2. Grief

My wife told me that my son had been diagnosed with Autism over the phone. I was sitting in the abandoned guardhouse on the southern bank of the Euphrates River that served as the HQ for Special Operations Task Force West in Iraq.

It had been three months since I’d seen him.

I knew she was worried about him. He’d stopped talking shortly after I left. The regression happened before that really. I hadn’t noticed though. So when she said she was going to have him tested, I figured it would confirm that he was fine.

I was wrong. And the diagnosis caught me by surprise.

As soon as she said the words, the lights in our building went out. We’d lost our generator and I had to finish the conversation from the other side of the camp.

When it was over, I hung up with my wife sobbing uncontrollably and my family in crisis on the other side of the world.

I could feel it coming. I had to get out of the building and over to the dark side of the base so no one could see me. I made a mad dash past the line of special operators waiting for the phone, past a few lieutenants from my troop and out the door. I made it to the edge of the darkness before the dam gave way.

I began to cry.

As I walked back in the darkness, along the river bank to our side of the camp, I could feel it flowing through me.

Memories of my son’s face. Hopes for his future. The sound of his words. Him running to greet me at the door with a smile when I came home from work–something that stopped happening months ago. I could feel the grief wash over me with every step.

No one could see me. I was alone. In every sense of the word.

In the distance, I could see the campfire the team had made to provide some warmth and light until the generator was back up. By the time I reached them, I’d composed myself. The team was planning a reconnaissance mission that night and I was in charge of reconnaissance. And so I got to work.

The sum total of grieving I had done was a lonely walk in the darkness along the river. I didn’t have time for anything else. And I didn’t know how. And I didn’t really know that my son’s diagnosis was something to grieve.

I returned home from Iraq with a heart full of anger. The heart I needed was one of peace and patience and the sort of tenderness reserved for people whose circumstances alone are hard enough. The distance between where I was and where I needed to be almost destroyed me. And it nearly took my family down with me.

Parents going through the journey of diagnosis of their children are told many things. One of them is that though their children are different, there is nothing wrong with them. Some may even go so far as to say they wouldn’t change a thing about them, if they could. And while there is nothing wrong with them, the reality of the experience needs to be acknowledged.

No one wants their child to have a life long struggle with disability. And if they could have changed it from the start, they would. The space between the reality that could have existed and the one that does represents loss.

A loss that needs to be grieved.

Grief isn’t weakness. Grief is strength. It’s looking the pain of loss squarely in the eye and recognizing the role it’s going to have in your life. It’s taking the time to process it and address it. And it’s doing the work to make sure you’ve got yourself back together for your family.

The road special needs fathers travel isn’t for the fainthearted. It’s messy business. And I can tell you from first hand failures, if you don’t prepare for it, you’ve got no shot.

Find the time to grieve. And if you don’t know how, ask someone who does.

11. Joy

By the time I was 32 years old, I’d spent four years behind the walls at Annapolis, completed three tours in a war zone, moved a dozen times, finished business school, cared for my mother who was dying of ALS and had three children with my wife in three and a half years.

I felt like I’d been ground to the nub. And I was ready for the part of life that was supposed to be fun.

That’s when my son was diagnosed.

Tolstoy was right about families. The happy ones may all be the same. But the unhappy ones are unhappy in their own way.

My family wasn’t unhappy because of any of the laundry list of hard things we’d gone through. My wife was too strong to lose. And my kids were kids; inherently happy. My family was unhappy for a much simpler reason.

I was in it.

I really only knew one way to get through hard things. I put my head down, grit my teeth and gutted it out. I told myself that one day we’d get through this. That the train would pull into the station. And all would be well.

Until then though, I was going to be a miserable son of a bitch. And that’s just the way it was going to be.

I didn’t realize one of the great iron truths about life. There is no station. Just tracks; tracks as far as you’ll ever see. In this regard, the cold reality of my son’s diagnosis and the increasingly clear and potentially permanent burden of special needs parenting actually helped. My son’s diagnosis destroyed the idea of a station. I had no choice but to come to terms with the uncomfortable truth that that we would never pull in.

And that this may never get easy.

With that truth came a reckoning. And a lesson about the nature of joy.

For most of my life, I’d mistaken a few things. I thought relaxation came from easy things. I thought peace came from quiet. And I confused joy for fun.

With a lot of patience from a wife that never quit on me, friends who knew better from their own hard walks and the towering strength of faith, I learned a few things:

Peace comes from knowing God, or whatever version of higher power applies. Relaxation comes from aligning your internal expectations with your external realities. And joy comes from purpose. For me, that purpose was serving my family.

Once you make your peace with all that, you’re pretty hard to beat.

One of the great regrets that I have is what I missed during the years when I faced the hard things in life by keeping my head down and my powder dry. The birth of my kids. The joy seeing my wife for the first time in months. The beauty of the simple things in life.

I’ll never get any of it back.

