Renewing the Spirit

I was sick in bed a couple of days this weekend with a cold. With all that went on these past few months with my son, I was not surprised this happened to me so soon. I was running back and forth from hot to cold, home to the hospital, eating on the run, sleeping a few hours here and there that I had brought my immune system down so low. I find it funny how that happens with our physical bodies. For a while, all I was doing was functioning on adrenalin.

As Christians, we similarly have a supply of energy to carry us through the day, which is the Holy Spirit. Sometimes the spirit depletes quickly with trials. In such cases, we have to renew it in order to move forward.

The Book of Psalms is replete with examples of those wanting to draw closer to God. King David was no exception:

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalms 51:10 ESV throughout).

For those unfamiliar with David’s history, he uttered those words when he was at the lowest point of his life. He had just committed adultery with Bathsheba, another man’s wife, and the prophet Nathan came to David to tell him God would bring calamity to his household. Instead of fleeing from God, David drew closer to him in prayer. He recognized God’s spirit was as only a flicker of light in his heart, instead of the burning inferno he had raging within him when he first became king. He asked God for the renewal of his spirit.

We also can ask God for that renewal. Prayer, bible study, meditation and fasting are our tools to seek God with all our hearts. And it does not take long for him to respond to our request:

“You who seek God, let your hearts revive. For the Lord hears the needy and does not despise his own people who are prisoners” (Psalms 69:32).

As long as we seek him during our low moments, he will continually be by our side, encouraging us, taking care of us, and protecting us. Because, more than anything else, God wants to give us life, and should we desire him, how much more will he want to give us his spirit?

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What Is Autistic Shutdown?

My son is out of the hospital. I cannot express the joy my family felt two days after Christmas when the doctor told us we could finally take him home. It really was a miracle. We had thousands of people praying for him, and we, too, had asked God for his intervention. Imagine our surprise once we heard him speak again for the first time in a month.

I am writing this post with the hope that one day it will help other families with autistic children recognize what an autistic shutdown actually is. Because when it happened to our son, we did not understand it. We thought we had done something wrong and we blamed ourselves. In truth, autistic shutdowns do happen, and they commonly happen to high-functioning autistics, much like it did to my son.

Symptoms of Autistic Shutdown

  • Catatonia
  • Lack of self-care (includes hygiene, food intake and elimination)
  • Unresponsive to external stimuli
  • Non-communicative (complete mutism)
  • Staring at one spot
  • Withdrawing from social situations

The way it happened with our son was that one day, early November, he suddenly stopped. He stopped talking. He stopped looking around. He stopped doing anything for himself. He ate, but minimal. He held his elimination process until late at night when everyone had gone to bed. Most of the time, he sat in his bed and stared. If we tried to move him, he would stiffen. If we asked him questions, or talked to him, there would be no response. He seemed to be lost in his thoughts unable to break free from the state he was in.

We initially thought depression was at the center of it all, but other than a few statements he had uttered before his shutdown, we had no other indication that could be the cause. Then we thought he might be experiencing some other form of mental illness. We had gone as far as trying our best to fix it ourselves, like we had done throughout his life. I mean, we are talking about a kid who grew up with many people around, wrote short stories, wrote music, learned how to swim, won a gold medal for Speech Arts at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, took part in recitals, went to college, and was thinking about getting a job.

So for us, we have never seen this behavior before and that is why we had to get him to the hospital as soon as we could. We wanted to know what was happening to our son.

Medical Assessment

Once at the hospital, medical doctors ran tests to rule out the most likely causes for his state. Blood and urine tests all came back negative, which was great, but we still did not know what was causing the catatonia and mutism. Doctors ordered a CT scan to detect if there were any anomalies residing in his brain. It came back clean. At that point, doctors sent my son to the mental health unit of the hospital, where he stayed until his discharge.

Metal Health Assessment

Of the half-dozen psychiatrists who saw my son over a one-week period, three had formed opinions. One suspected he was bipolar, which did not make any sense to my wife Luana and I. My son had never shown emotional instability, where his highs were highs and his lows were lows. The second doctor believed my son suffered from depression. Again, we did not see any sign of it, considering months before his shutdown he was smiling and laughing. He would have his off days, but not to the point where every day was darkness to him. We would have known it. We were speaking frequently with him throughout the day. Finally, the third psychiatrist suggested my son was battling schizophrenia, news to which Luana and I felt like a cinder block had struck us in the head. No way was he schizophrenic, we thought. Yet, it was not until several days later that Luana found the symptoms to schizophrenia are much like those of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Nonetheless, the psychiatrist prescribed a treatment of Olanzapine.

