Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
— King Henry V, encouraging his troops in Shakespeare’s Henry V
Starting things off with a little Billy Shakes this morning. (Sorry mom, I had to Google the phrase to learn where it came from. I spent all my time studying sports, remember?)
But I digress. “Once more unto the breach,” sounded like a fitting description of what our family went through last night, rejoining a battle we thought already won. Everything was fine, until it wasn’t. Not only was it not fine, it was a disaster, and it was really, really painful to watch.
Veronica and I thought the shots-on-goal OCD episodes were in the past. Heck, we even cut Ryan’s anti-anxiety meds yesterday morning, on the advice of his doctor. Things were looking up. And they were fine, until the bomb dropped, in the form of the Montreal Canadiens.
I was happily ensconced on the couch, watching my beloved Washington Capitals play the New York Rangers in Game 1 of their playoff series. Ryan watched a bit of the first period with me, then disappeared to check stats. But he kept popping downstairs to tell us he calmed his worries about Washington jumping to an 11-0 lead in shots halfway through the first period by practicing the techniques his psychiatrist taught him. This sounded great, and it validated our decision to cut the meds.
Veronica took the kids upstairs to get ready for bed as I watched the final minute of the first period, not realizing I was going to miss much of the next two while dealing with a storm of panic and fear that was as bad as I had ever seen.
My first indication that everything was about to go to hell came from Twitter. I looked at my feed and saw a tweet like this one:
Uh oh. I checked the stats on NHL.com. The Canadiens were indeed on pace for 60 shots. I hoped Ryan hadn’t noticed yet.
Doing his final check of the stats before climbing into bed, he let out the plaintive will of fear that we have come to know all too well the last couple of months. Most of these episodes have passed relatively quickly in recent weeks, giving us hope this one would do the same.
But perhaps what we mistook as progress was nothing more than dumb luck as teams that Ryan worried about quickly fell off their pace, allowing him to calm himself and move on. After all, one of the most successful techniques has been to have him repeat the refrain that no team is going to reach 60 shots for the game simply because they never do, because it’s really hard to sustain a pace like that for more than a small portion of the contest.
Ryan was quickly in a full-blown panic. He became a storm of nervous energy, pacing his room, chewing his nails, frantically refreshing the stats, all the while talking a mile a minute about how scared he was.
If there was one thing different about this episode it was this: He was more communicative. He told us over and over that this was the most scared he had ever been in his life. He allowed me to attempt to reason with him. When he took off to go down two flights of stairs to the basement and right back up, he explained that it was to “run off his nerves.”
Montreal finished the second period with 41 shots. Ryan, in between sobs, agreed to try to go to sleep during the intermission. All attempts at distracting him by changing the subject failed. Here, too, more communication, as he explained that he was not in the mood to talk about anything else when he was so nervous.
When Ryan is ready for bed, he kicks us out of his room immediately. Last night, he welcomed company. I knew it meant he wouldn’t go to sleep, but I still treasured the opportunity to stay with him. It was too painful to leave him to battle these demons alone. I offered to get a blanket and lie on the floor next to him, the way we often did when he was a baby and a toddler. I gathered a comforter, asked to borrow his Capitals Pillow Pet (for luck in the game I had abandoned watching) and settled in next to him. I put my arm up on the bed to stroke his back and soothe him.
The panic eased — a little. He stopped crying, but was still a ball of nerves. He told me “I feel like squeezing my hand until it hurts.”
I offered mine instead, and he squeezed it as hard as any bone-crunching handshake before quickly apologizing and telling me he didn’t want to hurt me. I thanked him for his kindness, but told him to squeeze away. I told him I was “un-hurtable.” I needed my son to see me as a pillar of strength in that moment.
Over in Riley’s room, Veronica was doing her best with a very distraught daughter. Riley reacted to the onset of the episode with an eye roll and by saying “I thought we were past this.” But in bed with Veronica, she sobbed and said “I just want to punch autism in the face and get it out of my brother!”
Just short of 11 years old, Riley is already battle-tested and carries some of the same scars we all do. She is also more mature, compassionate and caring for the experience, but it’s hard to take solace in her maturity in the moment. Instead, we thanked her for her love for her brother.
I brought one more thing into Ryan’s room. Under my blanket, I stealthily checked Montreal’s shot total in the third period on my iPhone, only to be horrified as they remained on pace for 60 through the first several minutes. Meanwhile, Ryan and I continued to chat. He tried to explain why he was so afraid. We talked about what would happen in Montreal actually reached 60. I argued that how he was feeling right now was as bad as things would get. He wasn’t sure he agreed.
He kept pestering me to check, and I kept putting him off. I told him he was beginning to calm down and if the Canadiens were still on pace, he would get upset all over again. He countered that if they weren’t on pace, he would be fine and go back to sleep. As I monitored Montreal’s (finally slowing) shot total, I tried to gauge how far off pace they needed to be for him to calm down. Once I was satisfied checking the stats was a net benefit, I allowed him to.
He bolted from bed to check on his iPad. He was happy Montreal’s pace had slowed, but still nervous. Veronica came in to tell me Riley was still awake, crying. We offered one more time for the whole family to go and just watch the end of the Montreal game on TV, and Ryan finally accepted. He brought his iPad. He chewed his nails. But he did not cry, he did not cower in fear.
Montreal finished with 50 shots — an amazingly high total, especially for a playoff game, but still 17% short of 60 (Ryan helped me with the math — in his head). As soon as the game ended, the danger having passed, he was off to bed and quickly asleep, as were Veronica and Riley.
I just have to hope Montreal Canadiens coach Michel Therien was joking when he said after the game, “Tomorrow if [Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson] stops 50 shots again, what are you going to do? I’m not going to ask my guys to get a hundred shots, it doesn’t happen.”
Lord help us if Ryan sees that quote. One HUNDRED shots? Mercy.
I watched the final minutes of Washington’s win with little joy. The evening had taken a toll. Veronica and I, searching for a silver lining, talked about Ryan’s communication, and how he had done a better job explaining himself than ever before. We discussed returning him to his regular dose of anti-anxiety meds.
In the morning, we talked some more. There was something I wanted to explain to her. Everything I tried while we were in the thick of things, was something I learned, or had reinforced, by members of the online autism community. I kept telling myself of the need to remain calm, to not elevate my volume or tone and add to his overwhelming stress. I thought of the self-advocates explaining the overwhelming stimuli of certain experiences and their difficulty processing it and used it as the ammunition to calm my own building anxiety.
Yes, we were “once more unto the breach,” as we no doubt will be again. But we were not alone. We were backed by an army of advocates and allies, armed with the advice that only experience can bring.
As for hockey, a night like last night leaves me ambivalent. Rationally, I know that if it weren’t for hockey, Ryan’s anxiety would strike somewhere else. Irrationally, I sometimes wish he had never heard of the sport. But then I remember all the joy it has give us. Then I remember this:
And I get chills. Ryan and I are taking a hockey road trip this weekend. We will go once more unto the breach. And we’ll do it again, and again, if we have to. He wouldn’t have it any other way — just ask him.