Category Archives: adversity

Never Say Never…2016 Year of Surprises

2016 seemed to start of just fine, perhaps a bit more boring than usual. Things seemed on an even keel for once. My oldest son was making strides with his autism and the memories of constant struggles were slowly fading away as all of his (and my) hard work, time, and money over the years seemed to be FINALLY paying off in spades with consistently calm behavior, excellent self-expression and language, increasing social skills, no more potty accidents, and only good days at school. We were badassing autism, I would say. My youngest son had found relief through acupuncture from the tics that tormented and embarrassed him so badly at school due to his Tourette’s disorder. He had become BFFs with the neighbor boy. With our boys doing so much better and both of us working stable jobs, my husband and I were getting along better than ever before and having less heated disagreements over house chores, finances, and such. In early May, we went to a winery and I remember feeling caught by surprise and delight that I was falling back in love with my husband as we watched the sun set drinking glasses of Malbec on the patio. The overall stress level for our family seemed to be getting to that of what most people experience in their normal day to day lives. We had been living in financial and autism crisis mode for so long, I had forgotten what it felt like to just kind of coast through life some days. I posted cute pics of the kids or what new recipe I tried that night on Facebook. I went to yoga class regularly, folded laundry while watching Netflix, squeezed in the occasional coffee with a friend, date night with my husband and juggled the pressures of my jobs like a boss.

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Then, that equilibrium that I hoped would be my new normal slowly disappeared in a domino effect leaving me in utter brokenness, some of the darkest nights of the soul I have ever experienced, on my knees pleading to God, crying my eyes out in my car, calling doctors begging for help for my son, sitting by the lake talking myself out of wanting to swim away and never come back, counseling sessions, trips to multiple specialists for a new medical and mental health condition my son developed called PANDAS (“because moderate autism just isn’t enough is it God?” I lamented) which occurred after a bout of strep throat. He was also starting puberty. Crap. Humbled. Waving the white flag by calling the Marcus Autism Center in Atlanta crying and breaking down begging for someone to help my son and to help me. They did….with a psychiatry appointment. The last thing I ever wanted for my son. Never say never…..

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We had previously experienced so much miraculous success with naturopathic medicine and diet changes, public school special education programs, SonRise program and therapies (Occupational, Speech, Aquatic, and Hippotherapy), that I NEVER thought I would be one of “those parents” (sorry, I was just so ignorant) who put their kids on psych meds. As a mental health professional, I understood theoretically that there is a time and place for meds, but I observed that often parents tend to just jump the gun and go straight for meds rather than trying other treatments first and using meds as a last resort. I still advocate a conservative approach to medication. But, where I went wrong was assuming that because I am a mental health professional, well versed in natural treatments for various ailments as well, that my son would just NEVER need meds. WRONG. Last resort was exactly where we were at. At least I could feel confident I had exhausted all the options first I suppose.

PANDAS (see article) plus the onset of puberty made autism look like a cake walk. PANDAS made debilitating OCD symptoms, insomnia, and aggression appear. These tormented and took over my once sweet and docile son’s daily life and thus my life, my youngest son’s life, my husband’s life, and even affected our extended family and friendships. We had to stop going to church, taking him to the store, visiting friends, or going out to eat as a family. He just couldn’t handle noisy or crowded places anymore. We would spend hours trying to get him to finish up his rituals of closing doors certain ways or counting to 12 over and over. One night, I stayed up until 2am waiting for my son to stop repetitively banging the bathroom door to the count of 12 over and over again for hours. If we tried to get him to stop or even so much as breathed too loudly during these rituals, we would be violently attacked. My son is as tall and weighs as much as I do. I would have heated disagreements with my husband and my mother about medication. I was desperate and wanted to try it for my son, they were adamantly opposed. One day, one of my younger son’s friends came over to visit and made the mistake of “opening the door wrong” and my son went into a rage. When I tried to calmly de-escalate things (even thought I was on the verge of a panic attack) and make sure my younger son’s friend wasn’t attacked, my son started pulling me by my hair to the ground where we wrestled and I had to pin him down just to get him to let go. I am a trauma survivor and every time my son had one of these episodes I would end up going into the bathroom crying and barely able to breathe in the throws of a panic attack. I would have to drink a small glass of wine just to feel like I wasn’t going to hyperventilate. I was worried about one of us being seriously injured or that I would snap. I just wanted it to STOP.

I knew hospitalization was an option people would advise if I told them the truth, but I refused to put my son in a mental hospital where God knows what would happen to him. I saw news reports of children at local mental hospitals dying or being scalded in the bath. I would rather have my ass kicked all day long or let him kill me than risk inhumane and traumatic treatment for my baby. This is how so many parents feel and why so many families end up in tragic situations. We can’t trust the quality of the help and many can’t afford it if they could trust that care would be adequate. “I am a mental health professional, I will make my home my son’s treatment facility”, I decided. I just didn’t have prescribing privileges, so I needed a doctor’s help. That’s when I reached out to Marcus Autism Center. They normally have a 6-8 month wait list for psychiatry. After I told them the truth about what was happening and how I didn’t honestly know how much longer I could take it, they worked us into a cancellation spot 4 days after my call. I just had to hold on 4 days.

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The first medicine, Clonidine, helped so much with sleep. My son sleeping again helped me feel like I might make it after all even though the days continued to be torment. I found the place he raged the least was in the pool, so every day off was spent at the public pool for as long as we could stay. I still had to pull myself together and make it into work looking like my son hadn’t been attacking me and act as if nothing was wrong and do my job as a mental health professional. It doesn’t make good water cooler talk to discuss how your son kicks your ass if you breathe wrong when you work at a domestic violence victim’s services center. I needed to keep my job and my paycheck. Next, we added in Prozac supposedly for the OCD, which made my son violent and manic all of the time. Now, I had a child who was in an irritable mixed state mania plus it didn’t do crap for his OCD and PANDAS. I called the psychiatrist and told her I was stopping the Prozac. She wanted to try increasing his dose at first, but I said hell no as politely as possible (you HAVE to advocate and speak up to survive this thing as a parent) and she made an appt for us to come in the next day for another treatment plan. That’s when the decision was made to put my son on Risperdal. As a hippie, crunchy type mom this was a “big gun” antipsychotic med I did not trust and did not want to try. It was going to make my son diabetic and make him grow breasts, I feared. But, in utter desperation I honestly would have tried a tranquilizer dart for a bear at that point so I said “what the hell? I don’t even know anything anymore, screw everything I think I know” and got the prescription filled. I lied to my husband about it. Within just a few days my son was BACK. He kept getting better day by day, calmer, happier, engaging with us, not zombied out like I had feared. Biting himself less, attacking less, then I realized days had gone by and he hadn’t gotten physical with us, I hadn’t had to tell my younger son to lock himself in his room for safety. It was a MIRACLE. I finally told my husband and he cried because he finally had to admit that our baby did need meds and that they were helping. This isn’t what we had wanted to do. But never say never….

After he was stabilized mentally, I had the energy and strength to start going more hardcore into researching PANDAS and treatment options. I found a pediatrician in Atlanta (Dr. Rodbell) who takes our insurance and is PANDAS informed (many doctors aren’t) and we got on the wait list to see him. We started a treatment protocol of long-term antibiotics. This made me cringe because we avoid antibiotics in our crunchy natural household like the plague. Never say never….

Lots of driving back and forth to Atlanta ensued (about 1.5 hours away from our home). I somehow shuffled my work schedule around to be off some half days to take my son to his specialists and therapies myself and not lose hours. I proceeded to get quietly then loudly pissed off at my husband for working his 9-5 job, going about his business, and not really seeing all that was going on in my world at home in the “mental hospital” I ran while I wasn’t at work at a domestic violence crisis center and all of the stress that I felt was damn near killing me. I said I would never be “martyr mom” who did absolutely nothing for herself, but that’s exactly who I became during the Summer. There was no time for me to even think about what I might like or want to do. I didn’t go to yoga class for weeks. Those who know me know that I need my yoga just to stay sane and that I NEVER miss. I wasn’t sane. I looked like shit. People probably thought I was on drugs or worse. Nope. Hanging in there. Pulling up at the school in my PJs to drop the kids off late. I never imagined I would let myself go like that. I fought so hard to not let that happen, but it did. Never say never…

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I came out of the “Summer of Hell” now embracing the wonders of psychiatric medication (still as a last resort, but one I wish I had tried much sooner before things came to a crisis point when I barely had the will to live left). Never say never. Crunchy hippie natural mama meets hell yes for RisperDONE. That really is the drug name. I joke with my husband that I would gladly make a TV ad for Big Pharma smiling and saying in my sweetest Mary Poppins voice: “RisperDONE…for those times when your child’s aggression and violence make you want to say I’m just DONE son!”

