It’s ironic that of all the disabilities my daughter could have had, Katie was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Kids on the spectrum have trouble identifying and labeling their emotions. But sadly, so do I.
No, I’m not on the spectrum, yet I was never taught while growing up how to express and handle my feelings other than in the most general way. According to my former therapist (yeah, I had one; you would too with my crazy life), this is not uncommon in modern America. (So don’t feel bad, Mom and Dad!) I know how to label the “basic four”—mad, bad, sad, and glad—but beyond that, despite years as a writer, I struggled.
More often than not, I’d simply default to a standard, “I’m fine.” Which is how, ironically, my therapist busted me. When your only child has just been diagnosed with autism and your husband has a major manic episode, relapses (again), and moves out, things are rarely “fine.”
I knew I wasn’t fine, but I didn’t have adequate words to express how I felt in that chaotic time. Or any time, really.
When my therapist gave me a one-page list of hundreds—hundreds!!—or emotions, graded by intensity, both positive and negative, he almost completely blew my mind. Who knew there were so many?
Perhaps it would be more accurate to say I knew that many words existed, but I had no experience in applying them to my unexpected, unplanned life.
So for the past decade, I’ve been working in various ways to expand my emotional vocabulary. Several months ago, when a friendly store employee interrupted Katie’s minor tantrum because I wouldn’t buy the junk food she wanted to ask how she was, Katie snapped, “I’m good.” She most definitely wasn’t good, and in that moment I realized I haven’t done as great a job as I’d hoped in teaching emotions to Katie.
Later still I would realize that I’ve been so focused on being strong for Katie that I haven’t always demonstrated much of my expanded emotional vocabulary. I needed to strike a better balance. We both needed to “use our words.”
I’m happy to report that we’re making progress. Last week when someone interrupted Katie’s insistent rant that I buy more frozen strawberries (in addition to the CostCo-size bag I’d purchased the day before), she responded, “I’m … I’m … mad…. No, I’m … frustrated!”
Katie considered this, smiled, and said, “Glad to see you.” We exchanged a round of high fives and the employee and I chatted for a minute. Katie said, “Happy now.”
Later, as our groceries were being bagged, I noticed a package of frozen strawberries in among the other items. Katie smirked. As we exited the store, she offered to carry a bag—the one with the berries, which she guarded until it was safely inside our home. We had strawberry smoothies with dinner that night. Katie was thrilled.
My child may have trouble getting the words out, but she understands problem solving and emotions just fine.
Until next time,