Friday, July 24, 2015

Our Personal Pioneer Trek

A year today our lives fell apart and with that crisis of family and faith our own personal pioneer trek began. I always thought it both ironic and appropriate that at midnight, the beginning of Pioneer Day, the most difficult and refining journey of my life would begin with the police delivering the traumatic news that my husband had been arrested.

For the majority of his life, Matt had been struggling in silence with autism and an addiction that fed into each other. How so? Well, interestingly enough, the very same emotional and control areas of the brain that are physically smaller in an autistic person, are similarly impacted and desensitized by addiction. Autistic people are prone to obsessions that completely overtake them - this can be both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, it can help them to become brilliant experts in what they are interested in. For example, Matt is incredibly knowledgeable when it comes to building and computers - two of his main obsessions - and these have often proven to be very valuable life skills. He has the ability to simply see the picture in his head of what needs to be built. On the other hand, when an autistic person becomes obsessed with something chemically addictive and emotionally destructive like pornography - they seem to spiral much deeper and faster into it because their brains are already predisposed to addictive behavior and thinking patterns such as ignoring people, emotions, and important social interactions around them in favor of an obsession. Most people have an inherent ability and desire to empathize with others and pick up on social cues and rules. But these skills often have to be more clearly taught to an autistic person and when they receive no therapy or intervention, and they have developed an addiction, they are at severe risk of potential criminal behavior. Thankfully, with therapy, and clearer instruction, they most often make wonderful recoveries and function normally in society.

One of my favorite TV shows was Parenthood, before I even knew that Matt was autistic. It really does an excellent job of portraying autism, both in a mid-range autistic child as he grows up, and later in a more mildly but distinctly autistic adult. Both of them struggle with understanding and relating to the emotions of others and social expectations. One of the best examples was when the child, Max, had his first crush. He naturally became obsessed with the girl. This loyalty and tenaciousness might be viewed as romantic and endearing were the attention desired, but it was not, and he could not comprehend that. He had very logically and methodically read books about how to have a relationship and asked his parents, but the emotion and social expectations were difficult for him to fully grasp. His parents tried to explain it to him with a numerical system of attraction: that even if he likes a girl at a 5 on a scale of 1-5, she may only like him at a 2, but it can be fluid. He did everything in his power to change her attraction to him, but she said she simply didn't "feel" the same and was starting to feel really embarrassed and threatened by his pursuit. He could not understand that so it made him angry and only want to try harder. Finally, he just started yelling about the number scale and how "it didn't make sense" (logical sense) and even grabbed her. At that point, his parents took him aside and explained to him the social and emotional boundaries in regards to dating very clearly. Once he understood those better, he apologized beautifully and sincerely to the girl and left her alone.

What I have learned is that most autistic people sincerely want to comply with emotional and social boundaries once they understand them. Emotionally and socially, autistic people are often far below their actual age but intellectually far above (something addiction will never provide). From what I've seen, because autistic people are so focused, genuine, and intelligent, with the proper therapy they are able to improve their interactions and behaviors immensely and live full, beautiful lives.

It was months after Matt's initial arrest though that we found out about his autism through a therapist who administered a barrage of tests. He then went to an autism center to be tested and has had it confirmed by two specialists. But before I realized what he struggled with, it was very hard for me to be understanding about why he was so emotionally disconnected and addicted for much of our marriage. Another contributing factor was the fact that he had sought help before meeting me from an addiction recovery center that was corrupt - they pressured him into taking antidepressant medication that he did not want and often has the opposite affect on autistic people. They were eventually shut down and their licenses revoked for the abuse of their clients. After such an experience and fearing I would leave him, it's no wonder he did not ask for help. But now, with the strictest of boundaries, intensive therapy, 12 step, full disclosure, ecclesiastical support, scripture study, prayer, and miracles he has been clean for a year.

A year ago I was in so much pain I could barely see past an hour. I could not have done it without the angels, both seen and unseen, who sustained me through that time. I would like to share what I wrote and learned in that refiner's fire about adversity:

We often hear that we will never be tested beyond our capacity to bear. But I believe that is only true IF we learn to rely on the enabling power of the Atonement. In order to become like God it is actually critical that we be tested beyond our capacity so that we learn to turn to Him and humbly accept our Savior’s grace made possible through His Atonement. On “grace” the Bible Dictionary states: 

“It is ... through the grace of the Lord that individuals, through faith in the atonement of Jesus Christ and repentance of their sins, receive strength and assistance to do good works that they otherwise would not be able to maintain if left to their own means. This grace is an enabling power ... ”

    From what I have read in the scriptures it appears that the Lord allows even His most faithful servants to be tested beyond their own capacity. Abraham poised at the altar with his only son, Job broken and alone in his desolation, Nephi whose life was repeatedly threatened by those who should have loved and protected him, Joseph Smith tortured, shunned, cast out, imprisoned and killed, the faithful Saints of the Willie and Martin handcart company freezing and starving to death on the plains would surely testify of the enabling power of the Atonement and its infinite capacity to consecrate our afflictions for our gain. 

     “Years later, in a Sunday School class, criticism was directed at those who had allowed the (Martine and Willie) handcart company to leave so late. A survivor stood and reprimanded them, saying:
    I have pulled my handcart when I was so weak and weary from illness and lack of food that I could hardly put one foot ahead of the other. I have looked ahead and seen a patch of sand or hill slope and I have said, I can go only that far and there I must give up, for I cannot pull the load through it.
    I have gone on to that sand and when I reached it, the cart began pushing me. I have looked back many times to see who was pushing my cart, but my eyes saw no one. I knew then that the angels of God were there.
    Was I sorry that I chose to come by handcart? No. Neither then or any minute of my life since. The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay, and I am thankful that I was privileged to come in the Martin Handcart Company.” (He Restoreth My Soul, Hilton 162).

    I know there are no limitations to the Atonement. I know that if we take up our cross and follow the Savior, He will help us carry the load, for we cannot do it on our own. I know that when God brings us to trials He will bring us through them if we choose to rely on Him. And we will look back and know that He is God because He carried us when no one else could.

Matt and I still struggle day to day. He is still autistic; some days that makes me love him all the more and on others I just cry. I am still prone to fear, self doubt, and an insecure attachment style so loving me surely is not easy either. And on top of that, some of the fallout from this crisis has been utterly heartbreaking. But we are happier, healthier, and stronger than we ever were before, both individually and as a family. I look back and can hardly believe how far we have come. We certainly chose or were given a more difficult path, and it's not one we would recommend for others. But for us, it has taught us exactly what we needed to learn. There is no better way to describe our experience than to say "The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay."

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