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So, we were back on track with my son’s mental health. We resumed his therapies and he went back to school no longer headbutting the teacher and giving him a bloody nose now that his meds had him stabilized. Life seemed to level out….but that feeling of love for my husband that had surprised and delighted me when we had that winery date watching the sunset on the patio overlooking the vineyards had gone…somewhere…away….we had devolved over the course of that summer into being simply fellow survivors living in the same fresh hell.

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We tried to maintain connection the best we could. We never stopped talking or being physically intimate, if nothing else just for moments of free stress relief….but the connection, the love, the emotion just wasn’t in it. We were both like shell-shocked zombies stuck together by trauma bonding. I found us a marriage retreat for special needs parents and was so excited to go in October. This was going to fix everything, right? We just needed to chill out and really connect. Love would surprise us again…right? Sadly, my precious Grandma had to have emergency open heart surgery to fix several life-threatening issues a month before our retreat. My Mom is our only respite care provider by choice because I have high standards and trust issues. She is the only person I am confident can handle my boys as well as I can over long periods of time. She had to stay in the hospital with my Grandma for over a month. We had to cancel our trip. I cried and soldiered on. I was worried about my Grandma, but she came through and is doing well thank God! We registered for the December retreat instead. We went on the retreat, connected, had fun, laughed, had one spat about housework, but overall it was a fabulous time with new friends who “get” what living the special needs kiddos lifestyle is like. Love didn’t arrive to take us by surprise as it had done at the winery, but something else was happening. It felt cleansing, painful, but good. We did realize how much we still have in common and how much we enjoy each other’s company still after all these years.

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Then, one week after the retreat when I’m walking on cloud 9 all hopeful thinking things are starting to maybe look up for the first time, we had gone out for sushi, picked up the kids at my Moms, and just had to get them put down to bed in order to continue our date night 😉 So, I’m walking into the kitchen all la-ti-da in my pink PJs to get a drink of water after putting the kids to bed when I’m hit square in the face with the fact that my husband is not who he claims to be at all, not Mr. Self-Proclaimed feminist Christian who is sensitive to the fact that I spent years in therapy getting over anorexia and trauma. That every time he portrayed himself as “someone who doesn’t struggle with THAT” he was lying. Nope, he was all of a sudden in a flash of a second none of these things he had so frequently and vehemently claimed to be. He was cheating on me. He was some shady bastard I didn’t even know anymore. I won’t go into the gory details out of respect for him, but there was no mistaking the proof. In this age of technology, it can be confusing what even constitutes “cheating” anymore, but when a husband and wife discuss and agree upon THEIR boundaries, needs, and definitions then anyone who violates that while their wife is looking forward to them coming to bed and paying her some attention is cheating, plain and simple. Cheating your thirsty spouse out of your love, attention, and affection and putting your sexual energies into someone else is cheating. And it makes that person wonder why? Am I not good enough? Do I look bad? Should I start starving myself again and undo the 6 years of therapy that got me to the point of being able to say “I’m no longer anorexic at all and I am actually able to view myself as beautiful FINALLY”? When my husband would support my recovery and tell me he thought I was more beautiful not scary skinny, was he lying to me?

Regardless of how it went down, in that moment I felt everything I believed to be true crumple into a big ole pile of bullshit. I could barely stand. I yelled the first thought that raced through my mind, “Well I guess I’ll just go out and do whatever I damn well please with whoever I damn well please now (expletive) huh!” and ran to the bathroom to throw up. I threw up over and over again all night long. It was like labor. I felt my body, the one thing that has never betrayed me and has always tried to protect me, trying to empty me of whatever was causing me to feel so sick. My body, unlike my husband, was trying its damnedest to protect me and cleanse me of anything noxious or harmful to my health. My mind was whirling around. I always said that I was the type of woman who wouldn’t put up with certain types of bullshit. I won’t put up with disrespect in my own house after I bust my ass at work all day and take care of the kids anytime I’m not working. I won’t put up with cheating when I’ve offered the option of an open marriage. I just won’t abide a liar who claims the highest fidelity in order to coerce loyalty from me. I own my home with only my name on it. I make my own money. I pay my car note. I am by no means stuck, I thought. All bets were off. What was good for the gander might just be good for the goose…..So, I told my husband to get out of the house until I could stop raging and wanting to kill him and go seduce the nearest unmarried person. I alternated between crying so hard my body shook, being so angry I almost broke my hand punching a door, and dolling myself up and flirting a little with strangers out in public. I don’t regret it. I survived being punched in the gut and having the wind knocked out of me, emotionally speaking, so I think its only fair and normal I came up swinging rather than being sweet and doing all the “right” things.

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Finally, one night I was crying in bed alone, my hand outstretched onto my husband’s now vacant side of the bed. Cold crinkled sheets. I can do this. I can survive this. I’ve lost loved ones, lovers before. I know how to suffer. I know how to feel like you are going to die…and yet survive. I started praying. Blubbering crying and praying. God reminded me of everything wrong I had ever done to my husband. How I wouldn’t marry him for so many years because I didn’t know if I could be faithful or not, 99% certain I couldn’t be. How I had messed up just weeks before we said “I Do” due to my fears creating a self-fulfilling prophecy and how, even in spite of my Herculean efforts at recovery, I had grown overly confident that I no longer could be tempted, allowed myself to be in a compromising situation and almost slipped and cheated while I was newly married, catching myself at the last second before going through with it. I realized that my husband had forgiven me much, as had God. But ultimately, the realization that was the most profound was that even if my husband wanted to see other people, I still wanted him to come home and be my best friend. I wanted him to come home to my bed, my body, my table, my food, his children every night.Heartbreak.jpg

There is no rational explanation. Just LOVE. Not co-dependency, because this isn’t insecure need out of fear of being alone (the thought of being alone actually excited me and relieved me in many ways), this is simply what I WANT and what I choose right now at this juncture. His pros outweigh his cons. I forgive him and he has forgiven me. And to me, that is love. 14 years. Plenty of reasons to leave, but more to stay and try. Maybe we could work towards reconciliation, I thought. When we had a heart to heart, he finally acknowledged the truth and shared that in counseling he had realized that he honestly didn’t trust me and thought I was still cheating on him which made it easy for him to do what he did. Maybe, I thought, instead of signing a lease at an apartment using our kids Christmas presents money as a down payment, he could just come home and we could work through this by the grace of God somehow…..It’s been tough…and beautiful…and surprising in so many ways. Surprising like that day at the winery falling back in love over wine. Except this time, we are falling back in love over honest, heart-felt conversations rather than the buzz of wine. I’m still figuring it out and realizing I don’t have to figure it all out. I can just let it unfold. The boys are super happy to have Daddy home. So am I. One thing is sure…I will never say never again after this year’s humbling lessons. I will just continue to wing it…together with my sons, my husband, and you all my sweet friends and strangers 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

Bless Our Mess

My son’s occupational therapist shared with me something cute my 8-year-old shared with her at school. She said, “He said my house sure can be a mess sometimes, but its the best mess. Its my favorite place to be.” At first, I have to admit, I was mortified because I carry a little bit of secret shame about my free-spirited, “just trying to survive and stay sane as a working mom” housekeeping philosophy. But, then, I was struck with how profound my son’s statement really was. Our house, our family, ourselves sure can be messy, but messy can still be amazing. Messy can still be our favorite place to be. A big ole come as you are mess is actually quite comforting and endearing. You are always accepted and don’t have to clean up first and fit everything into a neat and tidy toy box. It’s the expectation of shiny, well-organized constant perfection that trips us up in so many ways, isn’t it? I honestly don’t want a constantly neat and tidy house. I want a sanitary house with clean dishes, the litter box scooped, enough clean clothes for the week and the trash taken off, but do I want floors with daily fresh vacuum lines and with toys neatly in their place or my son’s art supplies in perfect order at all times? No, I really don’t.

One of my favorite things about my Mom’s parenting style was that she was very relaxed when it came to her expectations of the house. She would rather let us relax, study, and play at home most days than to have a rigid chore chart schedule. There were times she asked for help or told us “alright that’s it, your room is a disaster its time to clean it up,” but overall there was always a sense of home being a place to rest, get schoolwork done, and to not have to be as tightly wound as the outside world expected. I want my kids to look back on their childhood the same way. That their home is the one place of constant refuge where they can kick back and relax, be messy, be themselves, but also a place where they can earn a dollar if they help Mama do the dishes.

