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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Thanks to my husband’s passion for gardening, I’ve started playing in the dirt again myself. The first lesson I learned is that gardening is really a metaphor for all life. If a plant is in unsuitable soil, it won’t thrive. If a plant’s roots aren’t doing well, it won’t produce healthy leaves or anything edible. Also, every plant species is unique. Some can thrive in pretty crappy soil and extreme temperatures, while others are more delicate and die off unless they are in lovely, nutrient rich soil and kept at certain temperatures. It is important to figure out what the root issues are when you have a plant that isn’t thriving. Get the soil tested, look for bugs, fungus and the like, supplement the soil if it is depleted, make row covers or hoop houses to protect from extreme temperatures, etc. With plants, we don’t just slap a band-aid and some Miracle-Grow on the withered leaves and call it good enough, we figure out what is really going on or call that plant a total loss.
Why then do we treat our bodies and the bodies of our children worse than we do our plants? In our society when we have a physical or mental health crisis, we just go to the doctor who gives us a few medications or offers to cut us open and we change nothing else because this is our paradigm and we don’t know what else to do. It has even gotten to the point that doctors are flabbergasted when I tell them my son isn’t on any medications for his autism. “But he is doing so well….” and then they ask if I want meds (bangs head on desk, you just said how well he is doing, no I don’t want any free samples thanks). Doctors don’t typically ask about our “soil” or the environment we are in. When was the last time your doctor asked you if you hated your job or if your husband was abusing you or how your daily nutrition/exercise regimen was going? We are just given pills (sometimes pills we don’t need or pills that have worse side effects than the issues we had) and we go on as usual. Ain’t nobody really got time for real health in managed care. But, if we really want to be healthy, we might have to look at our environment, our lifestyle, our habits, our nutrition, our priorities, and realize that just because something is covered by insurance doesn’t necessarily mean its a long-term health bargain. While modern medicine certainly has its place, particularly in treating congenital malformations and acute health crises (infections and traumatic injuries), chronic illness tends to be better served by figuring out what is at the root of it. Perhaps it is something that can be helped by surgery or medication, but what if there was another way to treat and truly heal many common chronic conditions? What if there was a way to heal and improve conditions that doctors just don’t know the cause of or how to heal?
This is my experience of trying that other way, a more holistic way. How in the world did I stumble upon all of this? I got started down the holistic health journey when I took the first job I could find to get out of a really bad work environment which was causing me anxiety and depression. The first job I found happened to be as a receptionist at a local naturopath’s office inside a healing arts spa where I was introduced to all sorts of funky and amazing things that I had never experienced before such as essential oils, probiotics, drinking lots of water with mineral drops and fruit in it, massage, detoxification, nutrition, naturopathy, yoga, and so much more. Not only did my anxiety and depression go away within a week or so of leaving the toxic work environment and coming into this positive environment, it just so happened that a few months after I started this job, my oldest son was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. He wasn’t talking at 3 years old…at all. He was having intense behavioral problems that broke my heart daily. He had to go to a special needs school because typical daycares couldn’t handle his behavior. I was told there was nothing to do but put him in therapies like speech therapy, occupational therapy and physical therapy and try medications to control his behavior. I was told my son probably wouldn’t ever talk and would become even harder to handle as he got bigger and stronger. I was terrified and so sad it was physically painful.
We did the therapies, I prayed so much. I just couldn’t put my baby on powerful psych meds. I don’t judge you if that is the route you chose to go, but personally it is unacceptable to me to put my 3-year-old son on powerful, psychotropic medications (with all of their side effects and serious warnings) which are not approved by the FDA or the American Academy of Pediatrics for use in children under the age of 6. Research (much less longitudinal studies) on the use of psychotropic medications in preschool age children is seriously lacking. What if these drugs made my poor baby’s brain worse? What if his sleep and eating got worse? Sure, psychiatrists and even some pediatricians use these drugs on young children “off label” saying the benefits outweigh the risks in some cases, but I say that we parents have no idea what the real risks even are without adequate peer-reviewed research and longitudinal studies to determine if these medications actually have positive long-term outcomes or if they cause long-term health problems, brain damage, or even addiction.
So that said, in my desperation as a mother, I decided to have the naturopath test my son for nutritional deficiencies, heavy metals, etc. and give me gentle nutritional remedies for my son’s sleep issues, stomach issues, and agitation. My son ended up testing for a B vitamin and magnesium deficiency. We also added cod liver oil (rich in brain-building, focus increasing omega-3 fatty acids), probiotics and bovine colostrum (for healing gut issues) to his daily protocol. Our whole family started taking Juice Plus+ gummies (which are a blend of the juice and pulp from 17 fruits and veggies) because he was such a picky eater at that time. I started giving him nightly massages with lavender infused olive oil and giving him plenty of time in the bath to relax his hyperactive sensory system. We did horse-assisted OT and ST. He had PT and went 3 days per week to the early-intervention preschool program. We learned about the Son-rise program (check it out on Youtube for free). We kept him on a balanced routine of peer interaction and time to rest at home. We love him and try our best to treat him with kindness and respect.
The results were nothing short of MIRACULOUS! He started talking, he started sleeping better, his stomach issues went away, he started eating more foods, his meltdowns decreased dramatically, and now at age 10 he is still psych med free and is THRIVING. He is communicating and reading on or above age level. He hasn’t had a single meltdown in years. His personality is funny, empathetic, and kind. He actually has fewer behavioral problems than most typical children. He sleeps from 9pm-6am every night. He talks non-stop and is currently going on and on about GhostBusters and the Brutus the Dog show he wants to make when he grows up. He went from severe, non-verbal autism that prevented us from going out to eat, to church, to the movies, etc. as a family to just a quirky, happy little guy who loves to go out and about anywhere our family decides to go. Sure, he still flaps his hands and jumps a lot when he is excited about something. He still needs a stable, predictable daily routine. However, his quality of life has so dramatically improved that I no longer feel any sadness or worry about his future. I no longer suffer from extreme sleep deprivation and exhaustion. I know he will be ok and finally I am ok.
