Category Archives: coping

Sink Deep, Rise Victorious after Loss

Grief is a universal experience. Every person will at some point in his or her life experience loss in some form. The only way to stay safe from loss is to never love, never care, never attach. The amount of grief we feel tends to correlate to the amount of love we have for a person, pet, job, situation, etc. As a counselor, I advise my clients to let themselves make space for grief and mourning rather than trying to be “fine” and shoving the grief down, drying up the tears, and getting on with life too quickly. In many cultures, mourning is a sacred time set aside for weeks so that a person is allowed to cry, wail, be surrounded by loved ones who do nothing other than “be” with them witnessing this pain and offering kindness (not advice). Being able to sink deeply into grief and truly mourn enables a person to rise more quickly in a state of emotional freedom in which they can feel joy again rather than numbness. Putting off mourning, trying “get it together” and act “fine” by going back to work and regular life duties too quickly only prolongs the healing process. Sometimes we try to “speed up” the grieving process because we are uncomfortable or even terrified of the sinking- the feeling out being out of control, of emotional pain so severe it is hard to breathe, the fear that if we sink we will never rise again. Other times we try to speed this process up because we are of a practical mindset and feel that there is no time to be “in the feels” and we have things to get done. However, grief always finds its way to force us to experience it one way or another. Sometimes, in maladaptive, negative ways such as drinking too much, workaholism, an affair, emotional numbing, disconnecting from loved ones, etc.

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Recently, I experienced a miscarriage. I had gotten my hopes up after an early ultrasound that showed a strong heartbeat and baby growing on target. My blood work was perfect. Everything was in line. Post-miscarriage pathology testing revealed no genetic abnormalities. I was left with no explanation other than simply it must have been God’s will for me not to have this baby right now. I know God loves me and isn’t a magic genie there to just give me all my wishes and make life peachy. I believe that God uses life as a testing ground to teach us the lessons we need to learn to evolve spiritually. Unpleasant experiences teach us things we would not learn from happy times. I can accept what happened and want to ask what I can learn from this rather than “why me”, but I still needed time to grieve as my body endured the physical and emotional suffering for days on end of the miscarriage process at home. For a moment, when I got the news that morning that the baby had no heartbeat and a miscarriage would start soon, I actually considered going into work that night and not telling anyone. I am that much of a workaholic. I had to use my counselor voice on myself and say “Jen that is nuts! Go home!” so I made the radical move of taking a full week and half off from work. Thankfully, I have PDO saved up and could do this. Just FYI, if anyone has to go through this horrible experience I would highly suggest you ask your doctor for pain pills, take the week off from work, get childcare for your kids, make sure you have plenty of Gatorade or electrolyte drinks in the house (hydration will keep you from dying or having to go to the hospital), prepare your mind with prayer and wise counsel (thank you Angela for helping me when I was in spiritual warfare by reminding me of the truth) and plan to settle in for a hellacious ride. I have given birth to two full-term babies with no pain meds at home with a midwife. This was worse simply because the pain was for absolutely nothing. There would be no baby at the end. There was no finish line, only empty arms. If you have never given birth naturally before, it is probably less emotionally and physically traumatic for you if you just schedule a D&C procedure at the hospital. Doing it naturally isn’t something for the faint of heart. It took 5 days for everything to be over.

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But, through this experience I realized this was the first time in my life that I have ALLOWED myself the chance to SINK DEEP and truly MOURN. I remember when one of my best friends was dying of cancer, I only took one day off from work. When he passed, I didn’t take off any time to mourn. I never told many people what I was going through. I just kept soldiering on. And I fell into a depression for about a year. No one knew because I just soldiered on being “productive” while feeling barely able to do so. But, this time I would not make this mistake. I would sink and I would rise. I cried until my eyes were almost swollen shut. I lived on the couch wrapped up in comfy blankets for a week. My church brought meals and my Mom kept my boys for a few of the worst days. My husband made sure I wasn’t passing out from blood loss and was eating. But then….it was over. As if I had “cried it out” and truly felt an emotional release of all the pain. I went back to work the next Monday feeling JOYFUL and grateful to be back to being able to help people and shocked at how good I felt. I wasn’t soldiering on depressed and dying inside. I was ALIVE. I had done my work. I had processed my grief because I allowed myself the time to truly “ugly mourn” the kind that many people avoid doing. It requires courage to sink deep. It requires knowing you will come back up eventually and for me, it requires knowing God is there with me in the sinking and in the rising. I feel closure and peace and it hasn’t even been a full month. Sure, I still have moments (usually when I’m alone driving in the car listening to music) that I feel pangs of sadness or “what if?” but they don’t take my breath away and I let them come and let them go like the ocean tide comes and goes. There is nothing to stuff down or soldier through. Only an allowing, a coming and knowing it will eventually go out too.