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Of course, I’m not advocating never cleaning or letting your house be unsanitary, but I am all in favor of relaxing a bit and instead of shaming myself for my messy home, savoring the fact that this is my son’s favorite place and “the best mess.” My kids don’t care that my desk is overflowing with books and papers for the online class I teach. I’m thankful my youngest son’s room looks like a Lego explosion and he feels creative freedom and relaxation. I’m thankful my oldest son’s room is an explosion of stuffed animals and art supplies where he can shut the door and decompress after school. I’m thankful I can go to yoga or read a book instead of spending hours each day trying to get my home to look like a magazine. I do not enjoy cleaning at all because it is an exercise in futility and I don’t have the time to put any effort into futile pursuits my kids will just undo for me. Why spend an hour picking up Legos or hounding my son to do so when I could instead be playing Marvel versus Capcom with him or even just sitting by him on the couch reading a book, available if he wants to talk while he draws? He is just going to empty out the Lego boxes looking for the perfect Darth Vader helmet tomorrow anyway, so why bother? Ain’t nobody got time for that. I sure don’t. I work 3 jobs for goodness sake and take care of 2 boys, one of whom has special needs that take up any excess energy I might have. When you are just trying to survive as the parent of a child with special needs, you don’t have time to get neurotic about perfection. You start to accept and cherish the beautiful mess that is your life because your ideas about perfection were shattered the day you received that diagnosis.

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As I think and write, I realize that housekeeping tends to be a deeply personal issue for me and for probably most of us women. Men are pretty much off the hook because if someone comes over and the house is a wreck, no matter if the wife works just as many hours or not, somehow the spoken accolades or the passive-aggressive disapproval falls on her. Her only hobby  after working full-time should be cleaning and childcare right? That is the unspoken expectation so many of us feel. It is us women who frantically announce, “Ya’ll! Clean up NOW Grandpa is coming over in 2 hours!” as we bust out the mop, the vacuum, and the shovel for all of those toys simultaneously in a flurry of panic at the thought that our family member or friend is going to judge us harshly for slacking off and maybe playing with the kids or reading instead of non-stop cleaning.

Who do you allow into your home? I am very selective. I know which friends are my “safe friends” who I don’t have to clean up the house for if they want to swing by for coffee and these friends are the same ones I go to when something serious is going on in my life and I need to share my pain or my emotions without having them judged “a hot mess” or offering to “tidy up” my feelings for me either. There is something beautiful about accepting the messy parts of ourselves, our people and our homes. Let’s cut ourselves and each other some slack as we wing it through parenting, housekeeping, and realize we are all really a mess in one way or another. But we can find the love in our messiness. We don’t have to get it all in the toy box to be loved or enough.

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Sorry I Missed Your Call. I’m Busy Riding the Autism and OCD Parenting Roller Coaster.

When I was a little girl, my parents would take us to the county fair or to Six Flags over GA to ride roller coasters. I was always the type who would get on any ride or roller coaster not because I wasn’t terrified, but because I knew I wouldn’t die and that at the end I would be so exhilarated that I did it! Some of the rides were fun, but some I would just have to hold on tight and scream my lungs out to endure until the end. When you scream out “Stop the ride! Let me off!” no one hears you. They can’t stop the ride just because you want off or you think you are going to have a heart attack. No one cares. You can scream or cry all you want to, but it changes nothing. You just have to hang in there and endure. You have no idea when it will be over. It feels like forever. You can’t even really think straight to evaluate how far along in the track you are. You just hold on tight, scream, cry, pray, and try not to throw up. This is very similar to my experience as the parent of a child with autism who is going through the tween years and has recently developed OCD as well (because no, Lord, autism just wasn’t enough). It often seems as if just when I have caught my breath and think I’m gonna survive this thing just fine, I am thrown into another upside down loop de loop, tilt a whirl and I’m in danger of losing my lunch, my glasses, and looking pretty rough when I get off this thing. Thankfully, I get a chance to get off this roller coaster sometimes when my son is at school or at my mom’s when my husband and I have a date night, but even then it feels as if although I’m not actively riding it, I’m just standing in line, trying to settle my nerves taking deep breathes and waiting to get back on again.

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I love my son more than anything and we have beautiful, wonderful moments which are exhilarating like the moment when the roller coaster stops and you smile and laugh with glee because you did in fact survive this thing and the endorphins and adrenaline are pumping through your body. Woohoo! A sweet hug! Another milestone met! Another new word! Eye contact! Potty trained! He only turned the light switch on and off 11 times instead of the usual 12! But, watching him struggle so much in spite of all of the extra stuff I am doing and buying and trying….well it makes me want to scream “Ahhhh I  hate this ride! Someone get me off! I’m gonna puke again!” pretty often.

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ASD is a spectrum and presents in a lot of different ways for different kids and adults. You may have ASD yourself or have  a child who has ASD or OCD and it may feel like a walk in the park to you, I don’t know. All I know is my experience and my truth about how it feels to parent my particular child in my particular circumstances and it feels hard right now. Just when I think I’ve got a handle on things, here comes another loop I’m thrown for whether due to a new developmental stage, illness, finances, etc.

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I think people must assume that because I say  it is so hard, I’m just doing it wrong. I wish they could see how much time, money, energy, therapies, diets, supplements, now even medicine we are doing to try and help my son thrive and be happy day to day. I feel like I should be able to make this work somehow. I should be able to not look so frazzled or I should be able to stay in Mary Poppins mode and not ever raise my voice. I should just get up earlier to avoid looking disheveled and a mess at the morning drop off at school (nevermind I’ve been dealing with his sleep issues all night long and I work late two nights per week). I should pray (check, I pray almost constantly). I should work from home. He should take this supplement (yep, already taking it), we should try this diet (yep doing that), I should _______________ (not be writing about it?). I should change my perspective (yep in therapy myself trying to do that). There has to be something I could just fix and make this easier on myself. I wish there were. I spend hours each day researching how to make this better, how to be a better mom, how to accept this unusual life journey and find more joy in it, how to make my marriage survive this, how to help my other son cope, how to make extra money to fund my sons needs, etc. Although many of the things we have done for our son and for ourselves have helped tremendously, I am still working uphill just to get my son to the most basic level of functioning and to get my family to the most basic level of functioning. Even Pollyanna would admit that’s kind of hard.

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Each day is a roller coaster of stress and I am horrified at how I must appear from afar. This is not me. This is me just trying to survive. My son isn’t going to go into remission after his treatment. He isn’t going to be sick for a little while. This is a long-haul thing for us. A marathon, not a sprint. I feel like the main character from the movie “Bad Moms” who is just stressed to the max, except I don’t have the option of just telling everyone to take care of themselves for once, because my son can’t. So, I publicly apologize for seeming constantly scattered, self-centered, crazy, stressed out, no time for small talk, snappy with the front office staff at the school, not put together, too focused on my son’s ASD diagnosis, flaky, not a good friend, forgetful, not 100% on top of every little detail at work, not having the energy to invest into things that aren’t my business or I don’t care about anyway, frequently venting to my BFFs, always broke, not able to hang out much, bursting out in tears and saying “But I work 3 jobs and what we are doing now is already so hard!” when my son’s reading teacher asks me to do add extra homework, frequently not able to answer the phone, giving up on daily gym workouts, holding tight to my Saturday morning yoga time, not up for any kind of “fitness challenge” because my life is already a 365 challenge, or just distant and crabby in general. I apologize for being strangely open (oversharing) and also really defensive (pretty much not wanting to hang out with non-special needs parents much at all).

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This is my norm, this is my life. I am just trying to hold on tight, scream, and survive it without losing my lunch just like a kid riding a killer rollercoaster. I promise you that this has nothing to do with you, I really do like you a lot. I would love to be able to hang out with you more, to relate to your stories about your kids extracurriculars and how proud you are, to put more effort into my home businesses selling amazing things, to have more of a social life that is not online in nature, to laugh more, to volunteer more at church instead of crying through all the songs just to release all that stress, to be able to just throw my kids in the mix of all the other kids at church and go chit chat with the other moms rather than having to go sit next to my son and try to hold back my tears as I rub his back while he’s biting himself and rocking back and forth because the music is too loud and there are too many kids having too much fun in there.

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Maybe we all have our roller coasters, I don’t know what goes on behind the closed doors of your mind or home, but I do know that it really does help to just let it out and scream your head off sometimes when you need to, to hold on tight to the people you love, throw your hands up and laugh hysterically sometimes, breathe deeply, and remember that you won’t die even though you may feel like it on the loop de loops. We special needs parents will survive as we wing it together. If you need to talk to someone who “gets it”, call me. It will likely go to voicemail, but I will call you when I’m driving alone in the car. Reach out to Parent2Parent or a support group. You don’t have to ride the roller coasters alone, there are plenty of seats and we can hold hands and scream together as we go through the dips and curves.

