Our family is made up of four people. Four individuals with distinct expectations, likes, dislikes, and habits. One of our family members, however, lives with mental illness. Big AK Kid is 19 now, and gave me permission to write about how it feels to hit the road and hopefully not have the road hit back. So, in my last post for the Kids These Days! Radio blog, I did just that. We hope you like it.
I apologize to the Alaska Railroad reservations agent who took our request for tickets to Talkeetna the weekend before Christmas. Normally I am not so obsessive-compulsive about seating arrangements, but my older son was with us, and he likes to know things ahead of time.
It’s complicated. MJ is 19 and, up until this past October, had been out of our home and in residential treatment for a laundry list of issues. Autism spectrum, depression, intermittent explosive disorder; the diagnoses came and went like seasons. My son is one of thousands in Alaska with mental illness, and now he’s back in our lives and part of the AKontheGO family, to an extent, anyway.
Travel with MJ is different. There are no last-minute, go-on-a-whim sorts of excursions when he’s with us. Whereas previous journeys focused on media information and a fast pace to be accommodate multiple attractions, these trips are filled with alternatives. Alternative sights, alternative food, alternative schedules. For everything, there must be a second scenario ready to be implemented, asap. We’ve learned that renting a cabin or suite with a separate bedroom provides quiet relief for anxious moments, that ear buds on a noisy train or in a restaurant are perfectly okay. My husband and I have uncovered unique coping strategies to help soothe tense situations, and the phrase “divide and conquer” has become a whole new mantra, occasionally working well enough for a deep breath of reassurance that yes, indeed, we can do this. Including MJ.
Why shouldn’t he be allowed to travel in a manner that brings comfort? Alaska is an excellent destination for people like MJ who crave solitude, an absence of artificial noise, and basic, no-frills service. After all, just because hundreds flock to a glacier and wildlife cruise aboard a small ship with blaring microphones and cramped decks doesn’t mean he should, too. Viewing Alaska through his eyes has allowed us a fresh perspective on the travel industry, most especially so in Alaska, where frenetic pacing and long, exhausting days just won’t work. Paying close attention to MJ’s moods, we’ve discovered what parents of smaller children already know; factors like rest, different food, or a lack of exercise can cause night-and-day swings of happy to sad in a matter of moments. Instead of driving five hours to reach a destination, we might go two and never reach it at all, stopping instead to admire a waterfall, toss rocks into a river, or inspect interpretive signs along the highway.
We’ve learned to slow down, quiet the noise, and throw out expectations long before we shut the garage door behind us. Snowshoes not fitting quite right? No problem, head back to the cabin and delve into a book, we won’t mind. Too many people talking too loud on the train? Pop in those ear buds and move to the back. This family understands.
In light of negative attention surrounding mental illness in recent days, perhaps others will understand, too.