Every summer, you can count on at least one trip to a dark, cold movie theatre for a kid movie, even though we spend all winter long dying to be outside in the bright, hot sun. Last week was our trip. Twenty-seven dollars later, Ryan, Emma and I were nestled in our big, sticky (gross) theatre seats with our popcorn and sodas along with hundreds of other little rugrats. As much as I sometimes loathe a kids movie, this one, I was excited to see. This one looked unique, different and fun. Little did I know, this movie, Inside Out, would not only entertain me, it would allow me an opportunity that I have waited years for...a glimpse from the outside in.
Ever since we heard The A Word, I have thought countless numbers of times, "if I could just get inside his head to see what he's feeling" to try and understand Ryan better. Just a quick peak inside that big brain of his to know exactly what is going on in there. This desire has burned even stronger this summer as puberty, and the pendulum of emotions that goes with all that hormonal upheavel, has lead Ryan to spend countless hours alone in his bedroom seeming to find so little joy in the things he once loved. Not knowing what's going on inside that hormone fueled brain of Ryan's, has lead this mother to lie awake at night for countless hours worrying.
Since autism causes Ryan to struggle with expressing his emotions, unless he is on the extreme end of joy or anger, it's hard to know what he is feeling, so as his mom, it's hard to know what to do and how to ensure he is "happy". And there it is. The word every mother lives by and lives for, "I just want him to be happy". Sometimes, it's hard to know if he is.
Along with wanting to know "what's going on in there" I have also expressed, out loud, to anyone who would listen, hundreds of times, "I just want him to be happy" not knowing exactly what happy meant for Ryan. Happy to me means, parties, friends, social outings and endless hours of phone calls, texting and social media check in's. Although I'm perfectly aware that is not what makes Ryan happy, since I can't get inside his head to figure out what does make him happy, I'm left to try and figure it out while standing on the outside desperate to look in.
As I sat surrounded by hundreds of children crunching popcorn, slurping soda and giggling at the antics of emotions running around inside the main character Riley's head, I heard none of it. As the theatre screen illuminated with Pixar only brilliant colors and the occasional light of a cell phone breaking through the darkness, I saw none of that. What I heard instead, was Ryan's giggles, his tears and his sniffing as the emotions in Riley's brain impacted the emotions in Ryan's brain. What I saw, was something beautiful, something I had spent countless hours trying to see and something I paid multiple therapists to help Ryan find. In that darkened movie theatre, with the glow of the screen on his almost man like face, I saw recognition, understanding and that light bulb moment when it all comes together and the power that understanding gave to my son.
Ryan watched on the big screen the struggle with emotions that goes on inside all of our heads and how sometimes even though we know what we feel, we are unable to share those feelings. Whether it's Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear or Disgust taking over the controls inside our head, sometimes, it's hard to let others know which emotion is running the show.
Inside Out also showed Ryan that things that once gave us joy as a child, no longer do as we get older, and sometimes that makes finding Joy difficult. Ryan has tried to tell me repeatedly he is "done with swimming" and that "swimming in no longer part of his life", yet, he can't explain why. As I watched Riley's childhood imaginary friend, Bing Bong disappear into the rubble of childhood, I saw our swimming pool go with him. I have no doubt in that light bulb moment for my son who knows in some ways he is "different", Ryan understood that when it comes to how he feels, how those emotions wreak havoc in his brain, and how childhood Joy is replaced sometimes by Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust, that he is not so different than other kids.
Like so many moms sitting in the theatre that day, I recognized that I'm not so different than most moms either. We all want our kids to be happy, and we want nothing more than to protect them from sadness. I learned from tiny, Pixar cartoon character emotions, that all kids, have to experience sadness from time to time to help them find joy. I learned that like many kids, Ryan may not be able to express what he is feeling and sometimes that's because of The A Word, and sometimes it's because understanding our emotions, autism or no autism, is just hard.
Of all the Disney moments I have shared with my kids over the past 17 years, last week was the most valuable moment of all. When Ryan's light bulb went on, so did mine. As I watched it all come together for him, it came together for me too. I finally realized that as much as I want to be on the inside trying to understand how he feels, making sure he is happy, what matters most is that he understands, that he gets it, and that he knows it's okay to feel Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust when Joy occasionally gets lost.
Regardless of who is at the controls of Ryan's emotions, he needs to be the one to figure it out on the inside. Even if he can't say it, he is the one who must feel it, understand it and process it. And even though sometimes it kills me to be on the outside, unable to look from the inside out, that is where I need to be, ready to help Ryan embrace whoever is at the controls and do what I can to help him find joy, in his time, in his way....not mine.