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Christmas Miracles

Every Christmas, I look for miracles. My dictionary reads: A miracle is an event not explicable by natural or scientific laws. Such an event may be attributed to a supernatural being, magic, a miracle worker, a saint or a religious leader. So what miracles would this year bring, I wondered? I have been  praying for miracles for an injured family member, an overwhelmed friend,  a little girl in my community who is fighting cancer and for Joey Feek, whose music and testimony has touched my heart deeply in a way I can’t logically explain. My sons and I have been donating to (because sometimes you have to help miracles along with love when you can) and praying for the refugee women and children who are in need of so much more than we have to give. This world really needs some miracles right about now, doesn’t it? 

So, I was praying for people who needed a miracle. I was keeping my eyes and heart open in gratitude to see the many miracles all around us that we all too often fail to see. But, in some ways, I just wasn’t feelin’ it this year. Ever had trouble just getting into the Christmas spirit? You try and try and just can’t quite get there? That was me this year. I had been feeling a little (ok a lot) burned out. Stressed out. Feeling stretched beyond my limits, but without any real options to change my situation or reduce my stress load anytime soon (believe me, I’ve rolled my options around in my head 1000 times, crunched numbers, and I’m just gonna have to hang in there as is unless an amazing new opportunity that doesn’t involve selling anything comes along). My headaches had started coming back. All of this was waaay before Christmas even rolled up…I was feeling like this in November. The past year had been filled with challenges at work, home, financially, everything breaking down all at once, health issues, etc.  So that’s where I was at emotionally in early November. Cringing as the stores brought out Christmas decorations and my go-to uplifting Christian radio station started playing “Jingle Bells”. Just exhausted, wanting to hop on the first plane to the Bahamas and run away from it all before Santa even flew in to take up residence at the mall. And then something interesting started happening….

Through a strange serious of events, I was called to help a young woman (not a client). More disadvantaged, alone, scared, and facing many more obstacles than any of my clients, she was someone I could not in good conscience decline to assist. But, if I’m honest with you, I have to admit that some of my first (selfish) thoughts were, “oh no, Lord why me? I don’t even know if I can be of much help or if this is just going to cause me more headaches and be the stress that pushes my sanity into a ditch. I know I’m supposed to be servant-hearted, but I’m dry bones, Lord have mercy I’m tired. And in December? Really?” But, I answered the call nonetheless. It was a situation I am uniquely qualified to help with for many different reasons due to my life experience and professional training. Saying yes, I will help, has resulted not in further burnout, but instead in my own Christmas blessing! God and those mysterious ways again…

My faith is expanding as I’m seeing God work in miraculous ways in this seemingly impossible situation. I’m doing my part to be love and practical help (within my means) to someone who needs lots of love and support right now. In doing so, my heart has been touched deeply, my faith expanded, and I have been re-energized about my calling and my life’s work as a counselor. So many things have come together in such a short period of time. God’s hand is undeniably all over it stirring sweet grace and mercy into the situation with the help of a network of believers as generously as Paula Deen stirs butter into her recipes with a spoon. The Body of Christ has come together so beautifully it is restoring my faith in my fellow Christians (many of us didn’t even really know each other well before this need arose and we don’t even come from the same church family). I wish I could tell you the details and tell you the full story, but I need to keep the details private. My part of it is just doing what I can and thanking God for this Christmas blessing of expanded faith and confirmation that I need to stop feeling guilty for not doing things that are not my callings and the gentle yet firm reminder to say yes to my callings even when they don’t make sense or appear at first glance to be too much. Lord, your yoke is easy and burden light (Matt. 11:30) because what you ask us to do, those things that are our true callings, end up blessing us back in return.

Speaking of miracles….at Christmas, I always meditate on Mary and what it must have been like for her. She was called to do something completely out of her comfort zone, something that initially jeopardized her upcoming marriage/life plan/stability, her safety, stretched her heart and soul, put her on a physically arduous journey to Bethlehem and upon her arrival (in active labor no less) was told there was no room at the inn. No room. No. The world couldn’t make room for her or this baby. Mary did what she was called to do in spite of all of this, even though it was hard and illogical. She was likely feeling exhausted and scared. What that moment must have been like between Mary and Joseph as this young couple struggled through labor and birth far from home in a stable with animal noises and smells. What would it have been like for Mary to be lying on hay, nursing baby Jesus and see the shepherds and the 3 wise men from the Far East converging upon them to gaze at their baby in wonder and awe, handing gifts of great value to this poor couple who no one could make room for just a few hours ago!? Wild. What a wild night. Mary bore a lot, but how blessed among women did she feel at the end of that night? Maybe she still felt confused and tired, but certainly she must have been more sure of her calling and her faith must have been expanded exponentially with baby Jesus lying in her arms and a star shining brightly above that stable.  

This is the true miracle of Christmas. The story that we can reflect upon in gratitude year after year with its rich symbolism and continued relevance, regardless of our circumstances. Regardless of if our prayers are answered as we wish they would be in our human understanding, the original Christmas miracle is one that we all too often overlook as we listen to the voice of the world that tells us the lie about “buying Christmas.”  I’ll take the original Christmas story over the modern consumerist story any day.

 

Being the Eye of the Storm: Crisis Counseling + Motherhood = Self-Care Not Optional

Those of you who know me well know that I juggle a lot of intense and high-stress stuff daily. My oldest son’s special needs, my youngest son’s intense and sensitive personality, my 3 part-time jobs (one of which is working at a domestic violence crisis center and shelter, thank God the other two are relatively tame), being a wife and not just a roommate to my husband, managing my own anxious tendencies….all of the mundane things I loathe like laundry that cause me anxiety, but still have to get done….it just overwhelms me to tears or “Mommy meltdown” sometimes. Most days, however, I feel grateful, happy and like I can handle my crazy life because of 4 secrets I will share with you:

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1) I am fiercely protective of my time and my self-care. I don’t let people guilt me into doing stuff. I’m already giving all I got…thankyouverymuch.

2) My work reminds me to stay in gratitude. I am not a victim of abuse. I am not scared of my husband. No one is stalking me or trying to hurt me. My kids are safe and healthy. I am physically healthy and able to work, in spite of dealing with some health challenges and life-long anxiety. I am grateful to have a home and a bed and plenty of food in my pantry. I am thankful for the laundry even though I would be even more thankful if someone would invent a laundry folding machine. I am thankful for those dirty dishes because we had a good meal on them. There is always something to be thankful for. Working at a shelter makes it pretty darn easy to re-evaluate when I have to be thankful for.

3) I know my place. Being clear about your role, what you can control and what you can’t, etc. is IMPERATIVE when you work in helping professions. It’s all too easy to get sucked into all the drama, get too attached or worry yourself sick about people. My role is not to rescue you (unless you are about to harm yourself or others, in which case I will call 911 to rescue you), become enmeshed with you or be your mama/BFF/babysitter. My goal is to empower you as an adult woman/mother to rescue yourself and your kids. My role is to care and help, but to not get overly involved beyond the scope of my role as a counselor. When you get too buddy-buddy with clients, it actually hurts rather than helps them and you. Healthy boundaries are a really good thing to model for people. It also makes doing my job possible when every single person is always desperately in need at all times and pulling me in a million directions. Don’t pity people, see their strengths and help them utilize them rather that doing things and solving their problems for them.

4) I come back to the mantra that came to me as an epiphany as I was lying on the table with needles sticking out everywhere praying during an acupuncture sessions a few years back: “be the eye of the storm” that still small voice inside myself urged.  The eye of the storm is calm and non-reactive, it is the place of peace within the swirling, violent clouds of the storm all around it. I accept that I do not have the power to calm the storm that is my life, but I do have the power to determine how I react to the storm and to keep my peace when everyone around me is freaking the heck out. Sometimes, I am good at this. Others, I blow it and have to remind myself “where did that eye of the storm go? Find it!”

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I am more than willing to help and do what is needed, but I am not willing to give myself a panic attack in the process because you are having one. I will strive to pull people into my peace rather than letting them pull me into their storm, as the meme I love to see on social media says. I am like a fierce mama lion when it comes to protecting my peace. I pray daily about this, but I am also a big believer in doing my best and using my common sense then letting God do the rest. If I know something wrecks my peace, I’m not going to just keep doing that and praying about it when I can change it. God gave me the sense to change it. Every time I pray I feel him gently urging “you are doing enough, just relax, don’t feel guilty or compare. I’ve got you where I want you.” 

