Kidneys vs. Brains
–by Laura Dennis
Author’s note: I was working on an entirely brand-new post for this week, but life happened. I present instead an edited version of a a post I wrote for my own blog, Les Pensées du chat noir, in honor of National Attachment and Trauma Awareness Day, 2015. You can learn more at the NATA website.
In 2015, my family did more than their fair share to keep doctors in business. Whether it be broken bones, recovery from surgery, mental illness, or organ failure, we tried it all. That’s how I learned that not all illnesses are created equal. Okay, to be fair, I probably knew that already. But 2015 drilled it home. If you don’t believe me, go tell twenty people you have been diagnosed with, say, schizophrenia. Then tell the twenty people you have, say, cancer. Compare their reactions and I think you will find the following tale terribly familiar.
My son was diagnosed at age 6 with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). Other letters used to describe his behavior include ADHD, SPD, ODD and PTSD, but whatever bowl of alphabet soup you choose, it boils down this: due to horrific early childhood trauma, his brain did not develop the way it should, and he will likely have to live with the consequences of this for the rest of his life.
At age 18, my oldest daughter complained of what we thought were menstrual cramps. Two days later, it appeared to be a stomach bug. By the end of that same day, she was admitted to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with acute renal failure. Many tests, nephrology appointments, and gallons of water later, she recovered full kidney function and will likely, as long as she hydrates and avoids certain medications, be fine for the rest of her life.
They say it takes a village to raise a child, and I’ll be the first to say that I have the best village there is. Yet even so, all too often their responses to these crises could not be more different.
The kidney failure was one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever experienced. The outpouring of love and support, though, was amazing. Prayers, child care, rides, you name it, it happened. I could scarcely keep my phone charged for all the texts, calls, and e-mails I received from concerned family and friends. When I announced that my daughter had made a full recovery, the village heaved a collective sigh of relief.
Not so my son. This has been going on for almost 10 years. I’ve had, still have a small handful of people who check in, one or two who try to help us cope with the burden, shared by our whole family, of living with his trauma. Very few others ask about his progress, much less the prognosis. Even among those who do, the response is all too often along the lines of, “sounds like he’s all boy,” “my kid does that too,” or “you need to lighten up.” They usually mean well, but they have no idea. Yes, my family is more than the sum of my son’s problems, but sometimes the dismissiveness and lack of empathy make me feel hurt and alone.
Why does one illness matter more than another? And why do we blame the sufferer for the mental, but not the physical? My daughter possibly could have avoided the worst of her illness simply by drinking water. She let herself get dehydrated at a track meet and it all went downhill from there. My son, on the other hand, had no say in what happened to him in his infant and toddler years, but because it manifests in his behavior, people assume that it is somehow in his control. It is sometimes, but not always.
In the end, though, it doesn’t have to matter who or what is to blame. Sickness does not discriminate: into everyone’s lives some sorrow will fall. I just pray that one day soon, all sufferers of all illnesses will be treated equally, with the dignity and care each and every person deserves. After all, I have yet to meet the person who can survive, much less truly live, without a fully functioning kidney and a brain.