Updated: Mar 10, 2021
Before I share my own unique experiences being a mother of 3 teenage sons, two of whom have a diagnosis of Autism, I want to stress that I am no expert in any field of child development. I am not a doctor. I am not a therapist. What I know to be true is that I have become acutely aware of what my sons are like; what they enjoy doing, how they interact with others, what makes them excited or nervous, and much more. I want to make it clear that what I am about to share is not my attempt to convince you to parent how I parent. That is none of my business. All I can share is how I became a better parent when I stopped drinking and did some serious emotional healing.
Recently I wrote a blog entry, which ended up an episode on my podcast, Sober Gratitudes, called “Autism did not make me an Alcoholic”. In a nutshell, the post spoke more to how their diagnosis brought me to my “alcoholic bottom” faster. Getting the news from the Developmental Pediatrician not once, but twice, over a decade ago, triggered all sorts of emotions, which subsequently caused me to drink more and more alcohol which landed me into a 12-step recovery program, ending my 25 yearlong love affair with alcohol.
It felt good to finally express feelings I had for years regarding this issue. Conversations with people who identified helped bring another fear I dealt with regarding drinking and my children’s special needs:
Did my long-term active alcohol abuse cause my children's Autism?
Have you had these thoughts? I believe it is possible, or probable that other moms/parents have asked themselves the same question.
I got sober soon after my second son received an Autism diagnosis at the age of 4. I began to examine my behaviors, attitudes, feelings about myself and other issues that come with alcoholism. I had wondered if the years I spent drinking before and in between pregnancies caused the neurological differences in my sons. I sat in self-pity for a bit of time, never investigating if that were the truth, never asking their doctors if that were a possibility. I beat myself up instead. A lot. My thoughts defaulted to full blown self-centered thinking,
"Yes, Sarah, yes, you caused their autism. In fact, your life long alcoholic drinking caused all their challenges. It is your fault. All your fault.”
In sobriety, I remembered that this narrative began before having children. Fear and self-pity had always been two of my greatest character defects and they only intensified after I had my oldest, neurotypical child. Inevitably fear and self-pity grew after having my next two children, then carried over into the early years of my sobriety. Even though I was experiencing many positive results from putting down the drink- for example, my foggy brain was cleared of a lot of cobwebs- it turned up the volume of those old sick narratives.
Quietly self- blaming took up a huge amount of space in my head. Space that I know could have been used more efficiently when it came to parenting. Suffering in silent pity and fear impacted my behaviors and how I treated others. It impacted my ability to be fully present in my relationships with not just my children, but others in my life. I was frozen. I was stuck. I kept looking back with regret and was unable to move forward with hope. I lived in fear, anger, and the worst of all - shame. These dysfunctional narratives and negative thoughts about myself would not go away until I did the “work.”
As my sons grew up, and as I continued to work hard in my program of recovery, and with specialized outside therapies, I came to learn that there is no clear reason why some people have autism. I have heard many accounts of very different reasons why parents feel their own children have autism. As each child with autism is as unique as his own fingerprint, the causes of his autism is equally unique to that of any other person on the spectrum. This is what I believe. I realize I could be wrong, and I know my thoughts may change as my children age and as more research is conducted.
I know this from the years and years I have gotten to know my sons and other families who have Autistic children. Over a decade of life research raising my sons and discussing how the rates of autism are rising with many families has led me to believe what it states in WebMD:
“The exact reason why autism happens is not clear.” I absolutely believe this to be true. It is not clear
I have thoughts on what may have caused 2 out of my 3 sons to qualify as an autistic, and in my lifetime, I may not entirely know for sure. But it does not really matter. It does not fucking matter. And that is ok. I have let go of that tireless search. That search is a waste of time.
Because I did the work in sobriety, I was left with more space for me to focus on what I CAN do as their mom.
When I got sober and did the work to clean up the wreckage of my past and heal negative feelings about myself, I was able to clearly discern what I can and cannot change about my life. I cannot change how I can never have just 1 drink. But I can dedicate myself to learning how to avoid the first drink. I cannot change my sons’ diagnosis, but I can be present and observant about who they are what their needs are so that I can advocate for them. I can love them unconditionally. I can stop blaming myself for their autism. I can stopped trying to create/control their life path to keep them or shelter them from any type of emotional harm, or struggle that always comes with simply being human. We grow through pain. We grow through life experiences.
Taking these steps made ample room to adore my children for exactly who they are and be present with them in every moment.
Today, I celebrate my sons for exactly who they are. They are here, teaching me how to have courage. Today, I bask in the joy of being a mom, and witness to their growth. They are their own unique selves, separate from me and their father.
Putting down the drink, and learning how to love myself and forgive myself, helped to eradicate old narratives of self- pity, blocking me from focusing on what is most important.
If you are struggling with why your child has autism, special needs, or any other challenge for that matter not related to any diagnosis, and you find yourself stuck in a pattern of self-blame, I want to encourage you to try and discern with help, what you can and cannot control. Distinguish what the truth is, and what is made up fears renting space in your mind. Are your decisions based in fear? Or in faith? Are you able to see the differences?
I processed these questions with the help of people in my program of recovery, support groups and therapists, my husband, family and friends. I was unable to begin this process on my own. Today, I still utilize support networks. I am grateful I reached out for help. The spiritual growth and healing that occurred for me after I put down the drink, was the catalyst for changing into the kind of mother I always wanted to be- the changing into the kind of person I always wanted to be. And honestly, I feel so much better and handling life’s ups and downs are much easier as well.
If you are struggling, please know that it does not have to be this way for you. There are solutions.