What is more, my youngest son started developing “tics” such as rapid eye blinking, throat clearing, shoulder shrugging, etc. after a bout of strep throat last year. The tics kept getting worse. I took him to our naturopath and he suggested magnesium cream to calm the nervous system, probiotics, and immune-boosting herbs in case there was a lingering sub-clinical viral or bacterial infection. My son’s symptoms improved, but lingered. Then, because I had so much success with acupuncture curing my migraines and anxiety, I took him to have acupuncture done. He has been “tic-free” ever since that session months ago!
My own health has dramatically improved ever since I started to understand that in order to experience real health, you must look for and treat the root causes of imbalances and health problems. It all started with getting out of the “bad soil”, the bad environment of a hostile and abusive work environment. What if I had just stayed there and popped some depression and anxiety pills to keep on truckin’? I wouldn’t be the happy, healthy person I am today. My kids wouldn’t have had a mother who could help them improve their own health. I think of people who are stuck in bad marriages, bad jobs, or self-sabotaging habits and thought patterns and my heart breaks because no amount of pills will be a true cure until they find a way out of toxic soil. You know the saying that before you diagnose yourself with depression, make sure you aren’t just surrounded by a-holes? It’s true. Creating a positive, healthy environment at work, home, etc. is a great starting goal when working towards physical and mental health. It’s ok to take a chance on making a change. Even though it was scary, I will always be thankful that I took the first job I could find in order to get out of a bad environment. I am also thankful that I didn’t just accept having chronic migraines and trigeminal neuralgia and accept all of the pain medications the MDs wanted to give me. I tried acupuncture and Traditional Chinese herbs and have not had a migraine or nerve pain in 4 years now! I take no meds daily either.
I thank God for our family’s good health and for leading me to stumble upon this passion for holistic health that doesn’t just pop pills to cover the symptoms but finds the root cause, treats it with nutrition, herbs, acupuncture, exercise, yoga, avoiding toxic chemicals such as MSG, lab-made dyes, and toxic beauty and cleaning products.
I am often told that holistic health is “just too expensive” or “out of my price range” and to that I can only respond with my personal experience. I have never been rich, a kept woman, and I’ve never even had more than a thousand dollars in the bank at one time. I made about $1200 per month when I first started on this journey and would use one of my paychecks per month on the supplements and treatments my children and myself needed. I have found ways to prioritize the things I need for my health and my children’s health by cutting costs elsewhere. No, we don’t need a new game, gadget, clothes, beer or to go out to a movie. I do need to buy $50 of magnesium, cod liver oil, B vitamins, probiotics, and some lavender oil this month for my sons. I will also spend $50 on our family of four’s Juice Plus+ monthly order. So, $100 per month on supplements. Not free, but do-able if I prioritize. Sure, I could pay $0 for some psych meds for my son thanks to insurance, but that may not be a bargain if they are just zombifying him temporarily and stunting the growth of his brain and body long-term, creating more problems that I will eventually have to face with his behavior and health. Even though it means working some extra hours while my kids are in public school and only shopping at thrift stores, I will find a way.
Of course, this is not to discount the struggles of people who are literally struggling to keep a roof over your heads and food in your mouths. Even if you are in that tough situation, there are things you can do in the short-term (as you are trying to improve your financial situation long-term) to increase health such as applying for SSI so that you have the money to buy some supplements, using free resources online or at the local library to learn about natural healing methods (check out anything by Dr. Andrew Weil), using food stamps and WIC to buy canned and frozen veggies and fruits to get some extra nutrition into yourself and your kids and taking everyone to the park for some exercise on a daily basis (especially those ADHD kiddos who need 3 times the amount of physical exercise than typical children). Many of us are perfectly able to find creative ways to cut back on buying things we don’t really need, find ways to generate a little extra income, and using free resources to get our kids active and healthy.
I don’t write this post up on a high-horse or to judge anyone. I write it as a summary of our journey towards health and healing in case anyone else out there is wondering how to get started or if it is ok to try things other than meds for your 3-year-old on the autism spectrum. Nowadays, it is almost a rebellious act to choose natural healing as the first thing to try over just jumping into medications. I want other parents to know there are success stories, even if your medical doctor isn’t aware of them or won’t tell you about them because they are “only anecdotal”. I want you to know that I am still human and struggle to make healthy choices and sometimes I just throw caution to the wind and eat whatever sounds good. My youngest son is a little chubby even though we don’t keep unhealthy foods at home (thanks Grandma). My immune system is much stronger now than it has ever been, but I actually got such a bad case of strep throat last year (thanks to a lack of rest, the stress of my van breaking down with thousands of dollars in repairs needed, and sucking at self-care for about a month) that I had to have an antibiotic shot in the butt due to strep-induced inflammation causing heart palpitations. I was thankful for modern medicine on that day. But, I learned that I have to stop skimping on sleep, stop working myself into a frenzy stressing about money, and do better with self-care in general.
It is an ongoing process choosing to move towards getting healthier each day. My hope is that we all can change the paradigm from one of thinking meds or surgery are the only options for mental and physical illnesses to a paradigm of making habits that promote health and wellness the top priority day to day and becoming aware of the host of holistic options that are available to us when we are in need of healing. Be informed. Be well. Treat the roots that the branches may blossom. May we all thrive as we wing it together towards a healthier body, mind, and spirit.
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:
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!”
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.
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. 🙂
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?