My son had never been on any medications throughout any part of his life, no less, anti-psychotics. The first 10mg dosage caused vomiting and diarrhea. The doctor lowered the dosage to 5mg daily. The expected result was that if he suffered from a psychosis (i.e. bipolar disorder, depression or schizophrenia), we would see a big difference with him. It did calm him, where he no longer resisted medical aid, but he had not broken from his catatonic state. That was what we were hoping, and it did not happen.

He was on the medication for three weeks before the attending psychiatrist requested a family meeting with us to discuss next steps. In that meeting the doctor said, the medication was not working and would like us to consider ECT (Electroconvulsive therapy). The only exposure I had with ECT was with the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, where the nurses used it as a form of punishment for when patients were not cooperating with their treatments. Naturally, I had my reservations. I learned, however, the treatment would work if, again, my son were suffering from a psychosis, which Luana and I did not believe. Further to this, as one of the nurses explained to us, it would take a series of six to eight ECT sessions, to start, for the treatment to be effective. Even then, there may be monthly maintenance sessions my son would have to go through after discharge in order to ensure the symptoms of the psychosis do not return. Luana and I left the hospital devastated. For a week, we had no idea what to do.

Our Treatment Plan

Around this time, Luana began reading about Lorazepam, a benzodiazepine meant to treat anxiety disorders. In independent clinical studies, the medication showed a marked improvement in autistic patients suffering from catatonia. The only drawback was that the medication was highly addictive and withdrawal could trigger seizures that could potentially prove dangerous or fatal in some patients. When we discussed this medication with the psychiatrist, we first expressed our concerns with ECT, that we wanted to exhaust the medicinal route first, leaving ECT as the last resort. Next, we worked out a treatment plan, signed a consent form, and requested to have 6mg of Lorazepam administered daily to our son over a 72-hour period.

At the same time, I wrote a personal appeal for prayer to all my friends and relatives on facebook. I felt it important to have as many people praying for our son as possible. I released the news to the public and sure enough, the post went viral, garnering shares from people all over the world. This was all happening the day before my son received his first dose of Lorazepam. Luana and I had shed so many tears over the weeks that the only thing left for us to do was what we were doing the whole time, and that was praying. The verse in the bible that comforted me the most was this one:

“Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:16 KJV).

An Awakening

The afternoon after my son received his first dose of Lorazepam, Luana and I went to visit to see how he was doing. One of the nurses who had cared for him all these weeks stopped us in the hallway. She said that she had never seen him act the way he did before that day. He was smiling, speaking, and playing cards. It was as if something woke him up from whatever state he was in and he was participating in life again. All the nurses were talking about him, too. Because not only had they never had an autistic young man who was catatonic in their ward before, but they also had never seen such a stark change in someone, as it happened with our son.

The psychiatrist quickly called us the next morning wanting to have another family meeting. We were at the hospital within the hour. He asked us what we wanted to do next. This was a couple of days before Christmas. We did not even have to think about it, since we had already discussed it before our meeting. We said that we wanted our son to stay in the hospital a few more days for observation. Luana and I wanted to make sure our son had healed from his catatonic state and he would still be talking once we brought him back home. The doctor agreed, and two days after Christmas, the hospital discharged my son.

My Son Today

Wednesday will be two weeks that my son left the hospital. During this time, we managed to wean him off the medication ourselves by promoting a diet rich in GABA. Now that we have confirmed anxiety was the cause for his autistic shutdown, we are teaching him techniques that allow him to control his mental wellbeing on his own. Deep breathing exercises, resting, reading are de-stressor activities he now enjoys doing. Identifying the cause of the anxiety is still on our list of things to do.

We also found he is not yet ready for crowds or people, at least, for long stretches of time. He does well with short visits, but anything longer than half-an-hour seems to cause him to regress into a protective state of staring and mutism that lasts upward to an hour. Twice this happened with him so far since he has been home.

He is looking after his hygiene, but not without prompting from us. We had to show him how to shower again, brush his teeth and comb his hair. He has yet to allow us to cut his hair or trim his beard, which we believe is a sensitivity issue due to his autism.

We discovered as well that he has a more pronounced desire to maintain a daily routine, something he was lacking last year due to all the changes that took place in the family schedule. For example, he came down to have breakfast yesterday morning without changing out of his PJ’s, because his clothes he needed to change into were not in their usual place.

Lessons Learned

Overall, the autistic shutdown my son experienced has taught our family some valuable lessons I would like to share with you.

