Written by April Hepler
I was in seventh grade when I knew I wanted to be a counselor. Someone had delivered flyers to our church about EMU’s newest program: a Master of Arts in Counseling. And the moment I saw it, I lit up inside and said to myself, “I am going to do that.”
The road to an MA in Counseling was a long and winding one… getting married, living abroad, pastoring, and having children, all conspired to refine what I knew was a calling to serve others through open, unconditional presence.
Two things, however, were truly transformative. The first was the birth of my second child. I loved mothering my first child… my instincts were effective, we bonded immediately, and even though I was exhausted, I felt there was nothing better than being a mama. She hit every developmental milestone ahead of schedule and was a content baby, only losing her mind if she wasn’t in bed by 6:30pm…. which, of course, meant our day started no later than 5:30 every morning. But with my second child, it was immediately different. The instincts that served me so well with my daughter seemed inadequate to discover how to soothe my son. I spent the first night alone in the hospital crying with my newborn as he struggled to nurse, struggled to settle, struggled to sleep. I asked the nurses what could be wrong, and was reassured that some babies are just fussy and, other than a little jaundice, he was fine.
We came home the next day, with me being certain there was more to it than “fussy.” Voicing my concerns was met with placating, or even scorn, in every arena. I worried too much. I was paranoid. Nothing was wrong. My confidence as a mother melted away… But my concerns remained.
If no one would listen, I would find my own answers. I turned to Dr. Google Scholar who offered a dizzying array of possibilities, and it turned out that my research only served to give a voice to all the potential catastrophes we could be facing.
I began to think about my life… I was exhausted, lonely, irritable. This was not the way I wanted to live. In the middle of the night I would hold my son and cry… awake for hours. Up at 5:30 again with my daughter, now an expressive, energetic toddler. A morning nap for my son meant 20 minutes one-on-one with my girl, and then he was awake again, crying. I learned to bounce instead of rock, the latter a motion certain to bring tears, the former a semblance of calm for at least a short period of time.
There was never enough of me to go around. When I ate, it was usually the things my daughter refused, or cold leftovers grabbed a bite at a time. My house was a mess. And so was I.
I needed to figure out how to do more than to just hang on by the skin of my teeth… I wanted to thrive, not just survive.
The first real human to believe me was our actual doctor, who gave the first diagnosis at the age of six months.
Early intervention services started at nine months. Speech, for eating; OT for sensory aversions; PT for movement. Each intervention, a fight with my husband, who insisted the only thing that was wrong was my paranoia and indulgent parenting. Each professional, a gift of hope for a weary mama, who helped my boy eat without choking, put his bare feet on carpet and grass, and eventually even walk, all because of their competent care.
When my son was two and a half, he began special education preschool, and the next year, when my daughter started kindergarten, I went back to finish my Master’s degree, something I had started just before my son’s birth.
We had a small string of wonderful babysitters, and I took my time with classes, eventually adding in a part time pastoral role as well.
On the surface, life seemed good. I loved school, loved my job, loved my kids who were both growing up in their own unique ways. But underneath it all, a painful eroding was taking place that would further transform me in ways I would never have imagined.
John Gottman, a world renowned researcher who can tell (with shocking accuracy) within minutes whether or not a couple will divorce within the next five years, talks about the four horsemen of the apocalypse in marriage: defensiveness, criticism, contempt, and stonewalling.
Those horses had been trampling my marriage for years before it finally crumbled under their battering hooves.
The year after graduating with my Master of Arts in Counseling from EMU, an accomplishment two decades in the making, the second transformative force wracked my life: divorce.
It was a time of immense crumbling, devastating loss, and crippling fear. And to this day, only a handful of my closest friends know all the details of that horrible year and everything leading up to it.
Richard Rohr says that our transformation happens in one of two ways: either great love, or great suffering. For me, it was a full serving of both.
The ashes I sat in at the end of that year were all that was left of who I was before. This new me was determined to thrive — to love my life and to love my children well, finding joy and peace in the middle of it all.
I was able to get a job with Secure Child in Charlottesville and knew I had found my people: wise, kind, and trustworthy friends and supervisors who offered me specialized training in attachment therapy.
This brought a renewal of confidence in my parenting, along with an ability to begin to take up space where I hadn’t before. And as I healed, I began to dream. I began to think that these things that helped me so much would also help other caregivers, and I started to look for attachment resources for parents of children with disabilities. It didn’t exist. And the vision for Adagio House was born.
After five years with Secure Child, I knew it was time to launch an attachment-based, trauma-informed space for caregivers to learn how to thrive in the middle of it all. I had remarried an incredibly supportive partner, had a strong sense of call, and had found a group of other women (also moms of children with disabilities) to help guide me as a board of directors.
Adagio House was incorporated in June of 2018, and was granted nonprofit status in September of 2019. When the pandemic hit in March of 2020, two employees and I decided to go fully online and see if we could weather the storm. By June, I knew I needed to hire more help, and by September, our staff had tripled in size.
The pandemic has not been kind to our mental health. Our first and deepest drive is the drive to connect, to belong, and the pandemic brought isolation to all of us… an isolation I was all too familiar with, long ago. I was grateful to be quarantined with my beautiful blended family, but I know that has not been the case for everyone… and even in the good spaces, being held back from our usual comforts, routines, and communities takes a unique toll.
Adagio House has pivoted to offer services through this pandemic, and it is my goal to continue to grow our presence, partnering with established organizations, to meet the needs of caregivers and those with disabilities for decades into the future.
I believe that in the same way great suffering and great love have transformed me into a stronger, wiser, and more compassionate human, these same forces can be equally transformative for each of us. Beauty exists, even saturates our lives when we open ourselves to it…. even if we can’t see it now, it is waiting, beckoning. Won’t you join us?