Sometimes, I feel guilty or isolated because I am not the extrovert I once was. I need more time to recharge and find my peace than I used to when I just worked as a waitress and had no kids. People who have non-crisis related jobs or don’t have challenging children just can’t understand how emotionally exhausted I am from pouring out so much to people who are so desperately in need. My job involves safety planning with people who are worried they will killed by their abusers and their children will be kidnapped or worse, making DFCS reports, trying to calm someone who is having a panic attack, facilitating groups which are sometimes wonderfully inspiring and supportive of one another or also sometimes dealing with difficult or disruptive behavioral issues and trying not to worry that clients will relapse, commit self-harm, go back to abuse or commit suicide. I rarely clock out at the time I am scheduled to because just as I pack up and get ready to walk out the door, a traumatized child has just walked in the door wanting me or a crisis happens and it isn’t something that can wait until tomorrow. These are people’s lives. I must do my best. I can’t commit to doing anything after work other than coming home to decompress, eat and spend time with my family. I must keep my own peace. Managing my own emotional state so that I can be empathetic and effective with clients who drain the life out of you is a huge challenge of working with people in crisis.

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Then, I go home to my sons who are not the easy “Mommy, let’s color together and relax” kids at all. I love them to pieces and we have so much fun together, but having a child who has autism and another one who is “spirited” “sensitive” and “intense” to say the least is not a relaxing day at the spa or walk in the park to come home to. There are therapy appts to bring my son to, IEP meetings, calls from the school, everything must be taught, retaught, prompted, etc. Fights must be refereed. Bedtime is a constant daily dramatic battle with my youngest. I don’t mind meeting these challenges as long as I have taken good care of myself and have it to give. I start getting snappy and then feeling guilty if I haven’t done a good job with my self-care. My son deserves me at my best. I deserve to take the best care of myself possible. Thankfully, my close friends understand (many of them have special needs children too) and we connect how we can by phone or FB message or maybe just maybe having a girls night out once a year.

Then, there is the fact that I am married. My poor husband usually bears the brunt of my frustration. He also reaps the richest rewards of my love. I sometimes come in from work feeling some kind of way, irritated, drained, or crying on the drive home. Having our particular children has caused many disagreements and heated arguments. We have scapegoated each other “they are acting this way because of how you parent them”, we have played the classic “I work harder than you inside and outside the home” game, we have taken out our raw emotions and exhaustion on each other, we have both had escapist behaviors when our son was first diagnosed and we were in the trenches of autism. And yet, we have also learned to lean on one another out of sheer desperation and compassion. Being a special needs parent or parent of challenging children is not for the faint of heart. It is also not something anyone should have to do all alone. It’s been 10 years, but we have finally learned to work together as we “tag team” and help each other carry the load. He makes breakfast and hangs out with the boys on Saturday mornings while I go to yoga class and run. I come home and take them to lunch and swim lessons so he can get out in the garden and relax. I tell him “hey its your turn to do the dishes” rather than huff and puff as I do them and then go ballistic about how I’m the only one doing anything around here 2 days later when we are supposed to be enjoying a date night. Our main strength is that we have always refused to let physical intimacy die out because we need all the free stress relief we can get from each other. Desperate times can drive you into each other arms or into separate houses. I’m too overwhelmed already with my life to try being a single mom so that just isn’t an option. It is not smooth and easy, but it is worth the immense emotional energy it takes. My husband now fully understands how much self-care I need in order to not be a total b$@%$ to everyone. He facilitates it for his own good. 🙂

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I WILL ask myself each day, “what do you need right now?” Some days, the answer will be coffee with a friend. Some days, the answer will be to snuggle with my cat under a blanket and read as soon as I get home from work and get the kids fed. I WILL listen to my needs and try my best within the constraints of reality to meet them. I WILL go to my yoga class 3 times per week and run when I can to relieve my chronic muscle tension/anxiety. I have struggled with anxiety all my life as far back as I can remember and this is how I have learned to cope without medication. Medications always made me feel worse. I’ll take a steady regimen of yoga and running over pills anyway. That’s what works for me. Also saying the magic word: NO!  No, I WON’T head up that committee and Martha myself into exhaustion when I am already tired. I WILL spend time with God in prayer and reading devotions, inspiring stories, and the Bible as often as possible. I WILL not get up at 5am to do so like some people recommend. I WILL find what works for me and my life. I WILL go to my acupuncture appt every other month. I WILL go see my own counselor to debrief of the secondary trauma my work gives me. I WILL do whatever I need to do to stay balanced, even if that means I’m not very involved in anything except keeping my head on straight and above water with my family and work. I WILL NOT take any kind of leadership role in anything that is not required. I WILL not spread myself thin as butter by being a “yes girl” and volunteering for things I feel no call to do whatsoever. I WILL say “no” and decline things that I just don’t have the emotional or physical energy for.  I WILL NOT force my kids into extracurricular activities when they have no interest. I WILL do something to nurture myself everyday even if that is something small like hiding in my office for 15 minutes to deep breathe and listen to some relaxing music with my door closed or watching a funny YouTube video with a coworker and a “do not disturb, session in progress” sign on my door.

You may be reading this and think you don’t have the “luxury” of self-care and coming up with a list of reasons why you must martyr yourself because your situation is different from mine. You can do that, but this is a marathon, not a sprint, honey. What good will you be to everyone when you end up in the hospital from a heart attack or a mental breakdown? I challenge you to make one small change, which may look completely different from my list of self-care stuff, to take better care of yourself. It could be something as simple as making sure to eat or taking a walk around the neighborhood or getting a cat to cuddle up with. It could be finding local respite care providers for your special needs child so that me-time IS possible. In my community, there are 3 churches and one special needs school that offer free respite care. Search or you won’t find. Ask other parents, therapists, or local mental heath/developmental disability service providers. Reach out to Parent2Parent for a list of local resources. It could be popping in your earbuds and listening to some uplifting music instead of the kids bickering while you cook dinner and fold the laundry.  Self-care isn’t meant to make you feel more pressure. It doesn’t have to be a schedule spa day or anything fancy. It is just anything that makes you feel BETTER.

I know this is a season and my challenge/test in this season is to stay in gratitude and “be the eye of the storm”. I accept the challenge and am thankful for this testing ground that is my life so that I can learn to cultivate peace and patience as I practice nurturing myself and others. One day, maybe the storm will blow over and I will find myself bored and floating on calm seas missing the chaos, but for now I must stay in the eye of the storm by cultivating gratitude and taking care of myself or get blown to bits.

Are you going through a season that demands you give your all? How are you taking care of yourself? Let’s wing it together as we work on being the eye of the storm with gratitude and peace this week alright?

God Is In the Weeds…and the Radio, Thrift Store Books, Trees…and Muck, Mess, and Shattered Glass

It makes no difference to me what you call it…I call it a lot of different things myself and I realize that none of my words, my labels are sufficient at all. Words just fail me. That’s the beauty and mystery of it. God. Great Spirit. Great Mystery. Great Weaver. The Universe. Abba. Divinity. Holy. That which cannot be explained. Supernatural. Awe. Wonder. Agape. Energy. Life Force. Creator. Healer. Lover. You are all of these and so much more to me. I tried to deny you based on logic and reason at one point, as any scientist “should” (but wait, aren’t we taught absence of evidence is not evidence of absence?) And yet, I feel you all around me in inexplicable ways. In the weeds, the radio, books that jump off shelves at me at the thrift store, a tree, my messy and crazy job, and thinking about babies….How does all this stuff connect? This is how it weaves together for me:

I feel you, hear you, see you in…

Thrift Stores. A book found me at the thrift store this week…I say it found me because it literally fell off the shelf as I walked by. It is called “My Grandfather’s Blessings” by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D. and although I am only half-way through, I feel God speaking to me through every story within the pages of this gift of a book that Rachel has blessed me, and all who care to read it. In it, I have found such pearls as this which I need to be reminded of as a counselor: “We do not serve the weak or broken. What we serve is the wholeness in each other and the wholeness in life. The part in you that I serve is the same part that is strengthened in me when I serve. Unlike helping and fixing and rescuing, service is mutual. There are many ways to serve and strengthen the life around us: through friendship or parenthood or work, by kindness, compassion, generosity, or acceptance. Through our philanthropy, our example, our encouragement, our active participation, our belief. No matter how we do this, our service will bless us. When we offer our blessings generously, the light in the world is strengthened, around us and in us. The Kabbalah speaks of our collective human task as Tikkun Olam; we sustain and restore the world.”  

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Sustaining and restoring…don’t we all need some more of that, on the personal, familial, societal, and environmental levels? Why is it so hard to love one another? Why must we get caught up in these us versus them battles that rage constant? What would happen if we all took on this collective task? What does it look like for me to take on my part of this task just for today?