  • Our autistic son thrives on predictability and routine. Should anything change, we would have to let him know in advance in order for him to adjust to the change.
  • We keep the home quiet of blaring sounds and noise. For me, this was difficult. I am Italian and everything with me being Italian is loud. I have had to usher in a quiet peace in the home, which now is having a wonderful effect on my son. A soothing environment promotes wellbeing.
  • Luana is slowly introducing GABA-rich food into our diet. GABA (Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid) is one of the body’s primary neurotransmitters that calm the central nervous system (CNS) of anxiety. Cherry tomatoes are high in GABA.
  • Sleep now is a big thing in our family. At about 8:00PM, our family begins to wind down. This process also places our son in a frame of mind of wanting to go to sleep. The more rest he has, the better the next day will be.
  • He will have good days and bad days. I have learned this, and there is not a thing I can do about it except accept it.
  • Too much external stimulation lowers his ability to cope. I found that like a computer, my son’s brain could only deal with so much before it stops accepting things to process. I have had to learn to do one thing with him at a time. He does not multitask, at least, not for now.
  • We ask him one question at a time, as well. We give him ample time to respond, and we do not answer the question for him, unless he has trouble expressing his words.
  • We now speak to him with simple language and simple sentence structure. When we add multiple ideas in a sentence, we lose him. Therefore, one idea at a time, in the simplest terms, seems to work with him.
  • As parents of an autistic child, we ought to know what his limitations are. Regrettably, our son does not know his own limitations. He may want to push himself beyond what he can handle, or do, and find himself at the edge of another autistic shutdown.
  • We have replaced many of my son’s anxiety-driven activities (i.e. video games) with those that enhance a calm state of mind. Family board game nights and card games tend to bring us all together and give us a chance to bond. In the summer, we will be looking forward to a family vacation.
  • We learned a lot about people while my son was in the hospital. There are those who placed blame on us for what happened to him. There are those who promised to visit him and did not. There are those who said they visited him and did not. Some people even went out of their way to tell us what was wrong with our family, not realizing their own families may one day have a similar situation happen to them, and they will be looking to us for comfort.
  • And there are people we could not live without, who surprised us with their support, who comforted us with their kind words toward our son, who gave of their time to visit him when he was in the worst of conditions, who hugged, consoled and encouraged us when we were in a place we would not want anyone else to be in. To those people, I give you our gratitude and appreciation, for you have brought our family incredible joy we would otherwise not have had, had you not been there for him.
  • Most importantly, Luana and I thank God for being there every step of the way. While the storms of trial swirled around us, God was our rock, our fortress and our salvation. He comforted us when we needed comfort, blessed us when we looked for answers, and guided us when everything appeared the darkest. God, through Jesus, gave us the hope we needed to move forward. He was the one who provided us with the strength we so truly searched. He, above all else, showed us the greatest compassion.

Forgive Always

We put up the Christmas tree this weekend. Everyone was there except my son, who landed in the hospital two weeks ago. We are still trying to understand what is going on with him. I am sure that whatever it is, the good doctors in town will provide a proper diagnosis soon. I guess the one positive thing I can take away from this experience is that the hospital is only four minutes away from our home. Yes, I timed it.

For my final post of 2017, before I go on hiatus, I wanted to talk a bit about forgiveness. I know I have written about this subject in the past, and I have preached about it, too. And I have written a book called When Forgiveness Is Enough regarding this topic. So, I would say, I am fully aware of the details and nuances concerning forgiveness, and of what it does to the person who is doing the forgiving.

Given it is the season to be merry I find I cannot be merry if I am harboring a grudge. More times than not, a grudge eats away at the very fabric of who we are and takes away from the enjoyment of whatever it is we are doing. I cannot say how important it is to let go of the past in order to move forward with the future. Part of that also is removing bitterness from our lives. As it says in Hebrews:

“See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled” (Heb. 12:15 ESV throughout).

If we allow bitterness to infect our heart, that root will grow and spread to all our other relationships, ruining everything we have worked to build. The remedy is to let go of that root, dig it out of our hearts, and live lives free from the burden of bitterness, anger and resentment.

My sermon on forgiveness from November 5, 2017:

Yes, it is easy to say, but when has a hard thing been easy to do? The Apostle Luke has a solution we can take to heart:

“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28).

In other words, Luke says to do good, bless and pray for those who hate, curse and abuse us. That is tough to do, especially if some of us have experienced physical and sexual abuse. How can we forgive a predator?

As Christians, though, the act of forgiving another human being needs to be part of our nature. We cannot allow a root of bitterness to grow and fester until it is too late. We have to get rid of it, and replace vengeance with doing good. Only then will we become selfless as Christ Jesus, who gave himself on the cross as a sacrifice for the sin of the world, thereby saving us from sin’s penalty (Rom. 6:23).

That is the one message I would like to leave with you during this holiday season. Forgive, as you would like others to forgive you. In so doing, your reward will be great in heaven.

Give, and It Will Be Given to You

The preparation for the holidays is one of my favorite times of the year. I like the hustle and bustle of shopping, eating out, visiting with friends and family, watching all the seasonal movies on TV. More importantly, I get more of a thrill by giving to those who are lacking.

I have had experiences where I have seen people give their coats to the homeless and provide meals to them on the street. Jesus said:

“Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you” (Luke 6:38 ESV).