So do yourself a favor and start where I ended. I’ve learned the lesson for you. And you get no points for rework.

14. Time

In any enterprise, there’s at least one singular scarce resource; that one thing on which all depends but is limited in its availability. Successful enterprises identify that scarce resource and manage it effectively.

Sometimes understanding which resource it is, isn’t obvious. Money problems are often time problems in disguise. Time problems are often lurking talent gaps.

Groups that fail to recognize what their true scarcity is fail spectacularly in ways that often puzzle those responsible for their success as they invest more and more in things that don’t matter and fail to protect that which is critical and can’t be replaced.

In special needs parenting, that resource is time.

Nothing else is close.

It may feel like we don’t have the money or support or the expertise to do what we need to do to get through the day. And all of that may be true. But all of those things can be gained or replaced. What cannot be accounted for with any measure is that we don’t have enough time.

As a mission commander in special operations, the one thing that never really wandered too far from my situational awareness was time. There were always the variables of danger, enemy and friendly forces, communications, food, water, ammunition and a near endless list of other things we needed to account for. And each one represented an enticing rabbit hole to disappear down. The clock though, was always running. We needed to be somewhere at some time. And every decision I made required some calculation of a trade off of time…rabbit holes be damned.

Nothing from my past makes me more equipped to deal with the day as a special needs parent than how that life taught me to treat time.

There is no mainstream lifestyle that accounts for having a child that can’t be left alone for the next fifty years. The child will always represent a resource draw we weren’t designed to account for, for more than a handful of years. That long dwell problem means that we can’t make short term trade offs to buy us time in the long run. So we are underwater, perpetually so.

Time is the thing that runs out and never comes back.

There’s no magic trick that will get you more time. No one secret I can tell you other than to treat your time wisely. And to have a sense that what you’re doing needs to be worth it. Rabbit holes are luxuries we don’t have.

Waiting on hold for an hour for a $10 refund probably isn’t something you can do anymore. Driving across the county for the cheapest gas isn’t either.

Spend a moment on the literal meaning of the term “waste of time”. And remember that relaxation, recreation and self care are not optional activities. Make the decisions you need to, to avoid waste.

Once you find the time sucks in your life you can do without, you’ll never go back. The urgency we all experience as special needs parents, in this case, can be put to good use.

You can get more of just about anything you’ve ever lost.

Except time.

No amount of money ever bought a second of time. Billionaire, playboy, philanthropist, genius Tony Stark said that once.

It’s a lesson I relearn everyday.

17. Discipline

I don’t know how to discipline your child. No one outside the small group of people that observe him or her on a daily basis does. Anyone telling you otherwise is selling something.

The reality for many of us on the special needs parenting journey is that it doesn’t much matter; in the classic sense of our children’s intellectually informed decisions and the measured consequences that complete their feedback loops. Discipline when it comes to our kids falls somewhere behind happy, safe and loved. And for many dads that’s a hard pill to swallow.

So, I’ve got good news.

I’m not going to spend any time on the topic of disciplining your children. Because the importance of discipline, in the special needs father’s world, is entirely about us; the dads.

So much of our lives is locked down by mandatory obligations and engagement that there’s a dangerous pattern that manifests in us. In the times when we’re off the chain, we can begin to see the little freedom that we have as an opportunity to self-medicate with stimulus; stimulus that isn’t always constructive.

There’s a lie we begin to tell ourselves.

It sounds something like this:

This life is hard. And we deal with so many unfair things. We can’t be blamed for doing what we need to do, to get by.

If we tell ourselves that lie for long enough, the behaviors we’ll justify can spiral further and further away from those that align with what’s required of a man with the burden of leading a family with a special-needs child.

I’ve had enough heart to heats with men on this journey to know how near mathematical the pattern is. And there’s one thought we all wish we’d anchored down on the instant that lie first popped into our heads.

No one cares about how hard our life is.

If you decide to start down the wrong path, the overwhelming odds are that it will eventually come crashing down around you. And when it does, no one will give you a single ounce of leeway because your life is hard. In fact, it will be the opposite.

Your friends don’t know how hard it is. They don’t care.

Your kids won’t forgive you because you had the “bum rap” of being their father.

Your partner, who is on the same journey as you and now also has a partner that can’t be depended on or trusted, won’t forgive you.

Nobody cares that you were having a tough time when you made the decisions you made that hurt people.

Listen to this message, coming from someone who knows from firsthand experience.

There is a world of temptation out there. And the belief that we special needs fathers deserve to wander into it is seductive. So put your guard rails up. Stay away from the dark corners of the internet. Don’t slide into anyone’s DMs. And get help if you have ever or are currently suffering from any sort of addiction.

Get your shit together.

Your family is depending on you.

If you’re finding yourself craving the sort of freedom you can’t find in your life, take the lead from the great warrior philosopher Jocko Willink.

Discipline equals freedom. It is an iron truth.

Anything else is just another form of chains.