Last Monday in this space, Sonia Camacho described the struggle to care for her son, Rene, who has autism on the most severe end of the spectrum. Today, her estranged husband, Rene Juarez, tells how the affliction has brought his own life low.
Although people with autism often can perform day-to-day functions, both of little Rene's parents want others to understand the pain of families dealing with serious to severe forms of the disorder.
His voice is subdued and weary. It's the sound of a man struggling to push back defeat. Even so, he's polite and as positive as his shattered life will allow. You can tell he means well, though good intentions got ambushed.
Rene Juarez had high hopes for his son. That's why he named him Rene Jr. The boy is now 10, and he's not the son his father dreamed about for the first year and a half of the child's life.
Little Rene appeared healthy, but in a perplexing way. He was inattentive, very quiet and late in starting to walk. His behavior seemed odd, but Rene reassured himself that kids develop at their own pace.
Rene and his wife were both college-educated and together owned a house near Imperial Beach. They welcomed their boy's birth after having two daughters.
Sonia is a surgery tech and Rene a Navy man, having risen through the ranks to become a "mustang" officer.
Life chose a picnic as the time to jump into Rene's face. At the event, a friend observed Rene Jr. and said, "Maybe you should take him to a doctor."
The physicians confirmed to the couple that the boy has severe autism. Both parents knew little about the condition, but they would learn.
(Autism is a neurological disorder, some say disease, that strikes children and can last into adulthood. Its behavioral effects are wide-ranging. Scientists have not found a clear cause, or causes, or a cure.)
As happens to military careerists, Rene was transferred to Norfolk, Va., for two years soon after his son's diagnosis. Sonia chose to remain in San Diego to be near relatives and medical care. It became long-distance intimacy, which might be called a contradiction of terms. And it took a toll.
When Rene returned to San Diego, the family longed for normalcy. His son's actions worsened with each passing year.
One day, the family was in the front yard, and little Rene started to act up. His father, thinking a short car ride would calm him, put him into the passenger seat and quickly went around to the driver's side.
"I was getting in. He was still upset and moving back and forth. Then he deliberately bashed his head into the windshield and cracked the glass. I broke down. That was a really hard day for me emotionally."
Such difficulties have continued.
"Not too long ago, little Rene picked up a behavior where he would free-fall on the kitchen tile floor. We would both try to watch him to prevent it, but you can't be there every minute. He would just keep doing it over and over again. He would stand straight up, vertically, and just let himself fall to the floor, hitting his head, his forehead, and face-forward.
"We put rubber matting on the floor. He would take the matting off and then would free-fall again."
Rene's voice lowers and slows. "There were a hundred things like that. There was no stopping it."
In a separate conversation, Sonia remembers some of her husband's frustrations involving his son. "One time, my son slammed a door and broke its window. He just doesn't understand the concept of, if you slam the door, it's going to break.
"Later, I saw my husband standing there and just sweeping up and going, like, taking deep breaths. I remember him picking up the glass, and then around the corner I saw him crying. I go, ‘What's wrong?' He's like, ‘Nothing, nothing.' "
Sonia shakes her head. "My husband never screamed at Rene, never. Would the two of us get in arguments about situations? Yes. Would we scream at each other? Yes.
"But it almost seemed like he couldn't come to the point of accepting that his son has severe autism. When little Rene would do something, he would say, ‘Rene, don't do that.' Rene, of course, would not pay any attention."
Put bluntly, Rene the father fell apart. Just as it had to Sonia, the gray swirl of depression gathered around him. He didn't know where to turn, but he knew where to reach. The drinking that had been kept casual flared into a raging, demanding need.
Since 2014, Rene has been cited three times for driving under the influence. Those arrests didn't escape the Navy's attention, and this month he will be forced out and stripped of his lieutenant rank, his pension and other benefits of service just months shy of 20 years in the service.
While he has a master's degree in business, his family will depend partly on the prospects of a middle-aged, job-hunting man with no experience in the civilian employment sector.
At this point, you can guess what's coming: divorce. Some "experts" say that 80 percent of special-needs parents divorce. Others contest that figure as exaggerated, but there's agreement that the figure is high.
You want proof?
In the Los Angeles area, there's a "special needs law firm" that has targeted a niche by handling divorces for people such as Sonia and Rene.
Rene Juarez is losing his career, and perhaps day-to-day contact with his
daughters and son.
He is separated from and on the verge of being divorced by Sonia after 14 years. She is a woman who still holds him in kindly respect but believes she has no other choice.
"I love her," he says. "We've gone through our challenges, our unhappiness, but she's a wonderful woman and mother. I used to say she's the love of my life and I will grow old with her. But if she doesn't want this relationship with me anymore, I don't want to force it.
"So what I tell her today is we're going to be struggling financially, but I'm going to do everything I can to make sure that my family is OK, God willing."
Rene says he attends Alcoholics Anonymous and will be sober for a year as of this coming Thursday. The day after, he will turn 40. His fear for everything is - too late, too late.
When father Rene sees son Rene, he looks for recognition. He thinks maybe he sees some, but he knows there's a better chance it's just wishful thinking.
He also hopes for some sort of recovery from autism.
"We've heard stories," he says. "Sonia has done quite a bit of research. I've done research on my own. We've heard stories about ... just with no rhyme or reason, an individual with autism will break out of it or will find a way to better adapt."
(Do any of us want to tell either parent to give up hope?)
Rene and Sonia are adamant that little Rene will never be institutionalized. However, they also acknowledge the risk of his wild actions being dangerous to other people, especially as he becomes older and stronger.
"Sonia has already told me about occasions where he got aggressive with her and it was difficult to back him off or calm him down. So there is that real concern."
As you read this, Sonia will be attempting to make it through another day caring for her son. The daughters will be trying to live normally amid the chaos. Rene the father will try to salvage what he can of his career and life.
We haven't figured out what tears of grief are good for. Maybe they're a protest from the soul. Maybe they're meant to wash away pain.
Maybe they're a healing balm that restores us to continue the struggle. Let's hope for the sake of the Camacho and Juarez family that they're exactly that.
Fred Dickey's home page is freddickey.net. He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at [email protected]