Journeying with Jacob

Our son’s autism diagnosis changed our lives forever.

The day Jacob was diagnosed, I remember barely being able to stand. I wanted to cry. I was so angry with God for being cruel and allowing my son to have a ‘disability’. If it weren’t for my father, Hugh, I couldn’t have handled hearing the word “autism.” He said to me: “You must accept the diagnosis for two reasons. One, the diagnosis is correct, and two, it will give Jacob freedom.”

My acceptance would test my courage, commitment, and perseverance. My husband’s staunch refusal to accept it, on the other hand, would result in the end of our marriage. He didn’t believe Jacob’s diagnosis. I still remember when the social worker pulled him aside. We had just gotten the news and he was having a hard time. She gave him an article on marriage statistics for the parents of autistic children: the divorce rate was 70-80%.

She advised us to stop blaming each other and build a support network for Jacob, but he brushed her off and blamed me for the complications during my pregnancy. “They resulted in his brain injury,” he said.

Even after multiple specialists confirmed that it was autism, and not a consequence of pregnancy complications, it was still my fault.

I couldn’t understand why my now-ex wouldn’t accept the diagnosis, or why I was spending so much time clinging to, and internalizing, his beliefs about Jacob. I was caught in this negative spiral of depression and shame and I felt victimized. My yoga practice helped me break free from my own self-indulgence, bypass my ego, and eventually give my son what he needed. It taught me to be self-absorbed in a healthy way by removing myself from the influence of this extremely angry man.

When I was pregnant, I had complication after complication. I was depressed and suicidal. I also developed gestational diabetes, hypertension, and migraines as well as a never-seen-before rash. I was hospitalized twice. To complicate matters even more, I was so far from home – we were living in Abu Dhabi, UAE.

When I finally told my husband we were going to have a baby, his response was, “Oh shit.” Not congratulations, or even a smile; it was a mistake and he did not want a child. I was numb. That night I had a dream where Jacob was developmentally delayed and somehow I just knew.

My depression deepened.

For 6 weeks my husband and I fought. He insisted I return to Canada and have an abortion. At this point, I broke down and began hitting myself in the stomach. I thought if I punished myself enough, maybe he would still want our marriage and our child. I was wrong.

In the end, I chose to leave for India to study yoga. One week later I developed an intestinal infection; I lost 15 pounds and started bleeding vaginally. I called my husband who was still in Abu Dhabi and uncontrollably cried: “I think I’m going to lose the baby!” He flew to India immediately and we found a hospital. Luckily Jacob was perfectly healthy, but that was the moment his father fell in love with him. In that moment it seemed as if we as a couple had fallen back in love, too.

But in truth, we hadn’t and our marriage unravelled. I desperately wanted my old life back so badly, and I was having trouble realizing it was gone. I was clinging to the past, which included my marriage, and becoming more and more unhappy. What was practicing yoga actually teaching me? It taught me how to take advantage of every small moment. Instead of feeling depressed or anxious, I felt my breath moving in and out of my body. But as helpful as it was, I was ultimately avoiding what was real.

As humans we do whatever it takes to avoid pain and seek pleasure, but this can also be a way of clinging to the past. We hold on so tightly, believing that how things are must be the only way, but that’s not always true.

In order to truly break free of this cycle I needed to create actions to replace my bad habits with. I had to stop repeating those patterns of pain. Doing this is not easy, it takes work and perseverance, but with enough time you can break free. I’m here to assure you it’s possible to be free. Fear of [INSERT YOUR FEAR HERE] is really just fear of change – of the loss of all we have ever known, or think we have known, or anticipate knowing. Yoga taught me that we all carry fear and that it is a part of each and every past life.

So, how do we move past these fears? Here is the wisdom I can share from the path I took:

Ignorance of the Root Cause

No one person or situation was making me unhappy. I had and have depression. My pain was not due to Jacob being diagnosed with autism, an unhappy marriage, or changes in my life. I had and have depression. Recognizing my own mental health – and putting it first – was what began to turn my life around.

Fifteen years later Jacob is fine, he has a 98% average in Grade 11, and plays on the Junior A basketball team. I have been managing my health and am doing well; I’ve been seeing a counsellor regularly for 3 years and take a small dose of anti-depressants. I am no longer married to the person who I made myself dependent on for my happiness. Now I am the source of my own happiness. It took two years of no contact, but I walked the path away from him step by step. I turned my ignorance into a fertile ground to explore each and every cause of my suffering and pain. The first step to getting over this was awareness and self-care.

Ego

I needed to shift my perspective towards myself to bypass my ego. My reputation, perfectionism, and high expectations of myself and others, to name a few, were all aspects of my ego. As it turns out, a child with autism was exactly what I needed to teach me how to be a better person. Every issue, and there were many, taught me how to be calm and not let my self-absorbed thoughts overwhelm me. In turn, this gave Jacob an enormous amount of room to grow and helped him become his own person.

When he was in Grade 4, Jacob got in trouble for calling another child who refused to follow the rules a ‘git’. Normally I would have been so stressed out that he had a blowout, but not this time. The principal didn’t know the word, and was unsure of how to punish Jacob. For the first time in a situation like this, I managed to laugh instead of getting totally worked up. I was learning to love myself so deeply that I now had new, healthier tools to manage Jacob and his upsets.

Attachment

For a long time, I so desperately wanted Jacob to be like other children. I mourned that I was never going to be a hockey mom, belong to the moms’ PTA, or be included in coffee dates with other parents. In fact, the other parents would often talk behind our backs about their issues with my “autistic child.” They wouldn’t even use Jacob’s name, just that label.

Now I have a new philosophy: we know what Jacob’s issue is, but what was my issue as the parent? I saw how I was attached to making it all about me. I was worried about others’ opinions of Jacob and me, but just because they said terrible things didn’t make them true. I worried about what others would say about Jacob for years and used their opinions as an advance reason not to be happy.

Aversion

It’s really easy to be jealous of parents with ‘normal’ children. Sure, they get to have birthday parties, lots of friends, and be leaders, but being attached to that just creates more suffering. Jacob and I have been through a lot together, but the quote on his wall perfectly sums up what we have learned: “Why try to fit in when you were born to stand out?”

Yes, Jacob is different, but I have learned to love and cherish each difference: it makes life far more interesting. Jacob reads the Economist front-to-back and has for years. He can discuss with CEOs their work in finance, economics, climate change, and can even give you all the latest NBA stats going back 20 years. If that isn’t special, if that isn’t interesting, I don’t know what is.

Fear of Death / Change

As humans we desire continuity and comfortability. If you really examine your fears, attachments, aversions, egocentric thinking, and/or misguided ignorance, you will discover that they all are really just fears of death/change. With more practice, and a thorough examination of our thought patterns, we can really focus on “what is” instead of what we’d rather have, which eliminates so much of our stress and suffering and makes life a lot less scary.

I have been a student of yoga for 25 years, a nurse for 17 years, and a student of kinesiology before that. Each and every one has helped me on the path to where I am now. I am beautiful, calm, and less affected by the causes of my pain. In short, I am healthy and happy. I have a deeper connection to this place I call Self, or home, and it is all thanks to my journey with Jacob.

With love and light,

Elizabeth Peckham