Finding Help


It was after a public anxiety attack at California Pizza Kitchen, where our family of five was celebrating my birthday about a week after the babysitting fiasco, that I came to the inevitable conclusion: I needed to find my own therapist.

That night, Peter and I had just suffered through a particularly grueling meeting at Matthew’s school, where he was now in the fourth grade. One of the behavior specialists had come up with the idea of polling Matthew’s peers, the regular-education kids that he was mainstreamed with at recess, and asking what they thought of him.

“He’s weird.”

“He smells bad.”

“I’m scared of him.”

These were just a few of the responses that sent me crying from the IEP (Individual Education Plan) meeting in tears.

That behavior specialist didn’t last in the district very long.

When we arrived at the restaurant, my eyes were still swollen from crying. Peter thought that a family dinner at a kid-friendly place would be a great way to cheer me up.

The restaurant was surrounded by shops in an outdoor mall, and as we took our seats I soon found myself overwhelmed by the crowds streaming around inside and out, by the din of their voices—by everything. With the five of us crammed around a table for four, I remember looking across at Matthew—his blond hair shining under the glaring lights, his beautiful brown eyes not meeting mine, his distracted smile—and feeling a crushing heaviness in my heart, too acute to share with anyone. He wore a red polo shirt, one I had picked out; it made him easy to spot in a crowd should he dash away impulsively, as he was known to do.

Sitting anxiously at the small table, my knees jammed against its legs, I suddenly felt the shock of a spoon hitting me in the chest, hurled by Matthew as he darted out of the restaurant giggling into the sea of people. Up and out of the restaurant I flew, tackling Matthew to the pavement as he was about to dart into a busy street, surrounded by the judging eyes of onlookers. Sobbing, breathless, and utterly depleted, I couldn’t see daylight. I dreaded my future.

I had always been a healthy person, but lately every cold I caught turned into bronchitis or worse. Stomach pains and sleepless nights stretched on for days. I knew Peter and my parents worried about me, but I was beyond their ability to help. I fretted about the expense of seeking professional help for myself, about whether all funds should be devoted to Matthew’s cause, and wondered if I would be able to find a therapist who could connect with me and help me bear the weight of my uncertain future.

I hadn’t had great luck with therapists in the past. The first time I saw a therapist, I was a few years out of college and needed direction. I chose a radio psychologist who told me as soon as I sat down that she was going through a difficult divorce, and that she was waiting for an important call that she would have to take. While waiting for the call, she told me of all the famous people she had met in her role as a radio personality.

The next one I found told me I had a self-esteem problem as a result of having recently been dumped by a boyfriend. She asked me to role-play with an empty chair.

“Tell Charlie how you are feeling. Go ahead and hit him if you’re angry.” I think I actually yelled at the chair, but refrained from hitting it.

When Andy was a baby and we were beginning to worry about Matthew, Peter and I went to a therapist to talk about our struggles with balancing marriage and a growing family. His name was Roger Glum, of all things, and he had an annoying habit of looking at Peter while I talked, and then at me when Peter spoke.

After gauging our reaction toward one another, he paused and asked, “Do you guys watch thirtysomething?”

Yes, we had seen thirtysomething, a TV show filmed in muted tones about whiny couples also struggling to balance marriage and growing families. So?

I asked my doctor for a referral, and he enthusiastically recommended Rebecca Elliott.

The day of my first appointment with Dr. Elliott, I almost backed out. What could anyone say to me to help me with my complicated situation? Where would I even begin? And what if she did the role-playing thing? But I forced myself to meet her at least once.

Dr. Elliott, who I guessed was a little older than my forty years, was a pretty, petite woman who listened attentively as I tried to paint a picture of my life. Midway through my long, tearful, and disjointed monologue, I stopped and said, “Am I making any sense?”

“You are making perfect sense,” she said, and so the healing began.

In my circle of friends who have children with disabilities, we have a phrase we use to describe whether or not a teacher, doctor, or friend understood our situation.

“Does she get it?”