For me, today it looked like getting up and trying to love on my family the best I can even though I’m not perfect and they aren’t either. It meant going to church, singing my heart out, and finding something beautiful in the sermon and loving the people there even though they aren’t perfect and I’m not either. It means tomorrow going to work at a shelter for women and children who are fleeing domestic violence or who have become homeless in other ways due to it.

Muck, Mess, Shattered Glass. My job isn’t glamorous and doesn’t award many accolades; it often stretches me to the edge physically, mentally, and spiritually, but it is my calling and it is one of the places where I feel God teaching me and breathing life into my spirit the most. There, my job is to show love, to offer guidance and encouragement, to not rescue or fix, but to serve the best I can in a woman’s empowerment and her children’s healing. Sometimes that looks like carrying a woman’s bags in as she and her children move in. Sometimes it looks like unloading a truck full of food to feed our residents until my back is aching but I force myself to be thankful for my strong back that will feel just fine tomorrow. Sometimes it’s holding and rocking a sick child and wiping their boogers or a child throwing up on me. At times, it has been wiping poop or dealing with overflowing toilets or being hit and scratched and cursed at by traumatized children…and learning to show love anyway. But other times, I am unexpectedly blessed with the giggles and smiles of children dancing in dress-up clothes holding my hands twirling around when the realization of how far they have come in the few months since they have moved in and how far I’ve come since I started this job 5 years ago comes to me like a light bulb coming on. I am a better mother, friend, daughter, wife, human because of this job. It has helped me find God and understand how to love in the ugliest, hardest situations. In the muck, the mess, and the shattered glass on the floor that I have to clean up. Trying to piece it back together into something new. Something beautiful and strong. Like God is doing with me and the women and children I am privileged to serve in this way.

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Trees. There is a tree in my yard that has fallen and we thought was dead, but somehow year after year remains alive. I walked down to the creek to see where the base of the tree was and how this thing was still alive at all. The base of the tree roots is hanging down into the creek. When it fell, the roots slid right into water. I relate to this tree. When my life was at its worst and I was free-falling, I somehow fell into living water. Into the divine. Into a spiritual journey that is still going and I pray never ends. Something awoke in me. And when I saw this tree, it too became a part of my awakening.

Songs on the radio. I have playlists of songs that speak to my heart and soul and make me feel different things. But, my favorite thing is getting in my car after work or just going about my day and hearing a song that makes time stop and my spirit connect with something important that somehow got lost in the day to day shuffle. It doesn’t matter who the artist is or what genre. This week it was Tracy Chapman and Adele reminding me of the deep love I have for my children and reminding me that is exactly how God feels about me.

God is in the weeds. I used to be a waitress and when we would be up to our eyeballs in customers and about to lose our sanity and tips, we would say “I’m in the weeds, help!” to each other. That is when someone would give us the most help and where a lot of friendships and alliances were made. In the hard times, we find out who will love us and help. We appreciate it all the more. We can see God’s love in those “in the weeds” moments when people help and when we help them.

I think God is also in garden weeds. Last week, I watched as two birds danced around my poke plants, eating the berries and thought “what if I had pulled it up? I wouldn’t have these two unusual and beautiful birds dancing around blissfully in my yard. I wonder what else would be missing if these birds weren’t here?” I felt a holy awe as I watched and gave thanks for the interconnected nature of life and for embracing the life of this “weed” many would just pull up and toss aside or spray RoundUp to prevent growing in the first place.

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Be still and know. Seek and you shall find. Perhaps we don’t even have to try that hard to find, but just be open to receive the awe and wonder that is all around and trying to get our attention…in the thrift store, in a book, in a song, in birds, trees, weeds, and so much more. 

Of Mourning, Dancing, and a Polka-Dot Dress

On a cold, grey December day in 2012, I said goodbye to one of my dearest friends. Friend isn’t even an adequate word. This friend had helped me through some of the worst seasons of my life and helped me find joy even in the months and years I wanted to literally run away from my life, my struggles that seemed never ending, and the pain I held in my heart as I forced a smile onto my face in daily life. It was an unconventional and unlikely friendship by all outward judgment, but it is one I cherish to this day. He: a deeply depressed and lonely person. Me: a young, frazzled mom feeling the weight of the world on my shoulders, having almost daily panic attacks while trying to attend to my children, go to school, and work a job. Somehow, our brokenness collided and somehow started a healing process for us both. With each other, we were both able to smile amidst the hand life had dealt us.

And then he started getting sick. First, just stomach aches. The stomach aches would come and go. Good days and bad days. I figured it was gallstones or something. He saw a doctor and they didn’t think it was anything serious, probably acid reflux. The medicine didn’t help. Then, things started to take a turn for the worst, then a nose dive for the worst. The doctor ordered some invasive medical tests. I took him to those appointments, sitting in the waiting room reading a book until it was time to go back and see him in the recovery area. The doctor tried to ascertain if I was his daughter or wife or what (“just a friend”) and we laughed a little about that when the anesthesia was still in effect. I helped him to my car and took him to get a Steak and Shake milkshake that sounded good to him. He couldn’t even drink more than 2 sips. I knew this was more than acid reflux. It got so bad that I took him back to his family doctor one day and went in with him to his appointment. With tears in my eyes, I said “please, this is serious, help him.” The doctor took a closer look and realized he was jaundiced and I saw a look of serious concern spread across her face. She ordered some blood tests and a full-body scan.

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He received the dreaded phone call about his results when I was on my way into work one day. Employers don’t look kindly towards “I need to take a month off to attend to my sick friend” so I had to trudge on taking care of him while having to go into work and perform while holding back my desire to curl up in a ball and cry. I received a text in a Kangaroo gas station parking lot that would change everything. “It’s not good, it’s cancer, it’s terminal.” Leaning on my steering wheel, I whimpered like a dog, barely able to catch my breath. I texted back, “You are not alone in this.” It was all I knew to say. His daughter bluntly asked me to just cut ties now unless I was in it until the end. Not a second thought, yes, I am in this. I don’t leave the ones I love in their time of need.

I still had to keep the rest of my life running as my friend was slowly and painfully dying. I couldn’t lose or quit my jobs. I couldn’t neglect my kids. It was really hard to explain to my children’s Daddy who was planning a wedding with me after we had finally reconciled why I was going to visit another man daily who was dying, but somehow he understood the best anyone could under the circumstances.

Then, that December day came when we said our last goodbyes.  I got some sort of closure. I sat in the 3rd row of the chapel during his memorial service silently shaking and weeping in a black dress with frills and tiny white polka dots. A close friend of mine who had lost touch with me for a year or so due to her own difficult life circumstances and issues really came through for me that day. She simply sat beside me so that I wouldn’t be alone in that pew. She held my hand and anchored me when I felt like I was going to pass out. She understood the gravity of the situation because she was one of the only people I have ever been able to tell everything to. We have gone through some difficult things since then, but that day (and others) will forever anchor me to her, no matter what.

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Psalm 30:11 (ISV) says: “You have turned my mourning into dancing; you took off my sackcloth and clothed me with a garment of joy.” During my period of mourning, I had read this verse and felt a mixture of impossibility and hope. Although I have always loved to dance, I didn’t dance for a year. I didn’t feel music in my body, I didn’t feel anything except a crushed heart for many months. Most people didn’t realize what I was going through, and thus didn’t offer support because this was not my spouse, my child, my parent, etc. It was admittedly an odd friendship. I learned there is a name for this kind of grief: disenfranchised grief .  I realized it was up to me to do this grief thing more or less on my own. I started seeing a counselor. I had started going to yoga classes before he passed away as a way to cope with the anxiety and panic attacks I was having. I continued this and found myself crying silently in class as yoga helps release deep emotions. Yoga was a huge part of my grief journey. It helped me re-connect to my body and my numb or conversely chaotic emotions. I prayed, I read stories of grief and mourning. The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman spoke to me on a deep level, although it is not necessarily a grief oriented book. The characters all experienced losses and had to go on heroically. I feel that it is important to share what helped me during the grief process. It is an active process and not a passive one waiting to one day be ok.

