Why can’t I do it!?” he cried, as he sat at the end of an exercise bench pounding the ground with his feet, tears streaming down his face. “I can’t stop.”
I sat nearby, but not too close, because if I approached, his body jerked away and he let out a mixture of a shout and a growl.
I held back my own tears, because his suffering was so clear. I could see how much he wanted to, but could not, climb the tree. And seeing him there, stuck between his extremely sensitive threat response and his “self,” it reminded me of a video I had watched recently by Kristy Forbes. In the video, Forbes explains how the neurobiological response to perceived threat is not under the PDA child’s control and separate from the “person" (see the 5:45 minute mark).
This separate part of my son is what he calls “Flash.” He chose this name for the part of his brain that takes over his body unexpectedly. The part that not only prevents him from doing the things that most six-year-olds don’t really want to do – eating healthy food, brushing their teeth, putting on their own shoes, or picking up after themselves – but also the implicit demands, the expectations of self, the things that he truly, in his heart, wants to accomplish.
I never would have seen this so clearly, if we hadn’t gotten him out of a constant fight-or-flight cycle he was in two years ago, where all I saw was the war against the outward, explicit, societal and parental demands that we imposed. It was only when we took those away, that what was left was crystal clear evidence that this was not defiance, or oppositional defiant disorder, or anything of the sort. It was a part of his brain that went into fight or flight, and stopped him from doing the things that his PDA brain interpreted as “unsafe” - dangerous, scary, or simply out of his control. Sadly, that included climbing a tree with his cousins.
He continued to kick the wood chips, as if he was trying to burrow himself into the earth, but the intensity of his kicks was diminishing.
“That tree sucked.” I said gently.
“Mama, don’t say ‘suck’.”
I could hear the edge in his voice softening.
“That tree was so annoying and I’m sorry that it was no fun at all.”
“Yeah it was no fun at all.”
I waited, sitting on the end of the exercise bench, not saying anything, willing him to feel my presence.
“Mama, can I take my crocs off and will you carry me to the car?”
I took his crocs off, picked him up, and he laid his head against my shoulder. I waved to my sister as I walked across the playground and then drove home. We had only been at the park for about ten minutes.
As soon as we arrived at home, he sped to his safe spot on the couch. I wrapped his body in his comforter, gave him his pacifiers and his stuffed doggie.
I looked at how big he was, how tall he was getting. And I wondered how long I would be able to lift and carry his body like that.
And then I thought, as long as it takes.
Ps. For a beautiful explanation of the “PDA brain” needing time to process and then engage in conversation with the rest of the brain, see this short video by Kristy Forbes.