“I don’t think he gets it.”

“I asked her if she got it, and she said, ‘Do I get what?’ She doesn’t get it!”

A session with Rebecca was not the classic “And how did that make you feel?” kind of nightmare. Rebecca was all about action. She saw the big picture and extracted truths and feelings like a skilled surgeon. What can we do to make your life more manageable? You need services. Here is how you get them. Need a new psychiatrist for Matthew? Rebecca knew the best. Your knee requires surgery? Call this guy and mention my name. You’ll need help at home while you’re healing, call this agency.

“You need to get help from the Regional Center of the Department of Developmental Services,” she said, and I nodded reluctantly.

“I’ve been putting that off,” I admitted. “Just the act of calling them is an admission that Matthew’s condition is lifelong.”

Rebecca told me not to weigh myself down by mourning about the future. She pointed out that our family was eligible for services now, such as trained caretakers. I could finally get a break.

“The Regional Center will pay for several hours a month of help for Matthew. You could use the funds to hire a mentor for him and perhaps a babysitter for all three boys so that you and Peter can get a break.”

With Rebecca’s guidance, I made my way out of the loud restaurant with flying utensils that my life had become to a place where I could stand back and view my possibilities with long-lost optimism. Insomnia and anxiety had paralyzed me, and Rebecca explained, without talking down, that serotonin levels in the brain were changed by chronic stress; that medication with therapy was needed to get me back on track. She referred me to a psychiatrist, who prescribed an antidepressant, and she made sure that he and my regular doctor worked together on my behalf.

One day I got a call from an associate of Rebecca’s. I had an appointment with Rebecca that day, but it turned out that she was very ill and would have to take some time off. I tried my best to find out the nature of the illness, but her colleague wouldn’t tell me. I wanted to tell her that Rebecca and I were good friends, which I believed to be true, and that she would want me to know, but having heard in movies about “transference,” when a patient mistakes therapy for friendship, I backed off.

I called a friend who also saw Rebecca, and we tried to figure out a way to find out more. I decided to call a few Bay Area hospitals to ask if she was a patient.

“Brilliant!” my friend said.

“Alta Bates Hospital,” the operator answered.

“Yes, I’d like to deliver some flowers to Rebecca Elliott. What floor is she on?”

“She’s on three.” Bingo! “Would you like me to put you through?”

All of a sudden I felt like a stalker.

“No, no, I’ll just swing by later with the flowers. Thank you!”

That afternoon, I tiptoed off the elevator on the third floor of Alta Bates Hospital with a small bouquet of flowers in a vase and went to the closest nurses’ station.

“Will you see that Rebecca Elliott gets these?” I said to a young nurse at the desk, my feet poised in getaway stance.

“Oh, go right in!’” she said, gesturing toward room 3112, two feet away. “She’s awake.”

Feeling incredibly nervy and wildly over the line, I placed the flowers in front of room 3112. Didn’t this woman know that Rebecca had to be protected from nuts like me?

“Oh, no. I don’t want to bother her. She’s my psychologist,” I blurted as the nurse picked up the flowers and paused by the room, looking apprehensive.

So much for being discreet. I took off down the hall to the elevator, and once I got in, I laughed, thinking of what was transpiring in room 3112. I could see the smile on Rebecca’s face as she saw who the flowers were from, and I knew we would share a laugh about this scene later. My father always says, “Never squelch a generous impulse.” No matter what.

Thankfully, Rebecca recovered from her illness, and we did laugh about my brazen act of kindness. We talked briefly about her illness. But there was work to do, and Rebecca swiftly moved back to the business of bracing me for unknown challenges ahead.

About the author

Laura Shumaker is a nationally recognized writer, autism and disabilities advocate. Her essays have appeared in many places, including the New York Times, CNN, NPR, and in a popular autism and disabilities blog for The San Francisco Chronicle. She’s the mother of three terrific sons, and her oldest son, Matthew, is the subject of her book A Regular Guy: Growing Up with Autism.



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