This principle of giving works. It actually works!

I cannot say how many times I have given to others without expecting anything in return, only to have someone give to me in the very same way I did. It is like a law of physics, except this is more of a law of giving. The more I give the more comes back to me, sometimes even ten-fold.

I guess what I am trying to say today with this post is, we cannot take what we have with us. As much as we try in this lifetime to accumulate wealth, at the end of our lives, we will leave it all behind, and in some cases, the government takes it all.

During this time of year, let us give without holding back. Let us be examples for others to follow. The more we give, the more will come back to us. Then, the cycle will continue until we would not know what to do with all the blessings.

Receive the Unexpected

Last week I had the opportunity to preach my message of forgiveness at my church. The event turned out to be a great way to spread the gospel and it gave me the chance to lay my hands on those wanting prayer. I had also brought a stack of my new book WHEN FORGIVENESS IS ENOUGH with me that quickly vanished.

The funny thing about the whole thing is that I had written my sermon twice, months in advance, only to accidentally delete both on separate occasions. So I had resolved to prepare my message a week before without any forethought as to what I was going to preach.

Sure enough, that was when I knew God was there with me while I was delivering his message.

I tend to stumble over my words, simply because I race through what I want to say and my mouth has trouble keeping up with all the ideas firing through my brain. In this case, though, I purposely slowed my speech, and with the Holy Spirit leading me, everything I wanted to say, I said.

What happened to me reminds me of what happened to Moses:

“But Moses said to the Lord, ‘Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue.’ Then the Lord said to him, ‘Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak’” (Ex. 4:10-12 ESV).

This took place just before Moses and his brother Aaron went before Pharaoh to ask him to let his people go.

I am thinking now if God could do that with me, untie my tongue just as he had done with Moses, imagine what else he could do if Christians lay all their burdens at God’s feet. I say this because I sometimes feel I may be bothering God with what I ask of him. Yet Jesus made it clear that if I ask for my heart’s desire in his name, if it is his will, I would receive it (John 16:24).

Therefore, we should not think it strange when we do not receive what we ask for, because we may have asked for it not needing it. Yet when we do receive our heart’s desire, it was God’s will all along. And that presses us forward to believe even more in Jesus’ sovereignty as King of King and Lord of Lords.

What a wonderful thing to know when life becomes what we do not expect.

God’s Mercy

Next Sunday, I will be at Catch the Fire Newmarket speaking about forgiveness (details in Latest News). Given I have written about forgiveness on multiple occasions, including releasing a book last week about the topic, I thought it would be appropriate to condense my thoughts in a sermon.

For today’s post, however, I would like to talk a bit about God’s mercy. I know for some people, evidence of God’s mercy may seem non-existent. After all, there is so much chaos in the world, who would believe God has any mercy? But for us Christians, who look to him for guidance and support, God is not only real, but also the source of our strength, in spite of the trials and problems we may face.

I know in my case, I have had a horrendous few months to the point where it makes me want to go back to the spring when everything was perfect. Life does not work that way, though. We have to take what we receive, grow from it, become stronger, and help others who face similar situations. We cannot pick and choose our trials, God does that for us.

And yet, God will never give us a trial that is greater than what we can handle. Have a look at what the apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians:

“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13 ESV).

Temptation, trial or test, is God’s way of building our faith in him. Even more so, if you read the last part of that verse, Paul is saying, God shows us mercy by providing a way of escape.

In other words, every trial has a way out.

That is how I have been able to endure so much pain recently. I am dropping on my knees, petitioning God for that way of escape. And every time, and it may not be soon, he shows me that way of escape.

I just would like every reader today to know that God is a merciful god. He is a loving God. He will test us, but he will always provide a way out. Know that his will is for us to grow in the light, knowledge and faith in Christ Jesus. Only then will we have the endurance to overcome in order to be perfect as he is perfect.

Now Available!

Jack Flacco is pleased to announce his latest book WHEN FORGIVENESS IS ENOUGH: MAKING SENSE OF GOD’S CALLING is now available to purchase:

When the apostle Peter asked Jesus how many times he should forgive his brother, Jesus answered seventy-seven times. This was to illustrate God’s forgiveness is boundless, without end. A week after that conversation, God gave his only son as a sacrifice to save many from the penalty of sin.

What would it be like to forgive as God forgives? Is it possible to erase from memory someone else’s slight, in spite of the lingering bad feelings brought on by bitterness?

God’s calling to forgive one another is just the beginning. His desire is to overwhelm people with his spirit so that a hardened heart may melt to become loving and generous. Above everything else, God wants a relationship with every person who hears his word. In this practical guide, Jack Flacco recounts the events that led to his transformation and explores techniques that has allowed him to overcome hatred, envy and resentment.

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