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Fast-forward to 2015. I am usually so busy with work, kids, home, etc. that I don’t go out much if at all. I just try to keep my head above water on any given day juggling all my responsibilities. I had made a new friend whose kindness and genuine Christ-like love for others still has me a bit in awe. He gifted my now-husband and me two tickets to a charity gala. My husband and I went to the gala and in a series of unfortunate wardrobe events, the dress I had planned on wearing didn’t work out. We were late to the event, so I just grabbed the first thing in my closet that would work without thought. It was the black frilly dress with tiny white polka dots on it that I had worn to my friend’s funeral. I didn’t even think about it at the time. I just threw it on, grabbed my high heels and ran to the car. We were bickering on the car ride over to the country club about some matter of no importance. So, when we arrived, we both grabbed a glass of wine immediately. I seldom drink, so when I allowed a couple more glasses to find their way into my hand, I am not even going to lie. I was drunk. Then the music was crunk. And before I knew it there I was dancing in my seat then up on the dance floor doing the Cupid Shuffle then dancing to “Que Linda Back It Up” and my dancing was hearkening back to days of yore when I would shake it like a Polaroid picture and drop it like its hot on a regular basis. My husband isn’t the dancing kind, so he just sat mortified, amused, or perhaps jealous at the table drinking another glass of wine….it was pretty hilarious but also the source of some bickering on the way home about why my kind of dancing isn’t appropriate for public viewing. That was fine though. It was worth it. The next morning I woke up and realized that I had worn my FUNERAL DRESS to the gala and my MOURNING had literally been turned into DANCING and JOY.

Sometimes I still feel a wave of grief welling up in my heart and I let it wash over me. It comes and it goes. No point fighting it. Just like an ocean wave, you just ride it out. If you fight the rip tide, you will lose. But if you surrender, you will come out the other side. But, I smile at the fact that even this one time I was able to dance and rejoice. I also now understand why wine is a prominent feature in the Bible.

I’m still winging it through this grief and dancing and joy thing….do you relate to my story? Leave a comment with some advice or your experiences and let’s wing it together.

“What Is RIGHT With You?”

What’s RIGHT with you?  In my experience as a counselor, that is one of the most important and powerful questions we can ask our clients and ourselves. How many of us have heard in our childhoods and even adult lives from various people, “What’s wrong with you?” Bullies and even well-meaning people in our lives often point out all that is weak or not quite right.

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When I was still in graduate school, I co-facilitated a group for female college students. I could write a novel on all that this group taught me, but one particular moment turned on a huge flashing neon light-bulb in my mind. I listened to a young woman talk about herself in nothing but negative terms. All her psychological diagnoses, her family’s problems, etc. She had no problem letting all of her ugly be known. She was rude, excessively sarcastic, and nasty to the other people in the group. She clearly felt repulsive and wanted to preemptively push others away. No one needed a degree to see that. I could have become all caught up in trying to diagnose her and figure out interventions to directly confront all of the ugly behaviors and thoughts. But, instead, I thought, “she does this all day long, what she does in her mind is focus on the ugly and the brokenness and push people away. I won’t become complicit in that.” So, I said to her, “What is right about you?  I have a feeling you don’t spend much time thinking about those things by the way I am hearing you describe yourself in nothing but negatives, but there has to be something good or strong about you.” She got really quiet and I could see tears in her eyes. I could tell I had taken the right approach because it got underneath her “I’m just ugly and broken” defenses. She would have LOVED for me to “confront” her issues, hold her “accountable”, tell her just how nasty she was, etc. but I just refused to go along with that. That wouldn’t have been therapeutic for her. I wonder now, years later if she’s still embracing the ugly or if she has grown into her strengths.

I once heard an analogy that goes like this: within each person is a seed that naturally wants to grow. All of the problems, shame, weaknesses, and diagnoses are piled so high on top of that poor little seed that someone needs to gently pull back the 6 feet of dirt a bit so the seed can sense that there is light to push toward and then do its work of pushing up toward the light. As a counselor, I don’t make the client grow, they do that themselves. I just pull back the excessive dirt (we all need some dirt aka challenges and resistance in order to grow after all), I’ll add some water and fertilizer (encouragement) and remind them that they still have the capacity to grow, that there is still light up there somewhere to reach towards.

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Most (although not all) clients are well aware that they are all kinds of jacked up. Isn’t brokenness and imperfection the hallmark of the human experience after all? Who among us is perfect? Thank goodness we don’t have to be perfect to thrive. All around the world there are people who are thriving and happy in spite and even because of their brokenness and limitations. In my experience thus far, the problem is that many people get stuck in negative feedback loops to the point that they aren’t even sure anymore if they are something other than just depression, addiction, crippling anxiety, self-destruction, shame, chronic illness, unending grief, stress, the traumatic thing that happened to them, a failure at relationships, someone who has given up on life, etc.

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I believe most people who come to counseling willingly (not court-mandated or DFCS-mandated clients, because that is a whole different animal right there) need to be reacquainted with their strengths. They can leverage these strengths to overcome their dysfunctions and thrive in spite of their diagnoses.

How does a counselor help a client identify what is right about them? It is important to start with communicating verbally and non-verbally to clients the desire to truly understand them and their lives as well as the desire to help them heal and create the life they want to live. I cannot identify a clients strengths or even true problems if I don’t first take the time to understand and empathize with that client(s). It can take weeks for someone to fully tell their story. I just keep asking questions. I pay attention to the way they tell their story, talk about themselves and others, the patterns, the themes, the major players, etc. I watch my tone of voice and my body language. I never want to communicate harshness, judgment, sarcasm, or frustration. I cannot help someone at all if I do not attempt to understand them and care about them as a fellow human being just trying to do the best they currently know how to do.

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In listening to someone’s story, sometimes I realize that the client has hyper-focused on weaknesses to the point of forgetting they have strengths at all. But the fact is, everyone has strengths. Every single person on the planet. It doesn’t matter if you can’t read or write, if you are homeless, a drug addict, or if you have a disability that makes life extremely challenging. You still have strengths somewhere in there. You still have abilities even amidst the disabilities. Even when we feel like “I can’t do this”, we can look back and realize we have been doing life thus far and must at least have some level of courage to keep going.

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Perhaps you might think this focus on strength and what is “right” with someone is naive or simplistic. I can only tell you that I have seen from experience the power in being intentional about modeling for clients the ability to practice self-compassion and compassion for others, trying to understand themselves, and focusing on their strengths rather than just getting stuck on pathology or limitations. I couldn’t be a counselor if I didn’t believe that within each person exists the possibility for healing, change, and empowerment. So I ask, what is right with you? Let’s keep asking that of ourselves and of others and we wing it together. 

When Taking a Sabbatical Isn’t An Option: Inside My Life as a Working Mom and Special-Needs Parent

“You’re 5 minutes late again, Jen. Is everything alright?” my former boss questioned me…again. I wanted to be honest. I wanted to tell the truth, but the truth was that my son’s autism wasn’t going to go away, I still had to keep this job, and it wasn’t my boss’s problem. It wasn’t something someone who isn’t the parent of a child with special needs will ever understand on any level anyway. I’m sure my boss assumed I was just having trouble with “time management” or taking too much time getting a latte (which I couldn’t even afford) when the truth was and is that I have trouble with “life management.” If I didn’t HAVE to work to keep a stable home, the lights on, the water running, food in the pantry, clothes on my kids backs and shoes on their feet, I wouldn’t. I would have taken at least a season off. I would have at the very least taken the season off from work when I had a newborn and was driving 2 hours to Atlanta for testing and therapies for my 3-year-old son who was being diagnosed with autism.

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This was the season when my heart was breaking and I would collapse in tears on my pillow every night after completing yet another 10 pages of paperwork fighting to get him the early intervention services that I was told would make or break his future functioning (no pressure or anything lol)  that I couldn’t afford on my own. It was the season when I kept my make-up bag in the car so that I could put my make-up on when I pulled into the parking lot at work so that no one would notice (hopefully) my red, puffy eyes from crying on the drive into work when my son had yet another meltdown when I had to drop him off at his special-needs preschool. Thank God we even have a special needs preschool in my town so that I could put him in daycare. He couldn’t function at a typical daycare center. It was the season of covering up his claw marks on my arms with long sweaters some weeks. It was the season where he gave my mom a black eye from flailing around during a meltdown. It was the season when I was not only working, but trying to finish my Master’s degree so that I would be able to work part-time and actually make a living wage. I knew working full-time would never work for me and my son’s needs. Someone has to take him to therapy appts twice per week, he cannot stay in a typical after school care program (he can barely hold it together behaviorally during the school day), and I knew that I would not be able to have the patience and energy to deal with his challenges if I was drained from a 40+ hr work week. So, I worked 30 hrs per week while I attended graduate school full-time. It nearly killed me. I wasn’t the best, most patient mom during this time. But this was the only way I saw to make it to a sustainable lifestyle. I did survive by the grace of God and threw myself over that finish line, walked the stage and got my Master’s in Clinical Counseling Psychology.  I collapsed in bed with a migraine that lasted for a month after graduating. Thank God I had enough money from student loans to take one month off to try and heal my body and mind.

