Processing Time

Wil attended his first taekwondo tournament last Saturday. The environment had the potential of causing sensory distress within Wil. I had been to many taekwondo tournaments in the past with Katherine, as she worked her way up to a blackbelt. There would be many people moving around on the gym floor, and spontaneous announcements over the loud speaker —both high sensory triggers for Wil. (Though we have a large dog, Wil is leery of other dogs because of spontaneous barking. The same goes for babies crying, sports announcers over a microphone, and events like pep rallies where crowds and loud noises erupt without notice).

Wil, however, has grown in his ability to manage sensory distress. He’s become more self-aware and only wears his noise-cancelling headphones when he feels it’s an absolute necessity (he still won’t walk into a movie theater without them). He also loves taekwondo. He thrives on his independence in the taekwondo classroom, and also being with his friends, Alex and Nick, who have been practicing taekwondo for years. He looks up to both of them, and works hard to achieve their level of mastery.

When Senior Master practices form with Wil, Wil pays close attention. With his desire to do well, mixed with his growth in sensory rich environments, I knew the tournament would be a challenge for him, but a challenge he would deeply want to rise to.

When we arrived at Saline High School where the tournament was being held, there was a long line out the door. Wil held his excitement throughout the wait for the tournament ahead. The line moved quickly and one of the Masters at the front desk welcomed Wil by name and gave him a high-five. Wil gave him a hearty high-five in return. We were off to a great start!

We made our way down to the high school gym. Wil paused at the entry taking in the crowds. The set-up was the same as Katherine’s past tournaments. There were multiple squares of black mats, parallel to one another, with narrow walk ways in-between. Each square had a pole with a number attached to the top. As Wil’s “Special Abilities” hadn’t been called yet, I suggested we wait by a mat with fewer crowds. I took Wil’s big gear bag from him, so he could more easily maneuver his way, and we walked to the far side of the room where it was less populated. Wil stood against the wall, and I could feel him stiffen by the look on his face. But I also knew he was determined to be brave.

I attempted to break his tension with discussion about Alex and Nick. He nodded but became increasingly quiet. Even if I couldn’t see it, I knew perceptively that the tension within him was rising above his ability to manage it. I suggested we walk over to the bleachers but he shook his head. I pointed to open seats at the very first row of bleachers; I said we wouldn’t even have to climb the stairs. We could just sit and relax for a moment. He started taking little steps away, and I knew it wasn’t to sit on the bleachers. He was plotting his escape. When he took a forward step, I took one with him. I took his hand but he shook it off.

To any outsider watching, when he decided to bolt out of the gym, it would have seemed sudden. I dropped his gear bag on the spot. With the narrow walkways and crowds, I would have knocked someone over with it chasing Wil. I had no idea where Wil was going, and I didn’t want to lose him in the high school, or worse, the parking lot.

He exited the gym and took a sharp left down a long hallway. Closed double doors blocked further progress, so he took a seat in the corner between the double doors and the wall. He curled his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them.

I crouched down to his eye level and talked quietly to him. He dropped his head to his knees. I knew he wanted to be in the tournament. I knew he was disappointed in running away. But he didn’t know how to get out of his emotions.

I reminded him that Master would be excited to see him. I reminded him that once he got on the mat he would be having so much fun, he’d forget everything else. Then I sat down and stayed quiet. I knew he also needed time to process everything. As hard as I tried, right now the moment was up to him.

And inside of me, I had reached my limit too. In efforts to keep Wil calm back in the gym, tension built within me. Would he run? Where would he run? Was I saying the right words or was I making it worse? Do I make him stay? Do I let him go? Do I just kept my mouth shut? Time always gives us the answer, but in situations like this time wasn’t on our side. Wil’s “Special Abilities” division would be called when it was, whether Wil was ready or not.

I was growing increasingly frustrated with myself, mixed with a sadness for him. Here we were, Wil 15 years old, and I’m sitting in a hallway with him. Will this ever get easier? Will things always be this struggle of wondering what will happen? Will I always need this patience and forethought with everything we do?

I know from experience that each tournament will be better. That Wil will know what to expect from his own experience, and we can talk about it with growing effectiveness. He can tell me if he wants to go, or not go, fully understanding the environment he’s walking into. When Wil feels ready to compete in a tournament, it will be the best day ever as we’ll both have grown from this very experience.

But that’s for another day and another time. Right there and then in the hallway, there is no sugar-coating it. It was just plain hard.

I asked Wil if he wanted to go home. He said yes. I told him I couldn’t go get his gear bag without him. That he would have to walk back through the crowds with me to get it, but that we would go right back out to the car.

So we walked back through the gym and grabbed his gear bag. I gave him credit for being so brave to walk back in, and I meant it. I knew that would build strength in him for next time. On our walk back out of the gym I heard my name called. I looked up into the bleachers and saw it was Eleanor, Alex’s mom. She was sitting with Alex, Nick, and Nick’s dad, Jeff. They waved for us to come up and sit with them. I felt envious that Alex and Nick were sitting up there, but we were about to leave. I swiped my hand across my neck symbolizing it was over for us. Eleanor’s nod back to me was like a big hug. She understood exactly what we were going through even though words were not exchanged between us.

Wil and I made it back to the car. I let the tears go silently, so as not to upset Wil, and started the car. As per usual, Wil took my phone out of my purse and clicked on the Amazon Music app, found a Luke Bryan song (right now he’s into the Spring Break album) and started singing with Luke.

It was hard to imagine Wil shrunken in hallway corner moments before as he belted out the lyrics to “Spring Break-Up.” It wasn’t that he’d already forgotten — he’d remember every detail. But to him that moment was over, and a new moment had begun.

I had more tears to let go first, and then I’d be able to move on. I guess we all have our own processing time.

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