Just a few days ago, Kelli Stapleton tried to kill herself and her 14 year-old autistic daughter, Issy. Kelli drove the family van to a desolate area near Lake Michigan, rolled up the windows, and lit two charcoal grills. Mother and daughter were found unconscious from carbon monoxide poisoning, but they were alive. Issy is currently recovering in a hospital, and her mom is being held without bail in a northern Michigan jail.
I have read the newspaper articles, watched the video of Issy in a violent tantrum, and read Kelli’s blog. And I understand Kelli Stapleton. I bet most moms of autistic kids are right there with me.
I am not condoning, nor am I defending what Kelli Stapleton did. But I sure as hell am understanding. And what I understand, what I know, is that being unable to help your kid is enough to drive you crazy.
Let me repeat that because I am not being figurative. BEING UNABLE TO HELP YOUR KID IS ENOUGH TO DRIVE YOU CRAZY. Honest to goodness crazy. Not “Boy, I could use a glass of wine and a xanax” crazy, but “Lord help me, I am out of options, and my kid is a ticking time bomb who is Not Going To Make It” crazy.
Here is what I know about Kelli Stapleton without reading a single newspaper article:
– There are organizations in every state that provide services and therapies that can dramatically help the majority of autistic children. But these organizations don’t take most insurance policies, and are prohibitively expensive. If you are able to afford the treatment, good for you, but [sad face], the waiting list extends for years. Do you know what it is like to have the only hope, the saving grace, for your child right down the street, but they won’t help you? Ask me, I’ll tell you. It’s brutal.
– Issy could not control her emotions and had violent tantrums. Issy is smart, and has some crazy-ass talents, I bet, but her erratic behavior kept her out of school, kept her from playdates and out of most social settings. Issy and her mom were completely isolated. Kelli had few friends (because bringing along your autistic hair-pulling daughter is sort of a downer, right?), her marriage was strained (again, I don’t have to read this in an article), and her other kids were suffering. Kelli Stapleton’s home was a war zone.
– Kelli lost sleep, nights and nights of sleep, consumed with worry. “What will happen to Issy when I’m gone? She has no one. Who will take care of her? How will she live? Will she end up in an institution? Jail?” When you have an autistic child, you know you’ve likely signed on for way more than 18 years + 4 for college. And that thought doesn’t bother you at all. It’s the what-happens-when-I’m-dead question that will do you in.
I have an autistic son. He has been on a waiting list for ABA therapy (google it) for over two years. My family of three pays about $30,000 a year in insurance premiums because autism is covered, and our out-of-pocket medical expenses are still enough to buy a car. A nice car. My son has been accepted, then rejected, from schools, summer camps and extracurricular programs. Our pediatrician’s office unilaterally decided to stop seeing autistic kids, and there are about zero child psychologists / therapists who will treat a child with autism. On a good day, my son repeats himself, hits only one kid at school and loses his temper 3-4 times. On a bad day … well, on a bad day, I almost go crazy because I am unable to help my kid.
Kelli Stapleton’s issues and concerns for Issy make mine look like a hang nail. She had one too many heartaches that day, one too many rejections, one too many failures. And she lost it. I think Kelli Stapleton said, “Issy girl, let’s go. No more pain and no more tantrums. You’ll be rid of this body and this brain, and you’ll be free. It’s going to be better, and wherever we end up, I’ll be right there with you holding your hand. I love you.”
And Kelli drove off in her van, lit the grills, and held the child she was unable to help until they fell asleep.
I am not condoning, nor am I defending. But Kelli Stapleton, I understand.Rebecca Masterson is a writer, speaker, and an advocate for children. For more from Rebecca, follow her on Instagram.