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Thank God, after an exhaustive job search, I was offered the first job that didn’t require a long commute giving community awareness presentations and working with women and children who have experienced trauma in my town. I am still there today because I find my work fulfilling, but also because it is a family-friendly workplace where I get some limited benefits and a stable, predictable salary. I feel like my bosses care about me and I could tell them if I needed to take time off for my son. I make a decent enough living and work outside the home only 20 hrs per week. I supplement my income teaching online college classes here and there. It’s not enough to have a savings account, take vacations, or feel “set,” but I know I won’t be in danger of being homeless or unable to meet my children’s basic needs.

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I often felt like if I could just be a stay-at-home mom, then maybe I wouldn’t feel like a basket case all the time. There is nothing worse that having people look at you with that, “is she alright?” look at work. No, I’m not alright. I struggle every single day. My child requires more from me than typical children do. He has had sleep issues (thank God finally resolved with natural supplements, but he didn’t sleep through the night for 6 years), he requires a strict routine and I can’t just make him run to the grocery store with me because I forgot the ketchup and he’s demanding ketchup. I have to keep him on an even keel by making sure he has time for relaxation, to sit on the potty at the scheduled time, to go to his therapy appointments. He requires so much love and patience. He has taught me so much love and patience. Did I mention I also have another child 2.5 years younger than him? I have to deal with the challenges of a sibling who is frustrated with his brother’s special needs. I mediate fights and try to understand both their viewpoints. Putting on my game face for work and acting “put together” and “professional” isn’t easy. I don’t have time to accessorize or do my hair, so its usually in a messy bun. I could be having an full on panic attack and you wouldn’t even notice because I have trained my mind and body to just sit there and ride it out, knowing it will end at some point. Anxiety is a liar I don’t have time to listen to. I used to feel like a big, fat phony. Now, just feel strong. I survive my challenges and my life everyday.

I’m a warrior, I soldier on for my son every day. I don’t completely unload my whole story and all my struggles on my co-workers, but I’m honest enough about the fact that I have struggles and I know what its like to be past your breaking point and still soldiering on because that’s what we good mamas do for our kids.  I think that makes me a better counselor, especially for other parents who have special needs children or have trouble finding ways to balance all of the demands of life. It doesn’t make it easy. I invest some money each month on self-care so that I don’t end up in the mental ward or dead from a heart attack. I have to take care of myself or where will that leave my kids? Without a functional mama. So, I do yoga, I pray, I listen to music, I journal, I get acupuncture when I can afford it, I get cheap massages from the local massage school, I garden and run around with my kids in the yard. I thank God I have a home and a yard.

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Sometimes, now I think that working has been good for me. Not having the option to stay home means that I have always had to pull my $#@# together every day, even if I don’t think I can or I don’t want to. I don’t have the option to sink into alcoholism, addictions, self-pity or depression. I have to “just keep swimming, just keep swimming” and that keeps me from sinking down deep. I can’t sink or my kids will sink with me and they don’t deserve that. They deserve my all, my best. I refuse to fail them as long as there is breath in my lungs and my hands are able to work. Work demands my all, my best as well. So I have to find ways to be my best me, to cope effectively. Yes, my ultimate daydream is to be a kept woman, but knowing that is about as unlikely as a winning lotto ticket, I just keep going. I cry, I scream and pound the steering wheel of my car when I’m alone in the car sometimes, I call my mom or my best friend and get out my “its not fair, this sucks” moments. I listen to songs that make me feel like God has me and I’m strong like:

You might be thinking I’m a single mom as you read this. I’m not. Times are just tough and they always have been. My husband has always tried his best, but he has had some tough stuff to deal with too, like lay-offs and being unable to finish school due to caring for his sick father and trying to support their family when he was only 19. Now, he has health issues himself. He works hard, but without a college degree or hulk-like physical strength to do manual labor in a 105 degree factory all day, he has never been able to fully take care of our family’s financial needs by himself. I know it breaks his heart and his pride watching me struggle. We live frugally. We have a tiny house, used cars, thrift store clothes, discount shoes. We are not snobs, but I refuse to live in the projects where I can’t sleep in peace at night. I need a car to get my son to his appts. My son requires a lot of vitamin and mineral supplements to help his behavior, sleep, and stomach issues. My son’s therapies require co-pays. I have had to buy things to help him learn and communicate better like an iPad. There are so many extra costs that come with his needs. It is what it is. But he is worth it. And I will do my best. Thankfully we have extended family support if the car breaks down or the pipes burst. That support for emergency needs is more than many struggling families have. hope

This is my life. It is raw and honest. I would be lying if I said I didn’t ask God, “why?” sometimes. But usually the still small voice in my heart just reminds me that I am strong and I can learn. If God only gives us what we can handle, apparently I’m just a bad-ass.

But on a serious note, I give thanks that all of my prayers for my son have been answered. I have prayed over him every single night with tears flowing. He is thriving in spite of his challenges. He speaks (not only speaks, but articulately and with a beautiful vocabulary) and he has not had a meltdown in 3-4 years. He has friends, loving teachers, an accepting church family, and kind therapists. He finally started sleeping well and using the potty. He still needs peace and calm in his daily life. He still can’t go to the after school program, but that’s ok. We are making it. He is making it. Living on the love of God and family, we just keep winging it. Giving up is not an option. We will wing it together.

I’m Sorry You’re So Much Like Me, Son.

Oh my youngest son…how I treasure our similarities. How I delight in your dimples, swell with maternal pride at your heart that seeks to comfort anyone you see who is hurting, stand in awe of the way you plop down on a dirty old couch and fist bump a stranger who looks so different from you without a second thought under the graffiti-ed bridge when we go serve meals to the homeless outdoors, thank God for your analytical mind that goes round and round trying to figure out the mysteries of the universe, laugh at how you insist on acting at least 4 years older than you are and how you cry because you are only 7-years-old and the teenage girls you swoon over don’t think about you in “that” way and won’t give you the time of day.  Bless your precious heart my sweet baby. I love you so. Even your rebelliousness, stubborn never-back-down resolve, and your love of using curse words (in context and scholarly used for the added emphasis and emotion of course) make me throw my head back with laughter. You are my mini-me on the inside and your Grand-daddy on the outside. While you look like him, your mind and heart are carbon copies of mine.

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As much as I love these things about you, I know you are in for a rough ride at least until you are 30 and muster the courage to shamelessly embrace your heart and your gifts. You will experience more intense highs and lows in life based on my experience living as a highly sensitive, intensely emotional, empathic, yet mischievous warrior for love. When you lose someone you love for the first time, I will know that you just need me to lay there with you and rub your back as you cry for hours on end. I will put on some soothing music or a movie for us. I will never, ever tell you not to cry or to toughen up. I don’t want you hardened or cold. I want you just as you are. I will do my best to help you see that who you are is a gift to this world and you don’t let the cold logic and sarcasm of this world make you feel less than. At some point, I hope you realize that some people are just piss and vinegar and you are nectar and ambrosia. Screw em. Let em have their piss and vinegar. It’s always ok to say “that one’s just not for me” when it comes to people, ideologies, food, etc. I hope you don’t judge others for their choices, but always feel free to say “nah, that’s not for me” when it doesn’t feel right.

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I hope you see in the way I live my life that in my 30 years I have found some things that help keep me joyful and at peace. You know mama needs her yoga and her time with Jesus. Other things that help me and might help you as you climb this mountain called life include focusing on what I can control and letting go of what I can’t (for instance, I can’t control someone being rude and critical, but I can sure as hell control whether I hang out with that person or not), breathing deeply while thinking of all I have to be thankful for in life,  keeping negative people at a nice distance, understanding the importance of boundaries and honesty, hanging out with people older than myself, taking good care of myself so that I can take care of others, yoga, prayer, singing, reading my Bible, reading books on all kinds of spiritual philosophies and traditions, taking some quiet time to feel the beauty and wisdom of nature, and helping others. If you want to get yourself out of a funk, just go out in the world and be nice to somebody. Give a waitress a great tip. Give hugs and kind words liberally. Go bring those homeless people under the bridge some good food and encouragement. Its hard to feel bad for yourself or weighed down by the cruelty in the world when you are being the love the world needs more of.

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And as far as older women…honey, one day those older ladies will start to notice you…a lot…and you will have the time of your life as you bypass the immaturity and insecurity for wisdom and experience. It will work out. But, it may take some patience. In the mean time, you know your mama is going to teach you everything I can about being a respectful, romantic man. You can ask me anything and you know mama’s gonna give it to you straight.

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My goal is for you to be happy, loving, and make this world a better place than before you came into it. That’s it. My job is to show you the ropes and help you spread those wings to fly. Don’t forget that we are ALL just winging it through life. You aren’t the only one, baby. You’re gonna be alright. Because we’ll wing it together…always.