Valentine’s Day is a day to celebrate love. We typically think of it as romantic love–or at least some variety of intimacy between two people. But I find myself celebrating something different. My daughter is 6 years old and has nonverbal autism. She is so much more than her diagnosis–passionate and kind, full of life and mischief–and I love her fiercely. But the love we share is not an intimate love–because it is shared by so many.
Specifically, it is shared by the therapists and doctors who have helped to facilitate our relationship. Without them, I would not have known how to feed my daughter–the most basic act of care-giving between a mother and child–nor would I have known how to play with her. These professionals entered our lives as strangers but became friends, family. Most importantly, they introduced me to my daughter’s world. The love I have for each of these individuals is unique and powerful, and it’s them I think about this week.
The first of Caroline’s therapists to become more than just another professional in our lives was Megan. I realized this relationship would be a lasting one, and much more intimate that I originally imagined, the day Caroline received her diagnosis of autism. Megan shared my disbelief, but then used her love and knowledge of my daughter to help me process and ultimately accept what the diagnosis meant–and did not mean.
Then there was Chris, who was visiting Caroline at her school when Caroline became unresponsive, ultimately losing consciousness. Chris not only rode with Caroline in the ambulance to the hospital, and was there, comforting her, when she came to, but she kept my husband and me abreast of exactly what was going on until we could get there ourselves. She stayed with us until Caroline was transferred to the local pediatric hospital. In those moments, Chris was not just therapist but surrogate parent.
At Caroline’s third birthday party, all the guests there were her therapists. Because they were her best friends. And over the years, many have become my best friends, too. These are women whom I have had a few too many glasses of wine with while talking about the unique challenges and triumphs of being Caroline’s mom. We hugged and danced for joy when Caroline took her first steps, and they dried my tears when I realized that I might never have a conversation with my daughter without the assistance of her iPad. It was this group of women’s opinions I weighed most heavily when I made the decision to have another child–because they knew me, my family and our challenges in a way that even my actual family didn’t know us. Without their love and support–which often comes off the clock, during their personal time–I don’t know where our family would be.
You can tell how effective a therapist will be by whether Caroline runs to her with glee in her eyes (and it’s virtually always “her”: my daughter has only had one male therapist). Her excitement to see them and be with them encourages her to work hard and learn new skills. Caroline had a very hard time learning how to pretend. For over a year, she would work with Megan on a “play routine.” Caroline would do exactly what Megan told her to do, in the order Megan showed her how to do it. But one day, Caroline starting changing the routine and adding new toys to the mix; Megan had taught Caroline how to pretend… how to play.
Relationships like this don’t just happen; they are down to hard work on behalf of the therapist. The best get to know Caroline as Caroline: what motivates her, what frustrates her, and how to use both effectively.
It is not enough to say that I am thankful for these people. It is so much more: gratitude, appreciation, admiration. And love. These women use their professional knowledge and skills to transform lives and connect families. They teach us how to understand and interact with each other–from the simplest things, like teaching us sign language, to the most complicated, like figuring out why a child is engaging in a destructive or aggressive behavior.
In our case, perhaps the most important lesson these women have taught is that when my daughter acts out, it is not without reason. Rather, she is reacting to a hard time. This was a difficult mental transition to make; it took years. Still, these professionals persisted, and slowly I was able to realize that, with my support and understanding, Caroline would make it through each of these hard times and emerge a more capable and aware individual.
So this Valentine’s Day, I am publicly proclaiming my love to all the amazing therapists who have made my daughter the young lady she is today. I love you for loving my daughter so fiercely; for giving her the skills she needs to function in this world; for taking the time to get to know the real her; for helping to understand what I sometimes fail to understand, because life is exhausting; and for not judging me, because you know that I judge myself enough–sometimes even more than enough.
Hubert Humphrey said that “the greatest healing therapy is friendship and love,” and I couldn’t agree more. For that reason, I am eternally thankful for the powerful and transformative relationship that my daughter shares with her therapists–and that I now share, too. In her case, healing might not be the end result, but growth and comfort are close seconds.
So, then, to all my daughter’s therapists: Will you be my Valentine?