Twenty-some-odd years ago in a universe far, far away, I was a college graduate in search of direction. Despite the results from personality tests saying I should be a teacher, writer, therapist, or nun, I had become a medical laboratory technologist… and I was pretty miserable. I knew I enjoyed writing, so when I saw an ad for a writers’ workshop taking place in a picturesque, well-to-do town about an hour and a half from my apartment, I signed up.
Given the pricey registration fee, gorgeous location, and size of the attending crowd, I’m guessing a big-name author was giving the keynote lecture that day. I’m embarrassed to say, however, that I really had no idea who the author was at the time and did not bother to file her name away in my memory banks so that one day I could pull out that famous author’s name while writing a blog post and brag about the time I saw her speak at a fancy writers’ conference I attended many, many years before I was thrust into an alternate universe where I decided to become a writer.
I do remember SOME details about the conference, though: I remember sitting across the table from a guy who told us he had arrived late at the hotel the night before and who promptly nodded off as soon as the speaker began. I remember buying an original, limited edition print of a cat painted by a local artist (because I like cats and back then I had money with which to buy cat paintings). And I remember answering one specific question presented by a speaker in a breakaway discussion session that afternoon.
The question was: “What do you want to write about?”
Right away it became clear that the other attendees had given this a lot more thought than I had. As they went around the room, each aspiring writer gave a synopsis of what they hoped would be the next great American novel.
But what kind of story did I want to write?
As a kid, my imagination had been captured by fantasy and science fiction, by monsters and space travel, by heroes that defeat the bad guys and save the day. Naturally I assumed that someday I would write an exciting adventure like that. It would be about an ordinary person who becomes a hero after going on a quest and overcoming countless challenges. There would be a journey and companions, maybe space or time travel, probably some magic, and definitely dragons.
But then again, not all the stories I loved were fantastical or futuristic. “To Kill a Mockingbird” was my favorite book in high school, and although I didn’t read the book, I loved the movie “Fried Green Tomatoes”. Something about those characters, those stories – they made me FEEL something. They made me THINK. They were stories about people’s inner workings and motivations, about connections and insights, about everyday heroism and the deep impact one life can have on another.
The question had made its way around the table, and now it was my turn to answer it. I nervously fumbled for my words, which sometimes came easier on paper than aloud. “I guess I want to write a story about people. You know… about what makes them tick.”
All eyes were on me, waiting expectantly for elaboration. Some people smiled and nodded politely.
“Like ‘Fried Green Tomatoes’,” I added awkwardly. I decided to leave out the part about dragons and magic.
So here I am now, writing a memoir, of all things. It may not be the exciting adventure I thought it would be, and it’s nothing like “Fried Green Tomatoes”, but it’s funny to think how close my story really is to my original ideas.
I’ve taken a “journey” through space and time to an “alternate reality”, been accompanied by old companions and met new ones, been counseled by wise mentors, battled inner demons, and explored what makes my son tick. I’ve even experienced some magic along the way.
But wait! What about the dragons?
Well, My Friends, let me tell you about the dragons my husband and I have encountered. They’re metaphorical, of course, and a lot friendlier than the fire-breathing variety in fantasy stories. Yet they are just as crafty, and they still guard the same thing as traditional dragons of old…
Now before I get into the action-sequences of our dragon battles, it is important that I explain how it came to be that my husband and I found ourselves in need of money guarded by metaphorical dragons.
One therapy that has worked best in school for our autistic son is ABA therapy (Applied Behavioral Analysis). The improvements he has made in behavior, independence, feeding, and his overall ability to learn, have all been based on the ABA model. We know it works, and we desperately need in-home ABA for him.
For many years, insurance companies have refused to cover ABA therapy. However, the state I live in passed a law mandating that all insurance companies must cover ABA therapy for patients with autism. Despite this mandate, every time we tried to get coverage for in-home ABA therapy our insurance company denied our claim. So my husband and I suited up in our battle armor, grabbed our swords, and started making phone calls.
“Ha! The law says you MUST cover ABA!” We confidently declared, taking a few warning swipes at our would-be foe with our figurative swords.
They were unimpressed by our display of strength, and for good reason. “This insurance company covers ABA; your plan through your employer does not.”
Hmm…this first dragon had not very forthcoming with information up to this point, which was why we had attempted to file claims repeatedly before the real issue was revealed: We had been chasing the wrong dragon.
A bit singed but still determined, my husband approached his employer. Turns out, employers who choose what’s called a “self-funded” program are NOT required to follow the mandate. A loophole had trumped our power play. Without the law to wield, my husband enlisted the aid of a strong ally at the Office of the Healthcare Advocate who helped draft an appeal with hopes of convincing his employer to either fund ABA or provide an exemption for our son. Again, we were denied.
At this point in our quest our armor was definitely dented, and we were feeling scorched and burned. So we did what most heroes do when the stakes are down – we went in search of answers from those who had traveled this road before. The sage advice from these oracle-like advisors was often cryptic and given with a wink: “The squeaky wheel gets the oil!” But sometimes we were given a specific task: “Call this agency – there you will find the information you seek.”
They instructed us to stress our son’s behaviors and our concerns for his safety, NOT his autism, when speaking with those who stood guard over funds. We also learned through trial and error that some dragons required the correct passwords in order to move forward. For example, you don’t say, “We need ABA therapy,” you say, “We need a behaviorist.”
So we climbed giant mountains of paperwork, hacked our way through forests of red tape, and crossed echoing canyons of ambiguity. Finally – a glimmer of hope! A lengthy evaluation process for one government agency yielded a small grant for 10 hours of behavioral therapy.
We celebrated! “10 hours a week! Woo hoo!”
Um, no. Just 10 hours. Period.
The therapist’s behavioral assessment alone took all of our 10 hours. When we requested another grant for the therapist to actually implement the behavior plan, our friendly dragon at the agency simply shrugged and gestured to the empty treasure chamber behind him. There were no funds left to give.
We applied for a medical waiver for children with special needs but were placed on a waiting list. Yet another agency deflected our request for an application by sending us back to the Healthcare Advocate.
At this point you might assume we would be angry at these government agency dragons for making it so difficult to access funds that our son so desperately needed. But it’s important to remember that with only so much money available, their task is to ensure that children with the most need are served first.
And, honestly, but for an unfortunate loophole, it would not have been necessary for us to approach these dragons in the first place. Our difficulties on this journey would be fewer, our path, easier. Our son would have the therapy he needs.
But fear not! My husband and I are not ones to shy from challenges. Even as I write this, we are applying for grants and filling out paperwork for other agencies, preparing for the next awaiting dragon.
You know, the more time I spend here in my alternate universe, the more I realize the truth of John Barth’s quote: “Everyone is necessarily the hero of his own life story.”
So – A Memoir? Why not?!
My quest to write about what makes other people tick has, instead, become a journey of self-discovery. Maybe that’s what I was really looking for way back at that writers’ workshop: To not just write about a journey… but to journey; to not just write about connections… but to connect; to search for meaning and insights, and share what I learn in hopes that I may, in some small way, impact the lives of others.
“We have not even to risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us… And where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence. And where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.” – Joseph Campbell, “The Power of Myth”
Campbell, Joseph. “The Power of Myth”. New York: Doubleday/Bantam Doubleday Dell Publ. Group, Inc., 1988.
* Special thanks to my husband for creating the awesome map of our adventures!!!