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Grief isn’t something we talk about much in our society and most of us just wing it the best we can. But those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. Isaiah 40:31  May you sink and then rise soaring on wings like eagles as the Lord renews your strength.

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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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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?

“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. 

Kids? Chaos? Just Dance!

For years in graduate school studying counseling I learned about various therapeutic interventions as well as building a helping relationship with clients in a classroom sitting down with calm and insightful adults.  During my internship, I worked with clients who were generally calm adults and kids who were usually happy to play therapeutic games, draw, play doll house or sand tray, or puppets. Then…oh then….I started working in the field of domestic violence with traumatized children and their mothers. child-abuse-statistics-overcoming This can be a challenging group to work with. These kids are experiencing major changes and transitions in their lives. They may have recently moved, started a new school, may be aware that Dad is in jail or that their parents are getting a divorce. Many have witnessed the abuse or have even been abused themselves in some way. There is just SO MUCH going on all at one time. Kids, being the little sponges they are, soak up the behavior they see modeled around them in the home. They often act like little mirrors, reflecting the chaos that is taking place or has taken place in their homes. They often mimic behaviors the abuser had such as throwing things, cursing, hitting, name calling, blaming others for problems they caused, and expecting everyone to cater to their “might makes right” attitude. These behaviors can be difficult to handle in a group setting when you have 10-15 kids all acting out their pain, trauma, and negative learned behaviors.

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Traditional therapeutic activities and interventions work with some kids or groups of kids, but sometimes you get the “perfect storm” of personalities, trauma histories, and then mix in a little ADHD or other disorders and the nice activity we had planned for the group therapy session just has to go straight out the window. I cannot be rigid in my approach. If I am rigid, I will fail these kids. I must go with the flow or, like trying to stand still in a rushing white water river, I will be taken under. I have to ride the waves. We have to be flexible and constantly asking “what does this group of kids need right now in this moment?” danceon A while back, I had a “perfect storm” situation in my group. The plan had been for the kids to work on a puppet show about families and then to do some crafts with clay. It became very clear that there was so much kinetic energy, anger, and frustration in these kids that chaos was building. The puppets were being thrown and used to hit each other rather than to do the puppet show. Kids were upset at each other for taking each other’s puppets. The clay was being broken into pieces and thrown. Redirection and other techniques  weren’t working. Normally, this would be my cue to take everyone outside for some recreation therapy. But, of course, it was raining. So, dance party it was! I turned on the CD player. A child had thrown it and broken the top. It wouldn’t read the Disney movie songs CD. Improvising yet again, I turned the radio on to a station I was pretty sure wouldn’t have any inappropriate music and thankfully it worked. One child volunteered to be the “DJ” and turn the music off periodically so we could play “Freeze Dance.” Sounds good to me! So all of the kids put on costumes from the dress up center and even gave me a cape to wear so that I could be Little Red Riding Hood as I danced. They all cleaned up the toys to clear the “dance floor” (a sheer miracle since just minutes earlier toys were flying around hitting me in the head and everyone was refusing to clean). Then…we danced! For an hour! Smiles, laughter, giggles, kids who were previously at each other’s throats holding hands to spin each other or try a little bit of the swing dance moves I showed them. One child who would usually shy away and look sad was all smiles and laughter. Time seemed to stand still and I realized this was exactly what she needed. My heart swelled as I danced my heart out with her.

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Then the mamas came to pick up the kids from group and they all smiled and erupted in laughter watching me and my assistant dancing with the children and everyone giggling and smiling. It was a teaching moment for them as well. I said “yes, anytime the kids are crawling the walls with energy and you can’t take them outside to run, just do a dance party in the house with them!” Everyone left smiling and happy. The moms were grateful that the kids had gotten some energy out after being cooped up for so many rainy days. “Freeze dance” or “dance party” was not in any textbook of therapeutic interventions that I can recall reading in grad school. However, this is what these kids (and I) needed in that moment of chaos. They needed a physical outlet to release the inner chaos and they needed the feel good brain chemicals that dancing and music releases to help calm their traumatized nervous systems. Sometimes, instead of fighting the chaos directly by trying to get the kids to sit down and follow our plan, we just have to allow that chaos to erupt and channel it in a positive direction. We can try to build a dam to shut it down and keep it pent up or we can get in our kayaks and ride the rapids with them while laughing.

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Whether it is parenting or counseling or just living life, winging it is all about flexibility, being willing to learn by trial and error, letting go of our picture perfect plans for new plans, and enjoying the adventure amidst all the chaos. Let go. Don’t fight the chaos. Jump in it and dance. Let me know how it goes.