After her son Nicholas was diagnosed with autism, Cheryl Borrelli’s entire world changed.
In the years following the the young child’s detection, Borrelli, a native of the Passyunk Square neighborhood, uprooted and reshaped her life, as she eventually sacrificed an ordinary existence in South Philadelphia, where she lived for nearly 40 years, and moved to Media, Delaware County to be closer to a suitable school for Nicholas, who requires 24-hour care.
Pouring every waking moment into nurturing her son while feeling detached from friends and family, Borrelli was enveloped in grief.
But somewhere buried in affliction, Borrelli unearthed an aptitude – an outlet.
In all her strengths she’d come to discover, writing was certainly not one she’d expected.
Gradually, an accumulation of daily journal writings led to Borrelli’s first published book, “Dear Nicky, Love Mommy: A Memoir of mother and son’s daily struggles with autism,” in April 2017.
A continuation of her journey, in January, Borrelli’s second book, “I Speak With My Heart: Dear Nicky, Love Mommy Series, Book 2,” was published, focusing on Nicholas easing into adulthood, as he is now almost 20 years old.
For Borrelli, the writing was not solely self-therapeutic but is intended to serve as a source of solace for other parents raising children with autism.
“Coming from my lonely place, I just wanted to reach out to people, because I thought – there has to be other moms out there who are experiencing this isolation and this loneliness,” she said. “I thought – I have so many experiences with him through the years, there has to be information that I can offer to help parents. But, I wanted them to not feel alone, to know that somebody out there understands them, and I really wanted to give a parent’s perspective on autism and how it really is at home. A true snapshot of it – the reality of life. The good, bad and ugly. The honest part of it.”
Struggling with preeclampsia during her pregnancy, Borrelli was induced at just 31 weeks, leading to Nicholas’s premature birth in 1999.
As he grew into his infancy and toddler years, Nicholas was missing major milestones, such as speaking and responding to his name. After a few years of therapy, he was diagnosed with the developmental disorder before turning 4 years old.
Until his adolescence, Nicholas was homeschooled and attended autism support classes through the School District of Philadelphia. But as his behavioral needs became excessive, Borrelli transferred him to a private school, Elwyn, in Media that had the adequate space and resources to accommodate his needs.
But being bused back and forth from South Philly for close to four hours a day, Borrelli knew relocating to Delaware County was best for Nicholas – a spirited young man who enjoys music, photography and computer activities.
“The depth of my love for him and what I’m willing to do for him and have been willing to do for him – I had to give up everything,” she said. “I had to give up my home, my place where I grew up, my friends, my family. There’s nothing that I won’t do for him. So, I think that unconditional love between us gives me that ability to be able to get out there and talk about him and talk about these issues and spread that awareness, because I love him so much that I want to do anything I can for him and for these kids and their families.”
After moving to Media about six years ago, Borrelli began defying her despondency through prose.
The first book, which not only archives her daily experiences but also addresses the reality of depression for parents, features diary entries as well as letters to her Nicholas.
The letters were a way to communicate with him, as he has very minimal speech skills.
“I started to write Nicky letters, because I realized, through the years, how much I missed my son,” she said. “He’s in front of me, but I still miss him, because we can’t do the things that we were meant to do together or he can’t understand me in a way that I want him to and the way that normal people do with their children…(the writing) really helped me to heal from my depression. I let all that pain out.”
After the first publication received an influx of positive responses from parents, including 4.5 out of 5 stars on Amazon, Borrelli felt it was not only a pastime but a responsibility to resume recording these experiences.
While the second book features fewer letters, it specifically sheds light on the concept of communication, as Borrelli says, although Nicholas can’t articulate in full sentences, he speaks from his heart – a power he showed his mother.
“We have the most beautiful bond that a mother and son could have,” she said. “He’s my everything. He’s my entire heart. He teaches me everything that I know about life and love. He’s taught me what unconditional love means.”
The book centers heavily upon themes of acceptance, as the publication discusses the realities of caring for children with autism as they grow into adulthood. Like many individuals with severe autism, Borrelli says Nicholas will continue to require constant fundamental care and will never evolve out of this dependent stage.
In this second edition, Borrelli finds herself in a new headspace.
“Now, I’m coming to the reader not in a place of despair and depression,” she said. “Now, I’m well-balanced and have a peaceful life, so it’s a different perspective when you’re writing about things, so I thought I could offer people good perspectives and advice on current situations that we’re going through at the adult age but not coming from that place of deep despair. I found a healing within myself.”
As Nicholas gets older, Borrelli says she intends to write more books, as she persists in logging daily journal entries.
Next year, Nicholas will transfer out of his private school and enroll in a day program. He’ll continue to receive new medications, therapies and services. For Borrelli, all of this unchartered territory will serve as new experiences – new material – for future books.
While she comes to grasp the comprehensive and often undiscussed facets of raising children with special needs, she hopes her writings will continue to spark a conversation about autism advocacy.
“(Writing books) feels surreal,” she said. “It feels like a miracle to me and for my life, because I’ve been in so much pain over him and just to know that I can make a little bit of a difference to talk with families…I feel like everything that I’ve been through with my son has a purpose, and I can put that out into society and help people. We haven’t been through it for nothing.”
To purchase Borrelli’s first book, visit here.
To purchase Borrelli’s second book, visit here.